So, tell me, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?
For the last couple of days, I have been staying on Cardigan Bay in West Wales.
When you walk in the streets and go into shops in Cardigan – or Aberteifi as it is now pointlessly half-re-named – people are sometimes speaking Welsh not English to each other. It was not until I worked in Ireland that I started to think the propagation of the Welsh language is ridiculously pointless.
If a language is dead, let it die. If it is still alive, it will survive without heavy-handed insistence that it must be used.
What is very relevant to this blog is the fact I am Scottish not English. Remember that my mother’s grandmother did not speak English until, in her late teens I think, she came down from the hills. The image of my grandmother coming down from the hills is one a friend of mine finds peculiarly funny but, anyway, my mother’s grandmother originally spoke Scots Gaelic as her native tongue, not English.
I once spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where I admired and was fascinated by how, in shops, people would speak to each other in sentences that meandered almost randomly between English and Gaelic words and phrases. They used whichever words and phrases came more naturally and fitted better. Sometimes the words were Gaelic, sometimes English; all within the same sentence.
I once had an interview for a job with Grampian Television in Aberdeen which basically transmitted to the Highlands while Scottish Television transmitted to the Lowlands. The conversation came round to starting a number of Gaelic-language programmes transmitted on Grampian (part of ITV) and on BBC Scotland. I said I thought it was silly because such a relatively small percentage of Scottish television viewers – by then almost entirely in the Western Isles with a small smattering in the Highlands – actually spoke Gaelic as their natural tongue.
The Grampian TV executive interviewing me was highly miffed.
“Ah! But you’re English!” he said to me.
“I was born in Campbeltown and partly brought up in Aberdeen,” I told him. “Where were you born?”
“London,” he said.
I did not get the job.
Later, I did a lot of freelance work over many years for HTV in Cardiff – or Caerdydd as it is now pointlessly half-re-named. It’s a bit like re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City when most of the inhabitants continue to call it Saigon.
As far as I remember, when I started working in South Wales, almost all the local signs were in English. I mean the road signs and the general retail shop signs.
At some point, almost imperceptibly, dual language signs started appearing, usually with the Welsh version first.
At around this time, or maybe a little later, there was an extended period where my full-time freelance work alternated between working for HTV in Cardiff and Tara TV in Dublin.
In Dublin, I could see old, rotting, rusting and ignored street signs in Irish Gaelic. All the current signs were in English. This was the period when the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ was on the rise and the Irish Republic had re-discovered its self-confidence.
It is very relevant that I was once sitting in an edit suite at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, directing a trailer for an RTE television programme which included an interview in which someone said a couple of sentences in Irish Gaelic.
“What did he say?” I asked the Irish videotape editor sitting with me.
“No idea,” he told me.
We had three other Irish people come into the suite. None of them knew what the Gaelic words meant. They had all had to ‘learn’ Gaelic at school but, just like British schoolkids who do five years of French at school, they could not speak and could barely understand the language because it was bugger-all use to them in everyday life.
It was at this time – alternating my time sometimes one week here/ one week there/ one week here/ one week there between Cardiff and Dublin – that I began to think the Welsh language was just plain silly.
It was silly because it was a mostly dead language being revived and imposed by a clique on a predominantly non-Welsh-speaking population.
One week, I returned to Cardiff from Dublin to find that the local Tesco store had changed all its signs to dual-language Welsh and English signs. Someone (Welsh) told me in near-disbelief that all the signs at the Tesco store in Abergavenny, where she lived, had also been changed.
“I swear to God, no-one bloody speaks Welsh in Abergavenny!” she told me.
By the time I stopped working at HTV, Lloyds Bank was calling itself Banc Lloyds (it has since re-re-branded itself simply as Lloyds TSB) and other shops and businesses were doing the same: making up their own names in Welsh. Mostly, I suspect, they were English companies trying to be politically correct and liberal, much like that English executive at Grampian TV trying to be so ‘right-on’.
Shortly before Tesco started changing its signs to dual-language Welsh & English, I had been on holiday to Cambodia and, in Phnom Penh, there was a street of hovels and shacks which were all English language ‘schools’. At that time, no-one had any money and there was a very real possibility that the homicidally extreme Khmer Rouge might regain power in the next month or two. But, as in almost all other parts of the world, people wanted to learn English because it was and is the ‘international’ language. If you are an outward-looking country with outward-looking thoughts, you learn English.
My understanding is that, after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the early 1920s (let us not get into any pedantic details of dates in Ireland: it will all end in many tears and much wailing), the republicans who ran the country wanted to encourage self-confidence and national pride.
So they called the new country Eire instead of Ireland, painted the red pillar boxes green, changed a few of the royal crests on stone buildings to harps and tried to get everyone to speak Gaelic. The country rotted in inward-looking isolation for decades, admittedly not helped by the fact successive UK governments had every reason to dislike American-born Eamon de Valera and his blindly Brit-hating chums.
But, by the time I worked in Dublin in the mid and late 1990s, the Irish Republic had regained its self-confidence and, although civil servants had to know Gaelic, the English language had taken over all everyday usage except in the extreme west of the country. The few Irish language signs in Dublin were faded and/or rusting.
Irish, like Scots Gaelic, was then and is now effectively a dead language naturally spoken by few people. Though long may they speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland. I have nothing against the natural rise and fall of any – indeed, all – languages.
But I am told by Welsh friends that, except in the West and sparsely-populated central highlands of Wales, the Welsh language had pretty-much died out by the late 19th century.
It was re-imposed rather than re-grew in Wales in the late 20th century.
My memory is that extreme Welsh nationalists got publicity in English newspapers by setting off some minor explosions and burning down occasional second homes owned by ordinary English people in Wales.
Then some second-rate people who could not get jobs in media, politics and the local civil service had the bright idea of looking to what their USP was – they could speak Welsh – and they pushed for Welsh-language TV programmes, an entire Welsh TV channel and the use of the Welsh language in the local civil service because, that way, they would have a positive advantage in getting jobs.
The Welsh language was, to an extent, partially revived not by natural growth and usage but by xenophobia and the self-interest of a small clique.
Yes, that’s a very personal view of what happened, but not necessarily totally untrue.
English politicians, frightened of alienating the Welsh, went along with it for electoral gain and you now have a country where people have a TV channel – S4C – which most of them don’t understand and dual-language signs only half of which most understand – the English language half.
While the rest of the world was moving towards internationally-understood English, a group of self-serving xenophobes in Wales (where English was already established) were pushing for the renewed use of a mostly-dead language known only by some in Wales and nowhere else except some obscure area of Patagonia.
Looking inwards in an increasingly international world is not a good idea. An insistence on trying to spread the Welsh language more widely in Wales is not a sign of national identity. It is a sign of national insecurity.
Right or wrong, that’s my viewpoint. Like I said at the start, What is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?
Oh – Abergavenny has now been pointlessly half-re-named Y Fenni.
Really! Give me a break, chaps or – as Google Translate claims that would be said in Welsh – yn rhoi i mi egwyl, chaps.
What sort of sensible language doesn’t have a word for “chaps”?