One of the phone-in topics on the Radio 2 Jeremy Vine show this week, was about the Welsh Government’s plans to implement new initiatives and strategies to double the number of Welsh speakers to a million by 2050. Alun Davies, Welsh language minister spoke passionately about how and why he learned to speak Welsh. He eloquently emphasized its significance and how vital the role of the language is in constructing notions of cultural identity.
Later, Charles Moore (Thatcher’s biographer, but let’s not go there), an articulate and clever man, contributed to Radio 2’s regular segment on What Makes Us Human? He boiled it down to “words.” This led me, as I cooked the tea, to reflect on ideas around language, culture and identity and how the three are inextricable.
The same sort of idea the linguistics expert Noam Chomsky summarized in “A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.” The two distinctly separate parts of Vine’s show unintentionally complemented each other beautifully. I contemplated the long history of the Welsh language; the uniqueness of Welsh identity; the beautiful richness of Welsh culture and how bloody lucky we are. How MARVELLOUS it will be come 2050. I stirred the chilli and pondered these lovely things.
Later, my son came home from school dead excited about how he was going to be on “THE TELLY”, on Newyddion 9 on S4C. Apparently, they’d been in to film a group of kids discussing their ideas about how this new Welsh Government initiative could be implemented in practical ways. We watched, all six of us, waiting for Tal’s 10 seconds of fame and it was fab. He was well chuffed; more than a bit smug and proud of his newfound stardom. BBC Cymru Fyw posted this lovely clip on Facebook.
And THEN, some mean-minded, spiteful woman wrote a comment underneath pointing out three mutation mistakes made by the kids during the clip. Her sole reaction about those primary school-aged second-language kids conducting an entire conversation in Welsh, able to discuss this new Welsh Assembly initiative and coming up with strategies of their own was, essentially, that she found them lacking. That their Welsh wasn’t good enough. Not good enough. Not good enough.
We’ve seen The Guardian’s recent ridiculous, one-sided, ignorant and offensive article last month, questioning the “ethics of using the classroom to bolster a minority language” and declaring as “futile” these attempts to increase numbers of Welsh speakers (shame on you, The Guardian.) We know of the tedious, ongoing (so, so boringly ongoing), prejudiced ideas held by some non-Welsh speakers, resistant to embracing bilingualism and, often, refusing to accept its enhancing benefits. But let’s talk about the enemy within.
I love Bolycs Cymraeg. If you don’t know of it, but like a bit of Welsh near the knuckle humour, search on Facebook for this page. Hilarious. But, on more than one occasion, I’ve seen its author (is that what we call people who make and maintain Facebook pages?) upset and outraged by one of the pedants. A smug, superior individual who squirms out of their little, dark, purist, MY WELSH IS BETTER THAN YOURS hole and, sly, sly, sneaky face pounces on a mutation error. He has expressed how he considered closing the page because of this and told me how he often receives messages following his spat with the language police from people stating that it’s the fear of ridicule of the standard of their Welsh that makes them afraid to use the language online. “Imagine that, in 2017, Welsh speakers actually hindering the extended use of Welsh online,” he said. “There’s a saying in Welsh “Gwell Cymraeg slac na Saesneg slic” (better slack Welsh than slick English) and I live my life by this motto.”
Jonathan Davies, the rugby legend and TV pundit recently spoke out about the pressure that’s put on Welsh sportsmen and women to speak “Gymraeg cywir”, to speak Welsh wholly accurately and without error. He observed that these sports people are reluctant to use their Welsh publicly for fear of criticism and contempt. So, if language, culture and identity are inextricable, are these easy targets not then being forced to reject their Welshness for fear of ridicule?
These are just a few examples of attitudes that are wholly counterproductive. The thing is, we see grammar pedants with the English written word all the time. They’re annoying and they lack manners but, mostly, are ignored. Whatevs. But with Welsh, this type of criticism literally prevents people using the language. My Facebook reply to Debbie Downer last night took me about ten minutes to compose as I worried about my mutations and presenting myself as Not Good Enough. I know of second language friends who, like me, received a Welsh medium education, who similarly feel somewhat inferior to first language Welsh speakers, particularly with the written word. Or more specifically, those who regard errors as an indication of not being Good Enough. Or Welsh Enough.
The bottom line is this: if we are to achieve this revolutionary and aspirational target to double Welsh speakers in Wales by 2050, this has to stop. To normalise the Welsh language will demand for us to embrace it in all its forms, and at every level of ability. We should applaud and encourage every effort. As Alun Davies also said yesterday, those who persist in pointing fingers and sitting in contemptuous judgement, who criticise instead of encourage, are playing their own roles in killing the language. Heb Iaith; Heb Genedl. Without language; without nation.
By Victoria Lewis