Welsh is a language just like any other

Dafydd Glyn Jones warns against the perils of linguistic re-invention

Rhys David, considering the disastrous language statistics of 2011, (Living Welsh in a globalised world), makes a number of suggestions. Some of them concern “how best to make the language fit for the modern world”. The question is whether we can make a language ‘fit’ for anything, and I shall answer it now by saying that obviously we cannot.

Rhys David says, “A Welsh equivalent of the Académie Française, the body that preserves the purity of  French is urgently needed.” There was, and there still is in name, an ‘Academi Gymreig’ or ‘Welsh Academy’, now calling itself ‘Academi’ and functioning most of the time as ‘Llenyddiaeth Cymru’ or ‘Literature Wales’. Its one major foray into linguistic work being to The Welsh Academy English-Welsh Dictionary, edited by Bruce Griffiths and myself.

It may be regretted that the Academy plans no further enterprises of this kind, having devoted itself to other pursuits, for the most part entirely frivolous. As an editorial team we were motivated by one central consideration: that anything which can be said in English can, in so far as a dictionary can demonstrate, be said in Welsh. Or to put it differently, that Welsh is a language just like any other. We tried to reflect its versatility, its variety of registers, its different levels of correctness or naturalness, and its wealth of regional variations – knowing that we could never do full justice to the resources available. We did not do much coining, for much good work had already been done. Occasionally we would reject a spurious coinage. We did not ‘do’ anything to the language, or ‘make it do’ anything that it was not already doing, because we knew from the start that this would be impossible.

Rhys David apparently wants to make Welsh less difficult. The matter of ‘difficulty’ as such can have two interpretations. The first, and the one most often meant when people use the word, is that Welsh is different from English, in spite of its very many lexical borrowings therefrom. The other, as when Emrys ap Iwan proudly declared “Welsh is a difficult and complex language”, implies copiousness and subtlety.

Whichever meaning we ascribe, both of them alike demand that, as a first premise, we accept a language for what it is. If ‘Academi’ today returned to its former preoccupation, or if a new body were created for the purpose, neither of them could ‘make’ a language less difficult, less of this, more of that, anything other than what it is.

‘Reforming’ a language has been tried in the past, notably by Dr William Owen-Pughe at the turn of the 19th Century. He had his followers, so that Sir John Morris-Jones had to spend the greater part of his career reminding the literary world what literary Welsh actually was before the great charlatan started messing around. One is rightly suspicious of any ‘brand’ of Welsh designated by an adjective and packaged for the market. The ‘Cymraeg Byw’ of the 1960s seems to have gone the way of most patent medicines, and one wonders for how much longer a watery concoction labelled ‘Cymraeg Clir’ will continue to be peddled to a gullible public by Canolfan Bedwyr in Bangor.

Anticipating a raising of hackles, Rhys David writes:

“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 articles, and a not very satisfactory method of expressing negative commands involving the verb-noun ‘stop’ (peidio).  This is before ever mentioning mutations … “

What an appalling language! Should we not scrap it altogether, and invent an entirely new language, calling it Welsh? Even if any of this were true, how would Rhys David alter the situation? What less ‘awkward’ forms of subordinate clauses would he suggest? Which negatives, which declensions, which plural forms would he suspend? How else would he make a negative command? What would he put instead of the relative ‘sydd’?

If we were to abandon gender, would nearly all European languages then be expected to follow suit? I shall answer all the questions for him by saying that none of this can be done. No academy, no university, no committee, no body of people, no individual can change the character of a language by design. Once the proposal is made we are well on the way back to the crackpottery of William Owen-Pughe.

The analysis suffers also from a failure to distinguish between a language which is very largely phonymic and one which is not phonymic at all. “Welsh lacks letters for sh, j and ch (as in church).” Does English have a ‘letter’ (i.e. a symbol) for ‘sh’?  If so, why does it have to be represented by two ‘letters’? I know the question is ridiculous, but so is the statement that prompted it. The phoneme /tò/ is represented perfectly well by ‘tsh’ (as in ‘coetshys’), and the phoneme /ò/ by ‘s’ before a vowel (as in ‘siwrnai’).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with either of these forms, and I had never before in my life seen or heard anyone suggest that there is. Welsh has, of course, a symbol for ‘j’.  It is ‘j’, and we should put it in the alphabet, as Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (The University of Wales Dictionary) has already done in practice. ‘Ch’ (as in ‘church’) requires more consideration. ‘Tj’ is sometimes suggested, but in ‘tjips’ I still tend to read ‘t’ and ‘j’ separately. ‘Ts’ or ‘tsh’ I find smoother. And if ‘ch’ is the ‘letter’ for ‘ch’ as in ‘church’, what does ‘ch’ as in ‘chemist’ represent?  This again is ridiculous, but we have entered a mad world.

Sh, ch, subordinate clauses, negatives, declensions, plurals, gender, – most languages have them. None of them, and not all of them together, can explain the disappearance of 30,000 speakers in ten years. The explanation must be sought in the realm of social psychology, and the seeker should, if at all possible, try to answer the two questions:

  • Why were such promising figures obtained in the two previous Censuses?
  • What caused such a collapse in ten years under a measure of home rule?

With the ‘inferiority factor’, the notion that, all else being equal, a knowledge of Welsh immediately consigns the individual to an inferior group, we are all familiar. It has been with us for a long time, and is part of ‘being Welsh’. But why the sudden uprush in this New Wales which was also, for a few years, Cool Cymru?

One thing is certain. To blame the character of a language, its grammar, for a problem whose origin is so obviously ideological, is to take a very firm hold on the wrong end of the stick. We can indeed agree that “the issues facing the language need to be looked at honestly and professionally, and in a much broader context”. But we could help by not allowing such arguments as can only be characterised as absolute drivel.

Dafydd Glyn Jones is a former Reader in Welsh Language and Literature at the University of Wales, Bangor.

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