Intrigued by the possibility of some hitherto unknown Polynesian/Celtic linguistic cross-fertilisation, I clicked on this YouTube video clip.
Watching it saddened me. Intrepid sailors though they were, the ancestors of the Maori people never made it to Wales. The Welsh did reach New Zealand, but in steamships rather than coracles. Bidding farewell to a pair of outré alt-hist scenarios was not the reason for my sadness, however. What depressed me about this video was that, like almost every other discussion of preserving minority languages that I have ever seen, it was fixated on compulsion.
According to the video, an excerpt from a New Zealand TV programme, what Maori and Welsh have in common is that they are only kept going by forcing people to speak them and ain’t that wonderful. One minute into the clip, the commentary says,
“Four New Zealand teachers on a British Council “Linking Minds” scholarship were given a chance to see how compulsion is helping to save the Welsh language, Cymraeg, from extinction.”
Just after that one of the teachers, Nichola McCall, says to camera,
“The Welsh people have used law to support the use of the language, used it to build its status, used it to change public opinion. I think the law has really encouraged or helped education to do what it’s doing with the language, to help with its revival, to help bring it equal status with the English language here.”
Later on Ann Keane, Chief Inspector of Education and Training in Wales says at 3:24,
“If you live in Wales then you are entitled to learn something about its culture, its history and to learn something of its language.”
Who could object to that? I could, because she is using the word “entitled” in an Orwellian sense that I first noticed being used among educational opinion-formers when I was a teacher a quarter of a century ago. In Educratese “you are entitled to do this” means “you are not entitled not to do this”. Ms Keane continues:
“The time was right in Wales to bring Welsh in as a compulsory, as a mandatory, part of the National Curriculum in 1990.”
The use of locutions such as “the time was right” or “the situation demanded” to describe how a law came to be passed is another trick of speech I have long hated. It makes it sound as if, rather than one more-powerful bunch of humans forcing another less-powerful bunch to do their bidding, it all happened by the irresistible pressure of some force of nature.
Just to reinforce that “entitled” is being used in this particular and deceptive sense, the commentator purrs approvingly:
“Ann believes all peoples living in Wales and New Zealand are entitled as citizens to learn the language of the land”.
This is immediately followed at 3:59 by Professor Mac Giolla Chriost of Cardiff University, who says that he thinks:
“the arguments for compulsion are much more powerful and convincing than the arguments against compulsion.”
We never get to learn what the arguments against compulsion are, so this claim is difficult to judge. The professor continues:
“There are very good arguments for making sure that all young people in New Zealand are allowed access to Maori as a part of their national identity . . . the only way of doing that, then, is compulsion.”
“Allowed access to Maori,” is another variant of “entitled to learn Maori” or “have the right to learn Maori”. All of them mean “will be forced to learn Maori”. It just sounds prettier if a pose is maintained that someone – probably an Englishman in imperialist headgear – is trying to stop eager pupils from learning Maori or Welsh, and the “right” or “entitlement” or “demand for access” is being asserted against such oppression. I do not know about New Zealand but that picture of Anglophone oppression was certainly true of Wales at one time, although most accounts of cruel practices such as the Welsh Not skirt around the fact that its use was supported by Welsh-speaking parents who saw English as the route to prosperity for their children. My late mother-in-law, for whom Welsh was the much-loved “language of the hearth”, confirmed to me that it was common in her childhood for Welsh-speaking parents to discourage the Welsh speech of their children. Few would have wished to punish Welsh in the home by means of the hairbrush or the belt, but plenty were happy to have the teacher do it in school, where they did not have to see their child cry. No doubt many African parents nowadays make the same calculation.
→ Continue reading: What do the Maori and Welsh languages have in common?