ST JOHN’S, Isle of Man – The squeals of laughter that echo from the playground sound like any other primary school in its first week back in session.
Listen carefully, though, and there’s something rare in the children’s chatter: the Manx tongue, an ancient language once feared to be forgotten.
But thanks in part to these students at Bunscoill Ghaelgagh, a school in the Isle of Man, the language that was deeply intertwined through hundreds of years of local history is now part of the island’s future.
It was just over a decade ago when UNESCO declared the language extinct, and students then studying at the school strongly objected. To argue that the language was anything but dead, they wrote a letter to the UN body – in Manx.
“It was kind of on the brink, but we brought it back to life,” said Julie Matthews, the school’s principal, who noted that her students’ determined efforts had prompted a new categorization. of Manx by UNESCO as a “revitalized language”.
On a recent visit to Bunscoill Ghaelgagh (pronounced BUN-scull GILL-gackh), evidence that Manx was still heavily used was everywhere.
Two girls drawing a clock in chalk on the sidewalk of the schoolyard counted one, two, three in Manx: nane, jees, tree. A sign hung above a tidy row of lunchboxes marked the days of the week in Manx. In a nearby classroom, a teacher gave a geography lesson in Manx.
The school, which has 53 pupils, is just one of the many ways the language is kept alive on the island, located in the Irish Sea between northern England and Ireland.
“We’re trying to make it accessible to everyone and inclusive,” said Ruth Keggin Gell, Manx language development manager at Culture Vannin, a foundation set up by the government of the island, a self-governing British Crown dependency which n is not a part of the United Kingdom, but whose residents are British citizens.
‘It’s okay if you just moved to the Isle of Man yesterday,’ Ms Keggin Gell added. “If you want to learn Manx, then it’s up to you; likewise, if you’ve been here all your life.
Although UNESCO was wrong in 2009 when it declared Manx dead, the error was understandable.
For centuries, Manx – part of the Celtic language family like Irish and Scottish Gaelic – was how the islanders communicated in their daily lives. But by the 19th century the English language had overtaken it, and many on the Isle of Man were raising their children to speak only English amid an increasingly unkind, sometimes even hostile, attitude towards Manx.
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But even as the use of the language declined, there were people fighting for its preservation. The Manx Language Society was founded as early as 1899, and in the late 1940s efforts were made to register the last native speakers of Manx. In the 1960s, revival efforts began in earnest, and the advent of new technologies enabled speakers to connect online, digitize ancient texts, and share Manx music and literature.
Manx’s survival in the 21st century is a testament to the island’s sense of being a place apart, with its own identity – and political autonomy.
A reminder of this self-reliance can be seen just opposite the Bunscoill: Tynwald Hill, an island gathering place since at least the 13th century and still used for an annual open-air meeting of the Island’s Parliament.
Even though the language is only spoken by a fraction of the population, its imprint can be seen virtually everywhere, including tombstones bearing Manx inscriptions, place names and street signs.
All over the island people are trying to incorporate Manx into their daily lives, with many adults taking Manx lessons and Manx language bands performing in pubs. Every November, the island hosts Cooish (pronounced koosh), a five-day festival of Manx language and culture.
On a Sunday afternoon in September, families had a picnic at Thie ny Gaelgey – or the Manx Language House – and played football in the sun, while chatting in Manx.
“It has a snowball effect,” Ms Keggin Gell said of how the language was integrated into island life. “It may be a little slower growing snowball, but it’s still a snowball.”
About 2,200 people are now able to speak, read or write in Manx, according to the latest census figures, and the government’s aim is to see that number more than double over the next 10 years.
In the town of Peel, on the west coast of the island, the hills give way to a sandy beach. The ruins of a 1500s church stand along a street, with an engraving that informs passers-by that it “did service in Manx Gaelic until 1939”. On the front of a purple building on a street corner, a sign above the door reads “Shamyr Hey” – Manx for tea room.
Phil Gawne, 57, and Annie Kissack, 63, a married couple, speak fluent Manx and helped establish the Bunscoill in a former Victorian schoolhouse in St. John’s, a village in the Central Valley of the island, close to several important landmarks.
Mr Gawne grew up knowing a few older relatives who could speak a little Manx, but it was not until the late 1970s, he said, when there was an influx of new residents on the island, that he felt the desire to know more about the language.
“I guess I felt my identity was threatened in a pretty dramatic way because there was this generation of elderly parents who were dying,” Mr Gawne said.
The couple, who live on a farm in a small village on the island, decided to raise their two children as Manx speakers in the early 1990s. They started a playgroup with other young people parents who were also teaching their children to share the Manx language, which eventually became the educational charity Mooinjer Veggey (pronounced MUN-ja VAIR-ga) – or Manx for little people.
“There were no people other than us and our friends who were actually raising their children as Manx speakers,” Mr Gawne said. “And it’s fair to say that they became what we described as the first new native speakers.”
When the children in the playgroup were ready for primary school, the parents lobbied the education department for Manx language lessons. This effort eventually grew into the Bunscoill, which was officially founded in 2001. Since then, hundreds of students have passed through its doors.
It has not always been easy, from a pedagogical point of view.
Teachers at the school – including Ms Kissack before she retired two years ago – have often had to create their own learning materials. But over the years, the books and resources available have grown with the school.
“Over time, things like access to resources have improved tremendously,” Ms Kissack said.
Andrew Traynor, 38, a father of two at the school – who have so far received all of their education in Manx – said Bunscoill had been instrumental in restoring the language and strengthening links with the culture of the island.
“We get Manx snippets at home,” Mr. Traynor said. “The history of the Manx language on the island has been so difficult, and it’s good that people are picking it up.”
In some ways, the school looks like the culmination of decades of effort to revive the Manx language.
“If I was talking to you 30 years ago, it would be a much different conversation,” Mr Gawne said. “Now it is almost accepted that the Manx language should be preserved.”