How to be Welsh without an ancestry of coal tips or sheep

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When you are the Westminster leader of Plaid Cymru’s MPs, some people make a couple of assumptions about you.

It is taken as granted that you will possess a Welsh ancestry of biblical extent, and that you will have been a monolingual Welsh speaker at least until the age of eight. It is assumed – depending on the degree of cliché – that your family home will be in the shadow of either coal tips or sheep.

I must apologise for confounding these expectations. My pedigree is doggedly English. I was born, raised and educated in south east London with parents brought up in southern England. The Saville family has done a fair job of being rootless English middle class, while my mother’s family, the Noyes, were reliably settled in Salisbury and the villages of south Wiltshire.

Learning Welsh has been the single greatest cause of disruption in my life, diverting me from conventional career pathways, and unlocking doors to unexpected opportunities. It has motivated and rewarded me: not just the act of acquiring a second language, but the fact that being bilingual in Welsh and English brings with it a kaleidoscope of perspectives, experiences and revelations.

The reason why I learnt Welsh is a story about books. Bookishness is a family trait: my great-uncle wrote a series of stories for young adults, and my father’s parents kept bookshops. He would read Tolkein aloud to me. And then I discovered Alan Garner, whose The Weirdstone of Brisingamen led to Elidor, and then to The Owl Service.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Alan Garner, although I cannot read The Owl Service without cringing at the recollection of my teenage self, who found it both inspirational and terrifying. Garner centred the action of his 1967 novel in Bryn Hall, Llanymawddwy, Meirionnydd. It involves the interplay of three young people – two English incomers spending the summer in a grand holiday home and the Welsh-speaking son of the local housekeeper – caught up as unwilling actors recreating the tragic love triangle of the last book of the Mabinogi. At his best, Garner gathers up the threads of Celtic mythology, and remakes them into stories that haunt their modern landscapes. This was the story that drew me in. Then my father bought me the Everyman’s Library edition of The Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, for my fifteenth birthday. And that is what caught me fast: I went to University of Wales, Aberystwyth to follow Celtic Studies, which entailed learning Welsh and Irish, and, by the second year, writing faltering, error-ridden essays in Welsh.

Learning Welsh is little different to learning French. The language is awash with Latin loanwords, even though the underlying Celtic syntax survived the Roman invasion of Britain intact, with its verbs asserting their presence at the beginning of the sentence. Yes – you have to face up to the concept of linguistic characteristics which are fundamentally different to English: verbs conjugate across persons singular and plural, there are two forms of ‘you’, there are masculine and feminine nouns, there is an infinite number of ways to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’, plurals are multifarious and – horror of horrors – most consonants mutate according to rigorous grammatical conventions. But Welsh is a living language, and many Welsh speakers wouldn’t recognise the overly-academic linguistic explanations above – they’d just speak the language as it comes naturally.

Put the teenage literary escapism to one side, and what have been the experiences of a Welsh and English bilingual from south east London? It is a sense of belonging to a series of language communities opening outwards in ever-widening Anglo-centric circles and closing inwards to encircle and watch over the individual Welsh speaker.

English speakers have direct access to 20% of the world’s population, some 360 million of them using it as their first language. It is the most resourced language in existence. Speaking English is useful: in social, economic and political terms.

I may participate in the English-speaking universe, but in little sense does my tiny presence in that immensity equate to belonging. In a world where a sense of self and contribution falters in the face of constant mass communication, to be a Welsh speaker has personal consequences. It means belonging to a community where every speaker matters, where your choice to use or not use the language comes freighted with implications. As an individual, my belonging to a Welsh-speaking community carries a weight of responsibility, but, when compared to the insignificance of the individual English speaker in the wider English-speaking world, this responsibility is also the gift – or burden - of significance. Welsh bolsters the well-being of its speakers’ identity because all its speakers matter and are interconnected. In any conversation with a Welsh-speaker, we are at most three friends, acquaintances or family connections away from each other. And, critically, this is not a benefit solely accessed by birth right, this is simply a matter of choosing to participate in a language.

After years of learning Welsh at university, the choice had to be made between settling back in London and leaving the personal investment of linguistic competency behind and opting for conventional career comforts, or taking my chances in the Welsh-speaking communities of Gwynedd and Ynys Môn. I scratched through an interview as a news reporter for the Holyhead and Anglesey Mail in 1990, and went from being a rootless observer of Welsh communities and dilettante student of the language to shouldering the dawning consequences of being Welsh.

Liz Saville Roberts MP

The Times

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