William Z. Shetter’s Language Miniatures—
Mini-essays about human language in its endless kaleidoscope of aspects, such as the social, the mental, the historical, the structural— are always a good read. Miniature 156: Irish Gaelic: From Gaeilge to English, The Irish language in Ireland, makes me realise there are many similarities between Ireland and New Zealand.
Both countries have a population of about 4 million. In New Zealand there are about half a million who claim some Māori heritage. In both countries there is a small group of speakers of the indigenous language, and that language itself is in danger of vanishing. According to Shetter some 1.5 million claim to be able to speak some Irish Gaelic and
the number of speakers who use mainly Irish as their daily language is probably not much higher than 10,000.
According to our Stats Department:
[In 2001] 42 percent of Māori aged 15 years and over (136,700 people) have some Māori language speaking skills. This can be further divided into 9 percent who could speak Māori ‘well’ or ‘very well’, and 33 percent who could speak Māori ‘fairly well’ or ‘not very well’. The remaining 58 percent could speak ‘no more than a few words or phrases’.
By my reckoning that’s about 12,000 Māori who claim to be “fluent”.
In both countries there are schemes to encourage and preserve the language. Every year in New Zealand one week at the end of July is set aside as Maori Language Week (Te wiki o te reo Māori) when people are encouraged to “Give it a Go”, and Māori is an official language. Our Kohanga Reo (Language Nests) focus on bringing children into the language.
2006 is Census year and it will be interesting to compare those results with 2001.
And while surfing round checking my facts for this post I’ve discovered that New Zealand has some 210,000 deaf or hearing impaired people. There is a Bill before Parliament to recognise New Zealand Sign Language as an official language, something the community has been seeking for 20 years. And there is an interesting overlap:
The Bill is expected to benefit Deaf New Zealanders by enabling their own unique language to be accorded equal status with that of spoken languages and by providing better access to justice. Maori Deaf report that official recognition of NZSL will increase the likelihood of their being able to use NZSL at hui, marae events, and tangi, and increase their access to Maori language and culture, including whakapapa. … Census 2001 data shows that 28,000 New Zealanders (including both Deaf and hearing people) use NZSL.
It looks to me as though perhaps NZSL is on a stronger footing with its 28,000 signers than Māori with it’s 12,000 fluent speakers.