Cymru Am Byth! – How Speaking Welsh Became Cool
The number of speakers is growing fast, while bilingual TV thrillers and Welsh language rock songs are reaching a new audience. What’s behind the resurgence?
Written By: Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett – The Guardian
Welsh speakers are not used to their language and their culture being perceived as interesting or cool. When Welsh does make the headlines, it tends to be in the context of English visitors complaining about restaurant staff and pub clientele speaking it, as though people speaking their own language in their own country were a deliberate act of rudeness. So when Alffa, two teenage rock musicians from rural Gwynedd, north Wales, passed 1m plays on Spotify with a Welsh language song, I’ll admit I was very surprised.
We Welsh speakers may live and breathe the language, but many people outside Britain are unaware it even exists. All my life, it has been in crisis – but change is in the air. The number of speakers has surged to 874,700 – up from 726,600 in 2008, according to the Office of National Statistics. The Welsh Assembly has set a goal of one million Welsh speakers by 2050 (the population of Wales is 3.1 million) and it’s off to a good start. But, subtler than that, there seems to have been a cultural shift that Alffa’s achievement embodies: whereby identifying as Welsh is no longer a source of social stigma, nor discouraged in favour of a more homogenous notion of “British”.
People are proudly proclaiming their Welshness, finally taking the Welsh classes they had always meant to take and streaming bands such as Alffa and singers like Gwenno. Patriotic murals bearing the slogan Cofiwch Dryweryn (Remember Tryweryn) – a reference to the valley that was flooded in 1965, drowning a village in order to create a reservoir for the people of Liverpool – are appearing all over the country. The detective noir series Hinterland / Y Gwyll and mystery miniseries Hidden / Craith, both dramas originally produced for the Welsh-language public TV channel S4C, have reached wider audiences through streaming on the BBC and Netflix. A surprising number of people who have never even been to Wales are learning the language using the app Duolingo. Could it be that Welsh is finally becoming cool?
“You might as well ask a fish if the water it swims in is cool,” my dad says, gnomically, when I ask him. He has a point. The musician Gruff Rhys is from Bethesda, the next valley over from mine, and with his band Super Furry Animals was part of the original 1990s “Cool Cymru” wave. “The attitude in general is one of respect now,” he says. “Obviously there are trolls, but I think people are exposed to much more of the world than they used to be. We can listen to music in a multitude of languages and people aren’t fazed by different cultures in ways that they used to be when I was growing up.”
Yet the Welsh language has long been in the hands of traditionalists, even within Wales. The standup comedian Kiri Pritchard-McLean is Welsh born and bred, but is only now learning the language in a concentrated way. “I just feel like I’m missing a part of my own culture by not doing it. I felt like I was complicit in the oppression by not speaking it,” she says. “I love the country, I love the countryside, I love the history. But I can’t speak the language … It’s hiraeth.” Hiraeth is an untranslatable word meaning a wistful but unrealisable longing for home (and also, apparently, the name of actor Rooney Mara’s ethical clothing brand. She is American, not Welsh).
“I want my kids to be brought up in Wales speaking Welsh,” says Pritchard-McLean. Her family background and school played a large part in why she isn’t a fluent speaker. “I think the sort of person who would choose to teach Welsh, they always seemed like chapel-goers in pleated skirts,” she says, describing Welsh as the class to slack in.
The fact that there are different registers of Welsh (literary, colloquial, and a number of dialects and slangs) didn’t help matters. “My father’s side of the family, who are all first-language Welsh, really believe in the language and its preservation, and don’t like the Wenglish some speak,” says Pritchard-McLean. “They are very traditional; they use quite academic words and it felt very distant to me. It sounds like Lord of the Rings when my dad speaks to his brothers.”
To an extent the internet has liberated the language. Rhodri ap Dyfrig is an online content commissioner who works on Hansh, a popular Welsh-language social platform aimed at 16- to 34-year-olds. “Social media has made the Welsh language in all its diverse registers, accents and dialects more visible than ever before,” he says. “Before you’d have to go to S4C, or newspapers, or Radio Cymru, and that would be the form of Welsh language you would hear and maybe not connect to in some ways.
“What we know now is that there is a wide continuum of Welsh speaking, there are people who are learners, there are people who are rusty, there are people who have gone through mainstream education and who haven’t spoken for like five years. They’ve still got it, but they don’t feel confident, and that confidence thing is one of the biggest barriers.”
Hansh is successful because it’s funny and inclusive, and the content is made by and for young people. Most importantly, it shows there are myriad ways in which to be Welsh. “In the 90s, things were much more tribal,” says ap Dyfrig. “If you listened to Welsh language music, you probably didn’t listen to much else. You’d be in those gigs and that would be your world. The internet has completely changed all that. There is a multiplicity of identities within people now.”
Leena Farhat, a 21-year-old computer science student at Aberystwyth, is one such Welsh speaker. “My dad’s from Lebanon so I speak Arabic. I grew up in Geneva for a bit so I speak French and German, and my mum’s side of the family is from Mauritius so I speak Creole. I’ve been enjoying Welsh when I can,” she says. She grew up having Welsh godparents and holidaying in Wales, and always felt a connection. Having so many other languages has helped her learning. “My parents both came from ex-colonial places, so they grew up in bilingual systems. Some Welsh people have been taught in Welsh at school but speak English at home. That sort of bilingualism, people take for granted, but it’s very special.”
Another factor in the shift towards Welsh positivity could be the rise of English nationalism in the wake of Brexit. “I think there is a rise in identity politics in my generation and I feel this when I talk to people. I say: ‘I’m Welsh’,” says Farhat. “People look at me a bit like: ‘Oh, cool’. It’s that idea of challenging Britishness and what that is. People in the older generation say ‘I’m British’ first. They associate Britishness with the English language but we have other languages in these isles.”
Welsh language learner Benjamin Siddall, 26, concurs. “We definitely live in a time where people are being taught to celebrate what makes them different as opposed to what makes them fit in – I think that is a nice thing.” Siddall is London-based and has never lived in Wales, but he and his Welsh-speaking girlfriend want to raise their children to be bilingual. “I just thought it was really cool – they have this secret language they can all speak, and no one knows what they’re talking about. It was fun to get involved in,” he says.
I ask him how he feels about the criticism, often levied by English settlers, that Welsh is useless outside of Wales and therefore there is not much point learning it. “It’s an odd criticism because a language gives you so much more than just the utility to speak to other people; it gives you ways to describe things and experiences. The more language you have, the more excitement you are going to find in those day-to-day experiences.” Siddall, a university fundraiser, travels extensively for work throughout Europe and Welsh has, he says, enriched his understanding of other languages and their relationships to one another.
It might be that, in trying to protect Welsh heritage, the Welsh language lobby has not always been inclusive. Mymuna Mohamood, 29, is a research assistant from Butetown in Cardiff who identifies as Somali Welsh. She speaks Somali, Arabic, English and Welsh. She had Welsh lessons in school and is now learning on a course through work. “It’s been a great opportunity,” she says, “especially being from a minority ethnic background and growing up in Wales, having dual identity, your culture being Somali and Welsh. The Welsh have the same thing, so that’s where that passion stems from.”
Last year, partly in an effort to be more inclusive, the Welsh Eisteddfod – the annual Welsh language cultural event usually held in rural locations – took place in Butetown, where people from ethnic minority backgrounds make up around a third of the population. “I went with my friend who is half-Pakistani, half-white Welsh, who speaks fluent Welsh, and people’s reactions were just shock and horror,” says Mohamood. “We felt we were standing out like sore thumbs in our own community. We were like a minority within a minority. It was so odd.
“They had this whole conception of the Eisteddfod being white Welsh middle class, and when I was saying ‘dwi’n siarad Cymraeg’ [“I speak Welsh”] they were looking at me as if to say, ‘How is that even possible?’ Somalis have been here for over 200 years, and I’m still getting these questions.”
Expanding conceptions of what it means to be Welsh can only be a good thing, though there is clearly still much work to be done. As Mohamood notes, Welsh classes need to be affordable and accessible if the assembly is to reach its one million speakers target. As exciting as it is to see Welsh embraced for its cultural capital, as Rhys notes, that might not last for ever.
“I suppose the problem with notions of cool is that things become uncool, but any culture and language deserves its space to be uncool as well.” Though the language now has an official role in public life, after much campaigning, the next step is securing it the same rights in the private sector and that is harder to regulate, he says. “It’s very much at crisis point and it’s crucial that multinational tech companies are able to [embrace it],” he says. “It’s starting to happen in the EU, where [representation of minority languages] is regulated, but the fact that Alexa can’t speak Welsh is a huge problem.”
Personally, I quite like the idea that Welsh could become a secret language of resistance against international tech companies. Beyond any ephemeral ideas of coolness, however, a true victory for the language would be that it is able to survive. My dad was right. Like the water we swim in, it’s there and it’s ours.