How Language Can Influence the Course of History

Those of you interested in the Taiwanese language and Taiwanese culture might find the following quite interesting:

St. Patrick's Day and Taiwan
- by Joel H. Linton

Today is St. Patrick's Day 2006. It celebrates a modern nation that almost did not come to existence one hundred years ago. You see, Ireland had been absorbed by the British Empire for a long time. An alien language, English, had been forced on the inhabitants, and the Irish speakers had been ostracized as "country bumpkins" and penalized when they spoke their native mother tongue. In the British Empire's attempt to solidify its grip on the island nation of Ireland, they tried to remove any respect for the cultural and linguistic elements that made the Irish distinct from the English. Many will see the similarity to what the Japanese and KMT regimes tried to do in Taiwan beginning in 1895 through 1987.

By the late 1800's there was a question whether Ireland would forever be absorbed by the British empire and her native tongue would be silenced forever. It had already lost the majority of its population to emmigration. The economic depression that was partly due to the Empire's policies toward Ireland and partly due to the Irish potato famine caused huge numbers to flee to the United States and make a new life there.

What would bring Ireland back from the brink of oblivion?

"The most important move towards revitalizing nationalism [in Ireland] came, ironically, not through the groups formed for strictly political reasons. One evening in 1893, seven men met in a small room in Dublin. They were all [Irish] Gaelic scholars with mutual concern to preserve the language. To this end they decided to form a cultural society which was to be called the Gaelic League. The two leading lights of the society, Eoin MacNeill and Douglas Hyde, could not have forseen the enormous implications of the movement which, as well as preserving Ireland's cultural heritage, was destined to become the most important source of inspiration in the Irish fight for independence." (p. 124)

They had their own paper, the GAELIC JOURNAL, which carried stories in both English and modern Irish. One of its sections gave lessons in basic Irish. That might not seem to be much. But it steadily became popular to be able to speak Irish. The Gaelic League had branches also among the emmigrant populations in other countries, including the U.S. People began to unite around being "Irish".

"The Gaelic League was giving the country an identity, a difference which justified her becoming independent." (p. 124)

There was another group that had been established close to the same time. In 1884, some men founded the Gaelic Athletic Association, to protect and promote traditional Irish games which were in danger of being lost due to the introduction and promotion of English sports.

"So, by the end of the nineteenth century, there were two powerful groups, one intellectual, the other athletic, with a highly developed awareness of being Irish. Meanwhile, in the Parliament [of the British Empire] they were pursuing a policy of "Killing Home Rule by Kindness," by introducing liberal reforms in Ireland." (p. 126)

(Now does this not sound familiar to any of you who look at the later years of the KMT military dictatorship under Chiang Ching-Guo or the current attitude some of the time coming out of communist China?)

This included a land reform act in 1903 that caused tenant farmers to be able to purchase land on easy terms.

Although finally in around 1914, when Britain was getting into World War I, there was a "Home Rule Bill" going through Parliament, the Irish nationalists began to recruit and train an army secretly. They took over the General Post Office in Dublin and put up a banner proclaiming The Irish Republic with a new flag.

The push for independence did not result in a war for independence, but the presence of their own army committed to the Irish cause undoubtedly gave them the courage to declare independence.

Military strength may not lead to war, but to a prevention of war. The foreign army will decide not to invade. And the new nation will have the confidence of the people to break free, and take responsibility for itself and finally declare formal independence.

It is no surprise that those wanting to force unification with China would seek to and continually block the ability for Taiwan to build up its military strength.

Three things to put in place: Linguistic Respect. Cultural Respect. and Self Defense Respect. In this sad day and age, military strength is a necessary part of deterrence of aggressive neighbors. You must be ready for war to prevent war from even starting.

If Taiwan had these three, they would feel free to declare once and for all formal independence, and not fear that China would try to invade. Although Taiwan is independent now and has its own military, that military strength is steadily eroding.

Taiwan has the money. They could upgrade their military. But Taiwan does not yet have the will. That will comes from a cultural transformation to respect for being Taiwanese, whether descendents of the first inhabitants tribal groups, Hoklo, Hakka, or a recent immigrant Mandarin speakers.

Let St. Patrick's Day be a reminder to all of us to get working. Any suggestions? Did any of you catch a vision?

Funny how the color of Ireland is the color of Taiwan independence.

Please forward this letter to anyone whom you think would benefit from it. Also, maybe next St. Patrick's Day, we can convince either the government of Taiwan or high profile organizations, or academic institutions like NTU, NTNU, and Academia Sinica to invite high profile scholars from Ireland to come speak on this historic time in Irish History, --- the topic "How Ireland was able to become Free and Independent from the British Empire" That's one idea we could implement. Do you have any others?


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NOTE: the quotes above are from Your Irish Ancestors by J. Anderson Black, © 1974 Paddington Press Ltd. New York

For further reading on language's impact on nations, see: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler
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