Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Random Thoughts From A Worldly Primate

This post is a blatant ripoff of the frighteningly insightful knowledge-bombs frequently dropped over at Apes In Elysium, which you should be reading instead of this piffle.

The only real-world use I have ever got out of the Irish language is impressing foreigners or talking about them. This is all I ever expect to get out of it. That so many of my peers are incapable of stringing a basic sentence together in Irish strengthens the notion I've held for years that we are pissing away millions of man-hours keeping a braindead language on life-support. This time and money could - and should! - be put to much better use elsewhere. Traditions be damned, keep a few experts trained up and leave it at that.

After a few trips through English airports over the past few years, I feel comfortable comparing their style to that of the yanks. What kept rattling around in my head was "this is such a kinder hegemony". When I was randomly stopped for additional screening, I was apologised to for the thirty-second imposition, and had the process of testing for explosive residue explained to me as I was swabbed and awaited the machine to give me the all-clear.

Further bolstering this notion is the family-friendly security lanes at London Heathrow - there are dinosaur decals around the metal detectors, and toddlers are encouraged to walk through on their own and receive rapturous applause and cheers from the staff when they comply.

When I set off the dinosaur-detector, I got a very intimate patdown by a cheerful bloke who entertained me with some stock Irish phrases he had learnt off. It almost distracted me away from his hand inside the rim of my jeans.

Every time I go through US customs, they make me feel as though they know I'm guilty of something, they just can't prove it this time and wave me on begrudgingly. Whether the friendly demeanour of the Brits is more insidious, at the very least, it's nice to be convivial.

It's a good thing foreigners find the Irish accent attractive, because as far as the visuals go, we're not a terribly attractive bunch. It's not anyone's fault, just a likely consequence of our relative isolation on the edge of Europe for generations. Do your part for Irish aesthetics and impregnate a foreigner. Stir up that Irish gene puddle!

I've mentioned the 'Dunning Kruger' effect on this blog before [one of my recent favourites, that one], but it's worth bringing up again.

Here's Sam Harris' take on it, from his book The Moral Landscape:
"[It's] true that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for. Conversely, those who are more knowledgeable about a subject tend to be acutely aware of the greater expertise of others. This creates a rather unlovely asymmetry in public discourse - one that is generally on display whenever scientists debate religious apologists."
It's tough being the guy with facts on your side because you have to be sure to present them accurately and honestly, while also taking care to not overstate the significance of what you know, and acknowledging what you don't. The quote above uses religion, but the anti-vaccination movement is a better example. (Feel free to apply this theory to my bold proclamations about the Irish language, or all the other nonsense I pretend to be knowledgable in). It's not just the media that needs to take a closer look at the statements of self-appointed experts or activists, people need to call bullshit in everyday life so people don't get carried away. The list of those who get hurt by those who muddy the water with bad information and emotional appeals grows longer every day.

Psychics are another concept that lacks internal consistency. A common reason given for physics not winning millions by gambling is that they would lose their powers if they abused them for personal gain. I'm calling bullshit. Think of all the self-professed psychics in the world (I've seen one every couple of blocks here in Toronto, especially in the crappy neighbourhoods) - surely to Christ that with such a large sample size, at least one of them would have played the lottery and bought their way out of the very need to hold hands with filthy, gullible strangers and pontificate about their futures for $20 a pop.


What about you, dear reader? Do we see eye to eye here? Leave a comment to agree with me by pointing out my many aesthetic deficiencies.


Vinnie Rafter said...

Have a look at Fry's Planet Word, it's on BBC at the moment. It might ignite some repressed appreciation of cultural diversity.

Sully said...

Hah, thanks Vinnie. I'm using wretched phone-tethering to get online, so it'll be a while before I can check that out.

That might be why the tone is somewhat dismissive of tradition; while I'm offline, it's mostly my thoughts bouncing around the echo-chamber, picking up momentum.

Anonymous said...

Your spurious postulate about the irrelevance of the Irish language today is panglossian, quixotic and incontrovertibly wrong.

There is much more value to language than being able to communicate.

The language itself has intrinsic worth: it is the core repository of a nation's social evolution and culture. A nation is the sum of it's past. If a people's native language dies out so too does most of their culture.

I would re-evaluate if I were you this particular inculcated standpoint, lest you wish to be taken for an errant ignoramus. Good day to you Sir.

Sully said...

Thanks for commenting, Anonymous, even if you over-indulged on the thesaurus use. To address your points in order.

This is not 'postulation' - it's an observation that most of my peers failed to achieve a basic level of literacy or fluency in Irish. Outside of the classroom, there's little reinforcement of the language.

I don't think it's 'panglossian' nor 'quixotic' to make Irish an elective subject. Like I said: there are many who would prefer to invest their time and effort elsewhere.

If this standpoint was 'inculcated', it was done by the failure of the State to reward Irish speakers for burdening themselves with an extra language.

I agree with you about the 'intrinsic worth' of the language, which is why I propose leaving it to a few experts. The fragmentation of dialects alone sheds light on the disjointed history of Ireland, but I don't think it holds the keys to most of our culture. Our most celebrated poets and authors wrote in English, for what that's worth.

I'm a humanist, not a nationalist. Now that I live in Toronto, the only purpose my Irish serves is a party piece. Even if I meet a fellow Irish person, they'll be unable to have a conversation with me in our 'native tongue' - a damning reflection on the sorry state of the language as a whole.

It seems to me that your comment was mostly a raw, name-calling reaction. Now that we've established that we disagree, I welcome further exploration of your points.

Anonymous said...

Your position was encapsulated in the following:

'That so many of my peers are incapable of stringing a basic sentence together in Irish strengthens the notion I've held for years that we are pissing away millions of man-hours keeping a braindead language on life-support. This time and money could - and should! - be put to much better use elsewhere. Traditions be damned, keep a few experts trained up and leave it at that'.

The foregoing is not simply a factual observation but in part a value-judgment predicated on what you believe to be the truth. It is partly a normative statement. The definition of a postulation fits this, so there is no need to be a 'semantics Nazi' (especially when wrong).

The definition of a postulate is:

'To assume or assert the truth, reality, or necessity of, especially as a basis of an argument'.

It is also noteworthy that you never mentioned advocating making Irish an elective subject in the post, nor was it objectively implied in any sense. The impression was that you'd be content with a few experts knowing it, not the bulk of the people, with time spent on it 'pissed away'.

There is a big difference between acknowledging the general inability of Irish people to speak Irish and advocating systemic reform to improve this, and on the other hand advocating that 'traditions be damned'.

The curriculum needs to be changed.

The government has subsidised for years the Gaeltacht regions, and awards extra points for doing leaving cert subjects in Irish.

There will always be people out there who will try and avoid real subjects they are not good at, and prefer non-academic nonsense instead. It is true that many Irish people would like not to do Irish; many would also prefer not to read Yeats, Wilde etc or do maths.

A person can learn many languages without any difficulty if it is taught right when s/he is young. A child who is raised in an Irish and English speaking household will speak both perfectly. It is not a 'burden' to know another language.

The intrinsic value is not some abstract intellectual concept but the value it has in the sense that it enables the speaker to live a fuller and richer life. As someone who is not a nationalist but rather a citizen of the world you make the mistake, in my view, of not realising that.

Sully said...

I agree with a lot of what you said; at 99 words, my original post wasn't a fully-fleshed out treatise on the many ways that the Irish language is continuing to slip into irrelevance; it's just one part of some rapid-fire personal observations.

I don't think it's too much of a stretch for the reader to infer 'Irish as an elective' when I talk about 'keeping a few experts trained up'. I stand by that, because effort is being wasted. Whatever about the cultural impact (I would argue the way it's being taught, it's only serving to sour the Irish people on their native tongue), and despite the local-incentives you mention, the free-market does not reward effort invested in Irish. The free-market has yet to reward my effort in obtaining an English degree - it doesn't mean I regret everything I learned along the way, it's just an observation.

I'm not 'postulating' that my peers have terrible Irish, I'm observing it. (I know what the word means, so I'm going to use the wriggle room!) This anecdotal evidence isn't sufficient for me to gauge the health of the language as a whole, but it's been 20 years and I've yet to see any genuine benefits, ineffable or otherwise.

I agree with what you (and the scientific consensus) about teaching young children additional languages, but I had Irish drilled into me since I was 5, and didn't get a chance to try French or German until I was 12 (I also wasted a load of time in State-sponsored religion classes, which probably contributed to my revulsion of supernatural nonsense).

I appreciate you elaborating on your post - it highlights that our starting points are different, mostly because I'm interested in seeing some practical utility, and you're more interested the less tangible facets of Irishness.

Anonymous said...

I started off intentionally with obfuscatory words and pure ad hominem, now I end with respect for the 'hominem'.

The free-market only has very limited room for degrees in English: teaching or journalism.
It is however a good platform for going into something else like a master's degree in business, economics, or law. Otherwise a lifetime on the receiving end of an average wage awaits.

All the best Sully. You write tersely and eloquently.