“Proud 2 b irish!!!”: Minority languages and YouTube music video covers
Comparing digital conversations on identity, language, and pride
Kati Dlaske, University of Jyväskylä
YouTube contains innumerable amateur covers of popular songs, from teenagers strumming guitars in their bedrooms to garage bands in dive bars. Few covers, however, attract millions of views and glowing praise from the original artists. A few years ago, an Irish summer college posted a cover of Swedish DJ Avicii’s mega-hit “Wake Me Up” that became a global sensation itself. Notably, the cover was performed in the Irish language (Gaeilge), and soon became the language’s most-viewed YouTube video. As a sociolinguist interested in minoritised languages, I’ve been exploring how this emerging digital practice of posting music video covers in minority languages on YouTube shapes (and is shaped by) questions of national identity, language attitudes, and revitalization practices.
Access to new media spaces and genres can contribute to changing attitudes and emotions related to minoritised languages, often regarded as old fashioned and unglamorous. Music video covers on YouTube provide an example. Through its interactive character, by offering the possibility to comment on the videos, YouTube also opens up a window on the shifting emotional landscape around the languages. An investigation on two recent music video covers, performed in Irish and Sámi respectively, shows how the performances elicit a space around the two minoritised languages, filled with positive affects: enthusiasm, admiration, love, solidarity and pride. A closer look at the comments reveals how this apparently ‘happy’ space is cut through by divisions within and between ethno-linguistic communities, marked by scorn, anger and shame, and engendered in many cases by acts of ‘everyday nationalism’ linked to the colonial histories of Ireland and Finland.
Both Irish and the Sámi languages are minoritised languages from peripheralised sites. Although Irish is the first official language in the Republic of Ireland, it occupies rather a marginal position in many areas of everyday life, such as business and the media, where English is the dominant language. Sápmi, the domicile area of the indigenous Sámi people, stretches over the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and north-west Russia. Of the nine Sámi languages, three have the status of an official language in the part if the Sámi domicile area that is located within the borders of the Finnish nation state. Otherwise, Finland has two national languages, Finnish and Swedish. The most vibrant of the Sámi languages, Northern Sámi, is estimated to have around 30,000 speakers in total; other Sámi languages have only a couple of hundred speakers, and all nine languages are classified as endangered.
The historical trajectories of Sámi and Irish echo those of many other minoritised languages, involving deliberate marginalisation and stigmatisation on the part of the dominant nation states and, in the past few decades, attempts at language revitalisation, especially among young people. An analysis of the digital conversation surrounding music video “covers” in these two languages provides some interesting insights on these processes.
The video from the Irish context is entitled Avicii Vs Lurgan — “Wake me up” as Gaeilge. The video is a remake of the global mega hit Wake me up, by the Swedish DJ and producer Avicii. The Irish version is a joint production of teachers and students from Coláiste Lurgan, an independent, non-profit, but self-supporting, Irish language summer school in Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking region on the west coast of Ireland where many Irish teenagers spend a couple of weeks in the summer to improve their Irish. Producing Irish-language versions of globally popular pop songs and the related videos has for a few years been part of the course work and a way of learning Irish at Coláiste Lurgan. As such, the Avicii Vs Lurgan video is not unique.
What makes it special, however, is the (media) attention it gained and the huge popularity it achieved: the performance was praised by newspapers and online magazines, which also circulated the video through their websites; radio stations took the song on their playlists, not only in Ireland, but also in Australia and Canada; and part of the group starring on the video were invited to perform on the Late Late Show, broadcast on the national channel RTÉ1. The performance was noted even by Avicii himself, who linked the video on his Facebook page and posted ‘This one is so cool! I can’t understand a word but I love it’. After two months on YouTube the video had gathered two million views. Three years later the figure had risen close to five million and the video had attracted over 5,500 comments. While most of the comments are written in English, around 1,000 are in Irish or include some Irish, and a handful is written in other languages, such as Spanish, Russian and German.
The video from the Sámi context is a parodic remake of the popular song Missä muruseni on (‘Where is my sweetheart’) by Finnish pop singer Jenni Vartiainen. The cover video, Leivänmuruseni (‘My crumb of bread’) makes a humorous reference to the hardships associated with the traditional Sámi way of life. The video was uploaded on YouTube in autumn 2011 as a teaser for the TV comedy show Märät säpikkäät/Njuoska bittut conceived, co-written and presented by two young Sámi women, Suvi West and Kirste Aikio. The series was the first ‘Sámi comedy show’ shown prime time on national Finnish TV, and as such, widely noticed and promoted by newspapers and weeklies. The video appeared in the first episode of the show as the first part of a series of similar parodic music video covers. Over the first four years on YouTube the video had gathered around 320 000 views and 230 comments, written mostly in Finnish, with a few short ones in Sámi and English, and one in Spanish.
My analysis of these YouTube comments revealed a number of broader themes of ‘affective investment,’ or emotional engagement, relating to the content and language of the videos. These themes include 1) the performances themselves 2) Irishness and Sáminess as ethnic/national categories 3) and the Irish and Sámi languages. These comments can shed light on how speakers of these languages (and others) interpret the connection between language and identity.
A primary theme, as might be expected, is the quality of the performancs themselves. The vast majority of comments on both the Sámi and the Irish performance are positive in tone. While the Sámi video attracted expressions of approval, at times even high praise
Really good, I liked;)
This is damn great!
in the Irish context the posting create an atmosphere of overwhelming enthusiasm and excitement:
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Is aoibheann liom ea!!!!!!!!!!! (I love it).
A striking feature of the Irish context is that not only are most of the comments overwhelmingly positive towards the performance, but the few negative ones are quickly ‘policed down’. The following exchange gives an example, pointing also to the nationalist underpinnings of this construction of the ‘happy space’; in other words: if you are Irish, you like the performance.
Good songs should not be mutilated by changing the language. It does nothing but take away from the great work of the original artist. But if people want to ruin songs, fine I just wont listen.
You musnt be irish. Stop whining and just fuck off and dont watch this you fucking twat.
Irishness and Sáminess as ethnic/national categories
A second category of discussion addresses the commenters’ perceptions of their own “Irishness” or “Sáminess” , however, In over 250 comments in the Irish context, the nationalist underpinnings receive an explicit and positively-laden expression:
proud to be irish :D
bródúil as a bheith Gaeilge!❤❤❤❤.
If Irish people usually identify positively with Irishness, this is more than positive identification; it is pride gone viral. What seems to have happened here is what one of the commentators urged: ”Keep listening to it and spread the word about it brings out the Irish in us all :) ”. Thus we can also read exchanges of the following kind:
As an Irish American I can say this make so proud to be Irish. Simply amazing
as an irishman i can say you’re not Irish you have nothing to be proud of except mcdonalds
Other more or less subtle acts of legitimating oneself and excluding others not considered to be ‘Irish enough’ include:
Proud to have Irish blood!
Makes me proud to be irish🍀✌🙋 And yes I was born, raised and still live in Belfast, Ireland🍀✌Im not an american who thinks they are half irish because their aunties cousins goldfish nextdoor neighbour was a quater irish :/”
Such comments attempt to demarcate the ‘right to pride.’ Other exchanges, embody features of hate speech, work on another front, drawing divisions between the Irish and the English or the English-minded ‘West Brits’:
1200 West Brits dont like this? Who gives a fuck….
Fuck Those danm cock sucking pride shitting brits.
In the Sámi/Finnish context, the category of ethnicity is far less pronounced. Here, one commentator belonging presumably to the majority Finns wishes that “the Sámi finally could be proud of their cultural heritage”.
The Irish and Sámi languages
In both contexts, the performances triggered an abundance of comments indicating positive feeling toward the two languages. The languages were often described as beautiful, awesome or amazing, along the lines of the following comment from the Irish context:
holy shit im embarrassed to say i didn’t even know this language existed! Sounds amazing.
In the Irish context, moreover, many profess their ‘love’ towards the language. In the Finnish context, on the other hand, a number of comments praising and advocating the Sámi language stem, instead of the Sámi, from the majority Finns opposing the position of Swedish in Finland:
Learning Sámi should be part of the all-round education in Finland… and not some fucking Swedish!.
In this strand of discussion, the ‘love’ for Sámi is inspired by ‘hatred’ of Swedish, and rather than uniting, it tears apart ‘in the name of love’.
In the Irish context, the ability to speak Irish makes a theme of emotional engagement in its own right, with many announcing something along the lines of
I’m proud to be able to speak fluently Irish and although I agree that not many people speak Irish.. We are still pushing through and more and more people are speaking the language …
While the expressions of pride, joy and solidarity forge ties of belonging among those (considering themselves as) able to speak Irish, at the same time they work to exclude those who cannot occupy this position. As a counterpart to the expressions of pride and joy we can find postings indicating shame, anger, sadness, jealousy, and the wish to be fluent:
I am Irish but am ashamed to say I don’t understand a word of this but i still love it….
On their other side the less fluent ones find sarcastic and dismissive remarks:
I love how the most of you ‘Irish’ are commenting in English.
I am good? Sorry dude you failed. Tá go maith, “Its good” or Is maith liom ar “I like this”
What connects these different expressions is that they all reproduce the normative division between fluent and non-fluent speakers, hinging on the old nationalist ideology that maps language on nationality.
Taken together, these two cases show how music video covers in the social media can positively influence attitudes and emotions related to minority languages, their speakers, and the associated ethnicities/nationalities. At the same time, they demonstrate how these kind of performances, put on the platform of the social media, might also propel the reproduction of everyday nationalism and social divisions.
For more information on this and related topics, please see the following papers:
Dlaske, Kati (forthcoming 2017). Music video covers, minoritised languages and affective investments in the space of YouTube. Language in Society 46 (4). Preprint available here.
Dlaske, Kati (2016). Way better than the original!! Music video covers and language revitalisation: A sociosemiotic view. Apples — Journal of Applied Language Studies 10 (2): 83−103. Available at: http://apples.jyu.fi/article/abstract/466
Kati Dlaske is a post-doctoral researcher at ReCLaS, Research Collegium for Language in Changing Society, at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. In this capacity, besides watching YouTube videos, she is mostly reading, thinking and writing about language(s), power(s) and social change, especially in the realm of popular media culture. More about Kati and her work is available here: https://www.jyu.fi/hytk/fi/laitokset/kivi/henkilosto/henkilosto/kati-dlaske