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.
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So the worth of a language is reduced to the cash nexus?
‘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”’. I just don’t see this. I’m English by birth and upbringing, but I grew up scarcely thirty miles from the Welsh border and have lived my entire life either in Wales or in England within no more than forty miles of the border. The only non-English TV channel that I’ve been able to receive, both when living in Wales and when living in England, is S4C. Whereas I… Read more »
If I were an alien listening in on planet Earth I would wonder why there seemed to be so many different ways to communicate. Surely one language would unite the entire human race and make them stronger. Of course, we all know speaking the same language doesn’t always make us the same nationality, race, colour etc.. Though it seems to be working for Germany now. Still hard to believe that 99 years after the Prussians helped us beat Napoleon, at Waterloo, we ended up fighting the united German speakers to save the French whom we’d been fighting for centuries, even… Read more »
Welsh is from the original British language. I love Britain …. and so I learn this British language
Just because England and Spain pillaged, spread disease, raped and murdered its way around the world …. doesnt make me want to learn Welsh any less
This comment more or less sums up my feelings. I’m not sure why this comment is rated so negatively, perhaps a visit from some of those types who seem wedded to the idea that only other places can have a native people?
Imagine someone claiming to be English and not knowing nor speaking a word of English. Imagine being unable to read even the Sun or the Daily Star. How English would you regard that person to be?
English by birth I have lived in Wales for nigh on 40 years. My earliest memories are of Welsh holidays , I love the place….my home. I sold my car to follow Wales in Japan last year, I cry at the Millennium Stadium, win or lose. But over all these years I’ve repeatedly failed at learning to speak Welsh . Like it or not we are now a Multicultural country , Wales and the UK , and we will only get along if we embrace one another differences. How is this critique of a well meaning learner helpful in encouraging… Read more »
the “UK” is an utterly soulless corporate brand name created by the English aristocracy in the 1700s – a name used to brutally bash natives around the world with and impose its flag and language
…. its time for intelligent people to question this outdated elitist name
Sooohhh agree with this statement. Welsh, possibly the oldest language on earth, english the youngest.
Have you ever had a crack at any other languages? Achos dyw Cymraeg ddim yn anodd yn fy mrofiad.
‘Dw i’n cytuno. O leiaf, ddim anoddach nag ieithoedd ewropeaidd eraill …
I agree totally I myself from Wales but I rather a friendly disposition from all country’s. At least earth be better place if we learn to live as humans. Right now humanity seems lost. ?
Deleting comments! That’s the way! Censoring other people’s views! You live in your bubble of everyone loves the Welsh language and see what happens x
What does this even mean, tell us more. Who’s deleting comments and what was said !!!!
Why do you hate the original British language?
How exactly does one delete comments on this site?
Pray tell – I might find it useful … 😉
Siomedig Vinny, 9 hrs ago I ask if you would inform as to what comments were being censored and funnily enough there still hasn’t been a reply. Now if I felt I was being censored I would do my best to get the censored comment out otherwise I’m pretty sure people would think I was lying.
Vinny, Dave, Pete; the Wholly Trinity. On this site you have to get used to the phenomenon.
Not to mention ‘Bev’. All the same bloke. Same style of delivery.
Fair play to Chiles, learning Cymraeg, so I shouldn’t really ask the question to what level ? Is it just a few phrases with his mate in a pub or has he taken on a “Say Something In Welsh” coarse. Either way it obviously qualifies his opinion !!! Mind you this Guardian journalist just happened to be sitting next to a Cymraeg Cymro all the way in Australia who thought it was all ok to have a little joke at the expense of OUR language. You couldn’t make it up could you ! But what really p!$$es me off is… Read more »
….Just heard on the news the other day that some types of penguins apparently communicate in a way similar to humans…. That is presumably money well-spent internationally; to play Dr. Doolittle as a “serious” scientist and learn to translate penguin; but preserving the historical namesakes and language of the Welsh, apparently not ranked on the same International to-do list agenda…. I guess it helps to be at least partially non-white…. like penguins….?… And sorry to play the penguin card, just seems fitting…?
ironically the word Penguin .. comes from the Welsh word Pen-Gwyn ….. an old name for the now extinct Great Auk
If you want to stop being mocked then stop being so nice.
Nothing would be healthier for Cymraeg than Cymry who are absolute Dominic Raab level c*nts. Wales’ biggest problem as a country is that you cant be as bad as Raab in Welsh. And if you cant be bad, or a bit evil, it’s just not fun.
If Cymraeg is pointless surely being Welsh is also pointless? If fact, Wales must be pointless, too. Isn’t that the logical conclusion of that line of thought?
Of course such ‘jokes’ are not funny. The very existence of the Welsh language is a big psychological threat for large numbers over the border whose rulers have for centuries been encouraging them to consider Wales as (initially) part of England and (since 1974) as part of the ‘British nation’. It’s now deeply rooted. Dismissive humour is a useful weapon to emasculate the power of the language to individuate the Welsh as a separate nation. Treat the language as being of little consequence and a source of sniggering and you treat the people as being hardly worthy of serious consideration.… Read more »
This “threat” -thing is very interesting, as people often laugh at things they are afraid of………..
There are mountains of evidence to show that bilingual people are better at resolving and solving problems. This is because each language gives one a different perspectives on everything, it is therefore important for people to appreciate other languages. With dyslexia I have difficulty even with English and see things and problems differently. Would have loved to have learned a second language, but was considered not to be educationally capable to do so, did not learn to read until 7yesrs old, now with two degrees plus other qualification, I am trying to learn Welsh for a number of reasons 1.… Read more »
Brilliant post! And cap off, also.
Why is that some English seem at every chance to have a go at the Welsh either their language or the people themselves,remember this language is the oldest in Europe and should be respected,I moved to England when I was quite young and can’t speak Welsh as I came from a non speaking area,but I have on very many occasions had to defend my heritage,some physically,that how cruel some people can be,and why is it the Welsh are rubbished by the English but they can’t wait to move there when they retire,not realising they are diluting the language and bringing… Read more »
It comes down to laziness in our day and age, if we picked up a book and really studied the language we could all be speaking it instead of investing our time on whether it’s useful or not. It’s pretty simple, it’s not useful if you don’t understand it. It’s more useful in Wales and Patagonia than let’s say Camden. It’s the oldest native language to Britain, that’s about as much as you need to know. Just pick up a book and learn the language.