The vast majority of us have never had the privilege of living abroad in a country that doesn't speak our language. Most of us have not experienced the shock at seeing some strange habit, some exotic custom or ritual which everyone around us simply takes for granted. Perhaps its beauty would move us, but we quickly find we are blocked from participation by a massive linguistic wall. We are held captive by our own limitations. As an American living in Portuguese speaking Brazil I am all too familiar with these emotions. I have a genuine desire to master the language and I am quite fluent, yet I possess a terrible feeling that if I loosen the grip on my native language I will lose a vital part of my personality. This is what I call the culture/language link. Language, you see, is a way of thinking, a restructuring of our perceptions. The more of the language I learn the closer I come to understanding what it means to be Brazilian, the more access I have to Brazilian culture and the value of the people. The same is true for the Celtic languages. The more I learn, the more I understand, the more I understand the closer I come to my Gods. But the Celtic languages are in a perilous position. They are becoming more and more challenged by English and French. Fewer people see a reason to raise their children as native speakers. This brings us to a frightening conclusion: extinction. The extinction of both Celtic language and culture and the final silence of the bards.
A striking number of Neopagans express a lack of belief in such an idea. I've been quoted the seemingly healthy census figures for Irish and Welsh on numerous occasions (2). But those who make such a mistake are simply ignorant of the process of language death. Even the term "language death" is itself deceptive, because, as D. B. Gregor wrote, "languages don't die, they commit suicide.(1)" A language dies when people consciously decide to stop speaking it. There is no mystery to the process and certainly few mourners to lament the passage, at times it may be actually cheered. A language dies because another language takes its place. Generally this happens for economic reasons. The challenging language supplants the native one because it is the language of commerce. Those who speak the commerce language have access to technology and trade, those who do not, do not. Thus a Gaelic-speaking couple may raise their child in English because they see its benefits. This child will then see in his world people who are like him (English speakers) and people who are not (Gaelic speakers). Perhaps the Gaelic speakers will be old or poor, but worst of all they will be foreign. More and more this child will be attracted to English "things". He will imitate the fashions he sees on TV and wish to be like the actors (who all speak English, by the way). He will forget his fellow countrymen consigning them to "otherness". In a desire to imitate his perceived social betters he will kill the native language and culture in a swift and unconscious blow.
Celtic culture is the mother of our religion. When Christianity came to the Celtic lands and the original Celtic Pagan religion died out it was Celtic culture, through the medium of Celtic language, that kept alive the memories of the old ways for us. With out the modern Celtic cultures we will be lost. Our religious path is intimately linked with the future of these cultures. Let us take for example the history of the revival of the Hebrew language. Hebrew died, it lost its native speakers and was resigned to the same level as Latin: liturgical but dead. But there was sufficient love for it to resurrect it. However, when one speaks of the revival of Cornish frequently he or she will receive sarcastic and out-right mean spirited remarks. The reason for this is a simple one. It's called "prejudice". People who treat the Celtic language revivals as foolishly romantic and misguided attempts to bring back the Dodo believe one or more of the following:
1). The Celts never contributed to anything and never will. The English language is superior and is rightfully replacing these languages. I call this the Darwinian Misconception.
2). The different languages merely cause conflicts in the world and misunderstandings. We should all, in the name of progress, speak English. This is the Globalizationist Theory.
3). Any concept or idea is equally as well expressed in English as it is in any other language. I call this the Translation Theory.
I haven't the time or space to discount these theories within this paper but will simply state that a language is like a species. It is unique in its biology and in its expression. Any person concerned about the extinction of species in the world today should be concerned with language death because it too represents a lowering of the diversity, which makes so much of life beautiful.
Now let me go back to the comparison of the Hebrew language revival
with the revival of the Celtic languages. The main point I want to stress
is that the Hebrew Revival (HR) worked and so can the Celtic language revival
(CLR). The major force within the HR revival was, and still is, religion.
In my vision of Celtic Paganism we play a major role in the success or
failure of these languages, we can give them a purpose and strength that
the secular world cannot. But I am not saying that we should neglect their
role in predominantly secular and Christian society. Remember, our major
goal here is not simply survival but revival. This means that the Celtic
languages must experience a new Golden Age. They must become spoken and
written languages in our lives. Ben-Yehuda the father of the Hebrew Revival
wrote: "If a language which has stopped being spoken, with nothing remaining
of it save what remains of our language – (if there is such a language)
can return and be the spoken tongue of an individual for all necessities
of his life, there is no room for doubt that it can become the spoken language
of a community." There is our challenge. Alexei Kodrateiv wrote in the
Apple Branch that there could be "..no more dramatic sign of such
a transformation than a total shift in language. When one becomes able
to use a Celtic language instead of a dominant imperial language, one has
gone across a barrier into a different world." The transformation he refers
to is a transformation of thought that reflects the elder Celtic Worldview.
What we are seeking here is not an abandonment of our native tongues, not
an anachronistic return to total tribalism but a gradual shift to new and
better way of living as Pagan Celts. If I may again quote Ben-Yahuda "The
Hebrew language will go from the synagogue to the house of study, and from
the house of study to the school, and from the school it will come into
the home and... become a living language" I think the implications are
obvious for us. How can we ignore this challenge? Well, Norman Berdichevsky,
summed it up well when he wrote: "The negative attitude of the present
generation towards foreign languages in general is ironically also present
among many Jewish children in the Diaspora, for whom the Hebrew language
appears to be of little use outside the synagogue or a visit to Israel."
How could it be any different in the Celtic Diaspora? How can a Celtic
Pagan in the middle of Oklahoma find any value in the daily study and use
of Irish or Welsh? We must give this value. Which Celtic Pagan does not
feel the desire to read the old tales in the original or at least in the
modern languages? Who among us does not now, however imperfectly, use a
Celtic language in ritual? As Celtic Pagans we must start in our "synagogues"
encouraging each and every person who is interested to learn, we must make
materials available and promote the languages until we are blue in the
(2) On the surface these figures seem to be positive as they show a general increase in the number of people claiming to be proficient in Irish and Welsh. However we are not shown these figure with a comperable increase in the number of people who speak only English. The fact remain that both Irish and welsh are in danger of being drowned in a tidal wave of English language and culture.
Gregor, D. B. Celtic: A Comparative Study, Cambridge, 1980
Kondratiev, Alexei: The Apple Branch: A Path To Celtic Ritual, The Collins Press, 1998
Price, Glanville: The Celtic Languages Today, Chapter 41 of The Celtic World (Miranda Green Editor) 1995
Material on the Herbrew Language was taken from http://israel.org/