Manx: How a Unique Island Got Its Voice Back

Young pupils pick up the torch at the Bunscoill Ghaelgagh, Manx language immersion school, St. John's Isle of Man. (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)
Young pupils pick up the torch at the Bunscoill Ghaelgagh, Manx language immersion school, St. John’s, Isle of Man. (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)

By K. David Harrison

“Whichever way you throw me I will stand” declares a Manx motto. Its appropriateness is made clear in the revitalization of the island’s native tongue, something worth celebrating this weekend as UNESCO marks International Mother Language Day.

Over the centuries, the Isle of Man has stood as a refuge at the crossroads of the Celtic world, nearly equidistant from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, and with strong Gaelic cultural influences. Resilient Manxmen withstood waves of invaders, and assimilated diverse influences. For a time part of the Norse Kingdom of the Isles, then under English rule, the Isle of Man today is a self-governing British Crown dependency. With a population under 90,000, the island covers 221 square miles, or about the same size as Guam.

(Photo by Sisse Brimberg/National Geographic Creative)
Wildflowers color the coastline south of the port city of Peel, Isle of Man. (Photo by Sisse Brimberg/National Geographic Creative)

Throughout this turbulent history, the Manx language thrived, inspiring poets and storytellers. But then it faltered, and nearly vanished, in the late 20th century. After the 1974 passing of famous “last speaker” Ned Maddrell, Manx was declared extinct by some experts. But the islanders kept a secret. Despite Manx being stigmatized, children being forbidden from speaking it in school, and feelings of shame or inferiority among some speakers, the language endured in hearts and minds.

Linguist David Harrison listens to the recorded voice of “last speaker” of Manx Ned Maddrell, in the Manx museum. (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)
A welcome sign outside the school illustrates Manx's relationship with other Celtic languages and the fairly well known Gaelic "céad mile fáilte" meaning "a hundred thousand welcomes." (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)
A welcome sign outside the school illustrates Manx’s relationship with other Celtic languages and the fairly well known Gaelic “céad mile fáilte” meaning “a hundred thousand welcomes.” (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)

Manx dramatically awoke from near dormancy in the 1980s and ’90s with a generation of “new native speakers,” children who were raised by language-activist parents speaking only Manx in the home. These children were soon joined by many more, whose English-speaking parents sent them to an immersion school, to hear and speak Manx daily. Estimates of the current number of Manx speakers vary, but they seem to be hundreds strong, and growing.

Under National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project (2007-2013), I’ve been studying global language diversity and survival. This brief video documentary tells the story of Manx’s surprising survival, in the words of those who saved it.

In December 2014, with support from Viki.com, a site that encourages people to caption videos in minority languages, I visited the Isle of Man.

My goal was to interview Manx language warriors, and learn how they brought the language back from near extinction. Though Manx has not enjoyed the respect or visibility of its sister languages, a speaker of Manx can easily learn Scottish Gaelic or Irish.

The Comparative Celtic Lexicon, hosted at Swarthmore College, reveals Manx’s uniqueness, as well its strong similarity to sister Celtic tongues. For example, the word for “bird” is eean in Manx, eun in Scottish, evn in Breton, edhen in Cornish, and éan in Irish. The online lexicon, supported by National Geographic Society, contains nearly 2,000 soundfiles of words that sound similar across all six surviving Celtic tongues.

Manx’s remarkable comeback sets a hopeful example for language revival efforts worldwide. From Hawai’i, to Wales, to the Cherokee Nation, and many other places, language warriors are breathing new life into tongues once thought to be backwards, obsolete, or moribund. The Manx have led the way in creating apps, video subtitles, podcasts, e-books, and Culture Vannin’s Learn Manx website. Manx now speaks with a global voice, attracting learners as far away as Japan. As Manx activist Adrian Cain notes: “It never disappeared to us.”

Any idea what this sign from a classroom is teaching? For the clearest cognate with a list in English check out the fourth one down. Then count them all. Anything? Look at that fourth one again. Behold the months of the year in Manx. (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)
Any idea what this sign from a classroom is teaching? For the clearest cognate with a list in English check out the fourth one down. Then count them all. Anything? Look at that fourth one again. Behold the months of the year in Manx. (Photo courtesy K. David Harrison)

Learn More About Enduring Voices

Learn Manx From Culture Vannin

Changing Planet

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