The last gasps of a dead tongue

July 4, 1997

Christie Davies argues that as the Welsh language will and must die out, encouraging people to learn it is a pointless exercise

The study of Welsh is compulsory in all schools in Wales. In Gwynedd all teaching is exclusively through the medium of Welsh. Yet, in my opinion, learning Welsh is of no use to anyone, since even in Wales itself the language is spoken by less than a fifth of the population and the vast majority of Welsh speakers are bilingual, often with English as their stronger language.

In the past, when Welsh was stronger, it acted as a fetter on the achievements of the Welsh people. In Cornwall, where the people were liberated from the Cornish version of Welsh in the 18th century and entered fully into the English-speaking world of science and commerce, Davy discovered sodium, Trevithick invented the steam engine and Cousin Jack went on to dominate hard-rock mining throughout the world. All that could have been ours but for the bindweed of the Welsh language. There are no jobs for which a knowledge of Welsh is necessary.

It is not surprising that supporters of the Welsh language say that their aim is some kind of blurred bilingualism rather than monoglot Welshness. English speakers in Wales, as in England, would benefit more from a thorough knowledge of some other world language such as German and Spanish.

Whereas there is a strong case for ensuring that all school children in the United Kingdom should acquire a thorough mastery of all aspects of the English language, no such argument can be applied to the teaching and learning of Welsh. Rather, two libertarian principles should prevail throughout the Principality. First, all pupils should have an inalienable right to be educated through the medium of English. Second, every pupil should have the right not to study Welsh and to have access to a choice of modern languages in school.

While the Welsh language will, should and must die out, it does not follow that the study of dead Welsh should be abandoned. On the contrary the Welsh of the past should be made available alongside Latin and Greek for the more gifted pupils. Welsh is the nearest thing we have to the language of Caradog and Boudica, the ancestral language of everyone throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Ulster, with the exception of the alien Gaelic-speaking peoples of the outer fringes. Within Wales itself a new modular course in postmodernist Welshness could be introduced into all schools on a purely optional basis. Pupils would shop around for those bits and pieces of Welsh identity reflecting their own particular needs. Those for whom the teaching of things Welsh is merely disguised separatism and treason may well object that such an approach lacks a coherent metanarrative. Yet we teach religion in schools in exactly this fashion. The traditional Welsh way of life flourishes today only in rural Country Antrim. Shoring up a dying language will not bring back the moral culture for which it was once a vehicle.

Christie Davies is professor of sociology at the University of Reading.

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