The authority to speak, linquistic intolerance, anonymity and monolingual regimes

There’s a line in a poem by Seán Ó Riordáin poem called Daoirse/Captivity or Unfreedom which talks about a woman and the way she might talk to you and the impact that would have on you.

Dá labhródh bean leat íseal nach ísleofá do ghuth, dá mbeadh an bean réasúnta, nach réasúnófaí thú.

If a woman spoke to you quietly, wouldn’t you lower your voice, if the woman was reasonable, wouldn’t that make you reasonable too.

Bernadette O’Rourke, who gave the first public lecture by An Roinn Ghaeilge agus Léann Cheilteach/ the Department of Irish and Celtic Studies in Queens University, was the quintessential bean réasúnta 0r so it seemed to me as she tackled a topic which was very relevant in the context of the debates in recent months over the contested Irish Language Act and the insistence by unionist parties that a monolingual regime remain in place here in Northern Ireland.

The Spanish and Linguistic Professor from Heriot Watt University was prompted to speak on the issue following an incident in which her Francophone husband and son were shopping in Edinburgh and a nosy shopper heard them conversing in French. The shopper interrupted their conversation to tell them to speak English.

One of the themes of her talk centred on the recent controversy in Queens University when a request from the Cumann Gaelach to have bilingual signage was refused by the authorities on the grounds that it would run counter to the University’s policy:

Queen’s University Belfast is committed to the promotion of equality of opportunity and to creating and sustaining an environment that values and celebrates the diversity of its staff and student body

This was interpreted by the University to claim that introducing Irish/English bilingual signage would have threatened the environment ‘that values and celebrates the diversity of its staff and student body’ as it would stray from the current monolingual ‘English only’ regime.  According to Professor O’Rourke, this showed how insidious the monolingual English only regime had become.  She illustrated it with a reference to a a dispute which arose among sociolinguists about the a proposal to include the British indigenous languages on the headed paper of their organisation.   It was said that speakers of up to 100 languages also spoken in Britain would be put out by their exclusion while Irish, Welsh, Gaidhlig, Cornish and Manx were included.  So the default was that the headed paper was published in English only.     In that case those proposing diversity etc were seen as the disruptors, those seeking conflict.

There was plenty more to the lecture, discussions about the Gaelic Bashers in Scotland who equate Gaidhlig with Waste at every possible opportunity, how the Brexit vote and Trump’s election in the USA led to renewed calls for an English only regime in the USA and, for that matter, in the UK,  and the necessity to challenge such linguistic intolerance.    Before the Trump administration took over the White House, there had been a bilingual policy in place on the website, to acknowledge that more than 40% of the population of the USA is Spanish speaking – but as soon as Obama left and Trump came in, the site reverted to English only.

This was an important lecture and it’s a pity there wasn’t more coverage of it.  This is only a potted account of what was said but it would have been a worthwhile contribution to any reasoned debate about the whys and wherefores of an Irish Language Act in NI in the recent past and Bernadette O’Rourke’s voice is one which should be heard when the debate rears its head once again.