OF WALES & THE WELSH
Greg Lance – Watkins
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Ellie Mae O’Hagan with her Irish colouring & Irish name laments her loss of her language as a child, Welsh! I can empathise with her feelings of loss as I too have forgotten the languages I have learned, mostly badly, though I have never lost my own language English, unlike my cousin who having moved to Germany with total immersion in the language found he had lost his English & had to relearn the language of his childhood!
Having had the privillege of extensive travel I have learned many languages all of which I forgot as I learned the new language where I lived. The languages vary as a result of my homes from Urdu, Hindi, Gujeratti to Arabic, a little Cantonese & some Malay – I have also forgotten the languages German, Swiss German, Dutch & Italian some Portuguese and a bit of Spanish most I spoke poorly but sufficiently to cope with everyday life some to conversational level.
I learned French at school & was hopeless at it & never mastered it despite time in France and 10 years in South Africa did absolutely nothing towards my learning Afrikaans just as 30 years in Wales & I never learned the language. French failed with me largely due to compulsion! Afrikaans was never an option for me as foolishly the Afrikaaners had weaponised their language & would not infrequently refuse to use English which clearly they were able to speak and it was the language of apartheid which I abhored – It is foolish for many (particularly some Welsh Racists) to insist on compulsion as it is the fastest way to kill a language as it breeds divisions, resentment & often hatred.
Forget, at ones peril, that compulsory Afrikaans in schools was the foundation cause of the SOWETO riots that led to the fall of the South African Government!
Losing my Welsh: what it feels like to forget a language
After being fluent in the language as a child, today Ellie finds herself painfully searching for words on Google Translate
If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would one day start forgetting how to speak Welsh, I would have been incredulous. Growing up, the Welsh language was such a central part of my life and identity that forgetting it would have seemed as likely as my arm spontaneously falling off. And yet here I am, 10 years later, shamefully putting Welsh words into Google Translate to make sure I’ve got them right.
Memory is a mysterious thing; we’ve all had the feeling of estrangement from places and things we once felt an almost psychic connection with. But there is a peculiar panic that comes with forgetting a language you spoke fluently as a child. My heart skips a beat every time I realise another Welsh word has disappeared from my vocabulary. It’s like trying to grasp a solid object that has started to disintegrate in front of you. You’re always a step behind; never quite fast enough to reach out and stop it from crumbling.
I’ve tried to understand where this panic comes from, and I think it’s that – more than any other cultural indicators – language has an intimacy and power that shapes a person existentially. As I write often about Latin America, I have a lot of friends who are bilingual in English and Spanish. We talk a lot about the differences between their English and Spanish “personalities,” and more and more as my Spanish improves, I am getting to know the Spanish version of myself (she’s less withering than the English-speaking version). Losing Welsh, then, is like losing a whole person. And, because I learned Welsh as part of learning to speak altogether, that seems like a very fundamental loss. I’ve dabbled in learning other languages as I’ve grown up – French, Spanish, even Russian – but when I forget those I accept it as inevitable. I don’t feel that way about Welsh, it’s too personal.
The Welsh language has a unique character which reminds me of the country’s landscapes and history. For example, the Welsh version of describing something as “music to my ears” is “mêl ar fy mysedd,” or “honey on my fingers”. To me that’s so much more poetic and sensual than the English idiom, and it reminds me of Wales’ history of poetry and song, and the fact that living in Wales – with its huge mountains, long beaches and 365-day rain cycle – is often a very sensory experience. There is something ancient about that phrase: when I say it I can almost feel how old the Welsh language is. Perhaps the fact that languages are embodied with so much culture and history is why it feels so poignant to forget them, and so painful.
I’ve coped with forgetting Welsh by becoming progressively more patriotic, something unimaginable to my teenage self who found Welsh culture rather gauche. I now insist on speaking Welsh whenever I met a fellow Welsh speaker, I watch Welsh TV sometimes, and I’m famous for bursting into song in Welsh whenever I’ve had too much to drink. Part of this exaggerated Welshness is a reaction to the urban snootiness I’ve occasionally encountered since moving to London, but it’s also about trying to hold on to an identity I can feel slipping away. No longer being surrounded by the Welsh language is one of the most concrete forms of evidence that I’ve left my community behind, and that can make one feel somewhat rudderless.
In their paper The Power of Language, professors Johannes Weiß and Thomas Schwietring argue that groups who share a common language possess a sense of “belonging and belonging together”. I like speaking Welsh these days because doing so immediately evokes that feeling of belonging – the kind of unquestioning, annoyed-by-your-parents feeling of belonging that one has as a child. I even get that feeling of belonging when I speak Welsh in London with complete strangers.
There is a Welsh Centre in King’s Cross, London, with a Welsh flag hanging outside. I’ve always felt too embarrassed to go, but I wonder if it’s full of Welsh people like me who feel slightly orphaned in London. I think the answer for those of us who have left our languages behind is to keep up practise and maintain regular contact with our communities (I’m not making an argument against multiculturalism, I hasten to add). I hope that my personality and memory is big enough so that my experience of London doesn’t replace my Welsh identity but complements it, and maybe ultimately allows me to understand Wales and its language in a new, thankful, and more grown-up way. I hope so, or as we say in Welsh: gobeithio.
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in the interest of accuracy material in the main text in blue was written by someone other than myself.
When in black text the wording ‘Welsh Language’ means the ‘Language of the peoples of Wales’ and is therefore the majority language ie ‘English’
The ancient language of parts of Wales, varied as it is, as spoken by a tiny minority in Wales is called ‘Welsh’ or ‘the ancient Welsh language’
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