Irish is to become the 21st official language of the EU following an agreement by European foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday (13 June).
From January 2007, all key legislation in the bloc will be translated into Irish with ways of extending this to other legislation to be looked at in 2011.
Welcoming the decision, Irish foreign minister Dermot Ahern told Irish RTE radio that it was a "very long and torturous campaign" to get Ireland's first official language recognised at EU level.
Irish is used far less on a daily basis than English but there are certain Gaeltacht areas in the country where it is spoken by more than 80 percent of people.
Currently, Irish has treaty status meaning that only official EU treaties have the right to be translated into the language; Irish speakers may also write to the EU institutions in their language and have the right of reply in the same language.
Under the new status, Irish may also be spoken at council meetings and will be officially recognised for recruiting to EU institutions which generally require your native language plus one other EU language to be spoken.
According to Mr Ahern, the new status will create around 30 jobs for translators and interpreters and will cost the EU around €3.5 million a year.
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Dublin's bid for a change in status started in earnest around the time of its presidency of the EU in the first half of last year.
It made much of the goodwill generated by its success in getting a deal on the EU constitution to push this issue.
"It's a real psychological boost for the Irish language" said Mr Ahern adding that it confirms "the fact that we have multiple identities in the EU".
Maria Farrell at Crooked Timber seems to be one of the more visible critics of the Irish language's new status, having criticized the project last year as well as on the 13th as inordinately inexpensive and practically useless.
I disagree with Farrell's argument that post-colonial member-states--like, say, Malta--should use imperial languages in relation to the EU when their own vernacular languages are spoken by relatively few people and fluency in the imperial language(s) is high. The Maltese language, by all accounts, is a language that is still the first language of the vast majority of Maltese, despite the Mediterranean islanders' fluency in English and Italian. One of the only things that can seriously threaten the survival of the Maltese language in our globalized world would be its exclusion from the political realm. For a different situation, look to the Union's new northeastern frontier in the Baltic States. While I think that the Estonian language might have more first- and second-language speakers than the Russian language inside Estonia, the same can't be said for Latvia. Between that country's Russophone near-majority and the Soviet-era education which ensured that a high proportion of ethnic Latvian adults could claim some fluency in Russian, it's quite likely that more people in Latvia speak Russian than Latvian. Should the European Union insist that these two countries interact with Brussels in the Russian language? Not only would the use of Russian for two countries be cost-effective, it would be a decided filip for EU dealings with the Russian Federation.
Irish, though, is a different thing. One of the first term papers I wrote at the underground language was a comparative paper on the sociological evolution of the Irish and Welsh languages. I concluded that had the Welsh language movement had somehow been as successful from the mid-19th century on as it had been from the mid-20th century on, Wales would have been much more of a bilingual society than it is now, with perhaps a majority of Welsh children learning Cymraeg not in school but in their homes. Had the Irish language movement began a century before it did, now, Ireland might have actually become a bilingual society. The Irish language was never as secure in its hearth as the Welsh language, and a variety of factors--the close links of the Irish language to a proscribed Roman Catholicism, Ireland's long history of settlement from Anglophone Britain, most recently the enervating effects of the Irish Famine--accelerated Ireland's Anglicization markedly.
The result? I admit to being influenced by Jean Laponce and his writings on territorialism, especially his 1987 tome Languages and their Territories, perhaps unduly so. Looking at the maps, one can't help but note that Y Fro Gymraeg--the Welsh-speaking heartlands of Wales, in the north and west of that country--forms a rather larger, stabler, and more territorially coherent bloc of territory than Ireland's Irish-speaking Gaeltacht. The Republic of Ireland's admirable education policies seem to have ensured a rather high level of fluency in the Irish language among adults, and the language is clearly being transmitted by some committed parents to their children within and without the Republic's frontiers. It nonetheless remains the case that Ireland simply isn't Irish-speaking in the same way that Estonia is Estonian-speaking or Malta Maltese-speaking. Irish is a minority language in the Republic; English is effectively indigenous.
Speaking as a fan of multilingualism and minority languages, I think that the most viable of Europe's regional languages should become official languages of the European Union. Catalan comes quickly to mind; Galician, Basque, Welsh, and Frisian also come to mind, Luxembourgish if the Grand Duchy wants it, and, if the Republic insists, Irish. (Occitan, alas, seems to be riven by too many divisions between its different dialects and hit too hard by the ongoing shift to French to be placed in the same category.) Speaking as a fan of effective supranational structures, I also think that a shift towards some sort of simplified language situatuion--a stable English-French-German trilingualism, say--for day-to-day affairs makes much better sense. Might there be a way to shift the burden of translation more towards the member-states?