Saturday, 16 May 2009
A lament at the death of a bit of me.
It pains me that I need to use English here rather than the Welsh I grew up with, but it would take me hours to write even the most basic of my thoughts and ideas and then it would be wrong and I would be missing the whole point of language: communicating what I am thinking, feeling, meaning. I used to have Cymraeg hard-wired into my young brain, but now it has receded amongst the clamour and overwhelming dominance of English in my life. It has suddenly occured to me that I am missing the old language, and that it may never come back...
I grew up steeped in Cymru Cymraeg-ness: I spent all of my formative years, from 3 to 23 in the rural heart of West Wales. However, I lived in a monoglot English household. I'd speak immature Welsh with my friends in the playground, hear it all day long in the classroom, but never used it outside of the school situation. I must have been at that age pretty much bilingual, as was my younger brother, but there was a general attitude of 'what's speaking Welsh any use for' at that time in Carmarthenshire amongst the younger generations and in my home. As I got older and began attending secondary school in Carmarthen, even my most 'Welsh' friends rarely used it in social situations, and as we grew older Welsh seemed to drift off the agenda. Local bands on the scene started using Welsh in a more forceful and defiant manner - Gorkys etc. - but by then the use of Welsh in my life had long since ebbed back to the horizons of my daily life. I attended the mainstream secondary school in Carmarthen (Queen Elizabeth Cambria) and the Welsh language school (Ysgol Bro Myrddin) was regarded as our bitter rivals. I was interested in the language and still had a good command of it, but the fiercely tribal and cliquey nature of some of the speakers of the same age as me combined with a puberty fuelled lack of forcefulness and confidence meant that I had little or no opportunity to use it beyond Welsh classes at school. I could chat the time of day away with little old ladies in town, but I couldn't talk about what I wanted to talk about as a fiery fifteen year old embroilled in a scene of death metal and leftfield art and music. This resulted in an ironically Welsh-like inferiority complex and made the language more and more unsatisfactory and irrelevant when communicating my interests and desires. It began to whither away like unused muscle and, when I moved to England in the mid 90s, became pretty much a decrepit passenger hanging out in the back of my language vehicle.
Like lots of people from Wales, when I left the country I became a bore on Welsh and Welshness. My interest in the language was revived and extended to other Celtic tongues and their various adventures and plights. I was older, more calm and self assured and no longer needed to shout all the time. Suddenly I wanted to revive the ailing language in my head. But how do you do that when you live in a country where speaking Welsh is viewed as an exotic idiosyncrasy - a bit like stamp collecting or amateur dramatics - and in a city where it is easier to get lessons in Mandarin and Catalan than it is to study a language spoken a mere 45 minute drive away? I've had to content myself with snatching bits of conversation on my occasional jaunts home, reading my Welsh dictionary and tuning in to Radio Cymru and suffering the onslaught of second-rate cod Country & Western to listen to a Gog talk too fast in strange words and phrases for me to keep up.
My friend Carl Morris recently wrote a highly thought provoking post about his struggles to learn the language of the country in which he lives. This here post is a direct consequence of my reading Carl's thoughts on his journey so far. He moved to Cardiff as a child and has made an admirably determined effort to become fluent in the language as an adult. I take off my hat to him: it is a considerable task to undertake in a unique situation. The trouble with learning Welsh is that everyone speaks English. Every stuttering, awkward conversation you have with a native speaker is played out against the backdrop of both parties knowing that you could have the same discussion with far more satisfying and accurate results if you both switched to English. This is my experience of trying to reacquaint myself with the language; there is an insecurity, almost ashamedness, about my lack of fluency, and, displaying archetypal behaviour of humans that are frustrated and embarrassed, I switch back to the easiest option - English - or don't enter into the struggle in the first instance. I am not really a confident person when it comes to dealing with strangers anyway and lack the devil-may-care, if-you-don't-shoot-you-won't-score cavalierness that Carl so commendably displays in most situations in life. So how does one learn to speak Welsh fluently at all then? To be honest, I haven't got a clem.
I could enroll on an wlpan course and immerse myself for a few weeks. But then what? Surely without regular exercise the Welsh muscles would wither again. Also, the Welsh I spoke as a child was rough Welsh, hearth-Welsh as it is called, and I'm not sure I've the patience for going back to scratch now - the same reason that I'll probably not start learning the piano when I have a perfectly means of making music with playing the bass. Perhaps I could move back to Wales, back to a juicily Cymraeg region where you could use and hear the language every day? I think Mrs Owen might have something to say about that, and I love Bristol dearly anyway and have roots here down as deep as they will go. No, those things won't really do it.
I think really that I have to come to terms with the death of Welsh in me. I was a bilingual child, but as I grew up became a monoglot adult with a some knowledge of an obscure Northern European language. Maybe I need to do a bit of grieving and move on. It might seem odd to you, but as I write this I do feel grief; I feel grief for a language that was part of me that has died; I feel grief for a part of my identity that has gone away never to return, only to be remembered and talked about, never actually present. I need to satisfy myself with chatting to people like Carl who have similar struggles with this beautiful and magnificently mercurial language; I need to delight in having conversations in Cymraeg with Breton shop keepers that have learned Welsh from a book because it is so similar to their native Breton and realise that that is as close as I'll ever get to genuine Welsh conversation as I could probably get without having the escape hatch of English forever accessible in the periphery of the moment. That was with Carl too. Tidy darts Carlos, tidy darts.
RIP y Cymraeg mewn Leroy. RIP.
Pob hwyl te. Da bo chi.