Spoken Manx - 1950

The following excerpts are taken from the Preface and Introduction to "Contributions to the Study of Manx Phonology by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson M.A., Litt.D., F.S.A.Scot. Professor of Celtic, University of Edinburgh Published for the University of Edinburgh by Thomas Nelson and Sons Limited Edinburgh London etc 1955. They are I think an accurate description of the state of late-spoken Manx in its final days.


When Sir John Rhys visited the Isle of Man in 1895 he reported that there were very few people left who habitually spoke Manx rather than English, and of these almost all were in or past the prime of life. The fishermen of Bradda and Rushen still talked Manx among themselves, and he thought the language was even more alive at Cregneish.1 The only Manx-speaking child he ever met belonged to a Cregneish family, the only one there which still spoke more Manx than English. In 1929, Marstrander wrote 2 that there was now no fluent speaker of Manx, though three or four people were pretty good and about thirty had some smatterings ; and in 1934 he stated that so far as he knew there was only one person left who could be described as a native speaker.3 The census returns from 1901 to 1921 appeared to confirm this gloomy view: in 1901, 4,419 speakers ; in 1911, 2,382 ; in 1921, 896. A graph made up on this basis would seem to strike bottom at some time in the late 'twenties, thus confirming Marstrander. But graphs of dying languages have a tendency to level out towards the end, as the last kernel of obstinate clingers-on to life is reached; and the 1931 census gave in fact no less than 529 speakers of Manx. How this figure was computed I do not know, and it may have been exaggerated, but prolonging our graph once more in accordance with this, it would now reach zero in about the middle 'fifties ; and in point of fact this suits the actual situation. Marstrander was mistaken. One man, a visitor to an island the size of this one, cannot really get to know whether there are not still living in remote hill farms some who remember yet the language of their childhood, even though they no longer habitually speak it. During the later 'thirties and the 'forties the new generation of young Manx enthusiasts began to comb the country-side in search of surviving speakers, and the consequence of their efforts was that in 1946 a Welsh visitor, Mr. A. S. B. Davies, using their discoveries, was able to announce the names and addresses of twenty people who had spoken Manx from infancy (Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, x11, 89 ff.). When I arrived just after Christmas 1950 there were still ten left, whose names, addresses, and ages were as follows :-



MRS. ELEANOR KARRAN, of Cregneish. About 80. She was my chief source, with whom I worked right through the questionnaire.

MR. THOMAS KARRAN, her brother, now of 30 Peel Street, Douglas. About 75. I had no opportunity of using him.

MR. NED MADDRELL, of Glenchass, near Cregneish. Aged 72. .. He learned his Manx when he went at the age of five to live with an aunt who knew no English.

MRS. WATTERSON, of Colby, Aged 91.

MR. THOMAS LEECE, of Kerroomooar, Rushen. Aged 91. A very good speaker, from whom I got some valuable material. He remembered an old woman living next door about 80 years ago who spoke no English.

MR. and MRS. KINVIG, of Garree Hollin, Ronague. Aged about 90 and 80. Mrs. Kinvig can read Manx. I was unable to visit them at all.


MR. HARRY BOYDE, of Ballaugh, now in the Infirmary, Douglas. Aged 82. Blind. Another very good speaker, who was most useful.

MR. JOHN KNEEN, of Ballaugh. Aged 97.

MR. JOHN Tom KAIGRIN, of Ballagarrett, Kirk Bride. Aged 89. Blind.

[I regret to say that Mrs. Karran, Mrs. Watterson, Mr. Boyde, and Mr. Kinvig have since died.]

Some of the above are a good deal more fluent than others, but all have long ceased to use Manx as their daily medium of intercourse, mostly for many years, though the efforts of the new generation of Manx students have caused them to rub some of the rust off more recently. Hence they frequently forget, especially since in addition they are almost all very old, and it was often impossible therefore for me to get anything like all the words and phrases I asked for. Thus some would often know a singular but not its plural, and so on, and would be unable to give the Manx for the commonest things. In addition it is probable that their Manx pronunciations have been considerably influenced by English, as is only to be expected now that Manx is no longer used in daily conversation, and is only more or less dimly remembered by a handful of people who have regularly spoken nothing but English for years. This appears to account for one aspect of the treatment of r-sounds, and may also explain a number of other features in the speech of these people which appear un-Gaelic. The uncorrupted fluent Manx which was still available to Marstrander exists no longer in its purity.

Some previous writers, such as Rhys, claim to have noted certain features of dialect difference between North Side and South Side, and some of these are clearly based on popular tradition going back to a time when solid blocks of Manx speakers, divided by the mountain massif of the centre, made such differentiation easy. Nowadays it is no longer possible to trace divergences of this sort, and such generalizations break down when tested by the actual pronunciations of the surviving speakers.

Very little has been published previously on the phonology of Manx. Sir John Rhys was the pioneer, with his " Outlines of the Phonology of Manx Gaelic ", the appendix to The Book of Common Prayer in Manx Gaelic, edited by himself and A. W. Moore (London, 1894). This gives a good deal of information, but it is not always very intelligible, and in some cases one suspects his accuracy. Another early source is J. Strachan's transcription of the Manx love-song " Ec ny Fidleyryn ", in Zeitschrift fur Celtische Philologie, 1, 54 ff., taken down at Bradda in 1883. Next comes J. J. Kneen's The Place Names of the Isle of Man (Douglas, 1925-9) ; A Grammar of the Manx Language (Oxford, 1931) ; and " Mona's Herald " English-Manx Pronouncing Dictionary (Douglas, 1938). In the first two Kneen made use of phonetic symbols of the usually accepted types, but it is doubtful whether he fully understood them [examples omitted]. In both books, of course, the amount of phonetic material is very small ; his treatment of the language in the Grammar is marred by antiquarianism, since he endeavoured to set up archaic standards influenced by Irish and Scottish Gaelic and having no relation to the living language. The Dictionary has a much fuller coverage as regards pronunciation, though Kneen abandoned strict phonetic notation and used a system based on English spelling ; nevertheless within these limitations this is the most reliable of the three for pronunciation, if properly interpreted. It is notable that Kneen seemed to have changed his mind about some points by this time, for instance he now has nothing corresponding to ü. Much the best of all works on Manx phonology, coming as it does from a Celtic scholar who had close contacts with excellent Manx speakers, and understood fully the use of phonetics, is the brief description in C. Marstrander's " Det Norske Landnåm på Man " (Norsk Tidsskrift for Sprogvidenskap, vi, 1932, pp. 40 ff.), pp. 52-75. This is referred to here by the abbreviation NT. Unfortunately it is limited in scope, and the transcription is a broad one, often much too broad ; besides, the article is in Norwegian, and the comparisons are chiefly with Norwegian phonemes, which restricts its usefulness. His sources were better speakers than any who now survive. See further his " Remarks on the Place Names of the Isle of Man ", a criticism of Kneen's " Place Names " in Norsk Tidsskrift for Sprogvidenskap, vii, 285 ff. Being a review, it is very limited, but so far as it goes it is valuable. There is also " Manx Gaelic Sentence Structure " by F. J. Carmody, in the University of California's Publications in Linguistics, vol. 1, No. 8, pp. 297 ff. (1947). This has some introductory remarks on phonetics, and some short phonetic textual material, of uncertain value. Carmody's only source at this time was a woman living in California who had learnt the language in Manx classes ; and in fact some of her pronunciations as reported are impossible, some being spurious spelling-pronunciations ... This, and an imperfect acquaintance with the history of the Gaelic languages, makes this article not of great use for present purposes. 4

I have made few quotations from these sources in this book, though I have constantly consulted them for my own information, since my intention is simply to set out the phonology of present-day Manx as I heard it and to trace its history, not to enter into discussions which, in view of the nature of much of the material just described, would be largely fruitless. Kneen's Dictionary is the most often quoted, though I have had to interpret his phonetics. Apart from a brief general introductory note on the sounds actually met with in Manx, the body of this work is set out from the point of view of historical phonology. Various approaches are possible, naturally, but here the interest is concentrated on answering the question, " How did such-and-such an original Gaelic sound develop in the Manx branch ? " For this purpose I start from " Common Gaelic ", i.e. that stage of the Goedelic branch of the Celtic languages immediately preceding its break-up into Irish, Scottish, and Manx Gaelic, while they were still one undifferentiated speech , which, as I have shown elsewhere,' is to be dated in the main about the thirteenth century 5

1 In this he must have been correct, since the closest concentration of speakers at the present day is still at and near Cregneish.

2 See Revue Celtique, XLVII, 248.

3 Norsk Tideskriff, vii, 212.

4 Recently, while the present book was already in proof, Mr. Carmody has published some of the phonetic material he collected in Man in 1949 : " Spoken Manx," Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie, xxiv (1953), 58-80. His sources this time were the true native speakers ... and he gives some interesting biographical details. Of the two general comments made above, one therefore no longer applies to this article. There is no room here to discuss the results, but it may be remarked that if I understand the phonetic system used, the process of recalling their half-forgotten Manx which we both note among our speakers must have continued at an accelerated pace between July 1949 and New Year 1950-.

5 British Academy Rhys Lecture for 1951.


DURING the Christmas vacation of 1950-1 I spent some time in the Isle of Man studying the phonology of the Gaelic of the island, under the auspices of the Linguistic Survey of Scotland. Though Man is not part of Scotland, the Manx language is so closely linked to Scottish Gaelic that it may be regarded as an early offshoot of it ; or more properly, the two are really comparatively recently formed dialects of a common Eastern Gaelic ancestor. Hence the great importance of Manx for any historical study of Scottish Gaelic, and the interest of the Linguistic Survey in it. The following notes are the result of the visit. I took with me a questionnaire already prepared to cover the phonology of Manx from a historical point of view, but circumstances prevented my collecting information quite as complete as I could have wished (hence the qualified title of this book). Some of the words and forms in the questionnaire were not known to my informants ; for instance, where a genitive was included to illustrate attenuation, they could very rarely give anything but the nominative. Only two speakers had any real fund of continuous narrative material, in the form of little anecdotes or verses ; and the inaccessibility of their homes, the number of distracting casual visitors present, and the fact that of the two one is blind and the other very old, made in their case an insuperable barrier to the accurate recording of phonetic texts other than single words and brief phrases. Unluckily the youngest and much the most fluent and alert of the surviving speakers, Mr. Maddrell, was in hospital until the last day of my stay, when I got some very valuable material from him.

In spite of these difficulties, I was able to make use of seven of the ten remaining native speakers of Manx, and to get quite enough matter recorded in phonetic script to constitute a pretty complete picture of the outlines of the phonology of present-day spoken Manx.

I wish to thank most warmly my friends in the Isle of Man ... Also to the small but devoted band of students of Manx who most generously spent their time in conducting me to the houses of native speakers and introducing me to them, helping me in talking with them, and giving me the benefit of their knowledge of the language ; in particular, Messrs. W. Ratcliffe of Ramsey, J. Gell of Port St. Mary, L. Quirk of Peel, and C. Clark of Douglas. If I did not use their own pronunciations for the purpose of this phonetic study, I am sure they will understand that this was because in a work of this sort it is essential to use only the " native speaker ", i.e. those who have been Manx-speakers since childhood. One who has learned another language in maturity can never quite replace the native speaker in this respect, however well he has done it.... Above all, of course I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the native speakers themselves, that tiny company of guardians of the last remnants of the Manx language, once chengey ny mayrey Ellan Vannin, soon to be so no more.

 Manx Note Book   [History Index]


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2000