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A View of the Irish Language: Language and History in Ireland from the Middle Ages to the Present

A View of the Irish Language: Language and History in Ireland from the Middle Ages to the Present

By Steve G. Ellis

Language and Identities in Historical Perspective, edited by Ann Katherine Isaacs (Pisa University Press, 2005)

Synopsis: In 1400 Gaelic was spoken throughout most of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, with the exception of the Scottish lowlands and small parts of eastern and southern Ireland. What is quite remarkable about late medieval Gaelic is that there had long evolved a standard literary form, classical common Gaelic (usually described in Ireland as ‘classical modern Irish’), which was written (and presumably spoken) by the Gaelic learned classes throughout the Gaelic world and was maintained by schools of native learning established in Ireland and Scotland. Presumably, the peasantry must have spoken different dialects, but anything written in Gaelic was in this standard literary form, which was very much a scholarly language with a long tradition of writing on such topics as theology and medicine. Although Gaelic was denigrated by English and Scots princes as a barbarous language spoken by savages, the reality was that Gaelic in 1400 was far more of a literary language than English or Scots.  This paper goes on to examine the reasons for the decline of Gaelic, beginning in the 16th century, as well as the modern day efforts to promote the language in Ireland.

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