lifestyle musings

“There’s a dog in me”: the curious native language of the Isle of Man

One of the most interesting languages on the planet, the Manx, is making a comeback at the Isle of Man.

According to the Biblical Book of Genesis, the Babylonians wanted to make a name for themselves by building a mighty city and the first skyscraper, the Tower of Babel, “with its top in the heavens.”

God disrupted the work by so confusing the language of the builders that they could no longer understand one another.

The Tower was never completed and the workers were dispersed over the face of the Earth, probably unpaid. Demanding outstanding wages is pretty tough when you don’t know which of those 6500+ languages your boss speaks.

The International Languages Festival of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom seems to regularly revive the Biblical Babel: during the Festival anyone can learn the rudiments of 150 different languages for the modest amount of £ 2. From Mandarin to Mongolian, Cherokee to Chichewa, Welsh to Gujarati, French to Finnish.

One of these languages is the Gaelic Manx – or simply Manx, the native tongue of the Isle of Man (or Mann), a self-governing British Crown dependency in the Irish Sea, between England and Ireland.

Originated from Celtic – a branch of Indo-European languages, such as Latin and Germanic -, Manx was the most widely spoken language on the island until the 19th century, when English industrial expansion took away the island from isolation.

In 1974, it remained as the mother tongue of only one inhabitant of the island. And since the death of the fisherman Ned Maddrell that year, it was not anymore.

The language was declared extinct in 2009 by the UNESCO in the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, but it’s steadily experiencing a revival. The 2016 census counted 1800 inhabitants of the island that could read, write or speak Manx.

Now things start to become interesting:

The language is full of contradictions and anomalies. Some of them reveal, at the same time, linguistic wealth and anachronism in relation to the rest of the West.

In Manx almost no subject pronouns are used (I, you, he, she, it, we, they).

The same treatment is given for the object pronouns (me, you, him, her, it, us, them).

The result is that without so many subject types, verbal declension has too little variation and it’s downright odd. And funny. With centuries of advantage over modern linguistics, the Manx had already deprived the individual of his role as the protagonist of language – and therefore of thought.

There are no verbs “to have” or “to know” – two pillars of tongues (and life) in the West!

In the language of the island, they are unnecessary. If a Manx speaker, bothered by the barking of an unknown dog, asks the neighbor next door:

“Do you have a dog?”

He’ll say: Vel moddey ayd? : Is there a dog in you?

To which the annoyed neighbor will respond: Ta moddey aym – “There is a dog in me.” 

In Manx, the protagonist is the object. For instance,  “I’m hungry” does not exist. In Manx we say Ta accrys orrym – “There is hunger in me.” or “I am angry” is Ta coree orrym“There is anger in me.” “I know this” is Ta fys aym er– “There is knowledge in me about it.”

The Manx recalls some fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. In the island language, for example, there is no way to simply answer “yes” or “no” to simple questions. So who asks, “Did you give him money?” Says Dug og argid da? “Have you moneyed him?” And you need the verb to understand the answer:  A positive reply is  Hug : “I moneyed him”, a negative reply is Cha dug: “I didn’t money him”.

Curious is also the count, in multiples of twenty. Something like the French “quatre-vingt” (four twenties), but more complicated: “Five” is queig; “Ten” is jeih; “Fifteen” is queig-jeig; “Twenty” is feed. But how to say, in Manx, “fifteen men”? Queig deiney jeig – “five men ten”. “Thirty-five men”? Queig deiney jeig the feed – “five men ten and twenty”. “Ninety-five men”? Kiare feed dooiney the queig-jeig – “four twenty men and fifteen”.

Tired of trying to understand? I am. But the way it bends your mind is really fascinating. Words change the way we think, so how’s to be a native of the Isle of Man? How do they understand the world? Do we share the same views? And finally: How objective is the reality?

In Manx,  “I love you” – Ta graih aym ort is “There is love in me for you.” Few people think of love like this, but everybody easily understands its meaning. No matter how high the Tower of Babel is, some things will never change.


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