Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
Not too long ago I was told that I was showing off by speaking Welsh.
Ostensibly it was said in jest. But some things that are said in jest have somewhat of a nasty undertone, and this distinctly appears to me to be one of them.
It was very odd in more than one regard. To be accused of showing off my speaking the language I use with my mum is frankly just weird. I might as well have been accused of showing off by speaking full stop. It is as if I had called him a show-off for speaking English. The very idea reeks of absurdity.
Another strange aspect was that I didn’t even know the guy who made the strange accusation. I was merrily chatting with someone and he just chimed in as if his views were actually of worth or of interest to me or anyone else. I hadn’t spoken to him before, and I haven’t done so since either. Nor do I particularly want to.
I must admit, it did raise my hackles. But you may have cottoned on to that already.
I rather loftily responded to the peculiar outburst with: “Well it is the language of the heavens after all.” I then carried on with my conversation.
It did, however, get me thinking about attitudes towards the Welsh language and what the comment might say about them.
In one sense it says something positive. If someone is showing off by speaking Welsh, then clearly speaking Welsh is something to show off about. That certainly beats people not thinking the language has any worth at all, which unfortunately is an attitude still held by a not insignificant minority of the population to this day.
But there is another aspect to the comment that is not quite so positive. That is because it questioned the legitimacy of speaking Welsh in any sort of run-of-the-mill work context, be it social or work-related. No one would have dreamed of questioning the legitimacy of speaking English in a similar situation. It would not have elicited an unwanted response. Not a single eyelid would have been batted.
That is because English is viewed as the norm. Welsh meanwhile is viewed by some as an oddity that sometimes intrudes into the aegis of the English language. That is because it has been delegitimised to the point of near-destruction for centuries. We’re still engaged in the gruelling process of clawing its status back.
To call speaking the Welsh language ‘showing off’ suggests that people’s motives for speaking Welsh are impure. It also suggests that the language is an indulgence; that it is not a normal part of people’s lives. If these things are true about the language and those who speak it, then it would be senseless to grant equal linguistic rights.
Such attitudes have real implications and lead to real cases of discrimination. Though it is now actually illegal, Welsh speakers still have to endure the indignity of people trying to prevent them from speaking the language in the workplace. Just imagine being told by some jumped up cretin that you are forbidden from chatting in the language you speak with your mum.
There are instances where people do use language to show off of course. For example, someone probably is showing off when if they pepper their orations with Latin phrases. It is often a way of signalling elitism; that they went to private school and received a classical education. But that really is a dead language, that has no real day to day application. Well unless you’re Mary Beard.
To suggest someone is showing off by speaking Welsh is to imply that it is somehow analogous to this. It is to imply that it is superfluous. It’s pretty damn insulting.
Of course, I do use Welsh to signal things too. For example, I use it to signal when I would like a cup of tea, and that I take milk, but no longer take sugar. You see the truth about the Welsh language is far more banal than he had assumed, and it is all the more wonderful for it.
Don’t get me wrong. The Welsh language is rich with fine literature, poetry, music and all that good stuff. It is certainly not incompatible with the highfalutin. Far from it. But that is only made possible by a language that lives and breathes the day to day stuff. The exalted is only made possible by the mundane.
To be a Welsh speaker is a fundamental part of who I am. To exist is not to show off.
So, no I was not showing off by speaking Welsh. But considering how thoroughly awesome the language is, perhaps I should.
Jokes aside, Welsh speakers are not looking to be treated as special. We merely want to be accorded the same dignity and respect as English speakers. To characterise it otherwise is pernicious and deeply unfair. It beats the language being treated as totally inferior. But this the scantest of consolation.
The idea that Welsh speakers are up themselves or are looking to be treated as better than others is weaponised to deny basic linguistic rights. For this reason, it is an idea that we cannot accept. We’re really not asking for all that much.