(The Self-destruction of Welsh)
My interest in learning languages often leads me to linguistics – more precisely, to orthography and phonology. The first times I encountered the International Phonetic Alphabet was when I’d search Wikipædia for Welsh place-names and find some funny-looking letters following them.
Over time I found the wonders of IPA both intriguing and incredibly useful. An alphabet that enables speakers of any and every world language to correctly pronounce any and every word from any and every other world language. Awesome!
I’d often play around with IPA and notice similarities and peculiarities between various languages – more often than not, between the Celtic languages.
By far my favourite member of the IPA family of letters and sounds is the schwa [ə] – the mid central unrounded vowel…. an upside down e, essentially! The sound it makes is very much a simple one. It’s nothing more than a primitive uhh sound. Upon hearing it, one can imagine a group of neanderthals attempting the first form of speech. Perhaps it indeed was humans’ first sound making up the building blocks of communication?!
Nowadays, however, it could easily be perceived as a lazy sound – one made frequently by teenagers trying to show they heard what their parent / their teacher / anyone said but cannot be bothered to offer anything more than a lathargic grunt as a response. It’s very much the sound that requires the least effort to produce.
The phonic itself appears in most living and extinct languages and is rather common too. It’s especially common in Welsh where it can not only appear as y, but also in colloquialisms as e, a and u.
Given the schwa’s potential perception as a lazy sound, could we therefore perceive a language employing it most often is a lazy language? The more uhh sounds, the lazier the lingo?
If this is to be the case, then Welsh is super lazy! In addition to the fact that gs, dds, fs (amongst other letters) are regularly dismissed and dropped by Welsh speakers, a ‘lazy language’ seems an almost flattering tag for Cymraeg. But hey, it’s within these tiny peculiarities (however sluggish and lethargic) that make Welsh what it is. It’s the schwas and the double-ls that mean the old tongue of the Cymry is one of the most beautiful around.
It was another all-too-common Anglo-centric comment made by radio station TalkSport that made me tune back into Radio Cymru on a regular weekday morning this week – somewhere along the lines of reference to Wales and Scotland as “the other home nations” was the enraging comment on this occasion. After calming down following this blatant ignorance of anything outside of England, Radio Cymru’s topic of conversation at the time was the ability of people in this nation to use their native language during correspondence with public services. No it’s not perfect, but I must admit that the provision for Welsh over the past few years has most definitely improved. Only recently did I renew my car insurance entirely through the medium of my choosing. Cool, huh?
What was un-cool was the vast majority of responses given by Welsh speakers when Radio Cymru had interviewed them on the amount of Welsh-language services they actually used online or over the phone.
“Mae’n haws jyst dewis Saesneg” (“It’s easier to just choose English“) seemed to be the general consensus.
In all honestly, I struggle to disagree with the above quotation. It most certainly is easier to use super-modern English over decrepit Welsh. I’d say some 90% (at least) of our nation would agree too. I can’t help, however, but question the moral status of consciously choosing the ‘easy option.’
It isn’t half difficult as a native English speaker to choose and use Welsh at all times. Not only would I be the first to admit that I’m still very much learning this language, but I’d also admit that it takes an insane amount of determination and perseverance to force upon myself the habit of starting and ending each and every one of my conversations in Welsh – no matter the audience. Please don’t think I’m somehow parading myself on a soapbox of ultimate Welshness here by claiming that I’m single-handedly saving this tired language from baselining on the operating table of conversation – I’m not. I do, however, believe that by making certain choices and mini changes in our lives we can succeed in revitalising Cymraeg.
It’s going to take people making the extra effort to write their addresses in Welsh at all times – online as well as on envelopes. It’s going to take effort to choose to say diolch instead of thank you to everyone – no matter the language of the preceding conversation. It will mean we’ll have to be brave in choosing Welsh at a cash point. It will take enthusiasm when we realise that we’re going to have to try and use the Welsh-language provisions wherever possible. Is it really too much effort to have a quick attempt at reading the Welsh side of a bilingual letter first? Who knows – one might learn something new?!
In addition, before we blame our education system for ‘failing our students’ by not making them fluent in Welsh, let’s give our young people the chance to hear that our language lives and is used. When students see a point in a subject, they learn. So let’s have everyone of all ages hear our language and be proud that they too can both understand and converse in it. We can do this by using our own Cymraeg.
Without this effort, we are but lazy. And when we are lazy, our lazy and tired old language will suffer. Has our language’s millennia of laziness finally rubbed off on her twentieth century users? Has Welsh become too much effort that we cannot afford even a moment of ymdrech in our lives to spare on her?
As residents of the land this language once called home, let us leave it to our ancient, linguistic inheritance to be lazy while we strive to not be. Let’s work hard on her behalf.
Egni a lwydd – Effort brings success.
Cymraeg am byth.