Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Is once-maligned Irish language the marker of a new Ireland elite?

A new study finds the Irish language, once seen as the tongue of the poorer and less-educated even in Ireland, is a marker of an economic elite.

By Correspondent / January 26, 2010


Visitors to Ireland have long been greeted with the words "céad míle fáilte," an Irish language phrase meaning "a hundred thousand welcomes." But should this old tourism slogan be changed to "céad míle dollars?"

Skip to next paragraph

A recent study by researchers at the University of Ulster and University of Limerick found that contrary to its image as the quaint, dying language of Ireland's poor, speakers of Irish enjoy significant economic and social benefits – and form an elite in Irish society.

Key findings include that 42 percent of Irish-speakers were employed in senior professional, managerial, or technical jobs, compared with 27 percent among nonspeakers, and that Irish-speakers enjoyed a larger social network – even though they rarely spoke the language.

The paper, "Language and Occupational Status: Linguistic Elitism in the Irish Labour Market," published in Ireland's Economic and Social Review journal, found a "structural advantage of Irish-speaking, relative to non-speaking, workers" in Ireland’s labor market, and compared use of Irish to historical examples of linguistic elitism in czarist Russia and in Vietnam, where the elite spoke French

Vani Borooah (editor's note: Mr. Borooah's last name was misspelled in the original version of this story) one of the report's three authors, says that by almost any criteria, a bilingual Irish-speaker has advantages over someone confined to English.
"Even if you take [socioeconomic] factors into account and have two people of equal status, the Irish-speaker will have a small but significant advantage over the other," he says.

Why this should be so is a matter of some debate. Colm Ó Broin, editor at the bilingual online business newspaper, argues the report's claims of a linguistic elite are "Orwellian."

"For hundreds of years, it was attacked as the language of poverty and now it's the language of the elite?" he asks.

"I wouldn't say it's an elite thing. The report doesn't recognize cause and effect. It would be more accurate to say that Irish is spoken by people who have had a better education. You would find the same thing among listeners to classical music or people who know Shakespeare sonnets."

Often referred to as "Gaelic" in the US, in Ireland the language is generally referred to as "Irish" or by its Irish language name, Gaeilge. The Republic of Ireland is officially a bilingual nation, with Irish the official language, but virtually all daily business is carried out in English.

The study also found that Irish-speakers enjoyed economic advantages over workers in British-controlled Northern Ireland, where the language is seen as divisive by many Protestants.