Some four or five Christmases ago, for a change,  myself and the family took off to spend the holiday season in the  the North African sunshine of Marrakech, with  further jaunts into the Atlas Mountains  in four- by- four jeeps. It was quite a cultural change from the “Well here it is Merry Christmas” of Slade banging out of the shops at every turn… and the freezing  piles of snow which kept us all stranded at Aldergrove  Airport  for some twelve hours. I found myself in a summery land of great and ancient  culture, music , and of course , wonderful  food,  both local and cosmopolitan. It was  lemon chicken tagines, cous cous and fare, fish and fowl , from everywhere  on the planet , for two- weeks . A land where material  poverty walked cheek by jowl with wealth ; where a braying donkey cart passed a Mercedes in the narrow , spice-lined  streets and  where a great percentage of the citizenry  spoke fluent French mostly and a smattering of English alongside their own local dialects.

I thought it was only good manners to resurrect  some phrases of my schoolboy French in odd snatches of conversation. Now , I know that behind  the  grinning hospitality of our hosts and the occasional  taxi-driver, there were probably sniggers at some of the language faux pas I made . I’ve no doubt of that  at all , but I found it refreshing and somehow liberating , and  like I  said, simply good manners to make some effort  in that social context; should it be haggling with the snake charmers  over some mad extortionate price or trying to converse with the driver about his family…

Can you imagine that scenario in Ireland? Ireland is a place where there is much disrespect  both for English and Irish as language. There is no real bi-lingual ease in Northern Ireland for a whole range of social reasons.Many are not proficient in English beyond a scant few words and there is an antipathy of anything remotely Irish -tinged from a large section of the population.

It’s estimated that the “average”  person {whatever that might actually be} uses about 12,000 – 20,000 words, varying with the level of education achieved. Some say college/university graduates use upwards of 20-25,000 words but it is a sad fact of life that many still leave university education with a very underdeveloped and a fairly stunted  grasp of anything more than basic English. Shakespeare actively used more than 30,000 words in his written works, and his entire vocabulary has been estimated at approximately 66,000 words. There are many who have no notion of any Shakespeare, of course,  but will know the difference between a carburettor and a camshaft. Different words for different folks….

The English language  apparently consists of more than 600,000 words and new ones are constantly being invented and added as we speak. In this past year or so ,we chattering apes have come up with “twerking” , for example. It all adds to the richness of communication and should be something to be encouraged and a source of novelty to be bandied about as we communicate.The same should hold true of all our languages, such as Irish. I know a smattering of Irish phrases from school, just as i know bits of Latin and French but not to the same extent as English , which is the language I use daily and have voraciously read  since childhood.

That said , I am very aware that I am surrounded by ancient place-names, towns , villages and that many  surnames all have their origins in the local landscape. It is an inescapable fact that we live in a very gaelic land and it is foolish and narrow -mindedly philistine, to think otherwise.Of course we do have a problem in Ireland in that we also have quite a few socially inept, graceless  politicians, who wilfully do not understand the value of language as a tool for communication, and the  connective tissue of culture, and disparage  any need for  further development of new knowledge ,and act  like sniggering schoolboys , at every move.


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