The arrested development of Welsh

Colin Miles says the future of our ancient tongue lies with the next generation

Very few people beyond the age of 10 have the natural ability with languages that they had up to the age of about 5. I am certainly not a natural linguist and just passed French and Latin at O-level. I also did a year of German before dropping it in favour of Music. I also tried to teach myself Russian in the 6th form, but never got much beyond the alphabet!

In the past 30 years I have had, through computer programming, what is best described as a nodding acquaintance with other European languages like Spanish, Danish, Norwegian, Italian, Swedish, Dutch and Norwegian. Nowadays the main tasks as far as Welsh is concerned are overseeing the translation of a constantly changing web site into Welsh and trying to extend my vocabulary and understanding by reading.

Welsh is a difficult language and it needs all the help it can get to survive in a world where English, for better or worse, is dominant. Yes, if you are good at languages, which some clearly are, then you will learn it and become fluent. However, most people over the age of 10 aren’t. This is a major stumbling block. Most people who are native speakers or good at languages don’t understand the problems that the rest of us have.

It reminds me of the two mathematics teachers I had in the sixth form. One was a natural mathematician who could never understand why us students found the perfectly ‘obvious’ so difficult. The other teacher struggled like the rest of us and we learnt far more from him. Think back, if not maths, then you will have surely encountered this situation in some other subject.

Most people learning Welsh, young or old, will already be English speaking. Wales is a small country with a small population. It is difficult to get a critical mass of numbers in anything, whether it is supporting a TV station or a football team in a country where the main passion lies in another sport. Of course, English has many peculiarities and deficiencies, as all languages have. But it doesn’t suffer from mutations, myriads of yeses and noes, innumerable ways of forming plurals, and overabundance of apostrophes. Pointing out English language deficiencies may possibly generate a better tolerance of Welsh peculiarities but actually does little to help the English speaker learning Welsh.

All languages are ‘valuable’ as they represent both variety in culture and different ways of thinking. Sadly, not all survive or will survive. Nowadays all languages face the problem of the dominance of English in a very interconnected world. I could cite endless examples of where different nationalities converse in English, including one where the languages were sufficiently similar to for the participants to understand each, but chose to use English not to lose face. But that is all irrelevant.

To me the biggest stumbling block in the survival of Welsh is the attitude of native Welsh speakers to their own language. Undoubtedly, people feel under pressure, but the worst thing you can do is take up an extreme position. This merely alienates the rest of us and polarises everything – as some of the comments on a previous article I contributed to ClickonWales demonstrate here.

Let me mention a couple of the strengths of English, both of which cause problems for other languages like Welsh. Firstly it has an absolutely enormous vocabulary. It has many words which can be used to describe a situation – OK, we bow down to the Welsh regarding rain. This causes problems in translation, but I do feel that Welsh translators are either unduly cavalier or careless in their approach such that the end results are mistranslations. And I am not just thinking of TV sub-titles where that is the overall impression. Even if the Welsh is slang the English has to be ‘tidy’.

The other strength is the ‘use’ of other languages. If we English like a foreign word or term we use it. Maybe we Anglicise it a bit but often we don’t. For some reason Welsh translators don’t seem to want to do this and dutifully translate non-English words or phrases which are perfectly acceptable to English speakers. As a chess player I am totally happy with the term ‘en passant’. When looking up foreign terms in the big Welsh dictionary I see this is translated. Why? I can’t even think of what I would say in English. In a similar vein we have Welsh translators dutifully translating ‘Speaking Welsh’ into – Welsh!

One of the problems the Welsh language has faced over the past 150 years could best be described as ‘arrested development’. By that I mean it hasn’t had the chance to ‘modernise’ itself. Indeed, until the revival of the 1960s its very survival was in doubt. Since then, if you look at the developments that have taken place, some ‘modernisation’ and ‘standardisation’ has occurred. But it is very much just tinkering and creates problems with regard to older, but relatively recent texts. Reading a 1950s history of a Welsh chapel is a bit like trying to read Chaucerian English.

The future of Welsh lies with the younger generation. If sufficient numbers are genuinely fluent and continue to use the language outside the school and beyond when they become adults, then it will survive. But too often the language is being left at the school gates, and if you don’t use it you lose it.

Colin Miles was educated Cheltenham Grammar School, attended Swansea University, studied Chemical Engineering at Edmonton, Alberta in Canada, and Hull, and lived in Hemel Hempstead between 1968 to 2004, before retiring to Llannon in Ceredigion.

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