On Being Welsh (Speaking)

I’m not Welsh. No Welsh Not for me. But I have some experience, a few decades, and a language acquired from friends and girlfriends, and many others, at work, in shops and pubs. Being Welsh involves a particular perspective. There is a small country, next to a big country. There is a language spoken by very few, next to one spoken by (it seems) nearly everyone. We can all see that. But it is seeing it from the Welsh point of view that is so different to seeing it as an outsider.

On face of it there is not much difference between English people and Welsh speakers. One of my Welsh nationalist friends was embarrassed to admit as much to me on moving to France. They share so many many of the same cultural references, from TV to food, to history and music. But it is the perspective on language which is so different. For English people, their language is like water to a fish. They hardly realise it is there, it is so all-pervasive. They do not think about its power and its reach, and when they do they tend to (wrongly) assume that it is universal. They are suspended between not realising it is there, to thinking it is everywhere. What is more, there is the supreme confidence, not only of the native speaker, in the sense of speaking one’s mother tongue, but also of being from the home of the language. In other words, an English person’s English has a kind of authentic primacy over that of those who grew up speaking it in the US, Australia or Nigeria. What this confers is a kind of enviable supreme cultural confidence, which unfortunately sometimes expresses itself as unthinking arrogance.

Perhaps the most important feeling that many Welsh speakers have towards their language is a sense of responsibility. There are so few speakers (about half a million) compared to English that the need to protect and nurture Welsh is felt very personally. They are the keepers of the flame, and if they let it go out, it will not revive. Their language is a remarkable cultural survivor. It has outlived others which, much further from the hub of the English Empire, have disappeared. Welsh is the main native language of Britain, which was here before, during and after the Romans, and of course before English. It was displaced by Anglo Saxon (which developed into English) after the invasions from the continent, and who can seriously doubt that such a major language shift would have taken place without horrific ethnic cleansing. Why else did Britons flee in sufficient numbers to Northern France to establish the kingdom of Brittany, where a language like Welsh still exists today?

Welsh is not a version of the majority language, like some outsiders presume. It is not a dialect of English, but belongs to a different language family, that of the Celtic languages, to which Irish and Scottish Gaelic, also belong. But of all the Celtic languages Welsh is the most widely spoken. It has a written literature that goes back to the Dark Ages and includes the first written sources of the Arthurian legends. Arguably, Welsh is the cultural trace of a Celtic culture that encompassed much of Western and Southern Europe in Roman and pre-Roman times. But when Welsh people use their language, they are not primarily thinking of it in those terms, they are simply expressing their living culture and identity. As a result of 20th-century political activism Welsh has a professional and lively presence in all modern media, from radio to TV and the internet. It is used in education and in government institutions. This is not a dying language, or a museum piece. It is very much alive, kicking and contemporary.

Indeed it is something of which all of us should be proud and protective, because this is an important part of the cultural richness and heritage of Wales, Britain and Europe. Unfortunately, however, outsiders often cannot see the point. Even the most liberal, ready to espouse every other minority cause, are quick to dismiss something so remarkable as pointless. This is where the gulf opens up, between insiders and outsiders. Welsh speakers are the guardians of a precious good, of which their more numerous and powerful neighbours are largely ignorant and intolerant, and on this point they could not be more different.