Why jibes about the Welsh language aren’t funny
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
It’s hard to be too mad at someone who is making an effort to learn the Welsh language and has very nice things to say about it.
So, it is certainly not anger I feel towards the TV presenter Adrian Chiles for his intervention in the latest row about the language being undermined and sneered at.
Indeed, there is much to commend about the piece about the language that he wrote for the Guardian and I must confess that some of what he said left me with a warm glow. He does seem like somewhat of a good egg so to speak. His columns for the Guardian are refreshingly whimsical and often rather thoughtful.
I had no idea he was learning Welsh. He is one of many celebrities to take up the language over recent years, and this seems to reflect what is happening in our society as a whole. Other public figures that have embraced the language and started to learn it include the broadcaster and journalist Jeremy Vine, Countdown legend Carol Vorderman, and Apprentice winner and entrepreneur Alana Spencer. They have looked beyond the stultifying confines of Anglo-centrism and seen the value of the language.
For those who don’t know, a firestorm was unleashed when Guardian columnist Zoe Williams suggested that the Welsh language is “existentially pointless”. She then went on to dig an even bigger hole for herself in what I can only assume was meant to be a defence, when she described the language as “low reward”.
Chiles refers to the row, but does not name his fellow columnist. He decided to address the issue in his column after a number of his Welsh-speaking friends were upset by Williams’ jibe. He goes on to both rebut and indulge her view. I don’t doubt his sincerity, but it almost feels like a triangulation, something of a third way that doesn’t quite please anyone. Perhaps there was an element of not wanting to criticise a colleague too harshly. I have no such restraints.
He said: “If the number of people in the world who speak a particular language is your measure, it’s a fair point. If the number of people who speak that language, but not English, is your measure, then you have a fair point, too. I have held both of these opinions for most of my life. Proud as I am of my rather poor Croatian, I am ashamed to say I often wondered if French, Spanish or Mandarin might have had more point to them.”
Unfortunately, he does lend Williams’ views an air of legitimacy. The whole point is that it is the wrong metric. It’s like trying to measure metric tonnes using a ruler. Chiles goes on to if not acknowledge that the metric is the incorrect one, at least to explain that he now uses a different one.
He said: “But now I finally get the point of learning a language for its own sake, and that has come through learning Welsh, from scratch, in a short time. I do very few things mindfully, but you cannot learn a language intensively without being completely absorbed in the moment, and I have found the whole process incredibly soothing.”
He then goes on to describe the real human connections that can be made through learning a new language, and how it has enabled him to see the world in a different way.
He said: “I have been friends with a Welsh speaker, the football journalist Bryn Law, for more than 30 years now. The other evening, we briefly crossed paths in a London pub. I said something to him in Welsh, he replied in Welsh, and then I actually said something back. And there the exchange ended, but in some small way we were both exhilarated. It was really something: pointless, it definitely wasn’t. As soon as you formulate any sentence in a newly acquired language, I am sure you start seeing the world from a new angle, through a new prism.”
I wish the column could have finished here really, but it circled back to where it began, to a legitimisation of calling the Welsh language pointless.
Chiles wrote the column in Australia, on Sydney’s Manly ferry, and the young man sat next to him just so happened to be a first-language Welsh-speaker from Cardiff called Tomos. He explained to the young man what he was writing about and asked him if the jibes about the Welsh language annoyed him.
“Nah mate,” Tomos replied. “It’s quite funny.”
I’m afraid I am going to have to strongly disagree with my compatriot on this one.
There was a time when I might have responded in a similar way to Tomos. There was a time when I might have been more indulgent of this sort of attitude. But then I started to think about it, and what I thought about made me angry. I think it’s fair to say that I am not quite so indulgent any more.
The reason that I accepted such attitudes was that deep down I didn’t feel that the language was as worthy of esteem, and this that I wasn’t either. I am angry about being made to feel this way. That feeling that you’re not quite good enough. It is a pernicious lie. The other reason I accepted such attitudes was that I didn’t quite understand the damaging impact they had.
Every argument made against the Welsh language is based on the premise that it is at best pointless and at worst harmful. It is the idea behind the decline of the language. It is directly responsible. It continues to be a threat. Whenever someone argues against Welsh-medium education, they say that it is a waste of money, which is another way of saying that it is pointless.
It is challenging the idea that the language pointless that has meant that what was in freefall has now stabilised. Challenging that idea is essential to the language’s survival.
That’s why when jokes about it being pointless are made, it isn’t just a joke. It is part of a culture and a system that is arrayed against Welsh speakers, that tells them they should know their place.
Childs does challenge that idea in his piece and that is worthy of praise in my view. After all he does ask: “And why do we English apparently feel we can mock the Welsh language with impunity?”
An indication perhaps that attitudes towards the language are shifting in the right direction. For me though, it still doesn’t go quite far enough.