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Oct 2018 - Year 20 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

The Welsh are NOT English

Mario Rinvolucri is a Pilgrims associate, who was one of the four people who worked on WAYS OF DOING that Cambridge brought out in 1998. Barbara Garside and Paul Davis were the other two writers and Penny Ur was our loyal and demanding editor. The book is about psychological and practical processes in general life and also in the FL class and exam rooms.  Did you know that people chomp through a pizza using varied strategies and that pre-exam fear varies a lot from victim to victim?


“I am sick and tired of hearing that in May 1940 England stood alone against the forces of Fascism on the beaches of Dunquerque” says a Liverpool-Welsh friend of mine, “haven’t they heard of Wales and Scotland?”  Her family came from the huge quarries of Blaenau Festiniog in the mountains of Snowdonia that used to supply the world with blue roofing slate.  Eryl gets particularly cross when she hears old chestnuts like” Welsh people will speak Welsh together so English people can’t understand” when exactly the opposite is true with a group round a table in the pub talking Welsh quite naturally who will nearly always switch to English if a non-Welsh speaker joins the group.

The Welsh are courteous Celtic people who are very rapport-sensitive and so, if you, an outsider, ask for road directions the main thing for the Welsh speaker is to have a good, friendly chat. The English person gets exasperated by instructions like these:  “Ah, well what you want to do is go on down this road until a quarter of a mile before you see the chapel on the right and then take a sharp left.....”

I hope the way the last paragraph is written gives you a feel for the way these two cultures helplessly misunderstand one another.

These misunderstandings have a long lineage......going back to the end of the 11th Century when the triumphant Normans decided to add Wales to their territories.  Wales is, indeed, the first foreign colony that the London Anglo-Norman kings decided to add to their possessions. The descendants of William the Conqueror tried to hold down the coastal areas of Wales by building vast, state-of-the-art castles at the river mouths. It was during the following four centuries of ambushes, guerrilla warfare, and set  battles that the English established their self-image as “civilised” masters of a  backward people speaking a barbaric language and “needing ng” to be civilised. English contempt for Wales is to be seen in the low value placed on learning the Welsh language, at least until comparatively recently. It did not occur to my parents, settling in Wales after WW2, to even learn greetings and openers in Welsh. My younger brother never learnt a word of Welsh when he settled in the sixties in rural Wales with his Liverpudlian wife. Their four boys went to the bi-lingual village school and all picked up the language fairly fluently. My third nephew took a degree in Welsh at  Aberystwyth University

You will still today find Welsh people who feel strong passive anger against the people who come from somewhere over there to the East where there is blanket ignorance about the land of Prince Llewelyn and the Red Dragon.  Maggie, married to a Catalan husband, was on holiday in a remote part of North Wales; her husband had ordered four pints of beer for the two couples. Maggie got up and in Welsh, her only language until the age of 12, asked where the toilet was. The innkeeper changed colour and bleated apologetically: “How could I know you speak the Ancient Language........look here......  tell your husband to bring that horse’s piss back to the bar and I’ll go round the back and get you some of the good stuff.....!”

Before the creation of the Welsh Assembly and the devolution of many powers from London the passive anger among ordinary people was much more apparent.  The UK Government of Wales Act of Parliament set up the Welsh Assembly in 2006. There had been a time when Welsh Nationalists regularly burnt down non-Welsh second homes. Between 1979 and 1991 Meibion Glyndwr (Sons of Glendower) was involved in 228 arson attacks and in many cases the arsonists were not identified and detained.

Having an executive assembly of their own has certainly brought pride and satisfaction to many people in Wales. The debates in the Cardiff Parliament are fully bi-lingual and the interpretation is fast, accurate and unerring........ technically it is hugely better than what happens in the European Parliament, though clearly  the Strasbourg Assembly has to cope with perhaps insurmountable, multiple interpretation problems.

Another useful development in Wales is that language classes for adult in –comers are becoming more popular and these learners are served by highly motivated teachers of Welsh.  I have had the honour of doing training workshops for these folk both in North and South Wales and have been wowed by their dedication to the language itself and their love for their English speaking students. My decision to use an interpreter did slow things down a bit with a crowd of highly competent bi-linguals but paid off in terms respect for their mission. (I hit on this demonstration of respect while training teachers of Basque in North Spain: the interpreter would turn my Spanish into sonorous Euskera.)

Let me round of f these thoughts on Welsh ways of coping with in-comer insensitivity by sharing with you a scene that  took place in North Wales this last May when my wife and I were on holiday in Caernarfon . We were a foursome sitting outside a pub in the town centre. It was the day that a UK princeling was marrying his American girl-friend, Megan. Two local men came out of the pub to have a smoke (smoking in UK pubs has been banned for some time) and the breeze wafted their smoke over to where my friend’s wife was sitting. Jane put up with this for a bit and then turned to the guys, and in her posh, boarding school English told him that she was allergic to tobacco smoke and would he mind moving. I saw the man trying hard to deal with the fury that her self-assured arrogance, her English upper class knowing she was right, her feeling of entitlement there in the square of his home town aroused in his heart... He stifled his feelings as Welsh people often feel they have to....... When taken to task later Jane was 100% percent unrepentant- she failed to begin to mentally reverse roles with him, to see that she could have easily moved to a different seat. How often will English ”Janes” have lorded it over the “natives” in India, Malaya, Hong Kong, Kenya, Jamaica and umpteen other territories to have later fallen under the jackboot of the English.

Would it be too much to suggest that in dealing with the Welsh over 9 centuries the English learnt how to take themselves to be a totally better kind of human being than anybody else? Nobody could accuse them of lack of imagination!


PS. Though I lived in a North Welsh village till I was 13, I do not speak the “ancient language”. to my shame. My father was an Italian immigrant to UK but today would be a member of the Northern League: he tried to teach me that “Africa begins at Florence”. He home-tutored me and did his best to stop me making friends with “boys from the village”. He was a Daily-Telegraph-reading snob. I have to thank him for driving me firmly to the left by age six. Grazie Papa, anche se non volevi questo risultato! ( Thanks Dad, even if you did not want this outcome!)

Please check the British Life, Language and Culture course at Pilgrims website.