Is Welsh for talking behind backs?

hel clecs cymraegIt is often implied that Welsh-speakers are rude because they often speak their native language in the presence of people who don’t understand it. This is puzzling in several ways, because hardly anybody ever complains about French people speaking French, Portuguese people speaking Portuguese or Greek people speaking Greek. The reason for that, of course, is that it would be a bizzare thing to be unhappy about. Why, then, should it not feel so natural to hear the Welsh doing the same?

I suspect that the main reason is genuine ignorance of the fact that Welsh is so widely spoken in the first place. Before we go further, I should clarify that “ignorant” in this sense is not meant pejoratively at all. If you’d never been to Wales before (or the western areas in particular), and nobody ever told you about the widespread use of Welsh, then why would you have known? Even when you saw all the road signs with the Welsh bits on top, you may have always assumed that it’s a quaint political token gesture. In many ways, given the absence of information about us in the rest of Britain, the assumption was rational. My English wife started university in Bangor in 2006, but she sincerely had no earthly idea that Welsh is spoken widely in the area until she moved in. It wasn’t her fault: nobody told her. It was never mentioned in the literature or on any open days (which is wrong and irresponsible on the university’s part).

The point is that many people are honestly shocked to hear it. Some are pleasantly surprised and intrigued. Some are probably mistakenly mystified about the large numbers of Polish immigrants in deepest Wales. Others, however, seem to react with suspicion, assuming that something must be amiss and that the locals must have an ulterior motive. Since the idea that people actually use Welsh in their day-to-day lives might seem so implausible, the people speaking it around them must be doing so solely in order to exclude them or to gossip about them.

This is also probably why the myth about everyone in the local pub switching en masse from English to Welsh as soon as a tourist wanders inside is so readily believed by many who who hear it.

Needless to say, many people do speak Welsh, and when they do, they discuss all the same boring day-to-day things that everyone else does. There’s no reason to assume that they must be talking about anyone behind their back. And anyway, isn’t eavesdropping rather rude in itself? Unless the conversation directly involves a non-Welsh-speaker, it seems bizzare – and very bad manners! – to insist that they should switch to their second language in order to placate a third party who wants to listen in.

It should also be noted that a person complaining about hearing Welsh spoken in their presence is – by logical extension – essentially advocating for a ban on Welsh in public spaces. That is unavoidably where the argument must lead. Since most crowds or gatherings, even in Welsh’s strongholds, are likely to include at least one non-Welsh-speaker, insisting that the language should not be uttered within that one person’s delicate earshot is tantamount to decreeing that Welsh should only be spoken in private or by appointment. I would hope that we’ve long moved on from such attitudes!

Dylan Llŷr

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19 thoughts on “Is Welsh for talking behind backs?

  1. Dyl dwi hollol cytun, I totally agree, I now have the habit of asking my english counterparts if they could turn to welsh so that i can feel involved, the look on their faces is quiet bizzare, and the main reply is that i can speak english. There is a group of non speakers who do annoy me more, and it is those born and bred here who don’t give a damn about their own heritage and importance of the gift that being able to speak welsh is.

  2. I recall (vaguely) being in a pub once and after my twelfth or thirteenth pint I noticed that everyone else had switched to speaking Klingon! But did I sulk and feel ostracised – no, sir! I joined in; and a very stimulating conversation was had by all.

  3. “Iss not wo you speek iss wozz in your aaaaaaart iniit ! I’s jus as English as you see”. Said no Frenchman in French to an Englishman, ever.

  4. Ever heard the saying when in Rome!! what is wrong with people to think that Welsh shouldn’t be spoken in Wales, it’s just ridiculous, Welsh is a beautiful language, when you go abroad you learn to say a few words of that country, so why should it be any different when you visit Wales, Cymru Am Byth.

  5. Erthygl da iawn.

    Really good article.

    In my experience I have found that the perception that Welsh is “dying” has really hurt the language’s reputation amongst speakers. I spend most of my time explaining that it isn’t dying. It’s decreased since 2001 but we still have more speakers than 1991 or 1981.

    Some of us (Cymry Cymraeg) fuelled the idea that Welsh is dying in order to try and raise support. We need the opposite tactic and to highlight that Welsh is being used, even if it is counter-intuitive.

    We also need many articles in English which can serve as promotion or outreach, and to encourage people to learn. I’m going to send this link to a couple of mates in case they are interested.

  6. The answer is to tell people the truth that when we speak Welsh, we speak a British language, unlike English, which of course is Germanic, and not British.

  7. I completely agree. I’m English and I love hearing the Welsh language spoken. My boyfriend’s family speak Welsh as their first language and I hate that they have the need to switch to English when I’m around just so that one person can understand what’s going on. Therefore, I am learning Welsh and loving it!

  8. I had no idea that Welsh was so widely spoken when I went to Bangor Uni in 1987, but once I found out I enrolled in Cwrs Wlpan and then Cwrs Pellach and learnt it. Gorgeous language which I really miss hearing now I’ve moved back to England after almost 20 years living in Pen Lleyn.

  9. there are a few presumptions as well, you would have to be talking to another welsh speaker about a non welsh speaking person in their presence for it to be considered rude…and that’s assuming they wanted to talk about a non welsh speaking person in their presence. How come so many people who came to Wales had no idea welsh was so widely spoken, should go without saying. I wouldn’t go to Spain and be surprised at how widely spoken Spanish is!!!

  10. I agree, although I do not speak Welsh, I am fully supportive of the language.

    There was a really annoying interview on the Welsh news a few weeks ago. An English woman was complaining that her address was ‘unpronounceable’.

    This is ludicrous! Welsh is easier to pronounce than English. Every letter in the Welsh alphabet has one sound, sWelsh is largely phonetic! Anyway she would not complain if she found a Spanish word ‘unpronouncable’ in Spain!
    Unlike English – consider rough and slough, rain, reign, – I could go on.

    Numbers are easier to!

    My granddaughter attends a Welsh medium nursery school and despite having English speaking parents is doing very well!

    Welsh medium education did not exist in Cardiff when I was a child (I’m 73) and I spent most of my adult life iin England.

    I’ll health prevents me from getting to a class at present. But you never know – I would love to speak Welsh to my grandchildren

  11. i am chester born therefor am british i live in wales and have done for 35years .ihave no problem with welsh being spoken as most speak wenglish and it is quite easy to follow most conversations as they are littered with english words.my passport states i am british are welsh people not british

  12. As a Welsh learner, I feel really sad and guilty when my lack of fluency sometimes results in people switching from Welsh to English mid-conversation. I treasure each chance I have to hear and speak Welsh because it is not so common where I live in SE Wales. Sometimes I dry up or fail to understand, but all I want then is a little prompt for the missing or not understood word. And even if I am so tired that I have to opt out totally, I absolutely do not expect or want people to feel forced to speak English as a result!

  13. A very fair article which sums up the situation very well. The truth is that most English people don’t realise that there are communities that are almost exclusively first language Welsh and consequently they are confused when they come across them. Unfortunately the comparison with France or Spain doesn’t hold since in these countries everyone speaks the language whereas in Wales the vast majority don’t speak Welsh and even in Gwynedd the proportion of Welsh speakers is less than two thirds. This is why people are surprised when they find exclusively Welsh speaking communities. So please let’s stop rehashing ancient prejudices against the English as a whole (most of whom suffered at the hands of the ruling classes of the time also) as some of the previous comments have and lets start explaining the facts that Welsh is a first language in some communities.

    • Ancient prejudices against the English,what a stupid disgusting statement,the English have persecuted the Welsh and it’s language not the other way around . unbelievable.

  14. I lived in Gwynedd for 15 years and I can say that in my experience it is the other way around. Welsh speakers would frequently switch to English to include me in their conversations and chop and change as they felt free.

  15. I hardly ever speak English. My family, friends, acquaintances, most of my work colleagues are first language Welsh speakers. I know first language Welsh speakers who are of Irish, Italian, Polish, French, English, Indian, African, Scottish descent. Their forefathers must have thought it worthwhile to learn Welsh or make sure their children spoke Welsh. Don’t people realise how hurtful it is to Welsh speakers to hear that their language is dying or to be made to feel like second class citizens in their own country for speaking Welsh. Welsh is a living, vibrant and modern language. Welsh is spoken in Wales, get over it!!

  16. I am from South Wales and unfortunately do not speak Welsh. Visiting North Wales has always been a negative experience for me as wherever I have been (shops, museums etc), once I have communicated with all concerned in English (with a South Walian accent), they have proceeded to respond in Welsh – without exception and on every occasion. I have always found it quite rude to be honest.

  17. If the Welsh language is dying, then its been doing so for loner than I’ve been alive…. And will still be dying for a longer time to come..
    Half the problem has been our own perception of others views.. Let us care for ourselves and the rest is just gossip.

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