Is the Welsh language irrelevant?

Here’s a familiar refrain:

“All Welsh language speakers can also speak English, so what’s the point? The Welsh language is an irrelevance.”

That’s the polite way of putting it. And this is probably the most common complaint about the Welsh language. What’s the point speaking two languages, when one would do? However, this argument only holds water if you consider languages to be nothing more than a means of orally transferring information to another people.

First, some context. More than half of the world’s population use two or more languages every day. So bilingualism is the norm, rather than the exception. Monolinguals, those who can only speak one language, are actually in the minority. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about bilingualism.

However, for a long time having a world that only speaks one united language was considered a good thing. This perspective has its roots in the Christian belief that we all used to speak the same language before building the Tower of Babel and were punished by God who “scattered them upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages” (Genesis 11:5–8).

But surely the dear old Bible had a point here – simply from a practical point of view, wouldn’t it all be better if we could all understand each other?

Well, not necessarily. There’s no proof that being able to understand each other ever solved an argument. Some of the worst genocide in history was conducted by people on people who could understand each other perfectly well.

Secondly, no one is arguing that a global language wouldn’t be a good thing, be that English or Mandarin or Spanish or whatever. It would clearly be advantageous to be understood anywhere in the world. However, there’s no reason why that shouldn’t stop people being able to speak a second language as well. Most people, worldwide, speak one international language and one language that’s tied to their own cultural identity.

Anyone who can speak more than two languages knows that languages have worth beyond simply being a way of communicating. Languages are completely different ways of seeing the world. You can convey things in Welsh that you can’t in English, and vice versa, because words in different languages have different meanings. They have a different flavour to them.

Consider musical instruments. They are at the most basic level a means of producing sound, just as languages are a means of communicating information.

Should all violins be scrapped, therefore, just because most people prefer guitars? Or is the music produced by violins sufficiently unique that they should be preserved, despite the guitar’s popularity?

What about tigers? There are plenty of common house cats around. Since the tiger is just another type of cat, wouldn’t it be better to stop spending millions trying to save them? Or is the tiger sufficiently unique, and gives us enough pleasure, that its loss would be a tragedy for humanity?

As Michael Krauss says (quoted in David Crystal 2000: 36):

Surely, just as the extinction of any animal species diminishes our world, so does the extinction of any language. Surely we linguists know, and the general public can sense, that any language is a supreme achievement of a uniquely human collective genius, as divine and endless a mystery as a living organism. Should we mourn the loss of Eyak or Ubykh any less than the loss of the panda or the California condor?

Despite this, it would be very hard to convince anyone who has only ever seen a house cat, or only ever heard a guitar, that other varieties of the same thing, big or small or differently shaped, are worth saving. And that’s the situation we find ourselves in with languages. The loudest proponents of having one and only one language that everyone must exclusively speak, are usually the people who can only speak that language – and, of course, it’s their language (be it English, Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, etc) that’s the only one worth saving.

Languages are unique in other ways. They reflect the history and the culture and the landscape of the people who spoke them over thousands of years. The Welsh language seems to shudder up from the roots of the mountains on which it was formed. And because they’re so tied to the cultures in which they formed, losing a language isn’t just a matter of losing words. There are more than 1,000 years of recorded prose and poetry in the Welsh language. Some of it could be translated, but not without losing most of the essence of what made it what it is. Would the complete works of Shakespeare work just as well in Chinese? Would Dickens read equally as well in Spanish?  I would argue that they would lose a lot of what made them great in the first place. They would lose the uniqueness of the features of the language in which they were written and in which the authors intended them to be read, as well as the intertextuality that binds all the written works in that culture together.

It’s not as if Welsh is confined to dusty books, either – like English, it is a living language. It is spoken widely in households and schools and on street corners and in offices up and down Wales every day. The internet, TV, radio, print, are all abuzz with Welsh language activity. It lives, it breathes, it’s still with us.

If, after all of that, you can’t bring yourself to care for any language other than English – consider this. Most of the words in the English language are borrowed from other languages. If those other languages did not exist, from whence would the language get its words? There’s an ecology of languages, just as there is an ecology of animals. Some may be at the top of the food chain, but they all support and feed off each other.

Lastly I can only offer this observation: My life is greatly enriched by my ability to speak Welsh. I am yet to meet a single fluent Welsh speaker who would prefer the language not to exist. Since I and others who can speak the language consider it to be such a good and enriching thing, I suppose you’ll just have to take our word for it! If that’s not enough for you, perhaps you should learn it and find out for yourself.

Ifan Morgan Jones

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6 thoughts on “Is the Welsh language irrelevant?

  1. In my school’s debating society in the early ’50s, one supporter of the motion on the floor (‘This house believes the Welsh language should be abolished’) thought he helped his cause by saying, “They don’t even have their own word for ‘Sputnik’!” I can’t recall which ‘house’ won the debate, but I’ll never forget that piece of ‘logic’.

  2. Similarly, of all people I believe it was Neil Kinnock who said something like ‘Welsh will never be a language of commerce – it doesn’t even have a word for entrepreneur.’ Thanks Neil, nice to know where your heart is.

  3. You spoil your case a little by exaggeration. “2,000 years of recorded prose and poetry in the Welsh language” No, sorry. There is nothing but a few place and personal names, usually Latinised, for almost all of the first part of that period. And in any case the language at that time, British, was as different from modern Welsh as say Latin is from Spanish, you simply wouldn’t recognise it. Even Old Welsh can baffle the experts, from the 9th Century, one of the earliest connected texts, “niguorcosam nemheunaur henoid / mitelu nit gurmaur / mi amfranc dam ancalaur …”, clear as mud, yes. Early Middle Welsh verse starts to be recognisable, and Late Middle Welsh prose isn’t difficult once you get used to the spelling, from an English perspective it would be on a par with Shakespeare rather than Chaucer. All good stuff, and some often moving, memorable (and untranslatable) lines, but it doesn’t go back to Adam, no language does. What is important is that it developed in Wales (and the Old North), where the history of the long rearguard action in the face of the English, formed its character. And as the man says, “We’re still here!”

    “I am yet to meet a single fluent Welsh speaker who would prefer the language not to exist”. Beth am y teuluoedd gan un (neu ddau!) rhiant sy’n medru Cymraeg, ond sy’n peidio â’i siarad hi wrth eu plant? Mae ‘na lawer ohonyn nhw, mae’n debig.

  4. How sad. “The Welsh language is irrelevant” is a phrase only non-welsh-speakers could say.
    Monolingual people always think their language is the best and only one. They should go back to school to learn again. The more languages you can speak the better. That’s obvious.
    MANDARIN is the most spoken language in the world so all english speakers should stop speaking english and start speaking only mandarin. Is this what you mean?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_number_of_native_speakers

  5. The Bible scarcely suggests that one language would be better. It was God who gave people many languages in order to get them to spread out. The tower of Babel was a symbol of man’s sense of independence from God, and the state of development that this civilisation had would have resulted in the world going in a different direction, probably the one it is going in now, before its time.

    • True to character, the dictatorial OT God is shown using literally the oldest trick in the book, Divide and Conquer 🙂

      As long as the Welsh were bound together by a common language they had a chance. Now they’re divided in more ways than one. While I’m no fan of religion, it must be admitted that in their day the Welsh chapels were an important force for education and Welsh literacy. Literary Welsh was a slightly artificial language, but one common to the whole country. For the last few decades though no one seems to have been teaching it. A study has shown that very many native speakers lack confidence in using Welsh, while learners just get taught the local slang forms nowadays, different from one place to another. This doesn’t happen with other languages, or when foreigners learn English, why is Welsh singled out?

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