Welsh – A Language of Britain
Su’mae! Bore da! Prynhawn da! Nos da! Sut dych chi? Jeremy dw i. Dw i’n hoffi te.
That’s about the extent of my Welsh right now, but it’s early days. One of my new year resolutions this year was to start learning Welsh. While I touched on the reason as to why I decided to do so in my last blog, I’d like to embellish this a bit and discuss the why and how I’m going to do it.
Some people are phenomenal at learning languages and I certainly would not consider myself one of those people. It’s not an easy thing to do as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you. Despite my experience with learning Japanese, I can shamefully say that I do not feel that I am anywhere near the level of competence as I should be for one who has studied the language at university and lived in the country for eight years. My girlfriend will tell me I’m just being too hard on myself, but I disagree. More and more I notice how my ability has declined and that is something I’d like to fix this year.
I’ve always been a bit envious of those who have grown up in a multi-lingual environment. Born in ‘The South’ in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire and raised there for most of my childhood, I was exposed to other languages from classmates from various ethnic backgrounds, mainly Muslim and Hindi. Of course, the dominant language was English and any exposure I had to other languages was minimal at best but at least the concept of other languages was there from a young age.
I can distinctly remember as a child being told something repeatedly in Punjabi (I think) during class and the two boys finding it amusing that I did not understand what they were saying and all my response to them was ‘shut up’ every single time they said it. I look back at that now and think that they were probably saying something completely innocuous, hence their source of amusement at me reacting in the way I did. However, it can be understandably uncomfortable for someone to be told something in a language that they do not speak. To this day, I still feel some embarrassment about that, but we were all kids once! There are plenty of adults who would also react that way, most likely ending with an exchange of blows as well. I’m sure many of us have seen those videos of vile people telling people to ‘go back to your country’ or ‘speak English!’ etc. on busses. Thankfully the reaction from onlookers is usually on the side of the person being attacked, proving there are some good people in this world!
The fact of the matter is, the United Kingdom is a multicultural country. And I’m not even talking about those who have immigrated to the UK and have established themselves there. I’m thinking much, much closer to home. Home, in fact, if I consider the UK as a whole my ‘home’. The word itself is one that I struggle more and more with now the longer I live abroad, but that’s another discussion entirely!
That aside, my point being that if you look at the United Kingdom, there are four distinct countries that make it. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, usually given in that order. This is, of course, not news to anyone. I am not a historian and I would never attempt to explain the formation of the union in all its complexity, but I do know that it has existed for hundreds of years and it is strong. At least, I think it is.
The conversation of Scottish independence is not one that will go away anytime soon. Despite the results of the referendum in 2014 that kept Scotland in the UK, the SNP insist that the people of Scotland be allowed a second vote, with the belief that the result will this time be different. I can see both sides of the argument and if the Scottish people believe that they would be better off out of the union, this makes me think two things.
First, if that is the case and the will of the residents of Scotland, while regrettable, so be it. Second, how can the union be successful if its countries do not feel a part of it nor that they benefit from it. There are some parallels between this and the referendum that the UK had over leaving the EU. This in itself showed a vast disparity between Scotland and Northern Ireland, and England and Wales, who voted to remain and leave respectively, further adding to the chasm that separates these nations and drives calls for a referendum even more. How can a union where the people in its component countries ever work where their views are so different? It’s something I would love to spend some time looking into, but it’s a complicated issue to say the least and one that I am well out of my depth to discuss past ‘Well, I think Scotland should stay in the UK because I don’t want them to leave’.
This has made its way down to one of the other British nations and ignited a similar feeling throughout the rolling hills of the Welsh landscape. Now, I should say before I get too far ahead of myself, I haven’t exactly done a lot of research into Welsh independence at this stage, but I have read a number of articles in the past that have voiced this, particularly in the wake of Brexit and COVID-19, with a sizable proportion (albeit a minority) of the country showing a positive attitude towards it. One thing I think and would like to make absolutely clear is that I am a unionist at heart. However, I can understand the reasoning behind people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland feeling any desire to break it in the current climate. Note that I have left England out of that list. The idea of England leaving the union oddly enough seems ridiculous by comparison, but it is an idea that exists and if you think about it, is technically possible.
You may be wondering when I’m going to get to the why after all that blabber, but I’m getting there. Many people who know me abroad will often describe me as ‘the most British person I know’. But what they’re really referring to is of course the stereotypical posh English fop who likely has some royalty or lordship stashed away in his family tree somewhere, drinks lots of tea, has slightly floppy hair and loves wearing jumpers. Well, it’s not totally inaccurate description, but, um…
Due to the efforts of my mother, who has feverishly been looking into the family’s ancestry over the past few years, I can say that this is not necessarily the case. As far back as my mum has been able to track our family history, going back some 300 years, it’s a mixture of English, Welsh and Scottish. With English coming from my mother’s side and Welsh and Scottish from my father’s, I think I can definitely call myself ‘British’ in what I would describe as the ‘real’ definition of the word.
I have hardly ever referred to myself as ‘English’ and lean much more towards ‘British’, but it’s nothing to do with my family history. I’m not sure if this is just a personal thing or not, but I feel that English people have this tendency much more than other Brits (and I am using this term purely to describe anyone from the British Isles). I feel it’s fairly straight forward; if you’re from the British Isles, then you are (or can be) British. But I’m sure some may disagree. But rarely have I heard a Scotsman say that he is British or from Britain or the UK. I imagine this could be true for the Welsh as well, but I haven’t bumped into as many Welsh people here in Japan as I have Scottish.
And it is Wales to which I want to turn my attention. I’ve always known that my father’s side of the family came from Wales, but I never really thought too much about that. My dad’s side of the family barely played a part in my upbringing from what I remember, but I have some blurry remembrances of the occasional trip there, and I know that he spent most of his life there. I believe we went to Aberystwyth, saw some old castles and went on a steam train up into the mountains. I remember enjoying it, but the notion of being in a different country and really absorbing the culture was completely lost on me as a small child. This is not something I would come to appreciate until much later.
I suppose if I were to boil it down to the most basic reason as to why I want to learn Welsh, it would be that I wish I had had the opportunity to grow up in an environment that used both English and Welsh, and that perhaps I had had the chance to experience another part of the UK more. I think my father spoke some Welsh, but I don’t think any attempt was made for myself and my sister to speak it. His roots were very firmly in Wales and he later moved back there sometime after separating from my mother all those years ago.
With that in mind, now at the age of 32 (apparently age means something), I’ve been looking at the family history more and appreciating now what it’s like to experience another culture having lived in Japan for so long. By doing so, I can look at the UK from a slightly different angle to when I was back home, for better and worse. And from a cultural perspective, I look at the UK and see a truly missed opportunity to make the union all the richer and respectful if other languages from the British Isles were appreciated more and not necessarily dominated by English in such the way it is now.
I want to know Britain more. I feel like I know Japan’s geography much better than my own country’s. I want to experience Britain more. Mainly due to opportunity, I have experienced much more of Japan than I ever have the UK. Maybe I will never go to Wales again, who knows?. The last time I went there being for my father’s funeral back in 2016, but if I can, I most certainly will and I would like to understand it a bit better when I do.
Many people who know me will know that I am a fan of Middle Earth and The Lord of the Rings. I read recently that J R R Tolkien described Welsh as “of this soil, this island, the senior language of the men of Britain; and Welsh is beautiful.” I would like to point out, however, that I found this out after I decided to try and learn the language and it played no part in the decision – ha! It is a true ‘British’ language, and one that I feel should be celebrated as such. Or, you know, perhaps I’m just having some kind of identity crisis and am desperately clutching at straws to find my place in the world. I’ll go with the former there.
On Learning Welsh
To learn a language is also to learn its culture and I do not intend on just learning Welsh alone. I can learn some phrases here and there, but I fully intend to read up some of the history of Wales and its people as well. Now, some may notice that one of my other new year resolutions is not to buy any more books until I’ve read the ones I’ve got! Well, I’m going to create a loophole here, if I may, and restrict that one to fictional novels alone. I think I can bend on non-fiction and these are the books I’m looking to purchase. Were I an extremely successful blogger, this is the part where I would say ‘enter this code at the checkout for a 20% discount of your first order’. Sorry, but I’m not. One day. As a side note, though, Book Depository is pretty great. Makes it much easier for me to get English language books in Japan and I’d recommend it to anyone living here! Anyway:
- The Welsh Language: A History by Janet Davies
- Welsh Learner’s Dictionary, The / Geiriadur y Dysgwyr
- A Concise History of Wales by Geraint H. Jenkins
That’ll keep me going for the time being, anyway. One thing when I look back at learning Japanese was, it was very text heavy. There was little opportunity to actually speak Japanese as a student and as anyone can tell, speaking the language is pretty important and a skill in itself that needs to be honed separate to recognizing vocabulary and understanding what’s being said on a CD. Not living nearby anyone who speaks Welsh as far as I can tell will make this difficult, so I’ve decided to give Duolingo a go.
Duolingo is a language learning app that teaches you vocabulary and phrases through listening and reading tests. So far, I’ve found it fairly impressive and it’s good to actually hear the language, not just reading it from a book. The downside, however, is that unless you sign up for a monthly membership, you are limited to the number of tests you can take in a day. A 12-month subscription works out at 750 yen a month (approximately £5). I might give the 14-day free trial a go and consider it, but I’m not looking to find another thing to spend money on if I can help it (although the alcohol consumption has certainly gone down)! I get the feeling it will just be something that I’d use on a daily basis in short bursts concurrently with other learning methods to review anyway, so a paid subscription may not be necessary. I’ve been using it now for approximately one week and so far, so good.
I’m sure many people would think why learn a language you’ll never use? And I think there is some sense in that argument. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever get to such a level that I would be able to have a coherent conversation with someone, though you never know. It’s better to aim high, right? I’ll have to actively seek out opportunities to find, learn from and practise with native speakers. To do so, I’ll be searching the web for some online forums to join that may be able to aid me in my quest. My initial search did not seem promising and this one might be a bit tricky. At the same time, I’ll reach out to a few Facebook groups as well and see if I can find anything (or anyone!) on there.
The BBC offers some television programming and news articles in Welsh, which is a great service by the BBC and I think a step in the right direction for creating a sense of unity over the tele-waves. I don’t know from when the BBC has been producing programmes in Welsh, but I doubt it would have been possible for anyone to have watched them in any other part of the country before digital television. While I am unlikely to be able to watch and understand anything in Welsh for quite some time, I have seen that they offer some basic Welsh learning courses for free, which I’ll certainly be taking a look at. Isn’t technology wonderful (sometimes)!
And that’s it for now! Before this blog turns into a dissertation, I will leave it here and I’ll continue over the course of the next year and update my blog on books I’ve read and the progress I’ve made with the language. Before I do finally end, though, I wanted to share with you my niece’s Esty page, which I only just discovered yesterday as I was nearing the end of writing this up. It just so happens that she has a series of photos taken in Wales that she is using to start up her photography shop on there, so I’ve included these photos in my blog for you to see!
You can find the link to her shop here: CandidOriginals by Amy Grigson.
Ta-ta for now!
20/1/2021: Blog edited to correct an inaccuracy regarding the results of the EU referendum.