Reviving Manx

by Jeffrey Dastin:

Nick Merrill walked the streets of Douglas with a tape recorder and an archaic instruction manual. He passed British stores where salesmen welcomed customers in Gaelic. He passed Anglican churches where Gaelic translations accompanied English bibles and signs. Douglas, the capital of the Isle of Man, a self-governed British Crown Dependency in the Irish Sea, conveyed a mixed cultural heritage. Entering Mad Dog’s pub, Merrill, then 17, referred to his manual and greeted locals in Manx Gaelic, the dead, indigenous language of the Isle of Man: “Fastyr mie.”

Recording and taking lessons from the few speakers across the island, Merrill learned to speak Manx within three weeks. A year later, he wrote The Voice of Man, a book documenting his cultural experience. Merrill had taken part in a modern resurrection: the revival of Manx.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Manx died when it was no longer spoken as a primary language, coinciding with the death of native speaker Ned Maddrell in 1974. While some islanders learned Manx before Maddrell’s death, the language’s endangerment was clear. Yet cultural and economic changes on the Isle of Man facilitated a popular movement to revive Manx. In 1982, the island’s parliament, Tynwald, created the Manx Heritage Foundation to promote Manx culture. Among other things, the foundation offers language classes and hosts the Cooish, a weeklong festival of Manx language and music. The revitalization raises important questions: Why revive a language when the dominance of a few languages fosters global communication? What causes a language to die in the first place?

An excerpt from the Manx graphic novel "Yn Chelg." (Courtesy Adrian Cain)

Manx Gaelic is one of six Celtic languages, dating back to the fifteenth century. At the end of the 1700s, the British government established a presence on the Isle of Man to counteract merchants smuggling British goods through the island. Manx did not fit the new British order, and officials disparaged Manx as the language of farmers and fishermen. Soon, Tynwald conducted deliberations in English, education became based on the English model, and the Anglican Church showed hostility to the Catholic natives.

It was the ethnically Manx, however, who did most harm to the language. Many emigrated to Britain in search of work. Those who remained wished to study English because it was the language of business and government—the language of social mobility. “Up until thirty years ago, [the Manx language] was a mark of disgrace,” said Brian Stowell, a 74-year-old citizen of the Isle of Man. “The people were proud of being Manx [ethnically]… proud that the Isle of Man has got its own government, that it’s not in the United Kingdom.” But the language was antiquated. Public disdain for Manx suggested that a language lost value when it no longer served everyday needs. Increasingly, the needs of the Manx people shifted away from agricultural traditions and toward business conducted in an English-speaking world.

As Merrill would do decades later, a teenage Stowell helped the community record Ned Maddrell and other native speakers before they passed away. In the process, Stowell learned Manx. Stowell left the Isle of Man to pursue a career in physics, but he returned in 1991 to become the first Manx Language Officer of Tynwald’s Education Department. Working with other officials, he developed a program to teach Manx to children age seven and up. “The number of children with the approval of parents overwhelmed us,” said Stowell. Despite the stigma that Manx had carried on the Isle of Man, Stowell felt that “the loss of the language made a terrific psychological impact on the people here.” The decline of the language had drawn little attention, but its extinction felt like the end of a culture. Youth in particular were affected because they grew up during the island’s economic evolution.

In the 1980s, the Isle of Man became a tax haven for British companies, causing the island’s economy to boom. For locals, the change was noteworthy. New opportunities for advancement made searching for work outside the Isle of Man unnecessary. While English remained the language of business, prosperity was widespread enough that locals could learn Manx as a hobby. The government could afford to sponsor cultural festivals and language classes, and the people could afford to attend. Unlike previous generations of Manx, the new generation viewed the language as part of its heritage rather than a social impediment. Even foreigners liked the revival of Manx as “partly a romantic idea,” said Stowell.

Although money and public support were necessary, language revival was achieved through teaching. The culmination of efforts like Stowell’s was the founding of the Bunscoill Ghaelgagh in 2001, the first primary school conducted entirely in Manx. Students begin at the age of four and learn Manx for the first two years of school. Afterward, the Bunscoill follows the standard curriculum of the Isle of Man, but instruction in subjects such as geography, history, and math is in Manx. When necessary, a council within the Bunscoill invents Manx vocabulary to match the specialized terminology of the sciences. English is studied once a week.

Language Development Officer Adrian Cain, center, instructs the class to touch their heads as he teaches the Manx imperative mood. (Courtesy Adrian Cain)

“Most countries already have the language being spoken in the home and in the community, and they then have the schools,” said Julie Matthews, the head teacher of the Bunscoill, “whereas we are trying to promote the language through the children.” Whether this is an effective strategy is still unclear: The oldest graduates of the Bunscoill are only in middle school. Harry, Matthews’s ten-year-old nephew and a student at the Bunscoill, said he enjoys learning in Manx because it connects him to the island’s history. His classmate Toshiki felt differently. Toshiki does not plan to speak Manx after graduating and claimed that among friends, “most of the time we speak English, sometimes Manx.” While Toshiki’s lack of interest seems like a simple unwillingness to do work, it raises the question whether children can bear the burden of language preservation.

Instruction in Manx is available to adults as well. In 2004, Adrian Cain became the Manx Language Development Officer for the Manx Heritage Foundation. In addition to increasing the language’s profile through the press, Cain teaches language classes everyday. One problem Cain faces is that parents commit their children to learning Manx but do not commit themselves. “Passive support is all well and good, of which there’s a lot, but making the move to learning the language is a difficult one,” said Cain.

The dissemination of the language in modern culture also is important. Working to create a new body of Manx literature, Stowell translated Alice in Wonderland into Manx and wrote a full-length Manx novel, Dunveryssyn yn Tooder-Folley, or The Vampire Murders. He is currently writing his memoirs in Manx. Every Sunday, Stowell discusses Manx history and current affairs on Manx Radio. Among other radio programs offered in Manx are weather reports and music broadcasts. Manx even has an outlet in television; British cartoons are dubbed in Manx and then sold on DVD. “I think the DVDs are going to sell horribly,” said Merrill. “That’s not the point. The point is just to produce media that is Manx … and lessen the complete monopoly that British culture has over the island.”

As Merrill watched the modern resurrection unfold, he asked, “Why would you want to save a language? It’s a really interesting question because there are a lot of benefits to everybody speaking the same language: more communication, more peace. But I think that people embed a lot of culture in language and language embeds a whole way of thinking about the world.” For example, the concept of private property is difficult to express in Manx because it did not exist in Celtic culture. Merrill notes that one cannot ask, “Do you have a boat?” in Manx. Possession translates to, “Is there a boat at you?” To many, a way of viewing the world is itself worth preserving. This is no surprise considering the pride that the Manx take in their obscure culture.

Cain argues that learning Manx is important because it creates “a modern identity for the twenty-first century, which is inclusive.” He believes the language can serve as a “cultural reference point” for the population of the Isle of Man, even though 60 percent are not ethnically Manx. The language gives the Isle of Man significance apart from its tax-haven status, and appreciating Manx heritage connects people as much as a common language like English can. “For Manx, there is life after death,” said Cain. In this increasingly globalized world, few languages will have such fortune.

Jeffrey Dastin ’14 is in Saybrook College. Contact him at