The Taylor Institution Library is well known for its extensive research and teaching collections, which cover many major European languages, including French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Russian. However, if you spend time browsing the Taylor’s shelves, you might be surprised by sections of the collections dedicated to lesser-known languages.
I discovered one such section as I was procrastinating writing an essay on French literature during the final year of my undergraduate degree. My wanderings through the library took me to the Celtic section, located in the basement stacks. I picked my way through the shelves dedicated to Irish and Welsh for some time, until I landed on a section of works on Manx. This is the native language of the Isle of Man – called Gaelg or Gailck (pronounced “gilk”) by its speakers. As a speaker of this language and a resident of the Isle of Man, it was a joy for me to find this collection in my favourite library.
Unless you are a Celticist, or have an interest in endangered languages, it is likely that you have never heard of Manx. As its aforementioned autonym may suggest, this is a Gaelic language, closely related to Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and less closely related to the other Celtic languages – Welsh, Breton, and Cornish. Although Manx clearly derives from Old or Middle Irish, Manx is its own language, with its own associated history, literature, folklore, and music. Due to the influence of the Vikings, who settled extensively on Mann, a few modern Manx words are of Norse origin, e.g. skeeal (“story”).
As was the case with many smaller languages, the number of Manx speakers slowly declined, especially from the 19th century onwards, in this case in favour of English. Manx is often regarded to have “died” in 1974, with the death of the so-called “last native speaker”, Ned Maddrell. Although the situation was dire for Manx, a small number of enthusiasts kept the language alive by learning and teaching it, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Manx Language pre-school Mooinjer Veggey (“Little People” – a reference to a traditional Manx euphemism for the fairy folk) and the Manx-Language primary school (Bunscoill Ghaelgagh). By the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Manx language and culture revival movement had enjoyed some measure of success. As a result, according to the Isle of Man Government Census in 2011, around 1,800 people claimed to be able to speak, read, or write Manx, which amounts to around 2% of the Island’s population. This number has likely since increased. The language now has a stronger base amongst young people; Manx is present in the education system from ages 4-18, and it is often heard at cultural events.
The Taylorian’s collections hold a wealth of works on Manx, including books and journal articles on the language, its literature, and music, as well as language-learning materials. Readers can also access CDs, including the Manx Language Archive Recordings, which consist of recordings of elderly native speakers made in the mid-20th century. These recordings, made by researchers from the Irish Folklore Commission, are immensely important for linguists to know what the language sounded like prior to its revival.
If you can brave Manx’s slightly odd spelling, the Taylorian has all the resources you need to learn to speak a little of the language yourself. Harrison’s Manx Words gives examples of frequently-used vocabulary, while Cain’s Manx Phrases will help with the “please”s and “thank you”s. Stowell’s comprehensive Y Coorse Mooar (“The Big Course”) guides the reader through the language and provides learning exercises to test knowledge. For the more linguistically-minded, Draskau’s Practical Manx is an up-to-date guide to the rules of the language, complete with examples of attested and correct usage. Every language-learner will need to use a dictionary at some stage, and the Taylorian’s collection holds both Fargher’s English-Manx Dictionary and Cregeen’s Manx-English Dictionary, as well as Kneen’s English-Manx Pronouncing Dictionary; all essential tools for the solo language-learner.
Those interested in the academic study of the language may also wish to read the work of early scholars, such as Sir John Rhys, who wrote extensively on the philology of the Celtic languages. Rhys, the first Professor of Celtic at the University of Oxford, was one of the first academics to devote serious study to the Manx language. His 1894 work, The Outlines of the Phonology of Manx Gaelic, remains an incredibly important contribution to the field. In addition, Thomson’s The Study of Manx Gaelic and Outline of Manx Language and Literature are both key texts in Manx studies. As modern speakers and researchers we owe much to the works of these two men.
For a historical overview of Manx, Stowell’s A Short History of the Manx Language is also invaluable. Broderick’s Handbook of Late Spoken Manx is an exhaustive resource focussing on how the language was used by speakers in the 19th and 20th centuries, just prior to its “death”. Broderick’s Language Death in the Isle of Man charts the changes that the language went through during its decline, as well as discussing some of the economic and social factors that led to this decline.
The linguistic study of Manx as it is spoken in the 21st century is a small but growing field. A number of articles have been written on the subject, all of which are well worth a read. For example, Wilson, Johnson, and Sallabank’s ‘I’m not dead yet’: a comparative study of indigenous language revitalization in the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey discusses how the Manx language has been and is being revived in the Isle of Man, and how its situation compares to that of the native Norman French of Jersey and Guernsey. Lewin’s Scholarship and Language Revival: Language Ideologies in Corpus Development for Revived Manx deals with issues of language ideology in modern Manx, and Ó hIfearnáin’s Sociolinguistic Vitality of Manx after Extreme Language Shift focusses on the effects of the sociology of Manx’s environment on the language.
The Taylorian also holds works on the Manx language expressed through the arts. Carswell’s Mannanan’s Cloak: An Anthology of Manx Literature is a good place to start a foray into the literary works in the language. Faragher’s Skeealyn ‘sy Ghailck (“Stories in Manx”), a collection of short traditional stories in the language, is also worth a look. Much of the reading material produced in modern Manx consists of translations of works in Irish or English, such as Kemmyrkagh (“Refugee”), a Manx translation of Pól Ó Muirí’s Irish-language novel, Teifeach. The book tells the story of Marika, a young Bosnian woman living with her daughter in a village in rural Ireland. Manx also has a rich musical history, a sample of which is given in Moore’s Manx Ballads and Music.
We can also find works on Manx folklore and history in the Taylorian’s collections. Examples of the former include Sir John Rhys’ Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, as well as Moore’s The Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man. For the latter, Kelly’s New Manx Worthies contains biographies of notable historical Manxmen and -women. MacQuarrie and Nagy’s The Medieval cultures of the Irish Sea and the North Sea: Manannán and his neighbors also looks at the interconnected history of the Isle of Man and surrounding areas in the Middle Ages. Finally, Broderick’s A Dictionary of Manx Place-Names and Kneen’s The Personal Names of the Isle of Man are useful for anyone interested in the onomastics of Manx.
Anyone who is interested in learning more about the resources on Manx available in the Bodleian Libraries and wider Oxford collections should consult the LibGuide page for Celtic, maintained by the Celtic Subject Librarian, Janet Foot. Here you can also find links to language-learning websites and online dictionaries, as well as further resources on many aspects of Manx Studies.
Gura mie eu as shiu lhiah! Thanks for reading!
Erin McNulty, Graduate Library Trainee (2019-20)