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Greetings from Wales

It’s Sunday, and since Friday evening I’ve been staying with my older sister Daphne and brother-in-law Denis in western Wales, in the countryside very near the coast, just east of Fishguard, which is where the ferries to southern Ireland sail from. They’ve been living here for the best part of a decade, but this is my first visit to them. They seem very content. That this is a most beautiful part of the world is true, but to be expected. Countryside, especially if next to the sea and viewed in the fine weather I’ve enjoyed, is beautiful.

Many Samizdata readers will also know two other facts about this part of Britain. First, that Daphne and Denis aren’t the only retired English people living in Wales, and second, that in these parts, although they mostly speak English, a substantial minority of the people speak their own local language, Welsh.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Daphne and Denis are both learning Welsh. They are taking it very seriously. From October 1st of this year until March 31st 2003 (at which time the plan will be reassessed) they will be speaking to each other entirely in Welsh, unless third parties who only understand English are present. Daphne has also told all her local acquaintances that she would also like to speak Welsh with all of them who speak it.

They are not the only retired English expats here to do this, in fact Denis tells me that it was meeting another Englishman who had become fluent in Welsh was what first encouraged him. Welsh classes abound.

Why are these people doing this?

Basically, they are learning Welsh because it is there. Welsh is by far the most substantial non-English language spoken in Britain. Eighteen per cent of the Welsh people speak it, so Denis tells me, and although hardly anyone is fluent only in Welsh, many prefer Welsh and speak it whenever they can. In a mere couple of days I have already experience the feeling of exclusion that you get here as a mono-lingual Englishman. Yesterday Denis and I walked to a local tourist site, an ancient Celtic burial mound with a weird looking mini-stonehenge-like structure on the top which looks down on their home across the valley, and he was soon chatting away in Welsh to some of the other visitors. What were they talking about? And exactly which Welsh words on the bilingual signposts that they have everywhere correspond to which English words on the signposts? If you’re an Anglo living here, that question must occur to you pretty well every time you go out.

Denis is saying to me as I type that there is nothing threatening about this, at any rate not in this bit of Wales – which is known as “Little England”. The Welsh, as I have always found, are charming people. But when Denis switches from English to Welsh, politeness turns at once to genuine friendliness. I remember being told that the Japanese get very twitchy if, when in Japan, you try to speak to them in Japanese. It’s as if you had tried to barge your way into a private club. Here it’s the opposite. Yes, join the club. Come on in and be welcome. So once you start to learn Welsh, you get nothing but help and encouragement from the locals to stick with it.

And the other big reason why these people are learning it is that the Welsh language is, like other mountains that people climb because they are there, a challenge. It is not easy. The first letters of words, for instance, fluctuate wildly according to how exactly the words are being used – who owns it, what they’re doing with it, and so on. There are, apparently, about a dozen different ways of saying “yes”, depending on what exactly is being agreed with. So, an intellectual battle. But intellectual battlers is what Daphne and Denis, and many other retired Anglos out here, are. They had tough, intellectually demanding jobs – they were doctors (like Daphne), lawyers, university professors, highish ranking army people, in other words they are the educated upper-middle classes, which is how they earned the money to buy nice places here. Now they don’t have their challenging jobs any more, and they need new challenges. What better than the challenge of learning the one foreign language that you can learn in Britain that you can actually practise using with the locals for real?

That’s it, that’s the end of this. I don’t know what it means. Very little I imagine. But as a little titbit of life in a corner of the Anglosphere, I think it rates a mention.

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3 comments to Greetings from Wales

  • Walter E. Wallis

    But will Daphne and Denis learn to sing? Or to mine coal?

  • Tom Grey

    Any foreign language is tough, but for Anglos the non-Germanic, non-Romantic languages are even tougher. (Slavic; Hungarian; Chinese; Sanskrit; Arabic)

    As English becomes more and more the World’s (second) Language, the locals will usually also want to preserve their unique local language / identity.
    Vies ze hovorim po Slovensky (you know I speak Slovak). (not nearly as well as Adriana speaks English!)

    I don’t think most people really want to identify equally with all humanity.

  • I think that’s excellent D & D are learning Welsh! Even if they weren’t so gung-ho, it would still be great. I’m a big believer in language as a cultural identity that enriches overall life, as in Tom’s example above. The most important thing I learned when living abroad was making the effort was key, not your actual skill level. I’m fluent or can muddle along in about 4 languages (not counting those where I can just ask for liquor and say compromising romantic things, the keseru lany is not kidding herself about her Hungarian). However, it was enough to have my Slovak friends in Prague showing me off as “The American Who Doesn’t Just Speak English.” That isn’t right. Everyone should have another language, it makes your brain process differently and for the better…even when using your native tongue.

    Disgusting, then, that here in Massachusetts one of the gubernatorial candidates is campaigning on an eliminate bilingual education platform. He’ll “make them speak English”, apparently. *shudder*

    see also my post here on http://www.bitter-girl.com