Living Welsh in a globalised world

Rhys David makes a plea for more radical thinking on how best to fit the language for the modern era






Meri Huws - Welsh Language Commissioner

There will be a significant number of individuals with a knowledge of Welsh at the start of the next century. We know that much from the encouraging evidence in the latest census of more three-year-olds with Welsh – and the likelihood that, with improving health care, further advances in longevity will occur. But just how much Welsh will the then 90-year-olds of the next century and those who have come after them be using in the early 2100s and what sort of ‘Welsh communities’ will then exist?

Tomorrow:

Welsh is a language just like any other

Dafydd Glyn Jones answers Rhys David’s argument by warning against the perils of linguistic re-invention.

The hour glass profile of Welsh speaking – with the middle aged the least likely to be proficient out of Wales’s 3.1 million population – is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise chastening 2011 census report. The bubble of optimism generated by the 2001 report, which showed the first rise in numbers for nearly a century, has been pricked by a fall of some 20,000, and by the sobering loss of majorities in two heartlands – Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. Within a generation there might be no single area of Wales where most people can speak Welsh. The growth of numbers in areas such as Cardiff and Monmouthshire, where opportunities to speak Welsh are limited, can be seen as only limited consolation. The evidence is piling up, too, that while large numbers of Welsh children are being taught through the medium of Welsh, fluency is being lost once they enter the worlds of higher education and work, whether they stay in Wales or, all too frequently, move away.

Meri Huws, in post for a year as Welsh Language Commissioner, the successor body to the Welsh Language Board, recognises the challenges and believes they can be overcome. The elephant in the room is, of course, English. In May nine language commissioners, representing Kosovo, Ireland, South Africa, Catalonia and Wales among others, met to compare notes. “Whatever our languages we all agreed the dominant issue was how to work within an increasingly Anglicised world,” Meri Huws observes.

In its role of encouraging the use of Welsh, as well as ensuring Welsh speakers receive equal and fair treatment, Meri Huws’ Commission wants to see priority given to ensuring young people educated through Welsh go on to use their language skills. That means working with a whole range of organisations to see that Welsh is available in fields as diverse as sports coaching and the arts, in apprenticeships and workplaces, and in higher education. Just as importantly, Welsh has to be a language young people will want to use to communicate with each other in social situations and on social networks, she argues.

Some progress is being made as a wealth of entries to the IWA’s Welsh at Work category in the Inspire Wales Awards makes clear. Individual businesses have made the use of Welsh their calling card in literature and signage and in their greetings and dealings with customers. In bigger organisations and, in particular, the public sector, where a requirement to give Welsh equal status exists, a real culture change is in some cases being achieved. Some of the best work is being done by fire and police authorities, further education colleges and local government. This is helping to create a ‘water-cooler Welsh’ atmosphere where individuals are happy to use their Welsh for casual conversations, as well as in discussions in meetings, in letters and minutes, and on demand with clients and customers. Banks, too, have a good record in this field.

Yet, the challenge of normalising Welsh and getting it off the back foot outside domains such as the home and school, remains vast. It is hard not to conclude that there is a failure to address some of the bigger questions surrounding the future of the language. Difficulty is one of these. Welsh is a hard language to learn, as the legions of people throughout the past century who have learnt it in school but who emerged barely able to put a sentence together, and the equally large number of drop-outs from adult education and home learning also testify.

Nor is it just learners who have had problems. Indeed, a consistent theme running through the entries for Welsh at Work every year is the lack of confidence people have in using Welsh, even individuals brought up in the language. “My Welsh is not good enough,” must be the commonest refrain in Wales. Many proficient speakers will not write in Welsh. Writing in the language is now a craft increasingly confined to a cadre of super-literate Welsh.

What are the problems and can they be resolved? Although it has been around in these isles for 2,500 years or more, perhaps we should think that, as in software, we only have the beta version at present and it needs some reworking to make it fit for purpose. Perhaps, too, we should acknowledge that the idea that more efforts along present lines will ultimately lead to a bilingual Wales where large numbers of people will be able to switch effortlessly between languages as a matter of choice is an unrealistic target. The reality will always be different because not everyone will see the merit of being able to communicate in two two languages.

These observations will inevitably raise hackles but consider the first point, the difficulty of Welsh. The grammar is highly complex with particularly awkward ways of making all forms of subordinate clauses, complex negatives, archaic declensions, and unique formulations such as sydd, a combined relative pronoun and verb (who is, that is). Moreover, there are multiple plural forms, masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives, and a not very satisfactory method of expressing negative commands involving the verb-noun ‘stop’ (peidio). This is before even mentioning mutations which will have entered the language to ease its spoken flow but which because of their irregularity now make writing accurately very hard.

It’s not hard to see why a young person would choose to use English, a stripped down language that is consistently simplifying itself, on Facebook. Welsh suffers, too, from the way the spoken, heavily elided forms have invaded the written as well as the spoken language, obscuring for readers full words and hence their meaning, and adding to the difficulty for listeners not completely familiar with the language. It is as if Cilla Black had been put in charge of English and we had all been taught that “worra lorra” or “you’ve gorra lorra” were the new correct forms of speech.

As a language with a relatively small number of speakers Welsh is always going to be dependent on dominant languages and, in particular, English for the creation of words for new concepts and ideas. Yet, as any visit to a supermarket will demonstrate, little thought seems to have been given to the best way to generate neologisms and how best to get back to roots that fit in with Welsh orthography. Welsh lacks letters for sh, j, and ch  (as in church), yet many English words that are adopted contain these, leading to some very ugly words, such as siwrnai and coetsys, which detract from the dignity of the language. A Welsh equivalent of the Academie Francaise, the body that preserves the purity of French is urgently needed. In principle, languages should always evolve dynamically but Welsh is not currently strong enough to allow this to happen and some guidance is required.

Much more serious and not yet being properly addressed is the atomisation of the speaking population and the loss of communities where most people one might meet in the street would be able to return conversation in Welsh. Valuable as it is to have Welsh speakers in Newport their opportunities outside some very specific domains to converse with other Welsh speakers will be limited and both their fluency and grammar will suffer if Welsh remains only a second or occasional language.

There is the final problem that the small number of creative Welsh individuals writing books, or making films and television programmes, cannot hope to compete for variety and cultural depth with the huge universe of English speakers. Very little of this wider world culture from outside Wales is accessible to Welsh speakers through translation or dubbing. Even the most dedicated Welsh speaker will by default absorb much of his or her culture through English language television channels, newspapers, magazines and books, and will find little similar material on offer in Welsh. If the French are willing to translate Tom Clancy and John Grisham, should Welsh be too proud?

This may sound like a counsel of despair but it is really a plea for greater honesty about the future of Welsh and for more radical thinking on how best to fit the language for the modern world. It is a valid point, as Meri Huws points out, that Welsh has not been considered a factor in policy consideration to date in a way that for example environmental and energy sustainability has. Indeed, though there are hopes this might change, planning guidelines have not made the impact on development decisions on Welsh language communities a consideration in a way it should have.

Encouraging Welsh language speakers to stay in strong Welsh-speaking areas should also be examined. Can we secure their greater participation in sectors such as tourism that now provide the bulk of income and opportunities in those areas? After all, there is little point in Welsh speakers filling posts as translators in Cardiff while English speakers from outside Wales take the opportunities that undoubtedly exist in Welsh speaking heartlands.

The mechanism employed over the past 25 years to support the Welsh language has been to legislate (to ensure fair treatment), to provide (to ensure children can be educated in Welsh) and to facilitate (to encourage use of Welsh in the outside world). This is no longer going to work. If the 90-year-olds of the next century are going to be talking to their grandchildren and posting on whatever takes the place of Facebook in Welsh, the issues facing the language need to be looked at honestly and professionally, and in a much broader context. This work needs to start well before the next census, in 2021, offers us further reason for discomfort.

Rhys David is a Trustee of the IWA. This article was first published in the current issue of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda.