Spitting with anger

August 8, 1997

"The Welsh language will, should and must die out." I was astonished to read this sentence in the THES (July 4) by Christie Davies, professor of sociology at the University of Reading. It was understandable when Matthew Arnold expressed much the same sentiment in the 19th century, at a time when godly and imperial uniformity seemed an honourable objective. It is almost incomprehensible coming from an eminent academic in 1997.

That lesser languages are not necessarily a source of economic advancement seems to be the professor's chief concern - together with the almost unbelievable suggestion, in the case of Wales, that the purposes of Welsh-language teaching might actually be treasonable, an attitude so extraordinary that it might come from another age altogether. Few of the Welsh language's countless supporters would claim that mastery of it is a means of getting jobs. They support it because it is part of the fellowship of Welshness, the sense of ancient continuity, of common pride, of love indeed, which adds up to the better part of patriotism and is a prime element in public happiness.

A nation with its own language is like a person with inner resources of loyalty and support: a nation with two languages is like a person with an extra talent. Professor Davies sneers at the idea of "some kind of blurred bilingualism". Nobody aims at blurred bilingualism in Wales. The aim is complete bilingualism, in Welsh and in English, in public as in private life.

Professor Davies's anachronistic article comes (perhaps deliberately?) at a moment when Wales, in the run-up to the devolution referendum, seems at last to be growing out of the silly linguistic rivalries and anti-English bigotries that have for so long been such a boring handicap to its progress. Perhaps he is trying to be funny, or ironic, when he suggests that Welsh should be studied as a dead language, or that pupils might "shop around" for bits of the Welsh identity that suit their needs?

It is hard to know his motives. He writes in the vocabulary of sociological academe - modular courses, postmodernist Welshness, coherent meta-narratives. What is clear enough, though, about this crudely insensitive attack is that at the core of it lies the dreary philistinism, the Thatcherite embrace of material values, which has done so much to degrade British higher education in our time. I spit on it - not a postmodernist spit, either.

Jan Morris

Llanystumdwy, Gwynedd.

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