The Story of Welsh

They’re singing us a lullaby each, the five musicians, in Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, and Welsh. The gentling sound of it rocks us: teachers, writers, artists, politicians, arts development workers, academics, policy makers, technological innovators, as we sit in the old hall in Aberystwyth. 

We’re here to talk about ‘Our Voice in the World’: to consider the Welsh language in an international context at a festival to coincide with the UNESCO year of indigenous languages. These musicians have gone back to the beginnings of language, to a child’s first words, and before them, to the months of hearing and overhearing language that are so vital to language development, as in these lullabies, now. 

There’s something about the intimacy of a lullaby, rocking you, holding you close. I find myself, suddenly, in tears. 

Georgia Ruth, one of the singers, introduces a beautiful bespoke song she’s written. She speaks Welsh, as I do, with first-language fluency, but as for me, it isn’t strictly speaking her mother tongue. Welsh was lost within the family a couple of generations ago – as happened in many families in Wales, and she regained it through school. Her song is about what it meant for her to speak Welsh to her own baby, when it hadn’t been the language her mother used with her. This is something I’ve always wondered about. How would it feel to mother through the medium of a language that wasn’t the language of intimacy in my own childhood? She sings her answer. The song is a gentle, loving portrait of the closeness she and her child carved out with words. In it she shows how they discovered a whole new vocabulary of love together. It’s a beautiful thing. Tears again. 

I’m sitting next to our national poet, Ifor ap Glyn, and I’m not sure if he notices my crying, but I don’t think he should mind much anyway surely, as a national poet? Ifor ap Glyn is a first language speaker of Welsh, from London. He had little Welsh in his daily life outside the home, and is testament to the power of domestic language transmission. By contrast, my Welsh is testament to the power of language transmission in the wider community and in education. 

These stories are not unusual. But sadly, for every story of language transmission success, there is one where somehow the language stopped between one generation and the next, like a radio that slipped to static, and was never tuned again. Often this was because historically people were made to feel ashamed of speaking it. These days, in communities across Wales, Welsh learners from families where the language has been lost are rebuilding the radio, and tuning in, tuning in again, speaking Welsh to their children, and pulling words out of the darkness: cariad, cusan, llefrith, love, kiss, milk. I find this an extraordinary thing. A man whose father hadn’t passed Welsh on to him once told me that he felt that every word he learnt of the language as an adult brought him one step closer to his Dad. 

Before the musicians had come on, we’d watched a clip of a video that will be used by the Welsh government to tell the world about our language. An attempt to convey its contemporary story. It’s well put together. I wonder about this, the idea that a language is a story. 

I always find it extraordinary, when you dig down, how many different stories there are about the Welsh language, in every family, every life, it means something different: The family who lost the language two generations ago, and are regaining it; the family who have never questioned that it should be the language of every mealtime but who never use it in the shop; the woman who has never learnt to write in it fluently; the woman who was adopted into a Welsh-speaking home; the refugee who speaks it fluently; the young man who has started using his Welsh for the very first time because he has a new girlfriend. All these plural, immense stories. Most of them untold. People fall in and out of love through the language, die with it on their lips, bring it out of the silence to end feuds, fight with it, write with it, and use it to change their world. How do you turn that into one story? 

As well as this focus on language transmission in the everyday, and at home, I attend sessions on Welsh language technologies, a talk on the huge success that is Welsh Wikipedia, sessions on new projects to offer free Welsh courses to refugees and other recent arrivals to Wales, and sessions on the political and legislative framework to support minority languages across Europe. I am also told how to participate in a project to crowd source Welsh voice recognition software. (If you’re a Welsh speaker and would like to help this initiative by recording a few simple phrases, or checking others, you should visit https://voice.mozilla.org/cy)

There’s a sense here of Welsh as part of a huge community of global minority languages that maintain themselves by means of passion, inspiration, intimacy, struggle, and political will, something that my experience with Hay in Latin America has really brought home to me. Many languages and cultures are mentioned today, many linguistic experiences, and I find myself thinking in particular of the speakers of Quechua, Aymara, Nahuatl, Otomi, Mixteco, Cree and Secwepemc who I have met through my travels with the Hay Festival. 

Close to my heart also, is a passing lament, at a session on the legislative position of minority languages in Europe, for the situation in Catalonia, where the central government’s crackdown seems set to erode the hard-won framework that protects and nourishes the Catalan language. This thought, to me as a second-language Catalan speaker, is like nails down a blackboard, a reminder that the histories of languages like ours encompass centuries of state sponsored linguistic oppression on the one hand, and a baby being rocked to sleep on the other. 

In our event, we are asked what narrative we would use to sell Welsh to the world, what one story would we particularly tell about it? Like, say, is its story the way in which it is endangered, or its history, or is its story the fact that we have wikipedia, and spellchecks?

I’m stumped. 

Welsh is a prism and a kaleidoscope. It’s a billion narrative perspectives, an infinite number of voices, a constantly evolving and unlimited code for everything. Welsh is a practical tool, and Welsh is a mysterious, alchemical ingredient that gives life to a poem, a lullaby or a story in a way that nothing else can. I can’t tell you the story of it, can I? Because, like Aymara, or Quechua, or English, or Catalan, or Otomi, Welsh isn’t a story. It’s what stories are made of. 

Alys Conran is Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2019/20, travelling to each Hay Festival edition. Her novels, Dignity and Pigeon, are out now.