Thursday, February 06, 2020

Sori seems to be the hardest word

Zoe Williams' first mistake was to suggest that learning Welsh was "existentially pointless", like running on the spot or "eating cottage cheese". A flippant aside for comic effect, but hardly spontaneous and off-the-cuff (given that it appeared in a printed piece that she presumably took time to compose), and the sort of thing you'd expect of a poisonous Daily Mail ranter like Richard Littlejohn rather than a seasoned and usually sensible Guardian columnist.

OK - reflect, apologise and move on.

But no - Williams chose instead to double down on her comment, sarcastically declaring on Twitter "I appear to have triggered a Welsh independence movement", insisting that "learning a not-very-widely-spoken language is a lot of effort for low reward" and making a nasty Littlejohn-esque snipe at "performative offence-takers". It's not taking performative offence to be proud of your language and therefore irritated to see it belittled and mocked in a national newspaper.

English born and bred but now living in Cardiff, I personally am learning Welsh for three main reasons: to improve my job prospects for the future; to enable me to support my son, who's in Welsh-medium education; to be able to chat to my friends in their own language. It might be "a lot of effort" (particularly grappling with mutations), but it certainly won't be "low reward".

But I'm also learning Welsh because I want to feel more a part of the country in which I live - more connected to its culture and history - and because I agree with Mark Abley, author of Spoken Here, that there is an inherent value to languages and therefore also to learning them. Williams simply doesn't seem to understand that - for her, it seems, learning a language has to have a rational purpose and offer a significant return. It's a neoliberal model that I just don't buy.

In his book, a passionate plea for the preservation of linguistic diversity for its own sake, Abley hails Welsh as a success story but acknowledges that it nevertheless continues to be insulted and threatened. Williams' throwaway comment doesn't look quite so throwaway when placed in the context of historical English attitudes to the Welsh language, or to a 2019 Sunday Times poll that asked readers in all seriousness "Should Wales continue to support the teaching of Welsh in schools?" (Perhaps the paper is just bitter that a language it declared "the curse of Wales" and dead "for all practical purposes" in 1866 is still very much alive and kicking more than 150 years later.)

As someone who has released a Welsh-medium LP and a follow-up in an even more minority language, Cornish, Gwenno was unsurprisingly among those who took offence at Williams' remark (with justification, not performatively). As she suggested on Twitter, there are distinctive traces of imperialist thinking in the continuing assumption that English is linguistically and culturally superior - thinking that has undoubtedly "contributed to this hot Brexit mess we're in".

And while we're talking about taking offence, Zoe, I don't want to live in a country in which people take offence at others for speaking in their native tongue. Perhaps you should think twice before making remarks that help to normalise that attitude.

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