“This book is about the pressures on the Welsh language community, the response to those pressures, and the record of what is happening to us as it can be found in the best modern Welsh literature.” This, the opening sentence in the preface of The Welsh Extremist, is the best description of this book. My favorite word in that sentence is us.
For those of you who don’t know, and for whom I have the greatest pleasure of being the first to tell, Welsh (better known as Cymraeg in Welsh) is spoken chiefly in Wales – west of England, east of Ireland. It is a Celtic language and has around 600,000 speakers in Wales, or roughly 20% of the population. It has a long literary tradition and a vibrant group of speakers today. If your last name is Jones, Evans, Williams, Roberts, or Davies, among many others, you may have Wales to thank for it. Many immigrated to the U.S. over the years, and one can find heritage speakers here to this day, if you know where to look.
I’ve been learning Welsh in earnest now for about five months (since August). I’ve had a smattering of it here or there since I visited in the summers of ’06 and ’07, but I didn’t find the time to devote to learning it until now, out of school, with a twenty minute walk to and from work. It’s been nothing short of bendigedig, as they say in Welsh. The method I use is audio, podcast-style lessons. There are three courses offered by SaySomethinginWelsh (for both Northern and Southern variants) and they launch you into the true meat of the language; by the end of the first course, you got past tenses and future tenses and a good vocabulary. They also offer courses in Spanish, and fledgling courses in Dutch and another language I’ve promised not to promote but that I’m pretty excited about. SSiW has a great community of folks learning Welsh, both in Wales and all over the world. I’d encourage you to check them out.
Ned Thomas is a bit like me, as a non-native speaker who learned Welsh (though he has the heritage). And though the subject of his book is rather specific, viewed through a political lens and dating back a few years, the thoughts and reflections are universal. Take the opening essay, addressing the use of the word “extremist.” It’s a common enough word today, often preceded by Muslim. Thomas addresses its use to label Welsh language and independence supporters (not always mutually exclusive), noting that the use of extreme measures are often born out of extreme circumstances, and that parliamentary democracies are not always the solution. One has but to look the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. to see this holds true, a group of people for which the word “extremist” has no place.
Wales and Welsh-language reform has come a long way since 1971, when this book was written, but the bean counters (critics of the funding Welsh language programs receive) and some (not all) paranoid English monolinguals still make their opinions heard. Some media outlets regularly publish articles attacking Welsh-language programs. One in particular (a disgusting rag for which I will not deign to provide a link) published an article this past fall explicitly comparing the Welsh-language activists, some of who have in the past painted signs and occupied media broadcasting stations, to the Taliban. The Welsh response was outrage, but several on Twitter provided a hilarious response by ridiculing the author and tweeting about their experience in the “Welsh Taliban.” An appropriate response to an absurd attack.
Several essays are devoted to influential literary figures, like Saunders Lewis and Gwenallt, from the most recent Welsh awakening that began earnestly in the 60s. Some relate to particular organizations, like Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society). All are fascinating stories to read, offering different snapshots of the early years of the modern movement. The essay relating to media and television broadcasting is particularly relevant even today, as funding changes affect the future of the Welsh-language S4C television channel and Welsh-language time on BBC Radio Wales is reduced.
In the day in age of independence referendums in Catalunya and Scotland, opinions like Thomas’s are really beneficial. As a bit of an outsider himself (at the time), his view is useful for those who have never experienced anything other than the majority’s way of life. His love and admiration for language and people, like so many other writers about Wales, bleeds through the pages and help convey a sometimes startling perspective to a monolingual English speaker who has never needed to care about their language. As time passes, it’s crucial that we continue to share this message, both for Wales and for other minority language speakers. Luckily, the Internet age has given speakers, the individuals, an audience they’ve never had before, and it’s exciting to see them find their voice.
Pages: 150 FOA Pages: 11,353