A birth right is worth fighting for
by Robert Davis
I speak Welsh. I do this even though I’m from the United States. Most people — including Welsh people — are surprised by this.
I first started studying Welsh when I was in grad school. I got one of those sets of CDs and started listening to them in the car, and I had a couple of exercise books. I couldn’t really make heads or tails of it, so I don’t count it “officially”.
Officially, I say I started studying Welsh when I first truly began to learn it, which was when I was living in Phoenix and the Welsh League of Arizona held a weeknight class. I went on to study through multiple courses conducted by Cymdeithas Madog, the Welsh Studies Institute in North America. I also attended an advanced immersive course at Nant Gwrtheyrn.
My reasons for learning Welsh are personal. My Welsh ancestors immigrated to the United States a little over 150 years ago. My great-great-great grandfather was among the many who came from the valleys of South Wales to put his know-how to work in the American coal mining industry. We do not have a lot of documentation, but we do have some, and the likely narrative seems common and uncomplicated: Seek a better life and maybe spare your descendants the fate of toiling in the mines.
On balance, it worked out.
The Welsh-speaking community is admirably warm and welcoming. There is a widespread culture of celebrating learners, in contrast to stereotypes of snobbery that may be associated with other languages. Every course I’ve attended with Cymdeithas Madog has been a heart-warming, delightful experience. My course at Nant Gwrtheyrn was life-changing, showing me that I really could think and live in Welsh.
After over 15 years, I speak it reasonably well. I’ve succeeded at being mistaken for a native in casual interactions. All the same, I often make mistakes. When I’ve done the occasional interview on Welsh-language radio or TV, I’ve been grateful to get the questions in advance, not to mention for the wonders of editing. There are still plenty of words I don’t know, or sometimes forget. I can still chase myself into a grammatical dead end because I don’t think as fluently in Welsh as I do in English, and a complicated thought will get away from me.
I don’t know if my immigrant ancestors were Welsh speaking. Given the historic oppression of the Welsh language, and the factors that were then already at work in its long decline, it is not impossible that they were not. During the 19th century their part of Wales went from being Welsh-speaking, to bilingual, to predominantly English-speaking — the going out of a great linguistic tide.
I decided to learn Welsh because I like languages and I liked the idea of reclaiming a part of my heritage, of speaking a language that powerful people had spent centuries trying to get us not to speak. And a few years ago, when I visited the cemetery where my ancestors are buried in America, I spoke Welsh over their graves. Even if Welsh had been spoken in the family at one time, it was still probably a hundred years or more since anyone had done that.
If they weren’t Welsh-speaking, I imagine it was the first time.
More recently, one of our Welsh-speaking friends recommended my wife and I to a publisher friend of their own. Bradan Press publishes a series of handbooks for people interested in Celtic language tattoos and wanted to add Welsh to the list. Our friend thought we would do a good job, and the publisher liked our proposal. So, after a couple of years of hard work, the Welsh Tattoo Handbook is now published!
The way I see it, someone interested in a Welsh-language tattoo wants to connect with their heritage, just like I did in speaking Welsh at the cemetery. I’m happy to help them do that and to use the language correctly. But more than that, I think learning Welsh is in its own way a sort of Welsh tattoo of the mind. Or, if you like, compare it to a treasured memento of a deceased grandparent — a watch, a bracelet, a photo. It’s a token of a relationship, of belonging.
To speak Welsh is to take one’s place in a vast family photo, a photo of a family that has suffered much but is also still here, still growing.
There’s a lot more to say about my experience of the Welsh language and its remarkable family. For now, it is enough to say that minority languages are worth learning. They are worth celebrating. They are worth living in.
I hope that, however humble a book it may be, the Welsh Tattoo Handbook will encourage a few people to take an interest in the language, to give it a try. Welsh is beautiful, and it is our birth right.
A birth right is worth fighting for.
You can watch Robert’s interview on S4C’s Heno programme here.
Robert also has his own website where he regularly shares his blogs: https://thoughtsofrob.com/