From An Claidheamh Soluis, 28 January 1905.
A language is evolved by a nation for the purpose of expressing its thought. Thus a nation’s speech is in a real sense the creation of that nation. Now, anything created by me is what it is because I, its creator, am what I am. I am what I am because of my history, personal and ancestral. Applying this commonplace of psychology, a nation’s language is what it is because the nation is what it is. The nation is what it is by reason of its past history, immediate and remote.
Thus the Irish language is, so to speak, the logical and inevitable outcome of Irish history. The Gael being what he is, his language is what it is. Its sounds have been fashioned precisely so, and not otherwise, because the vocal organs of the Gael are of a particular conformation, and because his ear likes or dislikes particular sounds. Similarly, its grammar and idioms are the inevitable outcome of the Gael’s way of looking at things. They reflect his personality, and express it. It is because the Gael thinks in a particular way, and not otherwise, that there is in the Irish language a particular idiom which is not in other languages; it is because of this that there are certain grammatical forms in the language which are not in other languages; and it is because a particular point of view has never presented itself to the Gael that a particular idiom or grammatical form occurring in other languages may be absent in Irish.
If we admit all this, and admit it were must, we see how inadequate is the notion of those who tell us that a language is a mere set of labels, a mere collection of declensions and conjugations. Even regarded as a mere set of labels a language is to a certain extent biographical. It is the result of the physical and mental formation of the nation which produced it, and for all time will be a witness to that conformation. But even when arranged in parallel columns in a dictionary a language is very much more than a mere collection of labels. In actual practice there is no such thing as a word apart from its connotation and associations. One cannot turn over the pages of a dictionary without coming into contact with the mind of the race which fashioned the language whose vocabulary is there recorded.
So far, we have been speaking of a language proper, apart from its literature and folklore. When we go on to consider the literature of a language, the argument becomes infinitely more compelling. A literature is the expression in literary form of the mind of a race. Races also express themselves in art, in industry, in political institutions, and in other ways, but language and literature must always remain the most important channels for national self-expression, a nation’s language and literature must always remain the fullest and most understandable record of its thought. Thus if we want to get at the mind of Ireland we must go to her language and literature. For practical purposes Ireland’s mind has not been expressed otherwise than in language and literature. Ireland has not yet expressed herself to any great extent in art – her ancient art, distinctive as it was, was but a very imperfect expression of her personality, – expressed, in fact, only one aspect of a very complex national character; and it stopped short at a very early stage. Nor can Ireland be said to have adequately expressed herself in industry or in political institutions. Emphatically, then, the mind of Ireland has been expressed in her language, with its literature and folklore. If we do not find the Irish mind here we can find it nowhere.
Seeing that the language of a nation, as to its sounds, its idioms, its grammatical forms, and still more, as to its literature and folklore, is indelibly stamped with the personality of the nation, it is obvious that by coming into touch with the language, we come into touch with that personality. We cannot come into touch with the language without coming into touch with the mind of the nation, nor can we come into touch with the mind of the nation otherwise than through its language, – except, in so far as we can do so through its art, industry, political institutions, and so on. Thus, to get at the real Ireland, we must go to the Irish language. The language sums up what the Gaelic race has been thinking ever since there was a Gaelic race. It contains Ireland’s message to her children and to the world. In it, Ireland’s temperament is expressed, its point of view is Ireland’s. Moreover, it imposes the Irish point of view and Irish modes of thought on those who use it.
All this is next to self-evident, and people who speak of a language as a “mere set of sounds,” are either incapable of thinking or else are saying something which they do not believe. In point of fact, is the only difference between the Irish-speaking and the English-speaking Irishman (strange contradiction!) this, that the two make use of different “sets of sounds,” of different declensional and conjugational systems? The merest casual observer can see that there is another and a profounder difference. It is that one is in contact with the Irish mind, and the other in contact with the English mind, that one is in line with Irish history, Irish tradition, the other with English history, English tradition, that one has the Irishman’s standpoint, the other the Englishman’s.
Remembering this, we come to see that the question of retaining the Irish language is not a mere question of retaining a set of sounds developed by ourselves for the mere pleasure of being unlike other men; it is a question of remaining in communion with the past of our race.