“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?
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