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Manx: How a Unique Island Got Its Voice Back

Young pupils pick up the torch at the Bunscoill Ghaelgagh, Manx language immersion school, St. John's Isle of Man. (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)
Young pupils pick up the torch at the Bunscoill Ghaelgagh, Manx language immersion school, St. John’s, Isle of Man. (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)

By K. David Harrison

“Whichever way you throw me I will stand” declares a Manx motto. Its appropriateness is made clear in the revitalization of the island’s native tongue, something worth celebrating this weekend as UNESCO marks International Mother Language Day.

Over the centuries, the Isle of Man has stood as a refuge at the crossroads of the Celtic world, nearly equidistant from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, and with strong Gaelic cultural influences. Resilient Manxmen withstood waves of invaders, and assimilated diverse influences. For a time part of the Norse Kingdom of the Isles, then under English rule, the Isle of Man today is a self-governing British Crown dependency. With a population under 90,000, the island covers 221 square miles, or about the same size as Guam.

(Photo by Sisse Brimberg/National Geographic Creative)
Wildflowers color the coastline south of the port city of Peel, Isle of Man. (Photo by Sisse Brimberg/National Geographic Creative)

Throughout this turbulent history, the Manx language thrived, inspiring poets and storytellers. But then it faltered, and nearly vanished, in the late 20th century. After the 1974 passing of famous “last speaker” Ned Maddrell, Manx was declared extinct by some experts. But the islanders kept a secret. Despite Manx being stigmatized, children being forbidden from speaking it in school, and feelings of shame or inferiority among some speakers, the language endured in hearts and minds.

Linguist David Harrison listens to the recorded voice of "last speaker" of Manx Ned Maddrell, in the Manx museum. (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)
Linguist David Harrison listens to the recorded voice of “last speaker” of Manx Ned Maddrell, in the Manx museum. (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)
A welcome sign outside the school illustrates Manx's relationship with other Celtic languages and the fairly well known Gaelic "céad mile fáilte" meaning "a hundred thousand welcomes." (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)
A welcome sign outside the school illustrates Manx’s relationship with other Celtic languages and the fairly well known Gaelic “céad mile fáilte” meaning “a hundred thousand welcomes.” (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)

Manx dramatically awoke from near dormancy in the 1980s and ’90s with a generation of “new native speakers,” children who were raised by language-activist parents speaking only Manx in the home. These children were soon joined by many more, whose English-speaking parents sent them to an immersion school, to hear and speak Manx daily. Estimates of the current number of Manx speakers vary, but they seem to be hundreds strong, and growing.

Under National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project (2007-2013), I’ve been studying global language diversity and survival. This brief video documentary tells the story of Manx’s surprising survival, in the words of those who saved it.

In December 2014, with support from Viki.com, a site that encourages people to caption videos in minority languages, I visited the Isle of Man.

My goal was to interview Manx language warriors, and learn how they brought the language back from near extinction. Though Manx has not enjoyed the respect or visibility of its sister languages, a speaker of Manx can easily learn Scottish Gaelic or Irish.

The Comparative Celtic Lexicon, hosted at Swarthmore College, reveals Manx’s uniqueness, as well its strong similarity to sister Celtic tongues. For example, the word for “bird” is eean in Manx, eun in Scottish, evn in Breton, edhen in Cornish, and éan in Irish. The online lexicon, supported by National Geographic Society, contains nearly 2,000 soundfiles of words that sound similar across all six surviving Celtic tongues.

Manx’s remarkable comeback sets a hopeful example for language revival efforts worldwide. From Hawai’i, to Wales, to the Cherokee Nation, and many other places, language warriors are breathing new life into tongues once thought to be backwards, obsolete, or moribund. The Manx have led the way in creating apps, video subtitles, podcasts, e-books, and Culture Vannin’s Learn Manx website. Manx now speaks with a global voice, attracting learners as far away as Japan. As Manx activist Adrian Cain notes: “It never disappeared to us.”

Any idea what this sign from a classroom is teaching? For the clearest cognate with a list in English check out the fourth one down. Then count them all. Anything? Look at that fourth one again. Behold the months of the year in Manx. (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)
Any idea what this sign from a classroom is teaching? For the clearest cognate with a list in English check out the fourth one down. Then count them all. Anything? Look at that fourth one again. Behold the months of the year in Manx. (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)

Learn More About Enduring Voices

Learn Manx From Culture Vannin

Comments

  1. Bill Creer
    Manchester
    March 21, 2015, 5:52 pm

    Sorry but I consider it to be a total waste of time and money that only satisfies misguided Nationalists, Language Academics, Hobbyists, and others who, somehow, plan to profit by it.
    “Manx” died at least three generations ago and was not missed by the majority of locals because they new that there was no future for those trapped by a language that was never written by locals and not understood by the rest of the world.
    The majority of people living in the IOM now are not Manx so what is the point in creating a new group of people who are able to speak an obsolete language that is of no use to anyone?

  2. K.A.Mylchreest
    March 5, 2015, 6:08 am

    Failt erriu = Fàilt’ oirbh “Welcome upon you (pl.)”

    Sometimes Manx has kept words which have been replaced in Ireland and Scotland, e.g. eayst (moon) and iu (drink). It’s really a matter of chance what remains and what gets changed as languages separate and fall under different influences.

    Ta shiu goll er oaie dy mie, as cur naarey er ny çhengaghyn smoo 😉

  3. Mícheál Yore
    Meath Ireland
    March 4, 2015, 6:10 pm

    Well done Manx. I speak Irish and I am delighted to see this news. I have looked at a few paragraphs in Manx and I am amazed to learn that with a bit of effort that I can completely understand them from my knowledge of Irish. The two languages are very alike.

  4. Rob Teare
    Isle of Man
    March 2, 2015, 12:41 pm

    The ‘Activists’ didn’t have many gaps to fill Russ. A large collection of songs, ballads, religious songs, collections of sermons and poetry, newspaper articles and letters, the entire Bible, the promulgation of the laws, hours of recordings of speakers, (starting from recordings on wax cylinders made in the 1920s), as well as the unbroken testimony of fluent speakers who learnt from fluent speakers means that Manx is fundamentally the same as it was a hundred years ago. Of course, Manx, English and every other language has had to come up with new words to describe modern technology, (most of the English words we use to describe internet technology are far younger than I am – and I’m not that old!). There are a few cases where these words have been borrowed into Manx from Irish, but more often from Scottish Gaelic (which also shared over 90% of its vocabulary with Manx a hundred years ago). Actually though, like most languages, Manx, borrows most of all from English. This might not be obvious to you, as it is very hard to say anything much in Manx (or any language) without using the core vocabulary and constructions that hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years – and are exactly like those used a hundred years ago. Now, if you can think of more than twenty examples of Irish words that have been introduced into Manx (and have stuck) that aren’t components of pre-existing Manx words I’d be interested to learn more.

  5. Marion
    Isle of Skye
    February 28, 2015, 6:52 pm

    Using the exact same Scottish Gaelic greeting as in the Manx Failte Erriu we would write or say Failte Fhearaibh – literarily translated to English ‘Welcome People’

  6. Marion Ross
    Isle of Skye
    February 28, 2015, 6:18 pm

    I worked in the Isle of Man in 1986 and the children were learning Manx in school then and when I saw the way the language was sounded – I though that is the same language as we speak in Skye …

  7. James
    Tacoma WA
    February 23, 2015, 1:05 pm

    I grew up in Northwest England and was always annoyed at having to learn French in school instead of the native languages around me. I wanted to learn Welsh, Wales was only 90 minutes away if you drove slowly, The Isle of Man a ferry ride, and yet French. Personally I think the native languages of any country shoulld be taught before the language of a foreign country so that our combined heritage isn’t lost.

  8. Brooke
    Azerbaijan
    February 23, 2015, 11:10 am

    I think whatever happens in the history of a country its language should live.

  9. Martin ter Denge
    Tweante, the Netherlands
    February 22, 2015, 10:11 am

    Fantastic! It is something I firmly believed is possible, and here it is, happening for real on the Isle of Man! Congratulations :). I’m very actively involved in preserving the Low Saxon language in the east of the Netherlands myself, and this short film is great footage to convince my people it’s possible for our language, too. We also have to deal with stigmatisation and an overbearing all-Dutch school curriculum. I hope it will go the Manx way here some day.

  10. Russ
    Isle of Man
    February 21, 2015, 8:15 am

    The modern Manx language is not the same as a hundred years ago. The last speakers recorded some Manx tongue then the ‘Activists’ filled in the gaps with Irish in the 70s.