As a toddler, I’d sit on dad’s lap as we worked through my picture book, labelling various objects and characters until we reached gwrach (witch), at which point I’d been trained to declare, ‘Mam!’
My family has the freedom to communicate in not one but two languages – English and Welsh. But I was shocked to learn last week that Welsh is still listed as a ‘foreign language’ on the UK Government’s website. Especially since Welsh is one of Britain’s oldest languages, derived from the ancient Brythonic and spoken long before the Roman occupation.
Unfortunately, this invalidation is nothing new. In 1847, a government commissioned report by the Treachery of the Blue Books condemned ‘the evil of the Welsh language’ as ‘a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people’.
It’s important to acknowledge that Wales was the very first country to be colonised by England, first by Edward I in the 13th century and then incorporated into the kingdom by Henry VIII in the 16th century.
Perhaps it’s this historical oppression that means English people feel comfortable insinuating their superiority. I can’t count how many times English folk have jeered about my ‘dead language’.
Throughout the 19th century, schoolchildren caught speaking Welsh were forced to wear a wooden plaque reading ‘W.N.’, or Welsh Not, around their necks. The child left wearing it at the end of the day was physically and psychologically abused, beaten or punished in some way as well as shamed for using their mother tongue. Fuelled by anti-Welsh sentiment from England, the Welsh even came to oppress and disrespect themselves.
In 1965 the village of Capel Celyn – one of the country’s last exclusively Welsh speaking communities – was flooded to provide Liverpool with drinking water, despite 35 out of 36 Welsh MPs (the other neglected to vote) opposing the plan. Yet again, Welsh wants and needs were oppressed by England.
Perhaps this deep-seated stigma is what made me embarrassed to speak Welsh as a teenager. I have had friends and boyfriends to whom I only spoke in English despite Welsh being our first language, and I definitely wouldn’t admit to enjoying Welsh TV, music, books or plays. That stuff was ‘lame’.
During the pandemic Welsh became the fastest growing language on Duolingo in the UK (Picture: Lowri Llewelyn)
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hold this generation accountable for the previous one’s sins. But disrespect towards Celtic languages is rife, with Welsh in particular considered a free for all.
We saw it last March when Snickers UK tweeted a thread beginning ‘a place in Wales or someone sat on a keyboard?’ and last month McDonald’s fell foul of Welsh-language policies by neglecting to provide bilingual translations on digital signs at a restaurant in Caernarfon. Meanwhile the Telegraph tweeted about the ‘reintroduction’ of the Welsh language, as if we hadn’t already been speaking it this whole time. We saw it when a language expert was left ‘speechless’ when asked by Sky News on UNESCO Mother Tongue Day last year whether Welsh was the most ‘pointless’ language. Considered as a whole, this ‘banter’ becomes symptomatic of a wider ignorance and bigotry. We see it when English people emigrate to Wales and complain when only Welsh speakers qualify for jobs (to that, I say: when we’re in Wales, we deserve to communicate in whichever language we prefer). We see it when you don’t make the effort to pronounce our names correctly. We see it when you buy rural holiday homes and change traditional property names into English, not only erasing our history but driving property costs up and young people away – which in turn decimates Welsh-speaking communities.
Things do seem to be changing, slowly. During the pandemic Welsh became the fastest growing language on Duolingo in the UK, perhaps a lack of foreign travel piquing curiosity of what’s closer to home; a Tesco Christmas advert delighted viewers with its nod to the Welsh language; and we were pleasantly surprised by I’m A Celebrity’s careful handling of the language, even going so far as to build a task around Welsh-English translations. Over in Hollywood, Keanu Reeves learnt some Welsh on a gaming podcast while Rob McElhenney communicated with fans in Welsh following his takeover of Wrexham FC alongside Ryan Reynolds. And can we take a moment to appreciate Carol Vorderman absolutely smashing the Welsh weather forecast?
I’ve noticed a surge in speakers around me, from those who haven’t used the language since childhood to English friends wanting to integrate (if I never told you how much it means to me, diolch o galon).
In terms of education, Welsh is compulsory for all Key Stage 4 learners while those who go on to university and choose to study at least 66% of their course in Welsh are eligible for a £1,000 a year scholarship. The Welsh Government‘s goal of reaching a million Welsh speakers by 2050, meanwhile, has already seen significant reinvestment in the language.
With Scotland seemingly determined to leave the union and 31% in Wales backing an independence referendum, if Westminster truly believes in a United Kingdom, it needs to start showing the devolved nations respect – because at present, I don’t and never have felt welcome. It became painfully evident during the pandemic what Westminster thought of us when our First Minister’s letters to Rishi Sunak requesting additional job support measures during the Welsh firebreak period were reportedly snubbed, and a request to Boris Johnson in October asking him to impose a travel ban and protect Welsh communities was rejected.
Westminster needs to acknowledge Welsh as a living, breathing language that like all of the UK’s indigenous tongues, deserves to be taken just as seriously as English. It should be respected, protected and nurtured.