Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Hairy Dad Chronicles #2: Tongue of their Fathers - Passing on my Bad Welsh to the Next Generation

Howdy! (as they say in Rhostrehwfa)

As the last half hour or so of St David's Day/Gwyl Dewi Sant trickles down the sandhole of time for another year, I'm shoehorning in the opportunity to explain a little bit about another one of the DECISIONS that was made about bringing up our little lad: namely, that I decided to speak Welsh to him.

I should explain that I'm not fluent in Welsh and not a native speaker: my Mam is from County Clare in the West of Ireland and my Dad was from Macclesfield, not far from Manchester. It was a happy accident that we as a family ended up at a kind of cultural midpoint between the two places - on the Isle of Anglesey. It was handy for the ferry, no doubt.

It isn't even that I'm capable of any decent length strings of Welsh sentences. Or proper communication at all, really. Intermediate language skills glisten atop some distant peak far up above my poorly-equipped base camp. I must sound like a complete idiot.

I did, however, grow up in Welsh-speaking Wales. I did learn it at school and even got a GCSE in Cymraeg: Ail Iaeth (Welsh: Second Language), although at Foundation level. I did acquire a near proximity to a good accent when speaking Welsh as a result. I did leave school with better German than Welsh, despite the fact I had lived yng Nghymru for thirteen years and never once been to Germany or Austria or Switzerland or even brushed their umlaut-draped borders.

I did think Welsh was a language for chapel-goers and committees and teachers and nought that was cool for most of my school years until various Welsh-language bands like Datblygu and Llwybr Llaethog showed me where I had been going wrong. And that's the "I did" section neatly covered.

So, why did I decide to pass on someone else's culture to my son, who seems likely at the moment to spend his entire childhood living in the North of England? Dyna'r cwestiwn...

Firstly, even though I was an immigrant to Wales, I realised when I did finally travel to the former Holy Roman Empire and other mildly exotic parts of the world that I did actually identify myself with Wales and Welsh people, that I did have some knowledge of Welshness - even if as an outsider. I was maybe a bit like those colonial types who grew up in Kenya or Sri Lanka and were caught between the mother country and the locals - fish that swam comfortably in neither water. I am, as my bio suggests, living at least partly in the Wales of the mind.

Secondly, and perhaps this is related to the first answer, I feel that a language is a tremendously valuable thing to let die out. There are languages in places like Australia that are almost literally on their last pair of legs, as the final native speaker is old enough and unique enough to breath the last living words of that language any time soon. With the disappearing language goes a whole view of the world, a whole philosophy encoded in the very words themselves that is almost impossible to replace. I frequently feel the need for continuity and this is one of those times.

Thirdly, I like Welsh - the way it sounds in my half-stopped ears and feels in my clumsy mouth. There are some great words and ideas, and I love the fact that knowing there is more than one language early in life means you understand that much more quickly that a chair isn't a "chair", it's something some people call a "chair". If that makes sense.

The secret fourth reason (a secret reason only dimly perceptible to myself) is that it feels a clever thing to do and all the more so for my complete inability to perform the task. I like the sense of difference, of awareness of alternatives that it can lend. But like I say, that's a dark path of thought I chose not to follow in public...

As I say, my Welsh is appalling: a combination of ineptly-taught and poorly-received GCSE Welsh, some song lyrics, some internet resources and watching S4C every now and then with straining ears. I cannot hold a conversation, cannot add clauses to a sentence convincingly and can barely remember how to use past and future tenses.

My friends and family-in-law that speak Welsh mostly live in England and rarely speak it - except in phone calls to their own families. It's always a slight annoyance to me that the census doesn't even recognise the fact that they exist as Welsh speakers with the relevant section omitted from the forms outside of Wales. The fact they don't speak Welsh to their children is sad but completely understandable as the kids are very unlikely to use it. My best friend effectively learnt English at primary school and his Pennsylvanian mother learnt the language on arriving in Wales, and yet he rarely has a Welsh thought pass through his head these days after over twenty years living in England.

And yet, I think to myself that if I say enough words often enough, then at least the perception of another language is there. Even if it's a non-Welsh Welsh-like Daddy Language rather than the real thing. I try and speak some to him every day - mostly "Are you OK?"/"Come here."/"Do you want some milk?"; simple questions and instructions. Sometimes a random (and no doubt grammatically disastrous) sentence will pop in my head and I'll let it drop out of my mouth. I tell myself that if he at least tunes his ears into it, he will able to pick it up more easily and pronounce it more convincingly if he ever takes an interest in future.

My Mam had her entire schooling in Irish (as was the received political wisdom at the time) despite the fact her parents claimed they had no Irish and none was spoken at home*. She loved it and has often told me she felt as a student there were some things she could express in Irish that were impossible in English. By the time I was old enough to notice, all that was left were a few welcoming phrases, toasts and descriptive words: the rest had been swept away. She wasn't even able to really read it very confidently as the spelling and the script had been changed since she was at school. Another linguistic dead end: there are loads of them around when I stop to look.

So far, there has been one minor triumph for the project: Jasper says "dooo" for water, which I choose to interpret as being like "dwr", the Welsh word for the same. He's not really using words yet, so you could argue it's a stretch in logic, but it's a stretch I'm happy to make.

I've no idea how much he might pick up. His cousin has English and Japanese spoken at home and all his schooling (still at pre-school, but all the same) is in Welsh, as they live on the Lleyn Pensinsula. I'm fascinated to see how that will develop. My brother says he has recently become aware of the different languages and which word belongs where, so it'll be interesting to see what choices he makes.

What I can describe more easily is the way that I use the language with him even in a one-way verbal exchange, which in itself is really interesting. When he was very little, most of the use was when we went out together - sometimes whole trips to the swimming baths would be in mumbled, inept Welsh. Now that I'm spending most of my time with him at home while Lou works (another post in the offing for that one) my use of Welsh acts as a very reliable barometer of how much pressure I am feeling: the more Cymric vocabulary that spills out, the more on top of things I feel. This makes me even more determined to speak in Welsh in order to convince myself how very well I'm doing as a parent.

So we'll see how I get on: it's been sixteen months of Welsh every day so far with a proto-word in response. I am nourished by the (probably apocryphal) story of the architect of the Hebrew revival in Israel in the 1940s and beyond, who was so convinced that a language based on the Hebrew sacred texts was the future that he refused to speak anything else to his family the moment his foot stepped on the boat to the Holy Land. And now there are millions of speakers, where there was once a dessicated religious language as dead and restricted to scholars and priests as Latin. He must have been impossible to live with, but you have to take your inspiration from where you find it.

And as I type this, his raw gums are kicking in and parental duties call again. Best be off!

Hwyl fawr!

Eich cyfaill,

Coc x

* I did see a copy of a County Kerry census not so long ago that dated from 1901 and said that my infant grandfather did have Irish, so there is a story to be told there one day.

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