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A New Year’s resolution: Let’s not leave our ‘incidental’ Welsh at the school gates

01 Jan 2024 6 minute read
Jeremy Miles MS, Minister for Education and Welsh Language, speaks to students at the NUS Wales student rally at the Senedd

Stephen Price

While chatting to a Greek friend soon after his arrival in Wales from Manchester some ten years ago, he remarked on the use of the word ‘cwtsh’ being used in the hospital in place of hug, and soon binned ‘hug’ and ‘cuddle’ for the gentler, cwtshier, evocative word of ours.

An intelligent chap, he set about listening to Radio Cymru and learned a few words here and there to help him in his role as a paediatrician.

One conversation always stands out however, before his resolve to learn the language of his adopted home, and that was when he asked, “How exactly are the Welsh different from the English?”

“We’re warmer and friendlier,” I told him. “We have stronger communities”.

“Not everyone is, and there are friendly communities across the whole of the UK,” he retorted.

“Well, we have our own language,” I said.

“I don’t hear you using it. I don’t hear it when I’m out in the streets…”

Discernibly different

Cue a list of character traits, impassioned history lessons, cultural differences, accents, ancestry, dialects and facts about the hundreds of thousands of people who do speak Welsh as a daily living language but he wasn’t having it. To him, most of us weren’t that discernibly different from the Mancunians he’d been working with.

I suppose he’s to be forgiven. He hadn’t read any Welsh literature, didn’t go through Welsh schools or perform in Eisteddfodau, he didn’t learn any Welsh language and history (but neither did we learn much of our own history back then).

He didn’t have the connection we have to our lands and our own square miles back then, and he wouldn’t have been aware of the subtle nuances, the kindnesses, the familial community spirit so many of us grew up with and were blessed with.

Night and day

Most certainly, without any Welsh or without any English, the difference between the Welsh identity and any other is as clear to me as night is to day, but the old Welsh saying, ‘cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon’ (a nation without a language is a nation without a heart) did not spring out of thin air, and the custodians of our beautiful, poetic and lyrical language haven’t fought tooth and nail for its survival without reason.

The Welsh Government has bold plans to ensure that the language has a million speakers by 2050, and all of us in Wales have a part to play in this.

Every child in Wales now has the opportunity to learn Welsh, and the demand for Welsh medium education has grown consistently.

Incidental Welsh is an important and unavoidable part of school life across Wales, no matter the school or its medium.

A report, titled “Welsh Language Development in the Foundation Phase” says: “The Welsh Government set out its vision to see the Welsh language thriving in Wales in ‘A living language: a language for living’ in 2012. The ‘Welsh-medium Education Strategy’ published in 2010 supports this vision. It notes:

“Strategic aim 3: To ensure that all learners develop their Welsh-language skills to their full potential and encourage sound linguistic progression from one phase of education and training to the next.”

From schools to colleges, and often many workplaces too, Welsh is working its way into our heads and hearts. But it shouldn’t stop at the school gates. Let’s embrace it fully and enjoy using it. Enjoy our differences and defiances. Feel the thrill of meaning it when we say “Yma o hyd!”

Ifor ap Glyn puts it perfectly, “It belongs to all the people of Wales, whether they speak it or not; it’s part of our common heritage, from the place-names all around us to the National Anthem. It’s spoken by over half a million people, and understood by many more.”

The joy of Cymraeg

My sister is learning Welsh now, my nephew goes to a local Welsh school, many of my friends took it to GCSE level.

Where we can, we use Welsh or at least a few Welsh words, and there’s a joy to just peppering English sentences with ‘ysgol’, ‘wedi blino’, ‘bore da’ and the like.

The Welsh language isn’t just a carbon copy of English with an exchange of words, it has its own unique patterns and quirks and orders. Fluency won’t come to anyone overnight, but learning a few simple words is in the power of us all:

Good morning: Bore da

Good afternoon: Prynhawn da

Goodnight: Nos da

Hello: Shwmae

Goodbye: Hwyl fawr

Thanks (a lot): Diolch (yn fawr)

Welcome: Croeso

A uniquely Welsh hug: Cwtsh (more often spelled cwtch, but to work in both languages ‘sh’ is preferable)

Cheers/Good health: Iechyd da

Happy New Year: Blwyddyn Newydd Dda

And there you have it. Just enough to raise a smile and make a difference.

For me and more than a few of my ‘ffrindiau’, at night time, it’s always ‘nos da’. In shops, it’s always ‘shwmae’ and ‘diolch’.. toilet is ‘tŷ bach’, TV is ‘teledu’, kiss is ‘sws’ and many many other familiar words come out whenever there’s a call.

On social media, English speaking Welsh folk naturally refer to each other as ‘brawd’. It’s joyful, playful. It’s ours.

It’s incredibly surprising, too, how using incidental Welsh opens conversations on local Welsh use and identity, or ‘outs’ a Welsh speaker who rarely gets to use the language in certain parts of the country outside of the home or school.

Younger people are also impressing me with their confidence in using older Wenglish terms such as ‘boyo’, ‘butty’ (bytti) or ‘mush’ (mwsh) in place of the quite-ugly ‘mate’ much more lately too. More of that please, ‘orite butt!’

Sarah Morgan Jones wrote a wonderful piece on New Year’s resolutions earlier today, and in it she asks us to be kind to ourselves, to not be restrictive and to be ‘more’ generous.

I’d like to think that a resolution to use ‘more’ Welsh – we have it there anyway – would only be a positive thing.

And perhaps I’ll have more ammo the next time someone asks what makes us different. We all speak Welsh. That’ll shut them up!

For anyone wanting to add even more words to the above:

Click here to find out about SaySomethingInWelsh.

Click here for information on DuoLingo.

Click here for information on local Wales-based Welsh classes or London classes (Not exhaustive so please check social media and search engines for what’s on in your area)

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