No, you don’t need to speak Welsh to be Welsh.
It’s hard to disagree with that statement. That’s because national identity, although taken for granted by most people, is a nebulous concept to say the least.
What is ‘Welshness’? What defines a Welsh person as different from an English person, or an Irish person, American, French, or Spanish, Mexican or Chinese?
Is it belief in some kind of central idea, like ‘freedom’ or ‘human rights’? Is it religion, ethnicity, language? Or is it just a matter of geography – where you happened to be born, or grew up?
Exceptions can be found to all of these definitions. Passports aside, anyone can sign up to any sort of nationality, no matter how diverse their reasons. Some will have stronger ‘claims’ than others, although no-one will ever check.
National identity is therefore a very convenient weapon with which to hit minority languages. It usually takes a few short exchanges before the aggressor pulls this rabbit out of their hat – ‘I’m a proud Welshman! I support the rugby team. You don’t need to speak Welsh to be Welsh.’
Well, most of Western Europe and Oceania have a rugby team to support as well. If you want to define Welshness as wearing a red shirt instead of a white one for 90 minutes on a Six Nations weekend, and waving an inflated daffodil or sheep above your head, there’s no-one to stop you doing so. And I say this as an obsessive, and proud, supporter or the national team. It’s as valid a reason to feel Welsh as any other, I suppose.
I would argue however that the ‘Welsh’ language and culture go much deeper than nationality. You can’t change it like a rugby top – it’s part of your character, and how you view the world.
Wales is a young country, just like every other. Nation states with sovereign parliaments, and the idea of fixed territorial borders to which one belongs, are a relatively recent concept.
Wales the country may have come about as a result of linguistic and cultural differences to the rest of the British Isles, but those differences are a link to a much older past.
The legacy of languages and cultures which used to span a large part of Europe today clings on to the westernmost tips of the British Isles. Within is an accumulation of thousands of years of human development and ingenuity, and a different and precious perspective with which to view the world.
Different languages and cultures give us a different ways of living, of thinking, and of interacting as a community. They’re part of the variety that makes the world such a creative and interesting place to live.
So if anyone tells you that ‘you don’t need to speak Welsh to be Welsh’ – well, of course you don’t. It runs far deeper than that. A nationality is who you choose to be.
Your languages and the cultures attached to them are your community, your mind-set – they’re you.