THE BLOG

On Language and Nationalism: A Letter to Wales

01/04/2014 13:03 BST | Updated 31/05/2014 10:59 BST

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To my dearest Wales, Cymru, cartref.

I use the word "cartref", Welsh for home, despite not having lived there for six years or more. Somehow one's heart is always located deep in one's roots.

It upsets me, when I meet new people here in London, that whenever somebody asks me where I'm from they inevitably follow it up with "But you don't sound Welsh". I'm a fluent Welsh-speaker. I grew up playing rugby. My family tree goes back to coal miners raised by farmers. My surname is Jones. My mother's maiden name is even Jones. But apparently I'm not Welsh because I don't sound like Huw Edwards.

When I was a young adolescent, I would consider myself a Welsh Nationalist. However, it was as much an anti-English stance as it was pro-Welsh. It's obvious to anybody who leaves Wales how this is an historic antagonism, yet one that those in Wales are happy to hold onto for reasons of identity - without an English antagonist, can there be a Welsh protagonist?

Recently, Jonathan Edwards, an MP for Plaid questioned how Sam Warburton could possibly captain the Welsh rugby team when he played down any antagonism he may have for the English rugby team. It seems that Edwards believes that Chris Robshaw and co. were responsible for beating school children for speaking Welsh in the early twentieth century. For lower Church attendances in Wales. For building castles to subdue us in the thirteenth century.

As a Welshman in England, my Welsh identity is galvanized. Reality and semantics are often made up by differences. We are not defined by what we are, but by what we're not. All of us who live in London have our location in common, but what makes our deeper identity is what differentiates us from our neighbours. My main difference (which I have chosen) is that I'm Welsh.

There's that Welsh word that those who choose to "live away" use: "Hiraeth". Literally "longing". It describes homesickness, but because Wales and its people are so special, we have a special word for homesickness. People get homesick for other places, but Wales is so amazing, that we need our own special word to describe a more intense love of our home country compared to other migrants. How very Welsh to treat ourselves as special and unique, like others, but moreso.

This feeling of hiraeth gives us a romanticized vision of home. Wales, to those of us who left, you are physically beautiful, with a rich history and culture. You are perfect. The very notion of you is more important than your reality to the Welsh diaspora.

I'm generally quite laid back and easy going, but one of the few things that riles me is when the Welsh language is attacked. In a Radio Wales phone-in recently, Ken from Cardiff bemoaned the legal obligation of providing bilingual texts, comparing it to that oh, so awful crime of, wait for it... fly tipping. Forget the centuries of cultural genocide and the inferiority complex we've developed as a result, we've got a few tonnes of recyclable material on our hands.

That chip on our shoulder is something that we can't see through the rose-tinted spectacles of hiraeth. Wales is a land of bards; our national anthem proudly states this, however one of our greatest poets, Dylan Thomas, didn't speak Welsh. In fact, he insisted on an anglicized pronunciation of his very Welsh name. This is simply because he was from a time where Welsh was spoken by the common man in the street, but business was conducted in English. Welsh was relegated and discouraged - the Welsh Not in schools making pariahs of those who spoke their mother tongue.

This attitude towards the language, of it being second best, perseveres to this day. Ken and thousands like him are angry that public money is spent on preserving a language that they believe is second best. Welsh is spoken by a shrinking minority of Welsh people despite attempts to save it with public money and government policy.

Meanwhile, the Welsh-speaking elite (known as the crachach, a word derived from that for "scab") maintains their control over Welsh cultural institutions with a jobs-for-the-boyos culture. Their sense of self-righteous entitlement in their attempts to preserve the language at the cost of the country's rich English-speaking heritage have a negative effect - putting monoglot Welsh people off learning about the language.

Wales' cultural identity is at loggerheads. To the English-speakers, the crachach are snobs controlling the language in their own interests. To the Welsh-speakers, the English-speakers aren't really as Welsh as us and shouldn't have an opinion on the language unless they're willing to learn it.

The problem is entirely in how the language is viewed. At the moment, discourse is around "preserving" the language, as if it were some museum showpiece wheeled out on special occasions. As sure as finding out I'm Welsh is followed by the statement that I don't have a Welsh accent, you can be certain that anybody who learns that I'm fluent in the language will insist that I say "that place with the really long name". Our language is not a party trick, and we need to stop treating it as if it is.

On a recent trip to Caernarfon, in the very Welsh-speaking county of Gwynedd, I hesitated to use the language when ordering a pint in case the landlord didn't speak Welsh. My concerns were unfounded on this occasion, but had he not spoken the language, I would have felt embarrassed and would immediately apologise for attempting to speak my own language in my own country.

We need to stop shaming Welsh people for speaking Welsh, like the Cardiff shopworker who recently caused a stir for doing just that on social media. Likewise, we who speak the language must not look down our noses at our fellow Welsh brethren who can't speak it.

We cannot continue to "preserve" the language. We're not burying it in the Blue Peter garden for future generations and no amount of legislation or translated bureaucracy will change that. We need to change our day-to-day attitudes. We need to accept that Wales is a bilingual country and accept the duality of our shared culture and languages without prejudice from either side.