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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Cumhacht na Teanga - or why I keep trying to learn Irish

Cumhacht na teanga means 'the power of language' in Irish Gaelic, a language I have been trying since my teens to learn. I have a limited proficiency reading it at this point and some ability to converse in writing; my accent when speaking is probably horrifying. So why, after almost 20 years, do I keep trying, keep working at it, when its obviously such a challenge?
   I have many reasons, of course, for people who ask. First and foremost is that I want to speak it, fluently, and I am driven by the desire to teach my children to speak it. It's the language of my ancestors and makes me feel connected to them and to the gods I honor (as a side note of ancestral languages I also speak German, in which I was at one point fluent). I am also keenly aware of how few people still speak Irish and how easily it could go the way of Cornish and Manx, declared "dead" languages and now seeing efforts at revival. It pains me to think of Irish as a dead language, with all its beauty and lyricism reduced to history books and old songs.
   Second of all it would make studying the material I study easier. In much of the scholarly writings and folklore Gaelic words are used to convey concepts or descriptions and I want to know what those words mean, not just guess from context. I also have many dual language editions of myths and I want to know how similar they are to the translations. I want to be able to read the material directly and draw my own conclusions, instead of relying on someone else's opinions.
  Another driving reason is that I want to understand the culture of the Irish, and so much of culture is conveyed in language, or perhaps we could say that language is an inherent expression of culture. It shapes how we think and how we relate to the world and other people; language in many ways is a direct reflection of culture. In psychology we call this the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. Although this hypothesis is not supported by everyone, I do believe that language shapes how we relate to the world and our culture because it is the main tool of expressing that culture and perception. Idioms are a great example of this, a way that a culture expresses unique ideas through language.
   In CR and neopagan Druidism there is a continuous discussion about the need to learn a Celtic language. Many persuasive arguments are put forth over the value of langauge and of the need for those following Celtic paths to honor that path by learning the language of the culture they study. For me all of that is moot; I am driven to learn Irish by an intrinsic force, the same kind that makes me write poetry or calls me to be a polytheist. I feel as if the language is a part of who I am in some way, no matter how poorly I speak it now, and no matter how long it takes I will keep trying.
   Tir gan teanga, tir gan anam.

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