On Learning Welsh
Here I sit, an old man now, in front of my computer, learning at last my mother tongue, Welsh. English is the language of the invaders, the mine-owners, the men who own the steel works and foundries, and who rule this land with a fist of coal inside an iron glove. Welsh is the tongue of farmers and fishermen, of the villagers who live on the hills and tend the sheep and plant potatoes in tiny small holdings where only the fittest children survive.
My mother’s father was the last of us to speak Welsh. It was banned in our house because it was bad for the kids. In a working-class household, Welsh, be it language or accent, was a barrier to success. And success came from imitating your English betters, and climbing upwards, like a vine, or Jack on his beanstalk, until you achieved the impossible and talked and looked and dressed like them.
Sitting here, I have discovered the beauty of simple words, not so much their meaning as their sound, the way they flow, the poetry of remembered rhythms:
Cwmrhydyceirw, the Valley of the Leaping Stag, though legend has it that ceirw was really cwrw, and cwrw is beer, and its real name was the Valley of the Brown Stream Frothing like Beer.
Words have their own music, even if you cannot pronounce them properly: Mae hi’n bwrw glaw nawr yn Abertawe / it’s raining now in Swansea. Mae’r tywydd yn waeth heddiw / the weather’s worse today. Bydd hi’n dwym ddydd Llun / it will be warm on Monday. Why, oh why, in Wales, do we always talk about the weather?
Place names also have their own magic: Llantrisant, Llandaff, Dinas Powis, Gelligaer, Abertawe, Cas Newydd, Pen-y-bont … Meaning changes when you switch from one language to another: gwyraig ty / a housewife, gwr ty / a househusband, a concept of equality that has ruled Welsh lives since Julius Caesar invaded Albion, coming from Gaul with his legions in 55 BC.
Un deg chwech, dau deg saith, tri deg wyth, naw deg naw … The photographer asks me to speak in English, then in French, then in Spanish, then in Latin, and lastly in Welsh. He checks the memory card in his camera and looks puzzled.
“You put on a new face each time you speak a different language,” he tells me. “Look, this is when you spoke French.” He shows me the photo and yes, I look happy.
“And this is when you spoke Latin.” He holds out the camera and I see myself on the screen. I look ever so grim. English, French, Spanish, Latin, Spanish, and Welsh: all different and each language is a new a map carved into my face. Am I a clown, then, a comedian, a chameleon to wear so many masks and to slip so easily from one to another? Which, then, is my language and where is the Old Red Sandstone from Wales into which I can carve my memories and my dreams? More important, which of those many tongues will shape my story as I sculpt each letter of my tale?