IAKKY DAH! LOOK YOU!
You're very Welsh aren't you? by Sioned Wiliam
This from Mike, English, khaki shorts, well-worn fleece, and one of those odd moustache-less beards. This was already feeling like a very long walk and we’d only been going for ten minutes. I’d fallen in step with him, as part of a walking group on the Cornish coast. It was a beautiful day, with early blackthorn blossom foaming a startling white against the blue of the sea far below.
Mike was in a good mood and the jokes were coming thick and fast, so I began to play Welsh bingo. The jokes were so old that they were sporting flares and a kipper tie. There was the one about the language having no vowels and making one spit. The one about our unnatural interest in sheep. There was the familiar obsession with our pesky Welsh language road signs, which were sure to cause an accident one day. And did I know how to pronounce: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysilioogogoch?
‘House!’ – I called it when Mike told me that Welsh was only really used to annoy the English when they went in to pubs in Wales.
His eyes widened as I whispered in his ear. ‘Yes, it’s true. We have special sonar devices in our ears (I think they’re unique to Welsh people), that can pick up which language people are speaking BEFORE they enter a room, so that we immediately know to switch to Welsh in time …’
I tried to explain to Mike that Welsh was my first language, and that speaking it was as natural to me as English was to him. And that although we spoke only Welsh at home, my parents had ensured that I was completely bilingual in English in order that I should have access to not one, but two rich cultures. And that Welsh isn’t just an ancient language, it’s also constantly evolving in poetry, novels, popular music, and even street slang. It’s the language I speak to my son, even though he was brought up in London. It would have been unimaginable to speak only English to him. And in his comprehensive school in London, he was part of a large community of other bilingual children, looking outwards to a multicultural world.
To give him his due, Mike did his best to understand, although he couldn’t quite get rid of his annoying smirk as yet another vowel-based joke bubbled to the surface. And I really didn’t want to spoil the atmosphere – I’d been looking forward to this walk for ages, along the cliffs beside Falmouth under the guidance of a jolly 50-something (‘call me Ange’) in a cerise cagoule, who had promised us foraging tips, an aerobic walk, and magnificent views. So I decided to move things on, not least to show that I could take a joke. And all was briefly well as we noted the sea buckthorn and the early sorrel and the little clouds scudding over the turquoise sea. And I got to identify some hedgerow greens.
I’m familiar with this sort of nonsense by now, having worked in radio and television comedy all my life. I have often been told that I belong to the last comedy nation and that it’s actually OK to make jokes about us, as it doesn’t really matter. The jokes I’ve just described frequently pop up in scripts and I’m used to Welsh characters being depicted as essentially benign, but a bit stupid with their funny, spitty language which isn’t actually good for anything but annoying the English. Although, as Mike reassured me, the Welsh are very good at singing (‘did you see Tom Jones on The Voice?’), dressing up as Druids, and playing rugby.
Even highly educated people I respect join in sometimes, asking the strangest questions. I was once asked if my family was like the Amish: did we in fact have electricity and flushing toilets and had we rejected the trappings of modern life? Presumably along with our missing vowels. An Oxford-educated friend asked me if we had any literature in Welsh. Another, if we had banks and universities. It even crops up in The Guardian, for heaven’s sake – Zoe Williams used the idea of learning Welsh as a measure of uselessness recently.
All this is not without its sinister side. The late AA Gill called us ‘loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls,’ Rod Liddle said we were ‘miserable, seaweed munching, sheep-bothering, pinch-faced, hill-tribes’ and Roger Lewis in the Daily Mail called Welsh ‘an appalling and moribund monkey language.’ Anne Robinson said the entire nation was ‘irritating and annoying’, and asked what we were for? All this in recent years – not before the war, or in Victorian times or even in the 1970s.
The constant portrayal of us as credulous simpletons, whose language and culture really doesn’t deserve respect, is troubling. It seems to emphasise an otherness and provides a reason to exclude. It feels like a diminishment. I’ve lost count of the comedy shows I’ve attended where even the most forward-thinking and charming comedians have included a Welsh joke in their sets. We are not allowed to join in the fun because we are essentially the butt of the joke.
The cumulative effect of all this is that one does become a bit defensive or, as Mike said, ‘A bit chippy, aren’t you, the Welsh?’ It’s exhausting for one thing, endlessly trotting out the usual responses. ‘Actually, the Welsh language has seven vowels, English has five; we have a long literary heritage dating back to the 6th century – yes, we do have a word for wheel, no we don’t call the microwave a popty ping, that was made up for a joke by an English journalist, and no, we are no more inclined to perform unnatural acts with sheep than anyone else.’
I know of course that discrimination comes in many forms and that no one is judging me on the colour of my skin or my religion. And yes, we do get a bit defensive about it all, but I think that’s because it happens so much – on lovely walks like this one, at parties, at work. And I get tired of people mimicking my accent (yes, they really do.)
Mike had finished now. He patted me amiably on the back and promised me that he’d learnt a lot. I thought, ‘Oh goody, perhaps he’ll think now before opening his mouth and launching into all the usual clichés and stereotypes.’
Mike smiled broadly and said; ‘You’re all right really, once you get to know you.’ And then he added, ‘But the Scots, on the other hand …’
Sioned Wiliam lives in Kilburn and writes books in Welsh.