The Last of the Celts, By Marcus Tanner, Yale University Press, 398 pp., illustrated, $30
The reported death last month in China of the last known speaker of nushu, a language used only by women in a Hunan province, gave some measure of human interest to what anthropologists and linguists call "language death." Most, like aboriginal languages in Australia and North America, disappear without receiving even that small measure of attention.
The Celtic languages are not likely to die so unnoticed but, writes Marcus Tanner in his lively and thought-provoking exploration of their status today, they, too, are doomed to "finally disappear" -- as "the Celtic sea, having retreated into disconnected pools, reduces to puddles."
In the meantime, there are governmental efforts to preserve the languages to consider, as well as the future of present-day Celtic revivals, "predicated on the existence, somewhere, of people for whom these languages, traditions and beliefs actually mean something."
Tanner is a British journalist whose family, into his father's time and living in London, spoke Welsh at home -- but not to the children, and he did not learn it. "The Last of the Celts" had its genesis in a search for ancestral graves in Wales after returning from lengthy assignments in the Balkans.
As late as the 1880s, Tanner writes, Celtic, in its various forms, was the dominant language, spoken by some 1.5 million people in much of Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, and by another 2 million in Brittany. Today, that 3.5 million is down to about 800,000.
Much of the charm in Tanner's book comes from his accounts of encounters with Celtic-speakers -- on the Uists, off Scotland's northwest coast, where he "heard Gaelic used routinely for the first time"; at An Spidéal, northwest of Galway, in the studios of TG4, the television station "that some see as holding the key to the future survival of the Irish language"; watching Cornish-language films in Truro; and at a pub in Saint-Rivoal, with two Breton-language "learners," eavesdropping on "a trio of grizzled old farmers in cloth caps, talking quietly in Breton."
In Ireland's Gaeltacht, the officially recognized region on its western coast, Irish is "maintained with government support as the first language of schools, local government, business and the airwaves." It stands, writes Tanner, as a kind of "cultural museum where a precarious older way of life could be maintained." Tanner discovers an interesting twist to that museum quality in West Belfast, where an informal kind of gaeltacht exists on several streets "to which people have moved because of a conscious desire to create an Irish-speaking community."
Visitors are unlikely to hear Scottish Gaelic in Cape Breton, as it died out as a community language early in the last century. But as in Ireland, the culture has survived through the distinctive music -- in Ireland where "it is deeply linked to militant nationalism," and on Cape Breton where the rhythmically driving fiddle tunes derive from traditional Scottish dance music.
The Breton language and culture survived France's centralizing policy so well that midway into the last century it was "the most vigorous and widely spoken Celtic language." But Breton nationalists supported Germany during World War II, hoping to be rewarded with an autonomous state. The decision, Tanner writes, "had enormous consequences for Brittany after the war, when even the most timid expression of support for autonomy would be stigmatized as Nazi and collaborationist."
So while the estimate of 250,000 Breton speakers sounds fairly healthy, compared to the estimate of 80,000 Gaelic speakers in Ireland, Tanner writes, "Breton-speakers do not have the fallback position of a gaeltacht, a bordered area in which government, business, schools and churches co-operate to maintain the language as a means of communication."
Most intriguing of Tanner's reports comes from Argentina, where a Welsh-speaking homeland, settled in 1865, has survived the vicissitudes of the harsh Patagonian climate and government hostility. Tanner visits Gaiman, which has preserved its Welsh appearance, but also where "Welshness is not an attractive pastime but a livelihood, [doing] good business serving out Welshness to visiting coach parties of Argentine and foreign tourists."
It is probably only coincidence, but the Canadian journalist Mark Abley, who covered much of the same territory in his well-received "Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages," published last year, wrote that he "knows a little Welsh."
In drawing conclusions from his own explorations, Tanner cites Abley's observation that the decline of Yiddish "has destroyed other aspects of Jewish culture." Similarly, Tanner writes, "so much of what was vital about [the Celtic] languages lies buried in the earth with the last native speakers." The current revivals, however interesting he found them during his travels, "can only bring back a mechanical repetition of written words divested of virtually everything that made them meaningful."