Why is the Welsh language dying? Because the land of my fathers is obsessed with purity
Years ago, the emerging bourgeoisie appropriated the Welsh language and they are now in the process of ossifying it, says Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett.
The Welsh countryside. Photo: Getty
I took the bus to school. It weaved around narrow country lanes, crawling up the side of the grey, gouged-out mountain, picking up stray schoolchildren as they stood at the ends of their parents’ dirt-track drives (occasionally it would also stop to allow the sheep to cross). On reaching what was, literally, a dead-end village, it would turn its back on the towering heaps of slate and make its way downhill towards the graveyard containing those who died building them. It would pass the bodies of my ancestors and then it would swing by the cottage bearing the words “Go home, you English twat”. Forty-five minutes and several villages later, it would arrive at my secondary school, “Yr Ysgol Saes”: the English school. It’s been eight years since I left Wales but I can still picture every inch of that bus route.
The land of my fathers is not, technically, the land of my father, although his Welsh is formidable. It certainly isn’t the land of my mother, whose Welsh is, not for want of trying, less so. She once banished a group of nationalists from her dinner table for making an anti-English joke. The joke was this: “What’s the difference between an Englishman and an onion?” “When you cut an onion, you weep.”
I grew up in the Welshest part of Wales. I have a Welsh name. I am fluent in the language. Almost all of my primary-school education was conducted in Welsh – I do not know a single word of the Lord’s Prayer in English. I still sometimes dream in Welsh and will cry out in it in my sleep. I am proud that I was the only one of my beloved Taid’s grandchildren who could have an adult conversation with him in his mother tongue, though I’m less proud that I have yet to open the copy of David Jones’s In Parenthesis he gave me a week before he died. When I return to Wales and speak Welsh with my father, his wife, Siân, and my youngest brother, I feel tied to the place. Yet growing up, I was conscious that I was Welsh by ancestry but not by birth.
You might say that history is what truly binds you to a country. The ability to walk the terrain and say: “There. That’s where my grandfather saw the bomber come down. That’s where my brother fell in the lake.”
But Wales has never felt that way to me. I was watching The One Show on BBC1 on Friday (please don’t judge me) and the singer Cerys Matthews was presenting a film about Richard Llewelyn’s novel How Green Was My Valley. It concluded that Llewelyn hadn’t even been that Welsh. How perfect, I thought, that the man who did much to romanticise Wales wasn’t all that authentic – and how typical of you to say so.
Then, a few days later, a new report said what we all know already, that the language spoken by just 19 per cent of the Welsh population is dying. Among Welsh speakers aged 16 to 24, half consider themselves fluent and only a third use Welsh with friends. Another report, cited in the Welsh-language magazine Golwg, found that, of all the adults who attended Welsh classes, less than 1 per cent emerged fluent. I know many who consider the whole industry a racket.
So why, even though most people in the world speak more than one language, does Welsh seem to be failing so miserably? A journalist acquaintance, who went to the same school as I did, believes that even those who make an effort are treated with the same sort of disdain as the “Mudbloods” in Harry Potter. Certainly, an English person in Gwynedd, the county in which I grew up, will encounter some prejudice. This was the heartland of Llewelyn, the 13th-century last prince of an independent Wales, and more recently the arsonist avengers Meibion Glyndwr – although the only things they’re lighting these days are their fags. They say, up there, that Wales stops after Aberystwyth and incomers of any kind are regarded with a wary eye. The last time I visited, one of the gift shops was selling golliwogs.
It’s not just outsiders who don’t speak Welsh. It’s the young, too. The language lobby is the preserve of the middle classes. Years ago, the emerging bourgeoisie appropriated the Welsh language and they are now in the process of ossifying it. They dominate in the media, local government and education. An insistence on formal Welsh alienates those who speak the living language. It’s no wonder many Welsh people don’t consider themselves fluent: their Welsh will never be good enough for some people.
The classes who run the Eisteddfod, alienated from the economic realities of life in a country where youth unemployment is at a 15-year high, have put themselves in charge of “Brand Wales”. And, as we know, the minute middle-class people try to market anything, it becomes massively square. The Urdd, the national Welsh youth organisation, is a prime example.
So, those are some of the reasons why the Welsh language is dying. That and the mainly English internet.
Sadly, many people don’t realise until their twenties that it is cool to be bilingual. Very often when you see people arguing about Welsh, it isn’t about Welsh versus English but monoglots versus polyglots. I am one of the latter and I love my country, although there are those who would not want me to describe it as such.
And yet, they need people like me. They can make their jokes. They can even try to cut me open, like an onion, if they like. They’ll only find I bleed the place.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is the co-author of the Vagenda blog and also writes for newstatesman.com