Thursday, 3 January 2013

Is Wales divided by Welsh?

The recent commotion surrounding the refusal by past Arch Druid of the Gorsedd, Robyn Lewis, to pay a bill in a Spar shop in Pwllheli unless he was told the amount due in Welsh has again brought the status of the Welsh  language into the spotlight. The incident occurred shortly after published census figures revealed a fall in the number of Welsh speakers in comparison with the previous census.

Unsurprisingly, the gutter press made a meal of this event. Daily Mail readers probably took the prize for the crassest and most ignorant comments made.

Whether or not Dr Lewis was cruel to the cashier, whether or not the shop manager was over-reacting by calling the police (given that the situation was finally resolved through the intervention of another cashier who was prepared to state the sum owned in Welsh) are all valid questions, but not ones I will be discussing further, not having been a witness to the event.

What does stand out is Dr Lewis' comment:
"All I wanted was an answer in my own language, in my own country."

My greater consternation is reserved the fact that the Daily Mail permitted bigoted, ageist and also racist comments to appear below its article (although I know from personal experience it does censor comments made by readers of its web site).

Why do some Welsh people hate Welsh?

Even more, I am saddened by comments from people who say they are proud to be Welsh, but hate the Welsh language and want it to disappear. This is not the first time I have seen such comments below newspaper and web articles.

I contrast this with my experience in Catalonia. All the Catalans I have ever met have been fiercely proud of their language, determined to preserve it and to increase its use. Their language was suppressed by Franco perhaps even more harshly than Welsh was suppressed by governments in London, yet it has returned triumphantly and is valued by the majority as a symbol of their nation.

Going by a long forum discussion, in which I participated some months ago, the favoured reasons given by non-Welsh-speaking Welsh people for hating Welsh are:

1. It isn't useful for anything

which is immediately contradicted by the second reason:

2. Welsh speakers are favoured for some jobs

Ergo, by the opponents' own admission, speaking Welsh IS useful for something. To this can also be added the fact that learning any language makes learning further languages easier, because it breaks the brain out of the set grammatical and sound patterns of the mother tongue. Anyway, if utility is the criterion, is learning Welsh any less useful for the average person than some of the other subjects taught in schools?

My experience as a Welsh learner

The third oft cited reason some Welsh people give for hating Welsh is that all-Welsh events make them feel excluded. I countered by saying it is hardly fair to criticise Welsh speakers for wanting to attend events in their own language, especially when that language is under such pressure from English.

That was not good enough for them. They went on to moan Welsh speakers are snooty, want nothing to do with those who do not speak Welsh fluently, and so on....

Well, I'm sure there are bigoted Welsh speakers around in Wales, just as there are bigoted non-Welsh speakers!

However, I must say that this is not my experience. I've been learning Welsh for nearly five years now, but at a very slow pace as my time is limited. I am far from fluent.

Nevertheless, being a Welsh learner has opened up some wonderful experiences to me. I have met many delightful people and participated in highly enjoyable events. I have never been made to feel humiliated because of my low level of proficiency.  On the contrary, people have gone out of their way to help me understand and feel part of things.

I've also discovered that Welsh-speaking Wales has a lively and vital culture. Going to the National Eisteddfod has become one of the high points of my year, as have the musical events I attend, such as the marvellous BEAM.

Making the decision to learn Welsh is one of the best things that ever happened to me...

... and I am not even Welsh (well, not by genes, although since moving to Wales, I like to say I am Welsh by choice).

So, although I am just a far from proficient learner, I intend to be present at the rally organised by Cymdeithas Yr Iaith in Merthyr Tudful, to join others saying "Dwi eisiau byw yn Gymraeg" (I want to live in Welsh)