In any society its language is not only its voice, but also the carrier of the oral traditions, beliefs, humour, music -- all that truly distinquishes that culture from any other. Language binds the people together and separates them from their neighbors. Language is the means of transmission of the centuries-old repository of societal wisdom, much of which does not fully survive translation. Some concepts have no counterpart in an alien culture and are therefore lost. As the saying goes,
Translations are like women.
Gaelic can trace its history to the earliest branches of the Indo-European language tree. Its early speakers were called the Galli by the Romans, Galatoi or Keltoi by the Greeks. From the Greek Keltoi we get our word Celt, always pronounced with a hard C. (Leave the soft c sound for sportsteams). Old Celtic was a close linguistic cousin to Italic, which led to Latin and the later European languages. The early Celts spread from Gallatia to Britain. The first group to reach the British Isles sometimes before 1200 B.C.E. were the Goidelic (or "Q" Celtic) speakers whose descendants spoke Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx. A later wave of Celtic settlers were the Brythonic (or "P" Celtic) group, leading to the speakers of Breton, Welsh, and Cornish.
No language can survive solely on the tongues of the aged. There must be a viable population of native speakers, those who have learned the language from infancy, who remain within the culture to pass it to their children. Today, despite a world-wide resurgence of interest, there is little economic incentive to learn or use Gaelic.
Ireland is officially bi-lingual, but outside of civil servants and Gaelic teachers, there are no requirements to use Gaelic to get or hold a job. In the Hebrides of Scotland, the young people all too often seek their fortune on the non-Gaelic speaking mainland. Welsh has benefitted from state support and economic opportunities within the Welsh borders. Breton still survives in France, but Cornish became extinct in the 18th century, although there are attempts to resurrect it from manuscripts.
Manx, too, is "extinct in the wild." Its last native speaker, Edward Maddrell, died on 24 December, 1974. Manx was the first Indo-European language to die in this century, but hope still flickers for the Manx language. A dedicated few made recordings of those last native speakers, and have pushed for the creation of dictionaries, reading materials, and lessons. Manx also holds the distinction of being the only Gaelic language to use English phonetic spelling. But those of us who study a new tongue as adolescents or as adults will forever be handicapped by the accents. Some sounds can only be mastered in the sensitive period for language which ends at about age 18 months.
Can Gaelic survive in a world where no skill in it is required for personal or economic gain? That remains to be seen. Popular Celtic folk and rock music groups have found new audiences, especially amongst the young -- the ones most needed to keep Gaelic alive. Capercaille's Coisich, a Rùin made it to Britain's Top 40 Pop Chart -- not bad for a 400 year old Gaelic waulking song.