Thanks to some unkind commentary in the UK news recently, the Welsh language has been a topic of interest, and as March 1 will be St David’s Day (the national holiday of Wales), I’ve been prompted to think about Welsh identity.
I won’t dignify the aforementioned “unkind commentary” with any links, but suffice it to say that this sort of thing happens all the time. Almost with the regularity of the tides, someone in authority or with a perch in the commentariat will say something asinine about Welsh. It might be a local kerfuffle, as when a restaurant manager forbids employees from speaking to one another in Welsh (which has happened). It might be more dramatic, as when a corporate executive for a large chain derides the language as “gibberish” (which has also happened). It might even be as appalling as a nationally prominent journalist saying the language is of “marginal value” and suffers from “tortured spellings” (which has also happened).
Ignorance and bigotry, all of it. But why? Why so much loathing for a language?
What is language, after all, but the shared voice of a culture? There are centuries upon centuries of recorded Welsh literature; the oldest known manuscript written entirely in Welsh is Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin, the Black Book of Carmarthen, which is going on 800 years old. Welsh enjoys a tradition of poetry of extraordinary beauty and wit and power, a tradition that runs right up to the present day. It possesses a deeply moving hymnody that has expressed the spiritual yearnings of millions for hundreds of years; multiple beloved Welsh hymns are in wide use beyond Wales in English translations.
Why shouldn’t this language be valued? Why shouldn’t it live? Why shouldn’t people want to, and be able to, live in it? After all, they always have done.
I believe the answer comes down to identity.
As the shared voice of a culture, any language or dialect is inevitably tied up with an identity, and the expression of that identity. And the thing about some people — some authoritarian, conformist, joyless people — is that they are threatened by other identities than their own. They need to believe in their own superiority, consciously or unconsciously, and therefore cannot validate a different identity. In fact, they want everyone to submit to the dominance of their own identity, to embrace it as the inevitable norm.
It’s a tragically well-established pattern. In the 19th century in the United States, Native American youth were forcibly sent to boarding schools to be stripped of their own heritage and immersed in the ways of white Euro-American culture and religion. In China today, many thousands of Uyghurs are held in prison camps to be “re-educated” out of their cultural, religious, and political beliefs. And in Britain in 1847, an official government report concluded: “The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress of the people.”
Isn’t it interesting how those in power always seem to think that a disfavored group needs to be made to change, to conform, to give up who they are?
I do believe there can be positive shared identities that cross linguistic or cultural boundaries. The same United States that sent those Native American youth to be re-educated into whiteness has also pledged itself, in its Declaration of Independence, to the ideal that we are all created equal, and that we are all endowed with unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If we were to truly commit ourselves to those ideals, and make them a reality for all Americans, that would indeed be a beautiful identity for us to share.
Likewise, I believe we can see countries forge meaningful senses of themselves in shared sacrifice; I believe that there can be a meaningful idea of a “British” identity that comes from shared experiences like the United Kingdom pulling together in World War II, or creating the National Health Service, or getting through the COVID-19 pandemic. Cooperation and solidarity are strong foundations for a positive shared identity.
Unfortunately, there is another kind of “Britishness” on display today, and it isn’t new, and it isn’t positive. It demands conformity to a certain set of (English, Tory) values. It demands that other identities besides its Englishness-as-Britishness sit down and shut up. It looks at the island of Great Britain and sees Great England.
There is an old doctrine called “supersessionism” that has long been important in much of Christian theology, though it has come under scrutiny and is now viewed with skepticism by many. The central idea was that Christianity and its “New Covenant” took the place of Israel/Judaism and what was termed the “Old Covenant”. In the course of centuries this idea has been put to sundry anti-Semitic uses, which is a major factor in why it is subject to reconsideration now.
In considering identity and Britishness and anti-Welsh prejudice, I find myself thinking about supersessionism and its consequences throughout history. Certainly supersessionism has been a powerful tool for rationalizing the superiority of one identity and its supposed right to dominate or replace another one. I suspect that supersessionism has been an important constituent of the intellectual underpinnings of European colonialism and imperialism. I’ll cite two examples that I find particularly striking.
The United States of America can provide many examples, with its distinctive mix of European colonialism and Puritan-derived civic religion, but going back to the very Pilgrims of the Mayflower is probably the most direct way to illustrate the point. In their writings, they declared themselves a new Israel, on an exodus to reach the Promised Land. They thought they had personally replaced Israel as the heirs of God’s promises, and that in the New World they would found the New Jerusalem. What’s more, this belief that the United States is a special nation, chosen by God for a special destiny, is still central to many American Christians’ understanding of “American exceptionalism” and the role they believe their brand of Christianity should have in the country’s public life.
My second example is the English hymn “Jerusalem“, from a poem by William Blake. On a charitable reading, the hymn merely dares to imagine and aspire to a just society, for which it uses “Jerusalem” as shorthand (as do some other hymns) — yet I find that I cannot shake the supersessionist feeling of the thing. After all, Jerusalem is a real place; it already exists. To build Jerusalem now must inevitably be to build a new Jerusalem, which is why the hymn’s idea of building “Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land” feels rather more specific to me than do metaphorical references to “balm in Gilead” or “chilly Jordan”. The fact that it is implicitly more specific, I further suspect, would likely have something to do with why the hymn became popularly associated with St George’s Day. Similarly to the use of religious language in the United States, the hymn affords a synthesis of English patriotism and Christian aspiration, in a way that strikes me as inescapably supersessionist.
By way of contrast, consider the first verse of the inclusive patriotic hymn “This is My Song“:
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
There’s a big difference between an exclusionary concept based on supremacy and replacement, and an inclusive concept based on appreciation for diversity and the validity of multiple identities. And while I don’t intend to blame the hymn “Jerusalem” specifically, I do think its use of language and the use of the hymn itself are illustrative. They serve to illustrate my point about Englishness-as-Britishness: There’s a universalizing impulse very much in action there, and if it’s an impulse people take for granted, if it’s something they assume is natural and right and good, then it’s no wonder if those people look at Welsh and see “tortured spellings” of gibberish.
If you think people should be speaking English and building the New Jerusalem in “England’s green and pleasant land” then perhaps it’s not difficult for you to conclude that their insistence on their own language and their own country are indeed a “manifold barrier to the moral progress of the people” — because they’re a barrier to those people agreeing to be more like you.
If you think you’re settling the New World as God’s true chosen people and founding the New Jerusalem, then it’s certainly not difficult for you to conclude that the people who already have their homes there — with their own cultures and languages and religions — are a problem that you’re just going to have to sort out.
And that’s why I think it comes down to identity in the end. For identities that assert their own supremacy and require uniformity, there just isn’t room for anyone else. People who prize an identity of Englishness-as-Britishness have no choice but to despise and exclude Welsh. Their identity demands submission. It demands conformity.
There is no good reason for this. The English language is globally powerful, in culture and commerce and science, and has its own beautiful and celebrated literary tradition. Welsh is no threat to English culture or language at all. But some people — those authoritarian, conformist, joyless people — feel threatened by its very existence. Its perseverance. Its endurance.
As the anthem says: O, may the old language endure!
I think that learning Welsh, speaking it, defending it, can be uniquely powerful expressions of Welsh identity. And it’s not just because of the culture and the literary tradition; Welsh identity can be an identity of shared sacrifice, as well. Of shared hardship. The shared work of defending something precious from something powerful. The shared work of defending the right of people to hope and dream and love and live in the language they choose — even the language of St David.
And to take part in that work offers a shared identity that I think is worth celebrating.