NWR Issue 36

Welsh versus English

For anybody old enough to remember Wales in the 1950s or earlier, the transformation in the status of the Welsh language in the life of Wales over the past 30 years is nothing short of astonishing. Three decades ago, Welsh was to be heard spoken on the streets of north and west Wales, in chapels, and on the occasional late night regional radio or TV programme. But it was generally treated as a hang-over from yesterday's Wales, which in due course would disappear. English was the language of modern life and of the future. Those who chose to pass on their cultural inheritance by bringing up their children Welsh-speaking were liable to be accused of holding their children back, of placing them at a disadvantage. Material prosperity and abandoning Welsh for English was regarded by many as going hand in hand.

Today, the situation in Wales has been turned upside down. The artifacts of everyday life in Wales, be they road signs or headed notepaper, are everywhere becoming bilingual. On television, there is an increasingly populist Welsh language channel under fire, of late, for being too commercial and arranging, with the digital revolution, to broadcast English language programmes as well. In line with the provisions of the 1993 Welsh Language Act, local authorities and other public organisations are abandoning their traditional hostility to providing services in any language other than English. Welsh has become one of the subjects of the National Curriculum but it has not stemmed a steadily growing demand for bilingual schools where a high proportion of subjects are taught through the medium of Welsh. Now, the charge of a small minority of malcontents against those who choose to bring up their children speaking Welsh or send them to bilingual schools is that they are being elitist. They are accused of seeking an unfair advantage for their children in the competition for jobs.

Behind such attitudes lies a Philistine hostility to cultural diversity and a belief that a bilingual society, even if regarded as desirable, will not work. Like American racists of the 1950s or 1960s who mockingly described an integrated neighbourhood as one at the stage between when the first black family moved in and the last white family moved out, they see a bilingual society as ultimately a temporary phase in the shift of Welsh society from speaking Welsh to English.

But this is to misread Wales's history and the social forces now at work. As playwright Gareth Miles remarks in the course of his interview with Hazel Walford Davies (p. 73) "Tout le monde est gallois! - Everybody's Welsh! The explosion in telecommunications and the creation of the world-wide village is resulting in languages the world over having to learn to live alongside English as a dominant imperial language - something Welsh has experienced for many centuries. And English's international footlooseness is paradoxically making Welsh more popular as a key badge of Wales's identity.

The two languages are not mutually exclusive. This century there have been distinguished Welsh writers from a Welsh language background who have written in English - Caradoc Evans, Idris Davies, Glyn Jones to name just three. Distinguished critics like Raymond Garlick have shown a tradition of Welsh writing in English stretches back centuries. But these days there are also leading Welsh language writers with an English language background - Robin Llywelyn and Twm Morris for example. Some like Gwyneth Lewis and Huw Jones (see p. 51) write poetry in both languages. Meanwhile, translation is providing greater access to the work of writers in Welsh (see pp. 16,87, 90) for people who have another first language.

Bilingualism, as we approach the 21st century, should be regarded as a socially enriching phenomenon and not some kind of drawback or threat.


previous editorial: The referendum on a Welsh Assembly
next editorial: The Numbers Game


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