Welsh is taken very seriously

July 11, 1997

I am an Englishman living in England and I do not speak a word of Welsh. None the less, I was appalled by the attack on the Welsh language by Christie Davies (THES, July 4). In his opinion "learning Welsh is of no use to anyone". Yet even the most basic sociolinguistics demonstrates the close connection between the use of language varieties and sociocultural identity. As a Welsh proverb puts it, "A nation without a language is a nation without a heart".

Professor Davies appears to be unaware of the inconsistency between his promotion of libertarian principles and his autocratic, godlike pronouncement that the Welsh language "will, should and must die out". Surely any sociocultural group that wishes to express its identity through the use of a language variety should be free to do so without having it compared to a "fetter" or a "bindweed". Does he believe that all minority languages are holding their speakers back and therefore "will, should and must die out" to be replaced by English, or is it just Welsh which gets up his nose?

Professor Davies also makes the bizarre suggestion that once Welsh has died out (as per his diktat), "dead" Welsh should be studied like Latin and Greek because Welsh is "the ancestral language of everyone throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Ulster".

This is a truly "postmodernist" view of the history of British languages. The British Isles were inhabited for many millennia before the Celts arrived around the 5th century bc, following which there were waves of invasions by the Romans, Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Vikings and Normans. It is unclear why Professor Davies believes that the English should regard Welsh as the ancestral language of England, rather than the Anglo-Saxon dialects which developed into Old English, and from which the words "England" and "English" derive.

Professor Davies further flounders in the political arena, equating the teaching of things Welsh with "disguised separatism and treason". This suggests that he remains blissfully unaware that a Government has been elected with a mandate for regional devolution and constitutional reform, and that treason is a concept which belongs to another century.

If Professor Davies really wants the Welsh language to die out he should be aware that his diatribe is likely to be counter-productive. In experimental research reported in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, learners of Welsh were confronted with an English speaker with a received pronunciation accent, who "arrogantly challenged their reasons for learning what he called a dying language with a dismal future" (sounds familiar). The learners of Welsh responded by using a broader Welsh accent and introducing Welsh words into their speech.

The level of intolerance of Welsh linguistic and sociocultural identity expressed in Professor Davies's article will probably boost the membership of Plaid Cymru.

Paul Seedhouse

Norwegian study centre University of York

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