RARELY does a week pass without a move against the Welsh language. Its supposedly backward speakers and pointless survival continues to baffle and anger, upsetting columnists and provocateurs for its spellings and mark of resistance to an Anglocentric world.

Jonathan Meades, the cultural writer, is the latest to launch an ambush in the column inches of The Critic.

It is worth reading: Meades marches his readers like a Cymrophobic soldier against the “totalitarian” Welsh government project of reaching a million Welsh speakers by 2050. His complaints that politicians are promoting a “moribund” tongue aren’t the first and won’t be the last.

READ MORE: 'His perspective is that of the oppressor': Jonathan Meades views on Welsh

What makes the column special is that Meades is a wonderful writer who has thought carefully in launching his attack. He succinctly articulates an underlying contempt for the Welsh with elegant prose peppered with cheeky sniping. Though no harm as a “hobby” spoken by a “much exaggerated” number of people, for example, he damns politicians in Cardiff hellbent on using the language for “social engineering.”

The hapless public are, apparently, forced into “linguistic straightjackets” with initiatives such as Cymraeg 2050.

The usual cyclical reaction is now familiar: for their part the Welsh are outraged first and then launch an impassioned defence of their culture. Twitter’s cadres erupt, exchanges that are covered diligently by media outlets. Some days later we are on to the next incident courtesy of another commentator or cabinet minister.

Welsh speakers are sensitive people.

Most would admit to being fraught with anxiety and desperate for assurance – perhaps about ourselves as individuals but certainly for our future as a collective group. Who can blame us?

This weekend, sixty years after the great and complicated figure Saunders Lewis gave his seminal lecture Tynged yr Iaith (Fate of the Language), we are reminded why we are steeped in reluctant protest not Anglo-Saxon swagger.

The address is a tribute to Wales’ remarkable quality for survival but also the struggles the nation has faced to have its distinctiveness respected.

Lewis’ broadcast documented with painful precision how the British state trampled over the Welsh language; from the Act of Union to the Blue Books and the drowning of Capel Celyn, targeted exclusion from society and reckless interventions have endangered the future of Welsh and systematically undermined its place across Britain.

Its survival – and that of the Welsh nation itself – is an against-all-odds narrative of Shakespearian proportions.


Lewis’ intervention, as noted by Adam Price a decade ago, was his final great contribution to public life which set off a chain reaction of activism from the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith to the Welsh Language Act in 1967.

His warnings have stood the test of time, particularly “that the scorn and sneers of the English gutter journalist would be a daily burden” in the fight for the language’s future.

And here we are. Contributions from Meades’ ilk should be viewed in Lewis’ framework: a burden, maybe; an inconvenience, certainly. But not something to send ourselves into a frenzy of panic.

After all, the Welsh language is at its peak popularity, respected by native speakers and millions of English monoglots, and backed to the hilt by a devolved government whose greatest skill is not its economic management but its effectiveness as a vehicle for nation-building.

Cymraeg 2050 is (as we are always told) a ‘long-term ambitious strategy.’ Its mere existence offers a clear statement of intent from our leaders that they are not prepared to fall into the traps of history.

And the announcement this week from Education Minister Jeremy Miles that free Welsh lessons will be offered to teachers and 16 to 25-year-olds is the latest sign that the government recognises it needs to move now if it is to achieve targets unveiled in 2017.

Unlike most matters in politics, the prominence and protection of the language will rumble on in the mainstream for the next few decades – not years, months, or weeks.

Because the language, whether we like it or not, is Wales’ most sensitive political issue. Lewis positioned it as such: the founder of Plaid Cymru encouraged civil disobedience to preserve its future.

And the development of the language, particularly how it came to be institutionalised through the creation of organisations such as S4C, has only been because of disruptive protest.

More recent campaigns such as Hawl i Fyw Adra – highlighting how second homes price young Welsh people out of their communities – have cleverly tied language, housing and job opportunities as a triad of priorities for Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru.

READ MORE: Four Welsh protests that would have been banned under new UK legislation

There is more work for the Welsh Government and others to do to ensure that people can use Welsh freely in their daily and working lives.

Deputy Welsh language commissioner, Gwenith Price, is right that many businesses don't do enough to promote the language, and how UK government-run organisations cannot be forced by the Commissioner to enforce the use of Welsh.

More significant, as noted by Price, is to ensure Wales’ education system is prepared for the work ahead – most fundamentally ensuring enough fluent Welsh speakers become teachers.

These issues are key to debate around the language’s future, not moaning from Meades & co.

We must remember that some compatriots feel uneasy too. Jeremy Bowen has said efforts from the devolved government to spread Welsh in public life is “devaluing” his identity.

The assertion – from a distinguished BBC journalist made on a programme about national identity – is a lazy trope misunderstanding how diverse nationality is interpreted in Wales and, even more importantly, misreads how inclusive the Welsh language has become. Wales is not like the nation Bowen remembers in 1970s Cardiff.

There is now a buy-in from an overwhelming majority of society to promote the Welsh language in a way that is accessible for speakers, learners and admirers.

Its purpose in 2022 should not need to be justified – it should be as simple to say that it is a fabric of our places of work and home. It is celebrated as an emblem of identity and culture that gives us purpose and reminds us of what Wales is.

Meades may delight in echoing R.S. Thomas’ cry that his Wales is one full of “impotent people sick with inbreeding” but I see it differently.

Wales today is a far more confident country than before – self-governing, relatively affluent and comfortable with itself. 

Efforts to promote Cymraeg is not a sign of sickness but health.

It is a nod to our self-confidence; using our mother tongue may be ‘good’ for business, social cohesion and young peoples' aspirations but also a natural cause for a nation increasingly in touch with a history as rich as the possibilities of its future. More than anything else, the Welsh language can help us grasp it. 

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