Manx language

I’m on the Isle of Man at the moment doing some research for my dissertation on the revival of the Manx (Gaelic) language. I’m staying in Douglas (Doolish), the island’s capital, and plan to explore other parts of the island – it’s partly a holiday for me as well as a way to collect data.

One of the things I’m investigating is the use of Manx in public. On the ferry from Liverpool they used the Manx for good morning, moghrey mie, a few times in announcements, though that was the only Manx I heard yesterday. I also found some leaflets with collections of useful Manx phrases at the ferry terminal, including some with translations in French, German and Spanish.

When exploring Douglas today I noticed quite a few English/Manx bilingual street signs, and that most government departments, and some shops and other businesses have English and Manx names. So the public visibility of the language is quite high, but you only hear it spoken at certain times and in certain places, which is similar to the situation with Irish in Dublin. For example, today I sat in on a Manx conversation class that takes place every Tuesday lunchtime in a local pub. It was the first time I’d heard live Manx conversation, and somewhat to my surprise, I could understand almost everything they said, which is encouraging. My knowledge of Irish and Scottish Gaelic certainly helps.

Tomorrow I’ll be visiting the Manx medium primary school and talking to some of the teachers. I discovered today that most of the kids there only speak Manx in the school – outside school and at home the speak mainly or entirely in English, except in a few Manx-speaking families. I’ll find out more about this tomorrow.

16 thoughts on “Manx language

  1. I just took a look at the site and I’ll say here more or less what I wrote at languagehat.

    Maybe the orthography isn’t so wonderful from a purely linguistic point of view but I find it pretty agreeable all things considered. Most importantly it seems to reflect pronunciation fairly well (if indirectly) and actually makes me think I could learn some Manx.

    I find Irish spelling to be an opaque mystery despite devoting some time to it. It’s beautiful and evocative in its own way but surely isn’t very user friendly. It’s the kind of archaic byzantine system that a literary language with generations of unbroken contuinity of widespread literacy can support but it certainly doesn’t make things … easy in terms of revival.

  2. To the contrary, to me the Manx orthography seems horrible. It took me several weeks to learn Irish orthography – significantly more than for Spanish or Italian and comparably to French – so I admit that it is difficult. But the difficulty of Irish is a result of historical developement. On the other hand, the Manx orthography was created from scratch to suit the (almost) present form of the language. And still it is not completely phonetical, full of digraphs, trigraphs and irregularities. That’s the problem with Manx orthography: it looks not as a standardised literary language, but as a not so systematic English phonetical transcription of something. And English with its own peculiarities is, after all, not well suited to phonetically transcript anything. Irish orthography may not be much user frendly – but it is frendlier than the English orthography and more so if the latter is used for another language.

  3. I agree that Manx orthography is far from ideal, but it does seem more consistent than Irish. I don’t know enough about Scots Gaelic to say anything about it (technically I don’t know enough about Irish or Manx to say anything but I’m not letting that stop me).

    In practical terms, there’s nothing wrong with ee for /i(:)/ as long as it’s roughly consistent. I agree that if /i(:)/ were written ee, ei, ea, e, i, ie, ye, ey, etc with little but historical reasons for the different versions, then that would be massively stupid.

    Overall, Manx orthography seems to have the virtue (prized by me) of having fewer useless letters and somewhat more consistent representation (at least in decoding I imagine active encoding isn’t so easy). I like the look of Irish spelling better but despair at trying to remember it and/or relate it in any meaningful way to spoken Irish (I have similar problems with French).

  4. I believe that the history of the development of the language controls the orthography itself, and sometimes we see unneeded vowels or so. To me, if I’m going to complain about the English orthography, it wouldn’t be as much as I would complain about the French orthography.

    Manx, as I believe though I did not learn it but from few words, sounds like if it is just a dialect of Irish. If I was to reform the orthography in Manx, I would consider using some vowel-marks (acute, grave..etc) to reduce the amount of double-vowels and make words a bit compact and shorter.

    I didn’t Welsh but I have a dictionary for it, and one of the hardships I faced when I wanted to check a word is that in Welsh, unlike Irish, do not use any special marks for change in words’ initials. Instead, the first letters are changed completely, thus I wouldn’t know if these letters are part of the original word or aspirated or collapsed. The modern Irish orthography keeps it very well with adding “h” only in case of aspiration, or putting small letters before the original initial of the word (which would be written in cap). Also, the orthography in Irish is made and fixed in order to make it a representative for the dialects, just like how German orthography is fitting for dialects in Germany (CH can sound like Scottish, or like K in cities closer to Netherlands, or simply like SH, or a palatal CH in some areas, but all are written with CH).

  5. By the way, are there other words in English, in which the adjective ends with X?
    Why does the adjective of Mann becomes Manx?

  6. I know almost nothing about Manx, Irish, Gaelic, but I will say there is something unique about the way the spelling looks which prevents me from criticizing its relative logic or practicality.

    I guess I’m talking more about an aesthetic relationship between orthography, meaning, the actual pictogram or the way it looks.

    I’m sure there are some thinkers would say a dog is a dog is a Hund is a chien is a 犬, etc in any language, but seeing the word on the page, hearing it spoken, it just doesn’t feel right to treat orthography as simply a written medium.

    The other day on a train in Tokyo, I overheard an American guy complaining to Japanese girlfriend about the impracticality of Japanese Kanji. While I do agree that learning to read takes years of study (unlike with Latin and Cyrllic script), with Kanji as well as with the Hiragana and Katakana “spelling”, with time you learn to interpret images rather than assemble letters, the same way we are doing in English right now. I believe it is the same basic visual skill, you just train your mind and eyes to recognize different patterns and images. Writing, on the other hand, I believe is mostly manual muscle memory.

    Does this make any sense in the context of Manx?

  7. TJ – words endings with x are fairly rare in English. Some examples are ox, fox and box. Apparently the word Manx used to be written Manks and comes from Maniske (of the Isle of Man), which comes from the Old Irish word Manu (Isle of Man), via the Old Norse Manskr (from Man).

    I overheard someone(a native English speaker) on the bus today trying to pronounce a number of Manx placenames and house names. From the comments she made I concluded that she had no knowledge of Manx, but her pronunciation of the names wasn’t bad. So the Manx orthography does seem to make some sense to English speakers, at least to this particular person. I suspect she would have more difficulty with the other Gaelic languages.

  8. OK, to be more concrete in my criticism of Manx, here are my objections (my knowledge is based mainly on Omniglot page about Manx):
    A. non-uniqueness of spelling
    1. [x] is spelled in two ways, gh or ch.
    2. [k] is spelled either k or c or even qu
    3. [ə] is spelled in several ways, depending on position in the word, including y, a, ey
    4. [g] can be spelled cc in the middle of words
    5. [ε] can be either ai or ei (if the page about Manx is correct, e alone stands for nothing definite)
    and there are several others…
    B. non-uniqueness of pronunciation
    6. ch can be [x] or [tš] (I haven’t found esh IPA glyph), the variant çh is used inconsistently
    7. s is [s] or [z] (maybe they are allophones?)
    C. illogical polygraphs
    8. çh is used, even if ç alone is not (this reminds me of Maltese, which has ċ, but not c)
    9. [i:] is written ee even if it is long variant of i, not of e. The same holds for [u:] written oo.
    10. [ai] is written ie
    and in general, diphtongs are not written with the constituent vowels.

    In fact, this is not unique for Manx. Rumantsch-Grischun orthography is the same thing – constructed using arbitrary chosen German and Italian conventions, with little regard to logic and lot of irregularities. Or Breton with its French-like character (c’h trigraph is a brutality). But Manx is unique, because it is is some sense second order of this process: it uses conventions of English orthography, which itself has similarly adopted a lot of arbitrary conventions of French in the middle ages.

  9. I think is the result of metathesis of ON *mansk(r) (vel sim.) or perhaps of OE *manisc before the final cluster changed.

  10. I wondered about the Old Irish name. The ON name of the island is f., where (for the phoneme /ɒ/) usually sems from u-breaking of /a/, so I expected as much. Still, it’s homonymous with the Danish island of Møn and a horse’s mane, so one could think it was the result of an ON folk etymology or even a renaming.

  11. prase, I understand what you’re saying and agree that my reaction to the cedilla was roughly: “Where did _that_ come from???”

    IMO, indeed, the worst thing about Manx orthography is that it doesn’t seem so unique while a unique appearance seems to be important feature for minority language writing systems. (I think that Scots(sp?) and Nynorsk and some others fail largely because the orthography isn’t really unique enough. Maybe the fact that Manx is Celtic can overcome that.

    Again, despite all the flaws (which I readily admit) it does seem significantly more user friendly than Irish and more likely to help learners associate spelling and pronunciation even if it’s only one way. By way of contrast, a former Irish colleague who couldn’t remember any of the language from school once mentioned that in Irish class everyone just guessed wildly at pronunciations and were almost never corrected.

  12. Oops again. I didn’t realize that my angle bracketed Mǫn and ǫ would disappear.

    I’ll stop now.

  13. The name of the island comes from “Manann” who is supposedly the sea god for the Celts. Maybe I spelled the name wrong back there.

  14. Well, I’ll start by noting that I’m a Manx speaker (non-native). And indeed I agree the spelling can be very confusing (although we’ve changed some of the worse offenders recently). One thing that nobody seems to have mentioned is that, while Manx orthography was designed for recent Manx:

    a) the work was probably done in the 17th-early 18th centuries. Three hundred years can make a lot of difference, especially during language attrition/death, and with considerable migration going on.

    b) there were at least two major dialects of Manx, likely more, when the orthography was produced; not one high-status standard like SSE. The orthography is therefore a compromise, each word’s spelling either reflecting one dialect or trying to show what other words it sounds like. Any orthography struggles with multiple dialects; ordinary Welsh somewhat adapts its spelling to the dialect in use, but written English, based on SSE, doesn’t represent Scouse or Geordie or Bronx well at all.

    To mention a couple of specifics that Prase brought up (not meant to be an argument, just looking at your points):

    1. [x] is spelled in two ways, gh or ch.
    – potentially, though I pronounce gh as [ɣ] pretty much always

    2. [k] is spelled either k or c or even qu
    – true; however, there’s an important difference between k/c and qu because they mute differently (respectively: lenite to ch- [x] and wh- [ʍ], nasalise to g [g] and no change)

    4. [g] can be spelled cc in the middle of words
    7. s is [s] or [z] (maybe they are allophones?)
    – there’s a whole set of sound/spellings like this, actually. We like to ‘soften’ intervocalic sounds.

    3. [ə] is spelled in several ways, depending on position in the word, including y, a, ey
    5. [ε] can be either ai or ei (if the page about Manx is correct, e alone stands for nothing definite)
    10. [ai] is written ie and in general, diphtongs are not written with the constituent vowels.
    – entirely true. Vowels are a problem with the Roman alphabet unless a language only has five.

    6. ch can be [x] or [tš] (I haven’t found esh IPA glyph), the variant çh is used inconsistently
    – also true. I would use çh myself for the second but it’s basically personal choice.

    8. çh is used, even if ç alone is not (this reminds me of Maltese, which has ċ, but not c)
    – yes, there’s no real reason we couldn’t use ç, but that’s… just not how it’s spelled. I suppose we could perfectly well use dh instead of th for [ð] in English, but nobody does that either.

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