What a stupid Scrabble article taught me about Welsh

Last week the Guardian published an odd mean little article about how 5 boxes of Scrabble yn Gymraeg had been lingering unsold on a dusty shelf in Waterstones in Carmarthen.

It was a master class in invalidation — implying, without ever stating, that the reason they hadn’t sold must have been either a lack of Welsh speakers who like to play board games — fitting into the ‘Welsh people are thick’ trope, or worse, a general lack of Welsh speakers, fitting into the ‘Welsh is a dying language’ trope.

I don’t know about you, but most people into board games buy them online. And just so you know most Welsh speakers and learners in Carmarthenshire, who are perfectly able to shop online by the way, are more likely to buy books and other items in the Welsh language from Siop Y Pentan — which happens to also be in Carmarthen. Welsh speaking people have got so used to not having their needs catered for, that they are probably quite surprised that boxes of Welsh Scrabble are to be found in the Carmarthen branch of Waterstones. These are quite possibly, apart from Welsh language course books, the only items Yn Gymraeg in the entire shop.

After reading the article, I stupidly looked at the comments — the usual mixture of eye-watering bigotry and those on a futile quest to beat the stupid out of them. But I felt a horrible wrench in my gut because this felt personal. I’ve made Carmarthenshire my home. I live in a predominantly Welsh speaking village and I have been trying to learn Welsh on and off since I moved here five and half years ago. I don’t think I could have predicted that defending the Welsh language would be a metaphorical hill I would be prepared to fight and die on but here I am.

Last month I took it up yet again and spent the whole of August at Aberystwyth University on a Welsh course with 115 other people devoting their time and money into learning one of the oldest ancestral languages of this island. By the end of the month, I had fallen in love, and while still clunky, gappy, and by no means fluent, Welsh became my second language.

A common thing you hear when you tell someone you are learning Welsh is “Isn’t it a really difficult language to learn?”. And I think it really is — but, apart from one particular aspect, it’s not for any innate issues with the language itself. Now it’s true that Welsh has an interesting habit of changing the beginning letters of words — mutations — or triegladau — and it definitely throws you as a learner to begin with. But one of the joys of learning Welsh is that the pronunciations of words nearly always follow a logical pattern and you can avoid so many of the pitfalls that those learning English as a second language disappear into. The famous example is ‘ough’ as in enough, cough, drought, bought, through etc. The varieties of just the ‘ough’ diphthongs in English nearly outnumber all of the Welsh dipthongs put together. ‘Ae’ always sounds like ‘eye’ etc.

I believe the true difficulty of learning the language is because of the social and psychogeographical challenges of learning Welsh in Wales and these far outweigh the challenges of Welsh grammar:

1. Wales is a bilingual country but English is the default language in supermarkets, shops and public spaces. If I go to Germany, and shop in a German supermarket, all the products will be labled German, all the the conversations I have with the checkout person or shopkeepers will be in German. Here in West Wales everything bar occasionally eggs and some milk, is labelled in English. You rarely get immersed in the language in public spaces. If I want to practise my Welsh I can try it out in the chemist — and I have found several chemists more than willing to help me practise. However discussing health matters in your second language is uncomfortable and an irony not lost on me.

2. Telling someone you are learning any other language (with the possible exception of Klingon) will get you praise and encouragement. Telling people you are learning Welsh in Wales will most often get you guilt from Welsh non-speakers and defensiveness from English non-speakers, or worse, a sudden launch of a political discussion about the merits or not of Welsh medium schools. Alternatively, because of the perceived difficulties, you are seen as some kind of language genius. Which several of the other 115 people on my summer course will be able to attest, I am definitely not. Bloody minded perhaps.

3. Embarrassment about speaking the language in public. There is a massive politeness issue here — Welsh speakers have been raised to think that it is impolite to speak Welsh in front of English people and I have had neighbours apologise to me for speaking their own language in their own village in front of me because they were trying to discuss a complex issue that they didn’t have the right English for to each other. I was dumbfounded. Secondly, Welsh speaking regions are now fragmented from each other and people in say Swansea worry that perhaps their Welsh isn’t as good as, say, Carmarthen Welsh. I know there are several campaigns going on trying to encourage Welsh speakers to speak Welsh in public, which must be one of the more tragic sentences I’ve written. It’s not helped by racist ignorance either — I’ve witnessed Welsh people verbally abused on the train to Cardiff on two separate occasions by some twonk assuming they were speaking in Polish. I don’t even know where to start with all the intersectional entitlement crap going on here. I suspect that the Venn diagram of those that think Welsh is a waste, and those that think immigrants should be ‘forced’ to speak English is probably a circle.

4. Being told that it’s a simple language and doesn’t have the vocabulary for complex ideas. I am amazed the amount of times English non-speakers have told me this with absolute conviction. Offered up as evidence are the amount of English loan words that float about — quite forgetting the sheer number of loan words that float about in English from other languages. I’m now close to an intermediate level of Welsh and can tell you it’s utter bollocks. The more I learn the more I discover what a beautiful and expressive language it is.

5. Everyone speaks English in Wales? Actually they don’t. I know several native Welsh speakers who have a ropey grasp of English and will revert to Welsh whenever they can. Yes it’s true that they are older people but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or that it’s not important. It’s mainly because of my neighbours that I thought I should try and learn. Not that this hasn’t been without its problems. I’ve been the catalyst for a row on several occasions about which particular version of a word is used in the area or even of it is worth people like me learning their language at all. On one impassioned occasion, after one lady lost patience with my stumbling over words saying “oh just give up Ingrid — speak English” another neighbour flew at her yelling “It’s learners like her who are going to save our language — you should be encouraging her!”. It was an embarrassing and heartbreaking moment, the fault line, or wound I think, breifly laid open in the middle of a tiny village hall in rural Carmarthenshire.

This stuff hurts. The way we express ourselves is at the core of who we are, it is our agency in the world and the foundation of our culture. I can’t imagine the fear of being an older person in Wales who is destined for a care home wondering as they lose their final grasp on their second language of English, wondering if they will ever be able to make themselves understood.

Obliterating a language either by oppression, by neglect, or by ridicule is a form of gagging. And it’s reprehensible.

(Further thoughts:
I’ve just finished reading Speak Welsh Outside Class — it’s really encouraging and also includes chapters on how Welsh speakers can help learners and build their own self belief.

Excellent essay on the 44 million speakers of Non State languages in Europe and the position of Welsh within that. The rest of the book is well worth reading too.

Carmarthenshire lad Rhod Gilbert — and a Welsh learner — on the dangers of learning Welsh :)