Modernisation, Cultural Change and Language Attitudes: Tracking long-term shifts in Language Attitudes

Pádraig O Riagáin

University of Dublin, Trinity College, Ireland (Republic of)


The central claim of modernization theory is that socio-economic development is linked with coherent and relatively predictable changes in culture. Classic modernization theorists argued that religion and ethnic traditions would decline, and be replaced by ‘modern’ values. However, while cultural traditions have indeed changed, they have also proved to be remarkably persistent, and contemporary theories of modernization are more nuanced and qualified. Inglehart & Baker (2000), for example, argue that the empirical evidence "demonstrates both massive cultural changes and the persistence of distinctive traditional values….. Modernisation is probabilistic, not deterministic. Economic development tends to transform a given society in a predictable direction, but the process and path are not inevitable. Many factors are involved, so any prediction must be contingent on the historical and cultural context of the society in question”. (see also Inglehart & Welzel 2005)

This body of theoretical and empirical research provides the framework for an analysis of long term shifts in language attitudes in Ireland. Ireland offers a particularly good opportunity to explore the relationship between language attitudes and socio-economic development. First, it is possible to measure changes in language attitudes over a relatively long period, as comparable data have been collected in a series of national surveys since the mid-1960s. Secondly, in this period Ireland moved rapidly from a largely agrarian society, dominated by emigration and economic depression, into a belated period of industrialization and then, even more rapidly, into a post-industrial phase led by a massive growth in service employment. The question posed in the paper, then, concerns the impact of these socio-economic changes on public attitudes towards the lesser spoken of its two official state languages, Irish.

The paper proposes to examine changes in attitudes towards Irish between 1964 and 2004 in Ireland, and relate shifts in attitudes to socio-economic changes that occurred over the same period. Data will be drawn from national language surveys conducted in 1964, 1973, 1983, 1993, 2001 and 2004.


Inglehart, R. & W. E. Baker (2000) ‘Modernisation, cultural change, and the persistence of traditional values’, American Sociological Review, 2000, vol.65, 19-51

Inglehart, R. & C. Welzel (2005) Modernisation, Cultural Change and Democracy. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Session: Paper session
Attitude 2
Friday, April 4, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 09