Colloquial and effortless Welsh

Ken Richards says that it is essential for learners to explore the literary culture associated with a language

Colin Miles’ phrase ‘arrested development‘ as applied to the Welsh language was clearly meant to provoke discussion. But what if his interpretation of the situation is based on a superficial knowledge and understanding of the language and its morphology?

Recent experience with the investigation of slate quarrying and education during the 19th Century in north east Wales has provided me with a fairly good idea of the use of language in periodicals and newspapers such as Y Faner and Y Goleuad, and several regional newspapers in England. In the majority of reports the written word in both Welsh and English languages is dense and stilted compared with the language in today’s media reports and editorials.

At the time, there seemed to be a tendency to report what was said verbatim rather than a summary of what took place, peppered with the occasional quotation. One can imagine reporters of the day using the Pitman Method to record each word to be printed at length in next week’s edition. In reading these articles I have often wondered if people actually spoke in such a stilted way in both languages. In later years, the writings of E. Tegla Davies (1880-1967) or O. M. Lloyd (1910-1980) – both respected representatives of chapel and literary society of the early to mid 20th Century – both wrote in fresh, colloquial, effortless and straightforward Welsh. This was hardly the Welsh equivalent of Chaucerian English.

Colin Miles expresses hope in future generations, as we all do. A similar optimism about the future was expressed in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century by the educator Owen M. Edwards (pictured) who made it a lifelong ambition to make the Welsh language accessible to young people. Cymru’r Plant, a magazine for youngsters was first published in 1892. Owen M. Edwards (1858-1920) represented a younger generation of community leaders who challenged the burden placed on them by the previous generation of Victorians, such as the teaching of English only in schools, which contributed to a rapid decline in the use of the Welsh language at the time. When my parents were young during the 1920s and 1930s, Welsh was considered second class in many communities and best kept in the cupboard out of general hearing.

In the present day, Owen Edwards’ ideas about the value of the printed word in accessible format are echoed in the work of the Welsh Book Council to encourage and promote the publication and readership of books in Welsh for children. The list of new and forthcoming books for children on the website is a constant source of inspiration and interest for someone who raised his daughter in the Welsh language in Canada. My speaking in Welsh from her childhood to her early twenties blended handily with the French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Urdu and English we heard spoken by other parents to their children as we shopped in the neighbourhood or travelled on the subway. Today she is practising her Welsh in Sir Fon – Anglesey with other students at an archaeological dig organised by the National Museum of Wales.

There comes a point in learning a language where one accepts the technicalities for what they are and begins to explore the literary culture associated with it. I find it difficult to read and understand the Welsh poetry written before the time of Chaucer, and have experienced frustration with the stilted language of both Welsh and English of the 19th Century. On the other hand, I am captivated by the skill and artistry of today’s poets in Wales who challenge us regularly with the use of the language on Talwrn y Beirdd.

Ken Richards is a retired public servant who lives in Ontario, Canada, with long experience in intergovernmental relations on the environment. Born and raised in Wales he maintains a passion for the Welsh language, poetry and history, as well as a healthy respect for French.

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