And the holiday word in West Wales was Arafwch. Nawr.

Post date: Aug 15, 2011 4:48:58 PM

On holiday in West Wales last week, part of my time was spent attempting to decipher Welsh-language signage with the help of my tiny vocabulary (which grows by a few words with every visit). A small number of shop-fronts and chapels in Cardigan (Aberteifi) had signs in Welsh only. As a linguist, it is fascinating to observe a bilingual society so close to home. I must admit, however, that my attempts at using a few words in Welsh in local shops appeared to fall on stony ground. My fault entirely, no doubt.

I am also baffled by the attitude of some English people (and I use the word advisedly) to the extensive use of Welsh - as if people should somehow apologize for using their own language. In my younger days I was occasionally on the receiving end of some mild hostility as a holidaying English person in the North, but this never extended beyond being addressed directly in Welsh when the person addressing me knew I couldn't speak the language. English people complain about this as if it is equivalent to a mugging or something (perhaps we should coin the phrase "linguistic mugging"? Maybe not).

It's also surely time to lay to rest the old myth that Welsh-speakers in shops and pubs only start speaking Welsh when an English person comes in. What nonsense. They were speaking Welsh long before we got there!

The issue which interests me the most is the extent to which modern-day Welsh speakers are able to function using Welsh only. For anyone intending to interact with non-Welsh-speakers, whether in Wales or elsewhere in the UK, English is clearly a must. However, in some parts of Wales it is presumably possible to function more or less entirely in Welsh, with all of one's "linguistic events" (shopping, education, socializing, access to medical and local authority services, etc.) taking place in the language.

This surely means that English will be of limited use to some people - they will only need it to speak to "foreigners", or to access non-Welsh media (Eastenders, perhaps?). Such people may therefore not speak English with perfect fluency. I am pretty sure I have encountered people in North Wales about whom this could be said. I am absolutely not taking a negative view on this. In fact, I can't understand why English people react so vehemently against the notion of people speaking Welsh rather than English. Census data tells us that the numbers of people claiming to speak only Welsh are tiny. This means that more or less everybody in Wales - presumably bar a few very old people and pre-school children - can speak English in any case, even if not always perfectly fluently. But many Welsh people are in the fortunate position of being able to speak Welsh most or all of the time. Now why does that wind the English up so much?

("Arafwch nawr" means "reduce speed now", if memory serves).