Learning Welsh and Cottage Cheese

The recent media spat following Zoë Williams’s unhelpful quip about the Welsh language as ‘existentially pointless’ in an article for The Guardian on 1st February 20201 offers two conclusions, not entirely negative. First, the joke was not especially racist or hurtful, compared with, for example, Jonathan Jennings’s demand on Twitter for genocide against the Welsh; or A. A. Gill’s description of us as ‘immoral, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls’ on the pages of The Sunday Times,2 or The Guardian’s relatively recent claim that teaching children through the medium of Welsh is tantamount to abuse,3 or the Sunday Times’s brilliant notion of polling English readers on whether the Welsh language should be taught in Welsh schools,4 or those numerous incidents since the Brexit vote of Welsh-speakers suffering discrimination or abuse at work or in public places. Rather, the joke arose from the same arrogant, lazy journalism as apocryphally required one Welsh statesman to explain to a BBC researcher – no doubt in words of one syllable, and containing vowels5 – that Plaid Cymru, Cymdeithas yr Iaith and the Urdd yr Eisteddfod are not the same organisation. Second, alerted no doubt by the ensuing furore, and perhaps by some dim flicker of sentience which warned them that jokes belittling the people of Wales are not consistently hilarious, The Guardian allowed the Welsh language some right of reply – not by the poet and seasoned language campaigner, Menna Elfyn, or by the novelist, Angharad Price, whose first novel was published in English translation by Quercus, or by Cerys Matthews or Michael Sheen, who have campaigned on language issues, or by the language campaigner, Eirys Llywelyn, whose protest against England’s control of Welsh broadcasting keeps her in the courts and her case in the news, or by Osian Rhys, the current leader of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, or by Aled Roberts, the current Welsh-Language Commissioner, or even by the former leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, who has expressed the anger she feels at having to learn as an adult the language that should have been hers from birth – but in a piece about the rewards of learning less-spoken languages, written by Adrian Chiles.6

In Wales, the discussion took a different course. Nation.Cymru pointed to English culture’s long history of racism against Welsh language and culture,7 while the novelist, Manon Steffan Ros, sharply questioned both the point of the joke and the ‘pointlessness’ of speaking in her native language to her children in theirs.8 But in the two nations, discussion of the national language of one of them, conducted in the national language of the other, was based on contrasting sets of assumptions. First, in England, Welsh was something to be learnt, or not, by affluent professionals in their leisure hours, an alternative to dieting or exercise or evening classes in the important languages, while in Wales, it was treated as the bond between family members, the repository of two thousand years of poetry and thought, something precious and intrinsic to our national life. Second, in Wales, the assumption was that we have a right to be heard at least as often as we are talked about, while in England we remained outside the discussion, a problem to be debated by English pundits and columnists only.

  1. The article appears to have been withdrawn. However, see ‘Guardian criticised after suggesting Welsh language is pointless.’ Nation Cymru, 2nd February 2020 or Harri Evans, ‘Guardian columnist sparks outrage after describing learning Welsh as “pointless.”’ North Wales Live, 3rd February 2020. See also Zoë Williams (@zoesqwilliams), ‘I appear to have triggered a Welsh independence movement with my fitness column. Specifically, this line: “All that energy spent, no distance covered, like eating cottage cheese or learning Welsh.” I feel I should clarify: learning languages is notoriously hard.’ Twitter, 3rd February 2020. The claim that it is the Welsh independence movement that is ‘triggered’ to defend the Welsh language (that is to say, that Welsh nationalism exists because the British state is corrosive of Welsh culture) is as noteworthy as her desire to explain her original comment, yet the term ‘triggered,’ with its connotations of far-right self-righteousness and self-pity, of the demand for free speech without right of response, or of the vilification as ‘libtards’ and ‘remoaners’ of those who seek to add humanity and reason to public discourse, is far more ill-judged than the quip itself. 

  2. ‘Smile — you're on cameo camera: Ireland be damned, creative bigotry is the lifeblood of Britain and its TV service, says A A Gill.’ The Sunday Times, 28th September 1997. By way of response, see Catrin Fflur Huws, ‘Why racism against Welsh people is still racism.’ The Conversation, 14th May 2018. 

  3. Quoted in Ifan Morgan Jones, ‘Ignore the Guardian: A bilingual education is best for our children.’ Nation Cymru, 20th June 2017. With regard to the slurs that are directed against Welsh education in particular, I quote Ffion Mair, ‘Dwi di blino. Di blino ar deimlo bod rhywun yn ymosod arna i o hyd. Di blino ar orfod amddiffyn yr iaith ges i’n magu ynddi, yr iaith dwi’n byw ynddi a'r iaith dwi’n gwithio ynddi. Dwi di blino ar glywed pobl sy’n gwybod dim yn diystyru’r gymuned nath fy ngwneud i’n pwy ydw i, ac yn dweud ein bod ni ddim yn bodoli nac yn bwysig. Dwi di blino ar ddarllen sylwadau difeddwl ar gyfryngau cymdeithasol sy’n dilorni’r hyn rydw i a'r bobl dwi'n eu caru yn ei gredu ynddo. Dwi di blino ar gwmnïau mawr a sefydliadau a ddylai wybod yn well yn gwahaniaethu yn erbyn fy niwylliant i. Dwi di blino ar orfod egluro pam fy mod i’n dewis siarad iaith sy'n dod yn naturiol i mi, a gorfod cyfiawnhau fy rhesymau am astudio “iaith roeddwn i'n ei siarad yn barod” yn y brifysgol. Dwi di blino ar bobl sydd ddim hyd yn oed yn rhan o’r sgwrs yn meddwl fy mod i’n siarad amdanyn nhw. Dwi di blino ar ddeud wrth bobl mod i'n gyfieithydd, mond iddyn nhw ddweud wrtha i bod fy ngyrfa i’n wastraff o arian a bod pawb yn deall Saesneg beth bynnag. Dwi jyst di blino. Raid i rywbeth newid.’ (I’m tired. I’m tired of feeling under constant attack. I’m tired of having to defend the language I was raised in, live in and work in. I’m tired of hearing people who know nothing about it devaluing the community that made me who I am, saying we don’t exist or don’t matter. I’m tired of reading thoughtless comments on social media abusing what I and those I love believe in. I’m tired of major companies and institutions that ought to know better discriminating against my culture. I’m tired of having to explain why I choose to speak the language that comes naturally to me, or justify my reasons for having studied a language I already speak at university. I’m tired of people who aren’t even part of the conversation assuming that I’m talking about them when I speak Welsh. I’m tired of telling people I’m a translator, only to be told that my career is a waste of money since everyone understands English anyway. I’m tired, and something must change.) Facebook, 9th August 2017. 

  4. ‘Times criticised for “should the Welsh language be taught?” poll.’ Nation Cymru, 21st January 2019. 

  5. One might suppose that the joke could be allowed to die in peace. But Kathy Lette attempted its resuscitation in an article for The Telegraph — see ‘Telegraph columnist calls Wales a “vowel-hungry principality” with “horrors of local lingo.”’ Nation Cymru, 15th August 2021. 

  6. Adrian Chiles, ‘Learning Welsh isn’t pointless. You see the world from a whole new angle.’ The Guardian, 5th February 2020. 

  7. Gareth Ceidiog Hughes, ‘When Zoe Williams calls the Welsh language pointless, she is sneering at those who speak it.’ Nation Cymru, 3rd February 2020. 

  8. Manon Steffan Ros (Manon Steffan Ros Omb), ‘This was published in The Guardian yesterday. Really hurtful, but I shouldn't be surprised- The Guardian has form for this. Wales is consistently lauded in its pages as a holiday destination, an escape from the rat race, a place of beauty and peace. But Wales has its own culture, its own language, and it doesn't exist solely as a holiday destination or a cheap place for you to buy a second home. My mother tongue isn't a punchline. My means of communication with my own children is not “existentially pointless.”’ Facebook, 2nd February 2020. 

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