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How social media breathes life into the Irish language | Teresa Lynn | TEDxFulbrightDublin


Translator: Lorcan Walsh
Reviewer: Denise RQ Ireland – a land of myths and legends. Here in Ireland, we love telling stories. Legends such as The Children of Lir
or The Salmon of Knowledge. Here’s another story:
the Irish language is dead. This same myth has been circulating
around the world for many minority languages. And this particular one about Irish,
or Gaelic as it’s known, started off somewhat as a rumor, something along the lines
of “Irish is a dying language”. And then some scaremongers
jumped on board. They thought this version
wasn’t sensational enough and that they’d turn it
into a real thriller. And this is the problem with storytelling. There’s a certain element
of poetic license involved. You can add in a character
here and there, maybe kill one off, and what happens is people latch
onto the new version of the story and it grows wings and travels fast. And this is why I’ve received
really strange reactions worldwide when I tell people my PhD studies were on technology for the Irish language; because this completely contradicts their beliefs of Irish being
a dead or a dying language. So many people
are caught up in old beliefs of what the Irish language is about. That it’s only associated with
older people in the west of Ireland. Only spoken by people living in
the Gaeltacht, or by language activists. And this is exactly the myth
that I am talking about. So when people cock
their heads sideways and say, “Irish language technology? But isn’t Irish a dead language?” I say, “No, it’s not,” and I tell them about how Irish has jumped onto
the social media bandwagon. That Irish speakers are online, on social media platforms
like Facebook and Twitter, and are being creative
and having fun with their language. That there’s been over
1 million tweets in Irish to date. Here’s a heat map of the Irish language activity
on Twitter in Ireland. So already we can put a stop to this myth
of it only being in the west of Ireland. And what about this map? These are Irish language conversations
on Twitter spanning across continents. And the same true story can be told for many minority languages
around the world. So now you might be considering
joining in with these conversations, but what if you’re nervous about
your writing standards in your language? Should you let that hold you back? Well, is doesn’t seem to hold people
back from tweeting in English, or French, or any other
language for that matter. And that’s the thing about social media: it’s social, and it’s relaxed. The spelling rules are relaxed.
Grammar rules are relaxed. You can shorten words.
Spell them phonetically. And this is often seen on Twitter,
where the current 140-character limit encourages people to be creative
and economical with their language. Which brings me to my research. So as a computational linguist, I’m interested in looking
a little more closely at languages with the help of computers. So last year,
while on a Fulbright research visit to St. Louis University, in the U.S., I worked with Professor Kevin Scannell. And together we looked
more closely at Irish tweets. We wanted to find out
just how Irish is being used online. So what did we do? Well, we took language processing tools that have been designed for use with
grammatical well-structured Irish text, and we tested them out on Irish tweets. And what we wanted to find out was
where these tools would fall over. What challenges would arise? Here’s an example of an Irish tweet that would pose problems
for such technology. This tweet is from an Irish
Gaelic football supporter, and it says, “an t-am seo an tseachtain seo chugainn, beidh tú Ag partyáil
Le muintir Ráth Daingin! Hope you’re not too scared
#upthevillage.” (Laughter) And what the Irish means is, “This time next week, you’ll be partying
with the people of Rathdangan.” So what’s going on here? Basically, people are having
fun with their language, they are being creative. Digits are being used
instead of words or parts of words. Commas dropped,
the verb ‘beidh’ is spelt b-e-i because dropping that ‘dh’ doesn’t actually affect
the pronunciation of the word. And a new word is made up: ‘partyáil’. ‘áil’ is the verbal noun ending in Irish. If you add this
to an English word as a root, you’ve got a new verbal form: partying. And of course,
there’s the language switching or code switching at the end. Now, this of course
is just one example tweet. But we did in fact do an analysis
of 1,500 Irish tweets to get a more comprehensive idea
of what’s actually going on. And what we’ve found is Irish is behaving
just like any other language online, and any other language
analyzed in this way. It’s evolving. Online usage is leading
to new linguistic trends emerging. It’s really important to note
that we’re not talking about a new Irish. We’re talking about
a new written variety of the language. It’s a version of Irish
that’s more accessible to a broader range of speakers
and in particular to learners. And a recent report shows
that the same patterns are emerging for our neighboring minority languages: Scots Gaelic, Ulster Scots, Manx,
Welsh, Cornish, and Jèrriais where established speakers and learners are coming together
and connecting socially online. And if you think about it, it makes sense. If you’re a speaker
of a minority language, maybe there’s nobody
in your family who speaks it, maybe your friends don’t speak it, or maybe you live hundreds,
possibly thousands of kilometers away from that nearest linguistic community. How do you connect with other speakers? Well, it’s simple. You just go online. You find a social media platform
that suits you better, and you start to engage with
the other linguistic community speakers. Be creative with your language,
have fun with it, and be proud of it. Finally, the website indigenoustweets.com provides statistics on minority languages
on Twitter, worldwide. Many of these languages
listed on this website are often referred to
as outdated or dying when in fact, the statistics tell
a completely different story. They show a reality
that debunks the myths. And this is where I feel that technology and minority languages
can go hand in hand. I strongly believe that technology
can be a huge contributing factor to the survival of minority languages, and in some cases, maybe even a revival. So what’s the moral of this story? Don’t believe every story that you hear because it may in fact be a legend. (Applause)

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