Mind your language

Welsh is the only language on the planet that gets attacked simply for existing. Two odious Tories who make a living picking on the weak and bootlicking the powerful, Jeremy Clarkson and Roger Lewis, are the latest in a long litany to express this deep-seated animosity, proudly parading their profound stupidity recently via rightwing London rags The Sun and The Spectator. Objecting to a language is so obviously insane – a bit like complaining that humans come equipped with a voice-box – and violent antipathy is so universally understood to hold within it a suppressed affinity with the very thing hated, that one must conclude both Clarkson and Lewis are overcompensating for a dim awareness somehere in their tiny minds that the language they malign is the true native tongue of their beloved Britain (until the 19th century it was actually called “British” rather than “Welsh”).

Affronted by the sheer persistence of Welsh, an uncomfortable reminder that they invaded and seized the British Isles by force, the English/British have been trying to wipe it from the face of the Earth as stated aim and policy since the 16th century. In what would today be seen as ethnic cleansing, the full weight of state apparatus has been marshalled against the Welsh language for century after century of repression, penalty, discrimination and contempt. No other language in human history has ever been subject to such a sustained, systematic and deliberate onslaught. There’s a word for this: Genocide. A language is not just vocabulary and syntax; it’s a way of thinking, an accretion of knowledge, a state of mind and the greatest feat of any civilisation. Leading linguist KD Harrison has likened the loss of any language to “dropping a bomb on the Louvre”, and Welsh has endured an unprecedented bombardment. Clarkson’s call for it to be “abolished” is thus as old hat as his fast cars, bubble perm and faded double denim – the idea has already been tried.

Clarkson: the epitome of English manhood

Incredibly, and entirely due to the people’s resolve, Welsh has survived when over 350 other languages have become extinct due to imperialism and colonialism since the 1536 ‘Act of Union’ outlawed it. Given that English would become a monster international language with the spread of the British Empire and the rise of the USA, that Welsh would remain unrecognised by the UK until the first Welsh Language Act of 1967, that equal status with English was not achieved until the 1998 Government of Wales Act which set up the National Assembly (and then only in the public sector and, of course, only within Wales – Welsh still has no legal recognition in the rest of the UK), and that the right of every child to be taught Welsh in school did not arrive until 2000, it is one of the miracles of human resilience that Welsh is still spoken at all here in England’s backyard. We have reached the position where the near-catastrophic decline vastly accelerated by mass English and Irish immigration from the mid 19th century onwards has against the odds been halted, and even slightly reversed. Much is owed to the leadership of a few true Welsh heroes: Saunders Lewis (1893-1985) galvanising resistance with his 1962 radio lecture Tynged yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language); the young activists of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) painting out English-only road signs and picketing hostile institutions; the brilliant Cardiffian poet and teacher Bobi Jones who founded CYD (Cymdeithas y Dysgwyr – The Learners’ Society) in 1982; and Plaid’s first MP Gwynfor Evans (1912-2005), whose 1980 hunger strike forced Thatcher into an unprecedented U-turn allowing S4C to be established. None are commemorated in Wales’ capital city, incidentally, despite the vast benefits Cardiff has harvested from the revival of Welsh national identity, whereas every two-bit murderer, usurper, collaborator, traitor, enemy of Wales and Brit mediocrity who happened to swing by is lauded from the roof tops. Such is the enduring creepy Britophilia of Cardiff’s rulers that a “Jeremy Clarkson Avenue” in Cardiff would come as no surprise.

Welsh is now the fastest-growing minority language in Europe and the thriving adult learners movement operating in every town and village is the model that defenders of other threatened languages around the world seek to replicate. Even Cardiff is 11% Welsh-speaking, more in percentage terms than at any time since the 1921 census, and more in absolute numbers than at any time since 1881. The supply of Welsh-medium education in the city cannot keep up with demand, yet the foot-dragging Council still only has a mere two Welsh-medium secondary schools (Ysgol Gyfun Glantaf in Llandaff North and Ysgol Gyfun Plasmawr in Fairwater), a total that has not increased in 14 years. Despite being in breach of statutory obligations, the Council allows itself to be intimidated by a very vocal minority determined to block and delay expansion  led by the mouthpiece of Cymruphobia, Trinity Mirror’s South Wales Echo. It beggars belief, but there are still people who object to the use and appearance of Welsh, here in Wales. Obligingly given a platform by the Echo letters page to appear more numerous than they actually are and rabble-roused by the paper’s main columnist Dan O’Neill, the belligerently fearful ‘Brits’ expend much energy foaming at the mouth at any tiny hint that Welsh hasn’t been entirely eradicated while O’Neill treats Welsh as some sort of alien imposition cooked up by a few Pontcanna intellectuals just to make monoglots like him look stupid. Fact: Welsh has been the majority language of Cardiff for its entire history apart from the 12th century (French) and the 1880s to date (English). But facts never get in the way of O’Neill’s rants in which Cardiff ‘history’ only commences when his illiterate Irish grandfather honoured us with his presence.

Some people in Wales say we should ignore the Cymruphobia of the likes of O’Neill, Clarkson and Lewis, rise above it and treat it with the contempt it deserves. I am not of that view. The Welsh language remains in deep jeopardy; to turn the other cheek while it is traduced by philistines is to collude with their agenda. Cymraeg might have defied logic by staying alive, but the damage has still been devastating, especially in the language’s strongholds. The rich and deep mother tongue Welsh of living communities has been largely replaced by the impoverished and shallow Welsh of schoolchildren, adult learners and S4C soap-operas, the fussy official Welsh of local authority notices and reversing garbage trucks, and the throwaway token Welsh hanging above the supermarket aisle. So much needs to be done, and done quickly: I would prioritise more Welsh-medium schools (immersion is needed if fluency is to be acquired), extending the Welsh Language Act to the private sector, the provision of a Welsh language daily newspaper, and a much more aggressive response to Cymruphobia.

We await the figures from the 2011 census, but it is estimated that Welsh is currently spoken by just 23% of the population of Wales (compared to 95% as recently as 1840) and a miniscule 0.0001% of the world. Crunching the numbers, insignificant Welsh thus has a grand total of 750,000 speakers while English, the global lingua franca of finance, commerce, the UN, diplomacy, computing, music and Hollywood dreams has 1,500,000,000 speakers. So for ludicrous British Nationalists like Clarkson and Lewis to work themselves up into a lather over little old Welsh is akin to a herd of elephants stampeding at the sight of a gnat. They cannot grasp that, unlike them, not everyone is into world domination. Nor do they realise that, if their dream of everyone speaking one language ever did come true, then that language would be Mandarin.

In 2011 the world has approximately 6,900 languages left. It is predicted that half of these will have vanished by the end of the century. To make sure Welsh is not among that number will take more than passive resistance. The only language that English monoglots feel perfectly relaxed dismissing while simultaneously announcing their complete ignorance of it, and the only language BBC announcers routinely mis-pronounce (with a chuckle), has suffered for far too long. Attack is the best defence, and a start can be made by exposing the most oft-repeated lies told about the language of heaven:

“Welsh is not a real language, it’s a dialect” – The oldest surviving language of western Europe is an Indo-European language, Celtic branch, Brythonic sub-family, sister language of Breton and Cornish.  Ych chi’n deall?
“Welsh is a dead language” – No, no, get it right: it’s a language that Cymruphobes are trying to kill.
“Welsh is ugly” – With its unique system of mutations, based on the physiology of the mouth, Welsh has a supple lyricism, rich musicality and sonorous clarity far superior aesthetically to the glottal stops, brittle vowels and gutteral Germanic grunts of English.
“Welsh is unpronounceable” – Wrong: it’s almost entirely phonetic and therefore very easy to pronounce – unlike, for instance, English (eg: through, plough, cough, borough…enough).
“Welsh has no vowels” – On the contrary, it’s overloaded with seven of them – two more than English.
“Bilingual signs cause traffic accidents” – There hasn’t been one recorded in Wales yet, nor in calmly quadralingual Switzerland.
“Welsh uses made-up words” – Yes, like every living language does – none more so than English, the ultimate linguistic tart with 75% of its vocabulary borrowed (eg: ‘television’ from the Greek ‘tele’ + the Latin ‘videre’).
“Welsh speakers get all the good jobs” – For 400 years English was the language of personal advancement and Welsh condemned as the tongue of peasants which would hold you back; after just a decade or two of nominal parity with English in which speaking Welsh has developed a few advantages it’s suddenly unfair!
“Welsh is rammed down our throats” – Funny how this is always uttered by those who have managed to cruise through life without knowing one word of Welsh.
“They only talk Welsh when someone English walks in” – One of the great myths of the English dinner party.  The condition is known as monomania, a delusion that one is the centre of the universe, most prevalent among 2-year-olds.
“There’s no point learning Welsh, it’s no use anywhere else” – Just like Albanian, Basque, Belarusian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Estonian, etc, etc, etc…they all seem to cope with the handicap.
“You’re not really Welsh unless you speak Welsh” – I don’t speak Welsh.

I’ll conclude this piece with the words of Bobi Jones from Cyfarthfa Street, Roath, who when Professor of Welsh at Aberystwyth in 1969 had the thankless task of trying to cram the language into an unemployed 21-year-old with learning difficulties and a speech impediment called Charles Windsor: “…learn Welsh…to be confident in one’s own identity, interested in the roots of one’s own country, its recent society, the explanation of so much in the national psyche and history, the environment of places and their names, the marvellous literature…and to resist the pressures of uniformity that prevent an understanding of the multiform world of relationships…” 

Right, back to my mutation tables: p,t,c,b,d,g,ll,m,rh…p,t,c,b,d,g,ll,m,rh…

Picture: Daily Mail