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.

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
The Welsh countryside. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.