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Historical linguistic evidence: beyond the place-names

Historical language change cannot be observed in vivo, and evidence must be sought through contextual analyses of historical linguistic records, however sparse, partial and distant they may be. Whatever evidence exists for the survival of Manx Gaelic needs to be examined in the context of historical sociolinguistics, the discipline that negotiates between historical linguistics (concerned with language change through time) and sociolinguistics (concerned with language use in the social context), using methods that examine the relationship between historical language evidence and the social circumstances in which the evidence was produced.

When speakers of two or more languages come into contact simply by dint of circumstance, the speakers of one language can, and often will, influence the others’ linguistic behaviours and thus establishing ‘language contact’ and resulting in contact-induced language change. Such were the conditions subsisting in medieval Man, at least for some if not all of the Norse period. Language change can appear in the adoption of new lexis (new words for new things or as new words replacing native terms for existing things), as changes in the phonology and morphology of a language (different sounds and patterns of sounds being brought from one language to another), and as grammatical changes (where grammatical forms and structures change). Each of these types of language change can be interpreted for their social circumstances.27

The presence of loanwords in a language and indeed all of the indicators of contact induced language change are symptomatic rather than causal, and there are two governing principles that we must take into account when analysing this kind of language ‘interference’: (i) loanwords are neither arbitrary nor serendipitous and (ii) loanwords are used by speakers of both languages involved.

The first principle is that loanwords appear not from some arbitrary, artificial, or idiosyncratic motivation on the part of a speaker to choose one particular word over another. Neither are they necessarily ornamental or serendipitous. Rather, they are indicative of social processes enacted through language behaviour, and they arise from sociolinguistic need under specific conditions. They have a role and a purpose, and they begin their immigrant lives in an adopting language at the point at which people who speak different languages come into contact, when speakers of the borrowing language need to use the non-native foreign term. The simplest of such circumstances might be that the term refers to a new or previously unknown object or unfamiliar activity or behaviour, or a term might be borrowed because of a need for trade with other-language-speakers, where there is a need to adopt agreed usage for mutual understanding, such as might be supposed for people such as merchants and traders.

But the cause may not only be utilitarian. If the terminology' is associated with social status or power, other social factors might influence choice in lexis, such as might be necessary or appropriate for specific social domains where the borrowed terms are accorded importance over local equivalents, or for which there are no local equivalents. Non-native lexis might also be called into service as a code of belonging for in-group identity. Importantly, in such circumstances, asymmetries of occupation can play out in linguistic behaviours. People who mix with the powerful need to learn the linguistic behaviours of the powerful in order to engage with them. If local (i.e. native Gaelic) speakers need to associate with an authoritative Norse-speaking group, then there is a chance lexis choice will follow that need.

Significant evidence suggests that social status loanwords from Old Norse in Old and Middle Irish may be viewed as indicators of shared Hiberno-Norse authority and power in Norse centres in Ireland, over time.28 As discussed below, ecclesiastical Norse loanwords in Manx Gaelic may be viewed similarly. These are indicative of Norse-sponsored church hierarchy, where the adoption of suitable loanwords is a possible marker of a Gaelic speaker’s association therewith. Power asymmetries can occur on a number of axes: they can be political, they can be religious, and they can be economic, and in any situation where specific social and cultural values are established, and where authority of one sort or another is maintained, asymmetries and linguistic specificities may arise.

The second principle, as noted above, is that the borrowing of loanwords necessarily occurs with the involvement of speakers of both languages. For example, the well attested loanwords related to shipping and maritime activities in Scottish Gaelic are indicators not only of the presence of maritime-skilled medieval Scandinavian people involved in the activities to which the words refer, but also the involvement of Gaelic speakers.29 Certainly, Norse-speaking people brought significant maritime expertise wherever they went, but the linguistic processes implicated in contact-induced language change emphasise the importance of both language speakers being involved in the activities to which the words relate.30 Gaelic speakers, in the process of adopting the loanwords, have to have been involved in the activities to which the words refer. Moreover, the process has to be understood as more complex when considered in both temporal and geographic terms. There is no basis for assuming that the Gaelic speakers adopting the Norse loanwords need to have been native Gaelic speakers; they could just as well have been Scandinavian in descent and bilingual with Gaelic their second language. The mixing of languages certainly implicates a role for bilingualism and, particularly in those domains where there are concentrations of loanwords, there is a higher likelihood of functional bilingualism. ’1

Moreover, where Scandinavians settled and became locals, as is assumed for many of the areas to which the medieval Scandinavians travelled, ensuing generations of families of mixed parentage can have been instrumental in affording subsequent generations the necessary conditions for mixed culture and mixed language use. Christopher Lewin notes that, based on historical and archaeological evidence, the social conditions on the Isle of Man were such that the population were likely to have been living in ‘small, tight-knit, isolated speech communities’ during the Norse period.32 Lewin also notes that when conditions favour stable longer-term language contact, whether asymmetrical or not, a possible means for Norse influence is through native-speaking families, where children become bilingual even if the adult native speakers do not. The domestic scene is evidently an important locus for Norse linguistic influence on Gaelic. Lewin, whose work is compatible with either the extinction or survival hypotheses, nevertheless is of the view that 'the relative fertility of the island would have supported a fairly dense

(though evenly dispersed) population’. He also considers that there is unlikely to have been social pressure to switch to Norse, and that more likely there would have been ‘a period of bilingualism and population mixing, ultimately with Gaelic winning out as the more widely spoken and useful language in the Irish Sea and Hebridean world’.33

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