Partitioned by an uncommon language

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Speaking Welsh should not be the way national identity is measured, writes Adrian Mourby.

Every year on St David's Day my father's school used to troop into Welshpool town hall where a huge BBC microphone was hung from the ceiling. There, a fierce little man, known as Mr Bunford Griffiths from Wrexham, would rehearse the assembled choir until everyone was ready to be cued for a rousing cry of: "We the boys and girls of Wales greet the boys and girls of all the world!" The world would then be treated to an evening of Welsh singing to celebrate Dewi Sant.

Back in the 1930s the land of my father was a much more relaxed place vis-...-vis its national identity. My dad, living in town, helped the farm boys with their English homework and they in return let him copy down their Welsh. Both linguistic groups thought of themselves as equally Welsh.

By 1975, when I was a student in Wales, things had changed drastically. National identity had become a much more militant issue. Never quite fierce enough for the Armalite and ballot box of Northern Ireland, our nationalists fought with the aerosol and ballot box, spraying "Cymraeg!" over repressive signposts that had the temerity to advertise "Welshpool 5 miles". Others adopted medieval Welsh nomenclature.

My friend John Griffiths became Sion ap Gruffydd, while the son of writer Harri Prichard Jones became the BBC correspondent Guto Harri. It was a struggle that produced few martyrs and one new television station, S4C, which made it possible to become a couch potato in the native tongue.

By the time my children were at school in Cardiff, Welsh had become part of thenational curriculum, much to the disgust of my seven-year-old son who once asked his teachers why he had to learn "this bloody language".

I am saddened that Welsh which my dad learned off by heart for St David's Day has created a social division that simply didn't exist in the 1930s. It is a division between those who come from the homes of native speakers and those for whom Welsh is a compulsory second language.

I always encouraged my offspring to consider themselves Welsh. After all, they were born in the capital of Wales and attended a bilingual nursery. But at the age of three my eldest told me: "I'm not Welsh. I read from a different book."

By identifying national identity too closely with the national language, our militant linguists have made many English-speaking children feel less Welsh. There is no doubt that Cardiff's Welsh-speaking schools get excellent results, but only highly-motivated parents send their children to such schools.

One of Wales's early militants, Saunders Lewis, was a co-founder of Plaid Cymru and once famously remarked: "When a nation loses its language, it loses its identity."

It was a statement that flew in the face of what scribblers like Synge, Yeats, Wilde, Shaw, O'Casey, Joyce, Becket and Jonathan Swift had achieved in the language of the conqueror, but it did offer young men and women a way of being Welsh that avoided the caricatures of stage Welshness from Shakespeare's Fluellen to Dylan Thomas's No Good Boyo.

Today the pendulum has swung too far. When a language disenfranchises a large part of the nation, we need to rethink what it is to be Welsh.

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