Is policy on Irish language self-defeating?

Eoin Butler, a Gaeilgeoir from Mayo, has put out a challenging video on Irish Government policy with regards to the Irish language.

Essentially, he argues, it’s nonsense.

The arguments made to explain the decline of the Irish language (to minority status even within the Gaeltacht) – essentially that it does not receive enough government support and that it is not taught properly, and that in any case any nation needs a language of its own – are flawed. In fact, he continues, its decline is for the simple reason that the Irish have made the English language their own (as a matter of fact), and indeed it is only being kept on life support to encourage tourism in areas of the country with no industry and artificially to maintain a translation service. This is an issue because it causes confusion over the law, and indeed is even outright dangerous (in the case, for example, of warning signs put in heavily touristy areas in a language no tourist will speak).

Objectively, it is very hard to argue with any of that (although I may challenge a little of it). However, Mr Butler’s point (remember, as a Gaeilgeoir) is that the whole issue is not dealt with objectively. My own view is that he needs to build on that point – human beings are not objective; and even less so when nationalism (or general “group-think”) comes into play.

This is the thing: every nation has its completely irrational aspects – but these aspects are deliberately distinct from any other nation, and thus form a national bond. England has lots of them, from the use of miles rather than kilometres to the odd terminology in its parliament. France has a linguistic issue of its own. Germany has a determination not to have upper speed limits. Almost any country of standing has them, in other words.

So, in my view, that is what this is about. It is an incredible aspect of human nature, particularly when combined as “groups” or “nations”, that we engage in “debate” on such irrational terms around particular subjects.

Put that “irrational national distinctiveness” together with the vested interests of which Mr Butler speaks and there is not much chance of change. What Mr Butler says about the likelihood of knowledge of the Irish language being enhanced by removing the compulsion to learn it is absolutely correct. But Irish Government policy is not about enhancing knowledge of the Irish language. That is probably where the “debate” needs to begin.

NI “more prosperous than Scotland or Wales”

Legatum Institute report outlines the case that Northern Ireland is among the most prosperous parts of the UK.


Indeed, every day, five more people come to Northern Ireland than leave.

What the hell?

We should not be so surprised. Northern Ireland has terrible incomes, health outcomes, infrastructure… well, actually no it hasn’t.

It is true that Northern Ireland’s GDP is markedly low. But this is an entirely inappropriate measurement of the actual standard of living. Take actual incomes minus housing costs (lower rates and mortgages) and suddenly they are close to the UK average; add to those the highest per head public spend of any UK region, and it should be no surprise that people are pretty prosperous.

It is true also that by some measures, notably recorded disability, Northern Ireland comes out poorly health-wise. In other ways it does not, however. Obesity levels are high by EU standards but low by UK standards (friends who recently moved to the Channel Islands noticed this immediately); dementia diagnosis rates and cancer survival rates are high; crime rates (which have an obvious impact on health) are by far the lowest.

Most people living in Northern Ireland think the infrastructure is terrible; and certainly main roads are embarrassingly poor compared to the Republic’s new network. By UK standards, it is not that bad, however. The Belfast-Derry road, certainly after its pending upgrade, will be markedly superior to, for example, the Newcastle-Carlisle road; the Dublin-Glasgow route is at least dual carriageway standard throughout the island of Ireland, but not so in Scotland. Belfast does have one airport linked to the rail network (by the way, despite the supposedly “huge hike” to Sydenham Halt from the City Airport terminal, I was on the platform just 18 minutes after leaving the aircraft last Monday).

By the way, given the cutbacks in public sector spending and staffing, Northern Ireland’s economic growth rate, by some measures the highest in the UK outside London and Northeast England, has been quite impressive over the past 24 months or so. The gap between public sector and private sector pay has fallen from 43% to 25%, still the highest in the UK but a marked improvement in the performance of Northern Irish business.

Throw in the social capital of close family and friend relationships, and it is unsurprising that Northern Ireland tops the “happiness” charts and performs well in the “prosperity” indices.

There is no harm in aiming high and demanding improvement where it is obviously necessary, but we should also note what we do well.

We need to talk about US men’s attitudes towards women

The polls – which in the US, thankfully, tend to be more accurate than in the UK – are now pointing to a clear Hillary victory in next month’s Presidential Election.

However, they also show one very alarming thing – that if only men voted, she would lose.

Men alone, in fact, would hand victory to a man who believes sexual assault of women (apparently of any age) is legitimate.

In 2016.

Think about that.

What does it tell us about American men? What does it tell us about their attitudes? What indeed would such an outcome tell society?

It is a thundering disgrace, on this issue alone, that a plurality even in any individual state would vote for someone of such a view in the 21st century.

A candidate who treats women primarily as objects for his own sexual gratification is deeply insecure, socially inept, fundamentally uncivilised and should not receive a single electoral college vote.

Seriously, what the hell is wrong with Americans?

Brexiteers’ BMW farce

How anyone with a knighthood can repeat the total economic nonsense that the Germans will not foist a “Hard Brexit” upon us because “we buy BMWs” is cause for serious alarm about the state of democracy.

Firstly, this depends on trade – if the UK has nothing to sell, it will not be able to earn money to buy.

Secondly, if you wish to remain in a free trade zone, you need to abide by its rules – including its trade descriptions, trading standards and so on.

If people don’t want to leave the Single Market, frankly, they should not be advocating leaving the body which sets those rules – namely the EU.

Irish FA right to apologise for lap of honour snub

Paralympian Jason Smyth’s complaint that he had not been invited on the Irish FA’s “Lap of Honour” should not have been the main headline (ahem), but it was legitimate and it was important.

Implicit in the “snub” was the underlying instinct that the only type of “Northern Irish” is “British”. In fact, there are two types of “Northern Ireland” – the other is “Irish”. We agreed to this in 1998 (and it was always implicit).

By the way, there are also too types of “Irish” – “Northern Irish” and “Republic of Irish”. Someone who wishes to be identified as “Irish” may be deemed so by connection either to “Northern Ireland” or the “Republic of Ireland” – neither is less legitimate than the other.

This is important; and it is topical for two main reasons.

Firstly, the Irish FA’s whole case against the FA of Ireland’s ability to select players for Northern Ireland was based on the point that to be “Irish” was not necessarily to be “connected to the Republic of Ireland”. It is quite possible to be “Irish” by virtue solely of a connection to Northern Ireland. It is possible to be Irish and not connected to the Republic of Ireland in exactly the same way that it is possible to be British and not connected to England. I agreed with the Irish FA’s case.

Despite the fact the case lost, the fact is it shouldn’t have. And the logic of it needs to be pursued consistently. It is a reason that the British anthem is not appropriate (as the team represents both British and Irish); and it is a reason that Northern Irish athletes who happen to have represented Ireland rather than Team GB should be invited to events on exactly the same basis as those who chose Team GB.

The Irish FA has, it should not be forgotten, worked wonders in this regard since 1998. It has recognised the mistake, so there is no reason to dwell on this particular incident. But it should not happen again.

Should we learn Esperanto first? / Cxu ni devus unue lerni Esperanton?

[English translation below]

Paroladoj TED-aj ofte estas strangaj kaj ekscitaj, kaj tio cxi pri Esperanto kiel ponto lingva ne estis escepto!

Post miaj aliaj artikoloj pri Esperanto, intereson esprimis multaj, cxu Esperanto vere estas tiel uzebla.

Bedaurinde, mia respondo honesta estas, ke mi ne scias! Sed se mi devus decidi, mi jesus.

Mi ne scias, cxar mi ne lernis Esperanton unue. Mi faris interreta kurso de Esperanto antau kvindek jaroj, sed jam parolis Germanan, Hispanan, kaj iomete Francan. Do mi ne povas diri, se plejbone estas antaue lerni Esperanton. La plejbona gvido estas sperto persona, kaj tiun sperton ne havas mi!

Mi ja povas diri, ke eblas, ke estas avantagxo antaue lerni Esperanton kiel ponto lingva. Lau mi, tio estas ne kial multaj diras. Esperanto gxenerale estas ja simpla, sed kiel mi pasinte diris, la bono lingva de gxi estas, ke gxi ne estas tro facila. Por la mankoj kaj neperfektoj de la lingvo, igxas defio perfekte lerni gxin.

Mi ne volas diri, ke mi multe scias pri la instruado de infanoj. Aliaj povas pri tio paroli plu. Sed mi povas kredi, ke infanoj en la lernejo preferas lerni Esperanton ol Francan au Hispanan, cxar estas pli facila rapide antaueniri en Esperanto ol en aliaj lingvoj pli strukture kompleksaj. Infanoj komence povus multe diri, kaj poste lerni pri akusativo kaj subjunktivo (avantagxo kiam ili volos poste lerni Germanan au Hispanan). Por infanoj, do, mi estas preskau certa, ke plejbone estas unue lerni Esperanton, kaj do mi sxatas, ke tio okazis en iuj lernejoj Anglujaj.

Por plenkreskuloj, mi simple ne scias. Mi supozas, ke ne samas por cxiu individuo. Se oni havas motivon (ekzemple, ke oni volas rapide lerni plurajn aliajn lingvojn), tio versxajne estus bona ideo. Se oni nur volas lerni unu lingvo aparta, mi ne scias, se indus la tempo.

La plej grava estas, ke lingvolernado onin amuzas! Do, se helpas Esperanto, penu lerni gxin! 

TED talks are often odd and exciting, and this one on Esperanto as a linguistic bridge was no exception!

After my other pieces on Esperanto, some have expressed an interest in whether Esperanto really is of use in this way.

Unfortunately, my honest answer is I do not know! But if I had to call it, I would suggest it is.

I do not know, because I did not learn Esperanto first. I did an online course in Esperanto 15 years ago, but already spoke German, Spanish and a little French. So I cannot say, if it is best to learn Esperanto first. The best guide is personal experience, and I don’t have that experience!

But I can say that is it possible that it is an advantage to learn Esperanto beforehand as a language bridge. For me, this is not for the reason many state. Esperanto in general is indeed simple, but as I have said previously, the good thing linguistically is that it is not too easy. Because of its linguistic omissions and imperfections, it becomes a challenge to learn it perfectly.

I do not want to say that I have much knowledge about children’s education. Others can go on to talk about that. But I can believe that children at school prefer to learn Esperanto to French or Spanish, because it is easier to get somewhere in Esperanto than in other more structurally complex languages. Children would be able to say a lot to start with, and then learn about the accusative and the subjunctive (an advantage when they go to learn German or Spanish later). For children, therefore, I am almost certain that it is best to learn Esperanto first, and thus it is good to hear that this has happened in some schools in England.

For adults, I simply do not know. I suppose that it is not the same for every individual. If you have the motivation (for example, because you want to learn several languages quickly), it could be a good idea. But if you only want to learn a particular language, I do not know if it is worth the time.

The most important thing is that language learning is fun! So, if Esperanto helps, make the effort to learn it!


Breakfast means Breakfast

I left the EU at the weekend to head to the Channel Islands where, among many other examples of supremely generous hospitality, my hosts gave me a wonderful granola oats cereal for breakfast.

(Which reminds me, I must ask them precisely which one it was, because it was nicer than all the ones I’ve bought for myself.)

Even within the range of granola oats, therefore, there is a marked difference between combinations which I like and combinations which I do not like – in other words, between combinations I would choose to eat, and combinations which would have me reaching instead for the muesli. Or maybe even the Weetabix, with or without sugar (depending on where on the satisfaction versus health scale I’m daring to tread).

Actually, yesterday I was a bit hurried and ended up merely with a breakfast bar. That wasn’t really very satisfying but it basically did the job.

Whereas one day last week I attended a business breakfast with the full fry. That was very satisfying although, to be fair, it probably wasn’t very healthy.

On Monday at the airport I ended up with an entirely unsatisfactory mid-morning muffin – too late, too gooey, too unhealthy.

So, merely with breakfast alone, we have the distinction between healthy granola oats I like and do not like; muesli as an alternative; healthy and unhealthy Weetabix; a speedy breakfast bar (with various options) or muffin (always ill-advised); and of course an unhealthy but highly enjoyable full fry (particularly if served). The range of options along both the healthy and enjoyable spectrum is marked. As long as you don’t want marmite.

Yet some people, astonishingly, would have you believe there is no distinction between them at all. Apparently we all live in an incredibly simple world where Breakfast means Breakfast

Does PM even understand what UK is?

The last two weeks have demonstrated the disturbing reality that anti-Liberals are now in charge of both main UK political parties (having long been so here in NI), with small cabals using their “mandate” to promote in-group politics with which some of us are only too familiar.

The new PM deserves some time to put her stamp on things, but her line thus far has been alarming. Does she understand the difference between endorsing patriotism on one hand (no problem with that), and endorsing xenophobia on the other? And does she have any real notion what the UK is?

Her notion of it seems to be that the UK is merely an expansion of southern England. Yet attitudes differ markedly across England alone, and only more so once you cross Hadrian’s Wall or the Irish Sea.

The simple notion that you should have to declare how many “foreign” workers you have is unworkable in this part of the UK before you even get to the point that it is utterly abhorrent. Northern Irish people will retain the birthright to be EU citizens regardless of what happens by March 2019; and they will, alongside the Scots, also have the right to secede from the UK if they do not much like where it is going economically or culturally.

What was before 23 June a multicultural Union in which people could even be outright Irish or exclusively Scottish without having to worry too much about it turning into the Greater England its opponents always accused it of being. But no one in Scotland or Northern Ireland (or probably even the north of England or Wales) wants to live in a Greater England with a UKIP underlay. What is more, we do not have to.

The PM’s first words on the steps of Number 10 were about how keen she was to keep the Union “family” together. But as Sir Humphrey warned: “Things don’t happen just because Prime Ministers are keen on them. Chamberlain was keen on peace!”

Media need to stop buying into sectarian stunts


It is the standard playbook. DUP Minister does something she knows will annoy Nationalists; she acts on innocent; and the media report it for all it is worth.

It is lazy politics. But actually it is also lazy reporting. The media suggested two weeks ago that there was “controversy” about the renaming of a boat no one knew existed and no one has ever heard of. There wasn’t, for the simple reason no one was aware of it – until the media decided to create it.

What would have been the harm in simply not reporting the Agriculture Minister’s little stunt? It was in no one’s interest; it made no difference materially to anyone; it has no impact on key services such as health, education and infrastructure.

What the media should have reported was that this was a pathetic diversionary stunt from a Minister of Agriculture whose party’s stance has taken the agriculture sector in Northern Ireland to the brink of armageddon. What the media should have reported was that, should the UK proceed to leave the EU, there is no precedent for any non-EU country having tariff-free access to the Single Market for agricultural products (even Norway, which has tariff-free access for just about everything else, does not have it for agriculture). What the media should have reported is that, should Article 50 be triggered around Easter and the UK exit the EU by the next European Elections, Northern Irish farmers and fishermen will not be able to sell their products (without new trade barriers) anywhere except Great Britain – a consequence of a position the Agriculture Minister advocated.

Now there is a story – and one which will have a material impact on tens of thousands of people!

Any chance it could be reported?

Esperanto – more complex than Afrikaans?

Mi ankau plenesperante skribos venontsemajne!

Two weeks ago I wrote a piece in (and about) Esperanto, to which some correspondents responded by making the “marginal gains” point. People generally do not learn Esperanto because even though the time taken to learn it may be shorter (because it is simpler), the gain for doing so is extremely limited given the relative lack of speakers (even optimistic estimates suggest this is no more than 2 million worldwide – the same as Slovene or Latvian).

That does bring us to another issue: it is taken as read that Esperanto is easy to learn because its structure is simple. Yet, in fact, much of what determines how easy a language is to learn has nothing to do with its structure. Motivation is the real primary determinant; and, of course, if you don’t really have anyone to talk to, your motivation will in practice be limited.

Even then, there remains the assumption that Esperanto is “simple”, and thus easy to learn. The structure is so remarkably regular that there is surely no “natural” language, with all the complications that come with “nature”, to challenge it in that regard. Not even Afrikaans, for example.

Well, let us have a look. Esperanto, of course, is gloriously regular:

  • Ni ordonas ‘We order’
  • Ni ordonis ‘We ordered’
  • Ni ordonos ‘We will order’
  • Ni ordonus ‘We would order’

The ending determines the tense or mood. This could not be easier! Let us have a look at Afrikaans:

  • Ons bestel ‘We order’
  • Ons het bestel ‘We ordered’
  • Ons sal bestel ‘We will order’
  • Ons sou bestel ‘We would order’

The word before the verb determines the tense or mood. So, okay, Afrikaans is pretty easy, but… oh, there’s more…?

  • Ons kan bestel ‘We can order’
  • Ons moet bestel ‘We must order’
  • Ons wil bestel ‘We want to order’

… so surely Esperanto has stuff for this too? Well, yes, but…

  • Ni povas ordoni ‘We can order’
  • Ni devas ordoni ‘We must order’
  • Ni volas ordoni ‘We want to order’

… ahem, if anything Esperanto is the more complex of the two here. Afrikaans allows mood, up to and including ideas such as possibility, obligation and volition, to be expressed through one short word before the verb. Esperanto switches for those things to a structure involving another verb plus an infinitive. Neither is complex, but Esperanto is certainly not the clear winner.

Still, things remain regular in Esperanto even if we are the ones being ordered:

  • Ni ordonas ilin ‘We order them’
  • Ili ordonas nin ‘They order us’

That is nice and straightforward – the object simply adds -n. Could not be easier. Well, except if you didn’t have to add anything at all, perhaps…

  • Ons bestel hulle ‘We order them’
  • Hulle bestel ons ‘They order us’

Would you look at that? Afrikaans manages perfectly well without adding anything, relying solely on word order even with personal pronouns (just as most European languages do with general nouns).

Still, Esperanto is really clever because it is so easy simply to turn that personal pronoun into an adjective:

  • Nia amiko ordonas ‘Our friend orders’

Superb. Just add -a. Could not be easier. Well, except if you didn’t have to add anything at all again, but surely…

  • Ons vriend bestel ‘Our friend orders’

… that’s ridiculous! Afrikaans still does not amend the word ons at all! The word ons in Afrikaans carries the full range of meanings covered in English by ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ and even in Esperanto by ni, nin and nia.

Actually, Esperanto even has a fourth form that English lacks:

  • Ili ordonas nian amikon ‘They order our friend’

Afrikaans is still quite content with the same one:

  • Hulle bestel ons vriend ‘They order our friend’

Indeed, Esperanto has fully six forms here:

  • Niaj amikoj ordonos ‘Our friends will order’
  • Ili povas niajn amikojn ordoni ‘They can order our friends’

Afrikaans still manages with just one for all of this. Note well also that the verb form in Afrikaans has not changed once either (versus five different endings in Esperanto) – just a word in front determines everything:

  • Ons vriende sal bestel ‘Our friends will order’
  • Hulle kan ons vriende bestel ‘They can order our friends’

So, forgesu Esperanton ‘forget Esperanto’! 

Afrikaans for Internasionale Taal ‘International Language’ immediately!

It is not quite that straightforward, of course. Ons is the only personal pronoun which does not change form at all in Afrikaans (although none has more than two forms); the above word order, including bestel appearing after any object except in the present tense, must be strictly observed (whereas it is optional in Esperanto). Most verbs in Afrikaans in fact add ge- after het (Ons maak ‘We make’; Ons het gemaak ‘We made’) and wees ‘to be’ is markedly irregular. Most notably of all, Afrikaans has a fairly complex double negative (Ons het nie gemaak nie ‘We did not make’), varying adjectival forms, and three main plural forms which simply have to be learned with each item of vocabulary.

For all that, however, Afrikaans is not hugely less structurally simple than Esperanto. Even if we accept that, overall, Afrikaans is marginally more complex, it is beyond doubt that Esperanto could be still simpler – for example, as shown above, it exhibits variation in personal pronoun forms and verb forms which Afrikaans seems to manage perfectly well without. (For reference, Esperanto also differentiates between adjectives and adverbs; at least in the case of predicate adjectives, most Germanic languages including Afrikaans get by without such a distinction.)

Let us then consider that Afrikaans is a national language in a regional economic power (and in some neighbouring states); Esperanto is not. Afrikaans has ten times as many speakers as Esperanto; and of these, a third are native (only a handful of Esperanto’s are). Afrikaans is in widespread use in government, in sport, in administration, in business; Esperanto has much more limited reach in such areas. It is true that if you are travelling in general Esperanto will probably be marginally more likely to be understood than Afrikaans, but even that is debatable (given Afrikaans’ direct proximity to Dutch and even German). So, given Afrikaans is barely more complex structurally, what about those “marginal gains”? There is little doubt which is the winner.

Given that this “marginal gain” in favour of Afrikaans also means the average learner will be more motivated to learn it than Esperanto, and that there is a location where someone can go to be exposed to Afrikaans (to hear Afrikaans on the radio; to see Afrikaans on public signage; to have access to it everywhere from in newspapers to on the side of milk cartons), Afrikaans is surely the “easier” language to learn overall.

It depends on the user of course – some may still find Afrikaans hard to tolerate as the language of Apartheid, whereas others may be drawn to Esperanto precisely because it plays to boneco homara (‘mankind’s goodness’). Online courses seem easier to come by in Esperanto than Afrikaans. However, the case that Esperanto is innately “easy” (especially if the objective is near fluency), when considering the whole range of issues involved in learning a language including motivation and exposure, is nothing like as clear as some of its advocates would have us believe.

It is worth being absolutely clear that, taking exposure and motivation into account, English is in fact vastly easier to learn – to any level beyond basic – than Esperanto. I fear Esperantists who deny this obvious fact are missing the whole picture.

Or what about both?! Ni povas kompreneble ambau lerni, se iu nin volas instrui… Ons kan natuurlik beide leer, as iemand ons wil leer… (wait, the same word again in Afrikaans?!!)