Cultural purism and language revivals, as in Wales, can be dangerous paths

I come from North Wales, a beautiful place of which I am still very fond.

By James Dingley
Saturday, 31st July 2021, 7:01 am
Updated Saturday, 31st July 2021, 7:10 am
A bilingual road sign on the Wales/England border near Hereford. Within Wales today there is a growing, sectarian elitism concerning the language, where you are only really Welsh if you speak Welsh, although most real business is conducted in English
A bilingual road sign on the Wales/England border near Hereford. Within Wales today there is a growing, sectarian elitism concerning the language, where you are only really Welsh if you speak Welsh, although most real business is conducted in English

And although I’ve lived in Northern Ireland for over 40 years the rugby always reminds me where my true allegiance lies. However, like two thirds of the population of Wales my ancestry is more non-‘pure’ Welsh (Anglo-Scots mostly, with Welsh-Welsh relations two or three times removed).

After my family left Wales (for my father’s career) we invariably went back for holidays where relatives would always remind me that I came from Wales and was therefore Welsh.

In addition, when we came to live in England both my sister and I were very Welsh and were always known as the ‘little Welsh children’ with great affection by our English and non-English neighbours who were always very kind and welcoming to us.

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Dr James Dingley, a Belfast based academic and chair of the Francis Hutcheson Institute

I mention non-English, because amongst my parents polyglot mix of friends in the 1950’s were many displaced Europeans, e.g. Poles and Czechs unable to return to their native lands, or French and Belgians of a variety of different religions and languages, who had married liberating British servicemen. But everyone mixed well and spoke English because it enabled us to communicate, break down barriers and get on well with each other.

We all blended in and I soon lost my distinctive Welsh-ness in an English education that stressed being open, cosmopolitan and non-sectarian – good British values.

Only as I grew up did I become aware of contrary views. I recall my parents discussing their post-war days in Wales, in particular attending meetings to discuss the establishment of the International Eisteddfod at Llangollen. Here, because, eisteddfod are usually conducted in Welsh, the question arose of what languages, especially German, should be permissible at an ‘international’ one. At which point the Welsh Language crew proclaimed very loudly that only English was the enemy!

This was to a meeting full of ex-servicemen (like my father) who had just spent six years defeating Hitler and his cultural purity. The Nazis not only had a racial policy but a language policy to go with it which went so far as to try and revive the old Gothic script, which even most Germans couldn’t follow. Language revivals and cultural purism take one down very dangerous paths.

A very Welsh-Welsh aunt, a fluent Welsh speaker, later began dropping Welsh as a protest against the Welsh language movement which had politicised the language, become very divisive within Wales and increasingly anti-English (whose taxes were subsidising the language).

Within Wales today there is a growing, sectarian elitism concerning the language, where non-speakers are made to feel lesser, not really belonging and therefore not legitimate. You are only really Welsh if you speak Welsh, although most real business is conducted in English.

Thus a cultural sectarian divide is fostered, an ‘us and them’, that is not inclusive but exclusive, whereby only the cultural purist is considered legitimate and has rights. This in turn drives out all the genuinely creative talent, leaving behind a mediocrity who have a monopoly because they alone can master a language no one else really needs or wants. It is driven by people who have nothing else to offer but have managed to mystify a near dead language into a gravy train under the guise of culture.

This divides and alienates people otherwise the same and disillusions them when the real world of making a living and paying the bills clocks in: except for the language folk who will monopolise the remaining jobs because they alone speak the language that has driven the other jobs out.

• Dr Dingley is chair of the Francis Hutcheson Institute

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