My chat with someone who believed people only started speaking Welsh when he walked into the pub

Having a drink. Picture by Elevate on UnSplash.

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.

Alienation

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.

Iechyd da!

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Alan'ö-Dzin TridralJonathan GammondRhosdduLeia Recent comment authors
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Ann Corkett
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Ann Corkett

Excellent article. When I saw half the headline in my inbox I though it was going to be about something else – “My chat with someone who believed people only started speaking Welsh IN SCHOOL”. I suspect that there are many people who imagine that Welsh, like French, is purely a school subject and, because they do not live in a Welsh-speaking area, cannot imagine that it is the first, home, language of many children.

Robert Tyler
Guest
Robert Tyler

Where is that, Joanne?

Mike Evans
Guest
Mike Evans

Llanfair Ym Muallt (Builth) for one in Mid Wales

Jill o the South
Guest
Jill o the South

We could do with a Welsh Language Development Agency similar to the WDA of yesteryear whose sole remit is to market the language to win over hearts and minds. Having one person sef ‘Comisiynydd yr Iaith’ (and his team) to essentially police anti-Welsh language sentiment in business and then promote it on the other is a big ask. Do Welsh Speakers ever ask themselves “If I didn’t speak it, why would I want to? what would be the motivation?” To assume all people should speak or should wish to speak Welsh is exactly that an assumption. Positive news today that… Read more »

Catherine Cole
Member
Catherine Cole

I honestly never know what to think about this kind of story. I don’t know because I wasn’t there. I feel the same about the reporting of English speakers banning Welsh language in shops…. I have lived long enough to observe how people behave and there are two sides to every story. You can’t speculate about what people might be thinking. You have to ask. I have a brummie accent because that’s where I spent my childhood. My father went to Birmingham for teaching work in the 60s. I moved back to Wales in the 80s in the vague hope… Read more »

Rhosddu
Guest
Rhosddu

I don’t think anyone has ever accused Anglophone Welsh people of being colonists, and indeed I don’t see how it would be possible to make such an accusation against them in their own country. I’m very surprised that you have had to inform anyone of the patently obvious fact that those same Anglophone Welsh are Welsh, not English. It is the unionist parties, not the pro-independence parties, that choose not to make the distinction between England and Wales. Is any Welsh government likely to cut general funding for education in the post-industrial areas in order to finance the Welsh language?… Read more »

Richard Penderyn
Guest
Richard Penderyn

Ive had monkey chants at me for speaking Welsh openly in public in places…but it just makes me more ardent to speak the Welsh Ive been self teaching since I left school

Richard Penderyn
Guest
Richard Penderyn

“I get sick of pointing out that the English speaking Welsh are not English. This is their country too. That’s a bit of a blind spot for many nationalists”

You have misunderstood the spirit of the article … a blind spot for nationalists? many if not most people supporting Welsh self rule…..a normal european idea…..dont speak Welsh

Allan brownI
Guest
Allan brownI

I hand lived in West Wales for 30 years and have never met a single anti Muslim English person in a pub here. This is pure racism on your part are you a friend of Mike Parker

Ken Davies
Guest

Funny how this old chestnut hangs around like a bad smell. One monolingual told me that half the time they don’t speak Welsh properly .. he could tell, you know. You can always tell. I speak English with a pronounced English accent, but understand Welsh perfectly. In five years living in Gwynedd I never once heard Welsh used as a means of exclusion. Never once in five years.

Siôn
Guest
Siôn

Why are you engaging with it then?

Diego
Guest
Diego

Good question Shaun. I see it as a duty to challenge this crap wherever I see or hear it. Welsh language fanatics don’t get a free pass……

Roger Barrett
Guest
Roger Barrett

Why would you want anything to die, Diego? What is wrong with you? Well, among answers to the second question, I believe that you, sir, have a fundamentally flawed conception of what kind of thing a language is. A language is a thing of beauty, and all you seem to use yours for is hate (so it’s little wonder that you fail to see the beauty of it). I think this article was in a sense written *for you*, but you’re too far gone to hear the call. When the language does finally succumb to death, if you aren’t already… Read more »

Kipper
Guest
Kipper

Brilliant post
Diolch yn fawr
Colin y garddwr
Nos da
X

Colin Kinsey @talktalk.net
Guest
Colin Kinsey @talktalk.net

Are u English per chance

Diego
Guest
Diego

No, but your assumption belies your xenophobia.

Richard Penderyn
Guest
Richard Penderyn

Do some people just want to annoy….or genuinely have that low iq?

Diego
Guest
Diego

Maybe they just have a different opinion to you Richard.

Richard Penderyn
Guest
Richard Penderyn

Wow..Diego .. you sound like a total nasty piece of work…. your imperialism is dying…does that make you sad?

Diego
Guest
Diego

Hi Richard P. Nice to meet you too.

Richard Penderyn
Guest
Richard Penderyn

“bending the facts”….are you that low iq that you think Welsh speakers only speak Welsh in front of English speakers……………gosh thats low IQ

Diego
Guest
Diego

Gosh, I’ve never had an IQ test, so don’t know how I’d score. As to your question, personally, I couldn’t give a damn about the very specific scenario you and the author described. If you choose to visit a pub where welsh speakers congregate that is up to you. I can’t imagine there are many places where people actually speak welsh in such numbers to be an issue. My point centred around the fact that the author is manifesting the very attitudes that make people dislike the welsh language brigade. How dare he preach to this taxi driver, as if… Read more »

Hugh
Guest
Hugh

My wife is a non Welsh speaker, my 10 year old grandson does speak Welsh. I only speak in Welsh to my grandson and he only speaks English to his grandmother. The conversation flips from Welsh to English seamlessly.

Andrew Day
Guest
Andrew Day

Call it a trope if you like, but I can categorically state that I was totally aware of this happening, to me, in a pub in Pembrey in 1974. I had just married a lovely young lady from the village. It was only when I asked the barman for a drink, in English with an English accent that there was initially silence and then people started to speak to each other in Welsh. In my case, after initially putting me off the place and the people, I started to learn more about the history of Wales and the language. When… Read more »

Leia
Guest
Leia

What were they talking about before they switched?

Dafydd Evan Morris
Guest
Dafydd Evan Morris

Replying mostly to Ann Corkett: yes, “a school subject….” : I have an anecdote that I’ve bored some sufferers with in the past, but here goes again. I was “good at French” in school, and got an A grade at O-level to prove that – but it was only when I went to France for a holiday job, the year after I left school, that I really “realised” viscerally that it was what everyone spoke, 24/7. And specifically, it was a three-year-old child who splashed subjunctives all over my ears. His dad, my boss at the holiday job, had just… Read more »

Sean K
Guest
Sean K

Mind you, taxi drivers are a bit like barbers, they generally agree with whatever their customers say 😉

Gisella
Guest
Gisella

I’ve spent about 2 weeks in Wales in all my life, but it was enough to find myself in a similar situation: people speaking Welsh in a pub, an Englishman walks in and complains about Welsh people speaking a language he/non-Welsh can’t understand (I don’t remember if he mentioned specifically people switching to or just speaking it, but I don’t think it makes a big difference overall, does it?) In this case, things got funny when someone told him I’m Italian. So he turns towards me with stunned eyes and asks “why are you learning such a useless language?” “Because… Read more »

Anne Leadbitter
Guest
Anne Leadbitter

I work as an examiner for WJEC marking GCSE and A-level. I love going to Cardiff every year, but think a bit of money might be saved by not sending everything in Welsh as well as English to English examiners who are almost certainly not going to be able to read it. As for the road signs, just use Welsh and learn place names in Welsh. Easier than trying to read 8 or more place names on road signs when you are driving

Rhosddu
Guest
Rhosddu

You’re certainly right about the road signs.
Re. exam bumf: as a bilingual country with two official languages, obviously everything has to be in both.

Jonathan Gammond
Guest
Jonathan Gammond

Wales has two languages and bilingualism is official policy. The latter is a better policy than the alternatives.
As for place names, it is not unusual for different language communities to have different names for the same place; in fact it is incredibly common and a well established historic phenomenon.

'ö-Dzin Tridral
Guest
'ö-Dzin Tridral

A good article. I’m sure people don’t switch to spite someone else – it doesn’t make sense. I think there may be another factor at work, and I’ve noticed it whenever a language I don’t know is being used. My mind seems to automatically attempt to understand the language and latches on to sounds that seem to be words I understand. Eventually I realise I don’t know the language at all. If someone is listening to a Welsh conversation and hears ‘honey’, ‘barn’, ‘wedding’ they might think that English is being spoken and that someone is proposing that they and… Read more »

Alan
Guest
Alan

Mine dig with are add egg eye, do wean tubby oh.