The last native speaker of Manx, the indigenous language of the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, died in 1974 and in the 1990s UNESCO pronounced the language extinct, but as a piece on the BBC website this week shows, it is very much alive, and interest is growing. The BBC has several pages of articles written in Manx (see here).
In the mid-19th century many islanders were monolingual, speaking Manx only, but difficult economic conditions forced many inhabitants to travel to England to find work, and parents often avoided teaching their children Manx, feeling that it was not going to be of any economic use. Even nowadays on the island there are some long-time residents who feel that the Manx language is a sign of backwardness. And as recently as the 1960s Manx speakers would find themselves getting involved in brawls, such were the feelings the language evoked.
Manx is related to Scottish and Irish Gaelic. The island itself (sometimes called Mann, as well as the Isle of Man) has a very chequered history of conquest and invasion. A thousand years ago it was, along with the Hebrides, part of a Norse kingdom. In 1266 Mann was ceded to Scotland, only coming under English control in the early 15th century. The ‘Man’ of Isle of Man is not related to the English word ‘man’. It refers to an ancient sea god of Irish mythology, Manannan mac Lir.
The Isle of Man is a British Crown Dependency. It is not part of the United Kingdom, nor of the European Union. Its parliament, the Tynwald, founded by Viking raiders in AD979, lays claim to being the oldest continuous parliament in the world (the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, is older, but it has not sat continuously). Like the Althing, the Tynwald’s name comes from the Old Norse thing, meaning ‘assembly’.
See the BBC article on a Manx-language primary school, and hear children speaking the language here.