The Welsh language isn’t being ‘forced’ on anyone – we’re just reclaiming our inheritance

A sign welcoming people to the National Eisteddfod in 2018. The physical event is cancelled this year due to Covid-19. Picture by Llywelyn2000 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Gareth Ceidiog Hughes

One thing that is liable to make my lip curl with disdain is the claim that the Welsh language is ‘forced’ on people.

What ‘forced’ means in this context is the Welsh language being given equal treatment to English.

The claim is often used by people to hide their intolerance of the Welsh language under the guise of freedom of choice. It unfairly tars those who promote the language and who wish to see everybody in Wales receive the opportunity to learn it as an oppressive force.

What people who make this claim don’t tell you is that the English language is forced on the people of Wales and has been for centuries.

I’ve yet to hear people who make such complaints claim that the English language is forced on people. This is othering of the Welsh language and of the community that speaks it.

At a time where the vast majority of the population spoke only Welsh, English was made the language of the courts. It was made the language of officialdom in general. Our road signs used to be in exclusively English, and this was only changed after a sustained campaign of peaceful protest. Many of the campaigners were sent to prison for their civil disobedience and weren’t even to write home to their friends and families in their native tongue.

The Welsh language was marginalised in the education system. Children were physically and psychologically abused for speaking the language by their teachers with the Welsh Not. We didn’t even get a Welsh language television channel until the 1980s.

The residents of the Welsh-speaking village of Capel Celyn in the Tryweryn Valley were forcibly removed from their homes. The village was destroyed against the wishes of the Welsh people so that Liverpool City Corporation could steal our water.

The choices of Welsh speakers to speak their language have been proactively restricted for centuries. When people talk about the Welsh language being forced on people, what they’re really complaining about is a lifting of these restrictions.

 

Assumptions

When looked at in this context, the complaints of ‘forcing’ Welsh on people have a distinctly Orwellian flavour. They betray ugly sentiments.

The restrictions have had a detrimental impact on the language. Use of the language declined because it was marginalised and suppressed.

Now that the Welsh language is beginning to be treated more fairly, we are starting to see somewhat of a tentative revival. I very much doubt that this is a coincidence. The complaints that the language is ‘forced’ on people are a real threat to this resurgence. The future of the language is not yet secure. We cannot afford to have our gains rolled back. Instead, we need to build on them.

Nobody is forced to send their child to a Welsh-medium school. The fact is that more and more parents are choosing to send their children to these schools because of the quality of education and because they value the language and culture.

It is certainly the case that the Welsh language is part of the curriculum in Welsh and English medium schools. But we should also remember that English is a part of the curriculum, as are plenty of other subjects such as maths and science.

To complain that Welsh is ‘forced’ in this context but not to make a peep about any of the other subjects is to treat the language as inferior. It is to treat the senior language of these isles as if it does not warrant the same respect as these other subjects. We should forcefully reject such assumptions.

Reclaiming

There are invariably two types of people who make this type of claim. There are those who are unremittingly hostile towards the language, and then there are those who are part of the “I support the Welsh language but…” brigade.

Members of the first group are generally irredeemable. Members of the latter group have absorbed unconscious bias against the Welsh language and can sometimes be brought around if the toxic assumptions that underpin their position are pointed out. Some of them even speak Welsh and have yet to shake off the absurd inferiority complex that Wales has been indoctrinated with.

Back in the day there were Welsh-speaking teachers who would use the Welsh Not on Welsh-speaking children. We should not use the knives wielded by our oppressors to wound ourselves. One of the reasons these tropes are so damaging is that Welsh speakers start to believe them.

The English language is so ubiquitous that often people don’t think about the institutional architecture that helped make it so and helps keep it that way. They believe that Welsh just lost out to a better product in the marketplace of ideas. What isn’t mentioned is that the marketplace was rigged by a cartel. We mean to break that cartel up and restore fairness.

The complaints about state support of the Welsh language reminds me of CEOs who get millions of pounds in corporate welfare from the government complaining that single parents get a few quid so they can keep a roof over their heads and feed their children. It reeks of a lack of self-awareness and a lack of empathy.

So no, the Welsh language isn’t really forced at all. Certainly, no more than English. In reality, to this day, it gets much less support than the English language.

Welsh being taught in Wales really shouldn’t be controversial, and nor should public services in the language in general. I can’t imagine French being taught in France being deemed problematic by anyone. The very idea is absurd.

There is a tradition of speaking Welsh in every part of Wales. The language belongs to the whole country. To suggest otherwise is not only ridiculous and wrong, it is also profoundly insulting.

The claim that the Welsh language is forced on people stigmatises those who speak it as well as those who want to see it flourish. Seriously don’t even go there. We just won’t have it.

What is really happening is that the gift of the Welsh language is being given back to the generations that it was stolen from. As a nation, we are reclaiming our inheritance.

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