Corgis, Lost Lands, and Ryan Reynolds: A Story about Welsh and the Importance of Language

A Nation with a Heart

We have an old proverb here in Wales, “cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon”. That is, “a nation without a language is a nation without a heart”. 

And Wales is a nation that almost lost its language.

In 1847, Wales was in a state of social unrest. That unrest had led to protests across working-class communities, including Merthyr Rising, the Rebecca Riots, and more. 

The British Government, wanting to stop the protests, sent out three commissioners from England. Most of the protestors (and their wider communities) only spoke Welsh, while the commissioners only spoke English. An inability to communicate with the people of Wales didn’t stop the commissioners from depicting them as immoral and drawing the following conclusion in their report back to the Government:

The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales, and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people

The report became known as the treachery of the Blue Books. In its wake, schools introduced the Welsh Not, a heavy block of wood hung around the neck of any child heard speaking Welsh. Teachers would beat any child wearing the Not at the end of the school day. Inevitably, a swift decline in the use of the language followed. 

By the turn of the 20th century, it was widely predicted that Welsh would be extinct within just a few generations.

The events following the treachery of the Blue Books sparked an increase in hiraeth, a Welsh word with no English translation. Hiraeth describes a deep and unattainable longing for the Wales of the past. It would explain why, between 1870 and 1914, approximately 40% of Welsh emigrants returned to their homeland.

As the sense of hiraeth increased, the tide began to turn. 

1925 saw the formation of a Welsh political party, Plaid Cymru. Through campaigns, including shows of civil disobedience from impassioned young nationalists, the use of the language became tightly tied to Welsh politics, and its decline halted. 

Fast forward to the present day, and around a fifth of the population speaks Welsh. 

The language’s usage is now celebrated in schools, with it being a mandatory part of every child’s education. The Welsh Language Act of 1993 put the language on equal footing to English in all public administration, including road signs and court documents. What’s more, Welsh Government recently announced plans to ensure that the language has a million speakers once again by 2050. 

As someone with a new build house, I have a street name that stops telephone operators in their tracks just as much as my name does. I delight in moments like Duolingo announcing Welsh as the UK’s fastest-growing language or recently when, in a display of “spectacularly niche marketing synergy”, Ryan Reynolds insisted that his new Netflix show would come with Welsh subtitles. 

It’s safe to say that the nation successfully fought for and kept its heart.

Why Does It Matter?

Why learn Welsh when everyone speaks English? Why preserve a language with so few speakers? Does it matter?

These are questions I sometimes face as someone from Wales who seeks to learn my nation’s language. As successful as the efforts to rejuvenate Welsh have been, criticism continues. 

In response to the launch of a Welsh-language TV channel, one of the more prominent and troll-like critics of the language summed the nation up as “seaweed munching, sheep-bothering pinch-faced hill tribes who are perpetually bitter about having England as a next-door neighbour”.

As a seaweed munching member of said tribe, it’s this insult that gives me the answer I need. The Welsh language matters, as no one gets so angry about something that doesn’t.

More Than Words

In her piece, titled after Plato’s quote, Those Who Tell Stories Rule Society, Vicky Zhao reflects on how Shakespeare changed the meaning of the word “weird”. 

Through his depiction of the witches in Macbeth, the meaning of “weird” changed from “having the power to control destiny” to “strange and unusual”. Shakespeare, thus, not only gave English speakers a new synonym for “strange” but also diluted the idea of controlling your destiny. As Zhao puts it, “he was shaping the Modern English language with how he wrote, which then shaped how the Modern English speaker, like you and I, think”.

By that same logic, if the world shared an unchanging, single language, wouldn’t we lose some ability to reimagine and change our way of thinking? 

Most languages have words that can’t be translated into another. For example, the Welsh word for green, “gwyrdd”, is thought to have come into existence through the influence of English. Before its existence, a single word, “glas,” was used to describe both green and blue colours, as is the case for many languages.

The power words have over the way we think and perceive the world was not lost on the invading Anglo Saxons back in 500 B.C. It was they who bestowed the name of “Wales” to the country. Its meaning stems from Old English for “foreigners”, despite the Welsh being natives to the land. 

By contrast, the Welsh word for Wales, “Cymru”, can be translated as “land of friends” or “fellow countrymen”, and the word for England, “Lloegr”, means “the lost lands”. As Niall Griffiths reflected in the New Statesman, “what histories of strife and surrender, what vacillations between tolerance and antagonism, are encapsulated in such nomenclature.”

A lighter example of a Welsh word that, when unpacked, reveals layers of the country’s history is corgi. The name of the Queen’s best friend originated from the Welsh for “dwarf” (“cor”) and “dog” (“gi”, soft mutation of “ci”). Legend has it that the breed would serve as steeds for fairy warriors and pull fairy coaches before being kindly gifted to humans, a fun illustration of the million legends lying beneath Wales’ surface.

As England’s first colony, the people of Wales were the first to experience the island of Britain. The earliest Welsh literature dates back to the sixth century, hundreds of years before the English of Chaucer. In The Sea Kingdoms, Alistair Moffat writes that “because Welsh is such an old language and because it described Britain first, it carries a version of the history of the whole island inside it”.

The words of Welsh hold history. If those words faded, we’d lose a part of our history, we’d lose stories, and we’d lose different ways of expressing what we see in the world. The same holds true for all languages and it’s why it matters when any becomes endangered.

Thank you to Paolo, Laila, Danny, Artur, and Sara for your feedback on this post; without it, I wouldn’t have ever reached a point where I felt comfortable pressing publish.

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