Current Affairs Politics

An Bhreatain Bheag – Little Britain

WalesHome carries an interesting article on language apartheid in the nation (which originally appeared here):

‘WE OFTEN hear that Wales is too divided as a country.

This could be said to be true – The Gogs, the Hwntws, the Cardis and the Valleys folk – but are we truly divided on language? Many often purposely enjoy stating that there are huge linguistic barriers and divisions in Wales among the Welsh speaking and the non-Welsh speaking, as if some newly-invented linguist apartheid has descended upon the nation following bilingualism. I highly condemn and doubt this ‘new idea’ and will list my reasons below.

We in Wales are far more fortunate than other states where there are obvious linguistic divisions – Belgium, South Africa, Canada to name but a few. The difference of course is the fact that our native language in Wales has been that the language of the whole of Wales, and there is no doubting this whatsoever; it was once the language of the whole of England and vast swathes of Scotland. The debate that often arises in other countries in which linguistic divisions are strong, is that somebody else’s language is either being imposed or forced on a group of people whom have no connection whatsoever with that language.

This can be said for countries such as South Africa. The people of Kwazulu Natal never really spoke Afrikaans as “n moeder taal” (a mother tongue) and thus imposing the language on them was indeed a silly thing to do. The same is true for Wallonia and the Flemish region of Belgium. But this isn’t a debate that can be used here in Wales, because the Welsh language is a perfect example of a true national language.’

Hmmm. Well, there are some contentious points up there, not least the claim that Welsh was the language of vast swathes of Scotland. That is simply, and demonstrably, untrue. It was the language of the border regions and some lowland areas, at best, but was most certainly not the native language of the region in the way the writer suggests. The historical situation is far more complex and in fact the ancestor of Welsh was a late linguistic innovation in the Celtic languages, a dialect of the Celtic tongue called P-Celtic that filtered westward and may well have originally evolved in Continental Europe or around the English Channel area. From this P-Celtic ancestor was derived the British Celtic language (that gave us Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton) as well as the mainland European languages of Gaulish, Leptonic, etc.

‘There is no denying that most people in Wales – Welsh or English speaking – support the Welsh language. Opinion polls and survey results continually show a figure greater than 70% who support bilingualism and the promotion of Welsh.  This is a very positive figure and it shows that there exists goodwill towards the language. But a language needs more than goodwill alone to survive, and we are somewhere in a transition phase where the language is regarded as normal and receives fair play, and where Welsh was once discouraged and there existed some pretty vocal voices opposing anything Welsh.

But the thing that in some senses consolidates the future of Welsh is seeing the pride that exists among those that don’t speak Welsh towards their national language. They often state that they feel ashamed, or not “fully Welsh” (not my opinion) that they cannot speak Welsh. It’s these people whom sing the anthem with fire in their bellies, even though many of them do not understand the true meaning of the words. The spirit that is shown towards the Welsh language – the pride in being different – is something that unites all of us from every part of Wales. So how can it be argued that Wales is divided over language?’

In Ireland poll after poll has shown 90%+ support for the Irish language but I don’t think that means that there is no linguistic divide in the country, and I doubt Wales is any different. Indeed if 70% of the population of Wales support the Welsh language then it must follow that some 30% do not. However there is no denying that of all the surviving Celtic nations Wales is the most successful in protecting and promoting its native language and culture, ensuring greater equality between native and non-native speakers in ways that the rest of us can only look on at with envy (in no small part thanks to Plaid Cymru).

The argument then gets into some very unsound, and patently untrue, areas:

‘Wales has been united under one language for centuries and Welsh was that language. This is not true of Scotland, of Northern Ireland, where numerous languages have co-existed for hundreds of years.’

Well firstly ‘Northern Ireland’ is not a country. It is a region of the nation of Ireland, a place where the native language is the Irish language and for thousands of years the only language. English as a majority language in Ireland has been in that position for less than 150 years (and even that position may be in a slow reversal). Likewise Scotland has its own native language, Scottish, which was also the dominant language of the nation for millennia. Talking about these nations as being places where ‘numerous languages have co-existed for hundreds of years’ is rather odd, and somewhat disappointing. Wales, in terms of its linguistic history and diversity, is no different from its fellow Celtic nations and arguments along the lines of the special nature of Wales are clearly nonsense. We all face the same challenges.

At least the end paragraph is upbeat and positive, with sentiments we can all echo.

‘We should therefore seek strength from our linguistic heritage, a power that nobody has managed to break, and the spirit of those in Wales that feel and live their Welshness. Let’s use the language as an symbol of pride and distinctiveness, as a foundation to define us as people. The Welsh language is something that can and will unite is and thus we ought not let it divide us.’

6 comments on “An Bhreatain Bheag – Little Britain

  1. northern ireland isn’t a country? i’m sure i’ve heard someone disagree with that somewhere… ah well, i suppose they don’t hang out round here much so i guess it doesn’t matter… still, very interesting stuff!


  2. Northern Ireland is as much a country (or nation) as western Ireland is 😉 It is a region of Ireland, and like all regions it has its own local distinctiveness from the nation as whole.

    Admittedly rather more so than the rest, though 🙂

    The folk that disagree are more than happy to hang out here, if they wish. I hope I’m fair enough to give their opinions a fair hearing, however much I disagree with them. All debate is good debate.

    Thanks for the Comment, a chara!


  3. go ndéana a mhaith duit! thanks for the welcome.

    i had a bit of a think and did a bit of reading and it seems to me that western ireland has potentially a much greater distinctiveness than northern ireland, yet it is northern ireland which has, like, a border (well, sort of) and international recognition as a “country”. it seems perfectly reasonable to argue that it SHOULDN’T be a country, but to assert that currently it ISN’T one clashes somewhat with my inner pedant…


  4. Hmmm, a region, certainly, a country, no. A country is generally taken to refer to a nation or nation state. Certainly that was the implication in the original usage above. The North of Ireland (‘Northern Ireland’) is a region of the nation of Ireland, which remains under control of a separate nation, Britain. In and of itself it is not a country, though some in the British Unionists minority in Ireland, as a separatist minority, would argue so (though others in the British Unionist community would argue that the North is simply another region of Ireland).

    As it is the North of Ireland can be taken as simply the British colony in Ireland writ small, the last remnants of the British colonial presence in my country (country, see!).

    Thanks for the Comments, though, and nothing wrong with the odd bit of pedantry.


  5. yes, i see what you’re saying; i wouldn’t accept northern ireland as a nation, nor northern irish as a nationality. not all states need be nation-states, though… hmmm… i guess country is one of those slippery words. the basque country – a nation without a state (yet)? the black country – neither nation nor state (not sure what people there feel about that)?

    british unionists are certainly a minority in ireland, and barely a majority in their own… region. yet the colonial power recognises their area as a “country”. and indeed a country with an amount of autonomy, including the autonomy to freely secede from british power – surely that has to be worth something?

    (ps, i think we (up here, in MY *ahem* region) should have that referendum tomorrow! in fact i think we should hold the referendum over the whole island – at the moment i’m not sure there’d be much difference in the outcome. the only way to guarantee the reunification of ireland would be to, um, hold the referendum in england!)

    [dude, you post so much – i can’t keep up! i’ll be away for a few days but i look forward to exploring your thoughts on european/celtic identity. and good comment on gay mitchell, by the way. i’ve sent you a friend request on FB. cheers!]


    • An interesting Comment, and thanks for the FB Friendship request 🙂

      I agree, ‘country’ is a word with many meanings. As I’ve said many times, if you look at Irish history as a whole, then the northern entity is simply the Dublin Pale moved to the north-east of the, erm, country. A Northern Pale and the last outpost of the British colony in Ireland. Colonists included.


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