I love Wales, and I love Welsh. Is that the same thing? What is the connection between the future of the Welsh language and the future of Wales as a Nation?
Since beginning to learn Welsh around 12 years ago, I have gradually fallen in love with this ancient, lyrical language. Welsh is the language of descriptive place names (Llanrhaedr Ym Mochnant is my new favourite, but you no doubt have your own…). It’s the language of singing in the pub, spontaneously, and everyone knowing the words. It’s the language of love in our family (‘rwy’n dy garu di’ expresses something more to me than simply ‘I love you’). It’s the language of feeling like you have come home, that you are connected with something significant that flows between you and your friends and your family, from the rivers and the soil of Wales and connects you to all of the generations of Welsh speakers that have gone before you.
I never imagined that I could feel like this about a language and a culture that I had adopted – or that has adopted me. But maybe in the midst of our obsession as a society with where people are from, we have overlooked something important. It’s where we choose to be that matters.
For me, Welsh is the language that transforms conversations. I have ceased to be surprised by the sudden change of tempo in a conversation upon discovering that someone I have just met speaks Welsh, but I will always be aware of the instant power of connection that passes between us.
I have never acquired this level of proficiency in any other learned language, so I can’t compare. But I don’t imagine that this feeling of connection forged by a shared language is something unique to Welsh, nor the sense of feeling like someone slightly different in your acquired language.
The language we speak is so intimately connected with the nature of experience, and with our personalities. I am fortunate to count among my friends many people with whom I mostly only ever speak Welsh, it is the main reason I have become fluent. On the odd occasion, I will have the need to speak English with one of these friends in order to be inclusive of somebody else. It always feels slightly odd – like I’ve been pretending to be someone else all the while I’ve known them, and suddenly I have no idea what my natural accent is in this situation (I have a chameleon accent in Welsh, which no-one can ever place, on account of learning in South Wales but spending a year living in Caernarfon – I have Hiraeth for ‘y dre’ still…).
So the reason I’m reflecting on all of this now, is that I have recently become passionate about another cause, in addition to the Welsh language – independence for Wales. These two passions are interconnected, but they are also manifestly different. In order to understand them, I feel the need to articulate, or attempt to articulate, for me, how they are linked. I have a feeling it’s important for the Wales project for us to talk about this too.
One thing I notice, when I think about these two issues, is that my feelings about them seem to come from different places. My feeling for the Welsh language presents itself in a very tangible way. It has physical manifestations, for example when I sing ‘rydyn ni yma o hyd‘ in the company of friends (if you are a Welsh language activist, then this song is anthemic) it stirs something in me that quickens my pulse and makes me happy. That sounds a lot like love, and feels like it comes from the part of the body to which we attribute love – the heart (although I have sympathy with those cultures that credit the gut for generating romantic feeling). It’s also likely these feelings are due to the social nature of the way I experience Welsh – it is intimately connected for me with friendship and community.
My feelings about an independent Wales originate somewhere else. It feels like it is more rational than emotional, more from the head than the heart. There is passion there, certainly, but also an inquisitiveness and a curiosity that is very much coming from my rational self. The emotions I am more likely to feel when I am thinking or talking about independence are excitement and hope. On the flip side, when thinking about the things that hold us back or the injustice of the status quo, then I feel frustration and sometimes anger.
No doubt this is different for everybody. For some, wanting an independent Wales is very much about gut feeling, and passion and love. That’s fine, and normal. For some it’s both heart and head, and for most people it will probably be something that evolves and changes over time.
Even writing this is helping me realise that my own feelings about an independent Wales have already begun to be shaped by the campaigning I’m involved in. I have started to feel the power that is created when people come together over a common cause. The camaraderie, the satisfaction of being part of a team. In time, I have no doubt that this will grow and what is taking root now is the beginning of something powerful. It is through my friends and colleagues in the independence movement that I will grow to be as viscerally, passionately committed to independence as I am to supporting the Welsh language. That is how it will develop from something that I am intellectually involved in and committed to exploring further, to something that stirs my soul – I see this in veteran independence campaigners. Together, we will create our own movement-defining anthems. We will have our ‘rydyn ni yma o hyd’ moments.
We had those moments at the rally in Swansea a few weeks ago – the first independence rally ever held there – when Gwynoro Jones talked of passing on the baton to our generation to make an independent Wales happen. I choked up later when I recounted his words ‘I’ll be with you on the journey for as long as I can’. It was an emotional moment because I want independence not just for myself and my children, but also for those who, like Gwynoro, have stood Wales’ corner for generations – they should see it happen too. They have earned it.
There were defining moments in Swansea when Heledd Gwyndaf told us, in an impressive display of oratory skill, that ‘ni ydy’r Genedl’. We are the Nation. We are the Nation that has been cheated out of so much, and yet we are still here. We have gone through so much and yet we are still so determined and so rich in culture and ideas. We are still here, despite everyone and everything, and we will make Wales independent. That moment was ours. We shared it. It changed us. It made us stronger, and moved us closer, to each other, to our goals, to knowing what we want and why, and how we will get there.
Heledd spoke entirely in Welsh. She spoke with passion and spirit. Not all those at the rally were Welsh speakers, and I know that at least one person went up afterwards and talked about whether or not this had excluded part of the audience. There’s no right or wrong here. But, for me, there’s something fundamental that we need to unpack, and understand, and reflect upon.
You can’t separate out the fight for the Welsh language, from the independence movement. They are inextricably intertwined. And I don’t use the term ‘fight’ lightly when I speak about Welsh. That’s what it is, and has been, and will remain. A fight for rights. The status of the Welsh language, and its systematic destruction over the last two hundred years is intimately linked with the appropriation of Wales by the British State. It hasn’t been my fight, until now. I have simply reaped the benefits of all those people over generations, who have stood up for the Welsh language and refused to let it die. I am a Welsh speaker because Welsh speakers before me kept the language alive, and despite the actions of those who would see it eradicated.
It wasn’t my fight, but it is now, and I am committed to doing all I can to promote the Welsh language. It is going to need a lot of people to do the same, because on current trajectories the future of the Welsh language is still not looking great. This is linked to independence for lots of reasons. But one reason in particular interests me. Why, do you think, have the Welsh Government’s efforts to promote the Welsh language, so far, been so unsuccessful in raising the number of Welsh speakers?
Given that the Welsh language has had equal status with English by law since 1993. Given the multiple Welsh language Acts since then, and the existence of the Welsh Language Commissioner, rising numbers of children being educated through the medium of Welsh, and the fact that the Welsh Government has committed to a target of one million Welsh speakers by 2050. Why, despite all of this, are numbers of Welsh speakers still going down?
Well, we could pick apart the Welsh Government’s Welsh language strategy. We could ask why, given the Government’s commitment to Welsh language education, more hasn’t been done to ensure that there are jobs requiring Welsh language skills for people to go to after they leave school (like an aspirational target for all public facing Public Sector roles to be filled by people with Welsh language skills). We could ask why more isn’t being done to ensure that housing in Welsh communities is more affordable so that people aren’t forced to move away. We could ask why public services aren’t available through the medium of Welsh for people who want them (health, dental services, care services, the local library, you name it, in most parts of Wales it is far from a given that you will be able to interact with these services in Welsh if you want to). There are lots of similar questions we could ask.
Something isn’t joined up. It’s simple supply and demand surely – especially in an educational model such as ours which is based entirely on treating people as a source of labour to supply the economy (not a good model by the way, but its the one we’ve got so we have to work with it, for now). Where is the economy to use Welsh skills that we are creating to employ all these children once they leave school? If we don’t put a premium on Welsh language skills, or a requirement on the fulfillment of Welsh language roles and delivery of services through the medium of Welsh, then what is the motivation for young people schooled through the medium of Welsh, to keep it up? It seems obvious, so I can’t see why the Welsh Government can’t see it. Or maybe they can and they don’t care, or worse.
Its almost as if Welsh Labour don’t really want the numbers of Welsh speakers to increase. It’s almost as if, if I were being really cynical, they think there is a link between being a Welsh speaker, and say, likelihood to vote for Plaid Cymru, or to be in favour of independence for Wales, which, as a Unionist party, would make Welsh Labour get a bit sweaty and uncomfortable. So it’s safer to just say you want to increase the number of Welsh speakers, and have lots of targets and things that sound good (like ‘a million speakers by 2050’) but not actually do anything about it.
But of course, that’s rubbish. Isn’t it?
Well, it is and it isn’t. It’s complicated. Certainly the myth that Plaid Cymru is only for Welsh speakers has had it’s day, it simply isn’t true. Plaid must continue the work it has been doing to reach out to audiences beyond it’s traditional heartlands, particular in the valleys of South East Wales, and it will. But given the natural synergy between being pro-indy and pro-Welsh language (whilst not all my indy friends are Welsh speakers, I haven’t met one who isn’t positive about the Welsh language) perhaps Welsh Labour are right to be jittery?
But the fight to keep the Welsh language alive and the journey towards an independent Wales are not one and the same. Their trajectories are linked, they will cross paths and intertwine over the years to come. The campaigns will likely feature many of the same people, but they are not the same thing. You can be passionate about one, or both. And not everyone will agree about the nature of the connection between these movements.
I don’t see a tension here. Just a need for us to understand and be aware of the complexities. We would do the independence movement a disservice to simply assume that everyone who is passionate about the Welsh language is pro-independence. There’s no one-size fits all definition of someone who is indycurious. That’s one of the reasons it’s so powerful – everyone gets there by a different route and brings a different story to tell.
The Welsh language has a lot to gain in an independent Wales certainly, not least raising the profile of our language internationally. But the benefits of an independent Wales will be much, much wider, touching every aspect of our lives, including language and stretching out far beyond it.
I have been intending to write this blog since the first Cardiff rally in June, because of an experience I had that day. Unexpectedly, I was asked to give a television interview. My first ever, and with no preparation. We started in Welsh, and it went well – I talked about the reasons for the rally, about Brexit and how this had changed the conversation around independence. And then the interviewer said:
‘Great, now lets do it again in English’.
And that’s when I stumbled. I’d just given a TV interview in my second language, on a far from straight forward topic. Yet somehow the words had just flowed. It made sense to me and I could articulate it very clearly in Welsh. It was much harder, for me, in English.
Its partly why I started the Indymam blog. I went home that day and I wondered why I had found it harder to articulate my thoughts about independence for Wales through the medium of English, and I knew that we have to be able to do just that, if we are going to make it happen. We need to appeal to everyone, including people who don’t speak Welsh, in order to make the case.
There will always be movements within movements. Some of my new friends at Yes Caerdydd would class themselves as non-welsh speakers, others are fluent and some are learning. Independence is for everyone.
And so is Welsh. I recently decided that I would try to stop using the terms Welsh speaker, non-Welsh speaker, learner etc. We are all learners. We all use Welsh. Even if you just know ‘diolch’, you can use that. Why differentiate or label people on account of language? We are a Nation of 3 million people, for whom the Welsh language is part of all our lives, to a greater or lesser extent. We can all choose to use the Welsh we have, or not. To learn more, or not. I think if we approached Welsh, and independence, like this, we’d find we have more in common than that which separates us.
Let’s not aim for one million Welsh speakers, lets aim for three million people who choose to use Welsh on a daily basis, because they can and they want to.
Let’s aim for an independent Wales.
Ymlaen a ni, ffrindiau.