Linguistic mudes and new speakers of Irish

John Walsh and Bernadette O’Rourke


In this research ‘new speakers’ refer to people who use a certain language regularly but who are not traditional ‘native’ speakers of that language (see O’Rourke and Ramallo 2013; O’Rourke and Pujolar 2013; O’Rourke et al. 2015). They acquire the target language usually through bilingual or immersion education or through language revitalisation programmes or courses for adult learners. The concept of new speaker is based on a critique of longstanding linguistic categories used to describe people who frequently speak a language other than their ‘native’ language: ‘L2 speaker,’ ‘learner,’ ‘bilingual speaker’ etc. (see O’Rourke and Pujolar 2013). Instead of focussing on the perceived defects in such speakers’ speech, following O’Rourke et al. (2015) we argue in this paper that the concept of new speaker allows us better to understand the communicative order of late modernity with its wide variety of speakers and speech types. We also question the authority of the native speaker ideology, challenge its dominance within linguistics generally and problematise some of the long-established understandings of that discipline. In other sub-disciplines of linguistics and related strands this discussion has been going on for some time (see Davies 2003); it has been more recent in minority language research (see O’Rourke and Ramallo 2011).

In this essay one aspect of the experiences of new speakers of Irish is analysed, the concept known as linguistic mudes. In critical Catalan sociolinguistics, muda (mudes in the plural, meaning change or transformation) is used to refer to those critical junctures in a speaker’s lifetime when he or she decides to give Catalan a more active role and when his or her language practices change considerably. We apply the concept of muda to a section of new speakers of Irish: active speakers with high levels of linguistic competence who are often considered to be ‘experts’ (Piller 2002). Based on an ethnographic approach which prioritises the speaker’s own narrative, various mudes during the speaker’s lifecycle are identified and the social processes surrounding the linguistic change are analysed. Drawing on critiques of the native speaker concept, we argue that factors such as personal choice or the speaker’s motivation are often more important than his or her linguistic background. By focussing on the linguistic mudes reported by new speakers of Irish, we can understand the new communicative order as a future-oriented flexible, vacillating and changeable phenomenon rather than a static, frozen and rigid state based on heritage only.

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© Comhar Teoranta, 2020.
ISSN: 2009-8626