Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
If you live in Wales it’s pretty likely that you’ll have heard the weird Anglo-supremacist trope about Welsh speakers down the pub.
For those unfamiliar, it goes a little something like this. A monolingual English speaker walks in to a pub in Wales. When he or she walks in, everyone is happily gabbing away in English as they should be. Then something strange happens. Upon noticing who has walked in the pub, the whole establishment switches to Welsh in unison just to spite whoever walked in.
Of course, they have ascertained that they are unable to converse in Welsh through some form collective psychic powers inherited from the druids. Welsh speakers are Merlin meets Mean Girls apparently.
That fact that such nonsense is still believed in both infuriating and hilarious.
But are there times when perhaps we should be a little bit more patient with people who hold such beliefs?
I say this partly because of a conversation I had with a taxi driver who picked me up at the train station in Rhyl.
The conversation started as many conversations with taxi drivers do; in a pleasant humdrum fashion.
We started chatting about the rugby. Wales had beaten Australia that day in a titanic Rugby World Cup battle. The taxi driver was very happy about it indeed, and beamed with Welsh pride. It was a thrilling and nail-biting contest that proved that Wales could compete against the best in the world and win.
We then started gabbing about other stuff, and he described people who live in Caernarfon as backstabbers. With an air of slight trepidation, I enquired why he believed that. I could already sense what was coming.
My fears were realised when he claimed that people in Caernarfon switch to Welsh when he walked into the pub. He said they were the same in Pwllheli.
“Oh, here we bloody go,” I thought.
I performed a monumental eyeroll, and took a deep breath.
I was forthright and unequivocal in my response, but it was not said with a hint of anger.
I explained that what he described just does not happen. I revealed to him that I am a Welsh speaker, and that because I am fluent in English too, I seamlessly flip from one language to another in a process that’s called codeswitching; that it is done naturally and that it isn’t to spite or exclude anyone.
I also pointed out that I go out with mixed groups of friends, some of which can speak the language, and others that can’t, so I might speak English with one and Welsh with another. I also said that it has taken a hell of a lot of effort to keep an entire language alive, and that it wouldn’t be worth it if its only use was to spite people who don’t speak Welsh when you’re down the pub.
I then went on to explain about how the language has been and still is discriminated against. I told him that it was banned from the courts, and from public jobs. I told him about the Welsh Not and how children were physically abused by their teachers for speaking the language. I told him about the fights to get Welsh-medium schools, and that it also took an extraordinary campaign to get bilingual road signs.
I finished off by telling him my belief that the language belongs to all the people of Wales, including people who do not speak it fluently, including him.
Then something wonderful happened. He began to come on side.
He told me that he knew the Welsh national anthem Hen Wlad fy Nhadau off by heart because he sang it in the school assembly every morning. He added that he believes they should do that in every school in Wales. I told him that I thought that was a good idea.
Then surprisingly, he lamented the fact that he didn’t have the opportunity to use any Welsh after leaving school, despite having lessons in the language for five years. Because of that he lost what he had. It struck me that the system has failed people like him, and continues to fail far too many.
There is no doubt in my mind that his suspicion of Welsh speakers would be outright hostility had he not had any interaction with the language during his school years. I am also convinced that if he’d had opportunities to engage with the language after leaving school, his suspicion would have been replaced by warmth, kinship and understanding.
He wasn’t actually virulently anti-Welsh language in the way I would have imagined. What he did have was a general mistrust and a feeling of alienation. It is very easy to get angry at individuals and I often do. There are some appalling individuals out there. But there are also people who are not bad at heart and have just got the wrong end of the stick. They can be brought onside with engagement and understanding. If the hand of friendship is extended, they will take it.
Sometimes we really should be angry at individuals. But more often we should be angry at a system that promotes ignorance and prejudice. The public consciousness has been shaped by insidious colonial architecture that is both cultural and institutional in nature. The pub trope is the result of centuries of systemic marginalisation of the language. Don’t get me wrong. I still find it incredibly annoying that I have to explain this stuff to people. However, there is a distinction to be made between genuine misunderstanding and willful malice.
Identity is a complex thing, and that is especially the case when it comes to Welsh identity. It is not static either. It is very much dynamic in nature. It is possible to change how people view themselves, and how they view the Welsh language in the process.
Pride in the language can be found in the most unexpected places if we are patient enough to scratch beyond the surface. We have a system that turns people against the Welsh language, who with the right encouragement, would embrace it.
To stop people from believing that Welsh speakers only switch to the language when a monolingual English speaker walks in the pub, we need to transform the institutions and the culture with the toxic idea that they do.
I’d certainly drink to that idea, and I would buy the taxi driver a pint if I saw him down the pub too.