Is Welsh a barbaric tongue?

This is a common accusation aimed at minority languages the world over: that they’re underdeveloped, backwards – the quasimodo of languages. At the same time the mighty, global languages that bestride the world are in peak condition. People are naturally drawn to them because they’re nicer, more rounded and developed. It’s the survival of the fittest. Linguistic study has shown this theory to be bunkum – every language* has developed for thousands of years and is similarly advanced. The global reach of English, Spanish or Arabic has more to do with blood and conquest that any quirk of the languages themselves.

Believe it or not, the English language once faced similar accusations of barbarity. After the Norman Conquest, French became the language of the aristocracy and English was frowned upon as a primitive tongue spoken by lowly serfs. English speakers countered this accusation by arguing that their language had been there before French (an argument many Welsh speakers will be familiar with!) and wrote dictionaries so as to show how developed their language was (another common past-time amongst Welsh academics through the ages). Here’s a quote from linguistic Naomi Baron’s book, Alphabet to E-mail:

“The English, suffering from a long-standing inferiority complex about their language (compared with Latin and French), seized upon dictionaries as both arbiters of correctness and evidence of linguistic legitimacy. When Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English language appeared in 1755, it was hailed as a national milestone.” (Baron 2000: page 100)

As we know, of course, such accusations of barbarity are nonsense. There’s nothing wrong with English, as there’s nothing wrong with Welsh. If you want to say it, you can, in both languages. And if you really don’t have a word for it, you borrow it from somewhere else – including words borrowed to English from Welsh such as bard, corgi, and (possibly) penguin.

There’s no such thing as a ‘barbaric’ language – it’s just a term used to justify the suppression of a language and its replacement by another.

(*apart from invented languages like, say, Klingon or Elvish, obviously)

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