Wales' own language is Welsh

Just over a year ago, Plaid Cymru asked people and organizations to provide their views on the Welsh language. A summary of those responses has just been published and is available in Welsh and English.

I'm not quite sure what to make of the document. In one sense, it is a compilation of various different views, and therefore understandably lacks overall coherence. Yet Simon Thomas also describes it as identifying Plaid's priorities for the language if Plaid leads the next Welsh government. I think that's a little premature. As he goes on to say, the views and suggestions in this document need further discussion and research, and only after that has been done can we hope to develop and finalize a coherent set of policies.


In this post I want to concentrate on just one section, in which the idea of Welsh as the "proper" language of Wales is discussed.

Language "proper"

Establish Welsh as the language "proper" to Wales:
     This proposal is to follow the Catalan and Basque examples and give
     the Welsh language legal status as the language "proper" to Wales.

As anyone who has any experience of translation will know, there is seldom an exact one-to-one equivalence between words in different languages. Even when the "core idea" conveyed by a word is roughly the same, the words can at the same time also convey meanings which are significantly different.

I agree that the way that the Statutes of Autonomy in Catalunya, Galicia and Euskadi describe the relationship between their respective languages and Spanish is helpful, and something that we could learn from. So I'd like us to look at this in more detail. Here are the relevant sections:

Article 6. La llengua pròpia i les llengües oficials

1. La llengua pròpia de Catalunya és el català. Com a tal, el català és la llengua d’ús normal i preferent de les administracions públiques i dels mitjans de comunicació públics de Catalunya, i és també la llengua normalment emprada com a vehicular i d’aprenentatge en l’ensenyament.

2. El català és la llengua oficial de Catalunya. També ho és el castellà, que és la llengua oficial de l’Estat espanyol. Totes les persones tenen el dret d’utilitzar les dues llengües oficials i els ciutadans de Catalunya tenen el dret i el deure de conèixer-les. Els poders públics de Catalunya han d’establir les mesures necessàries per a facilitar l’exercici d’aquests drets i el compliment d’aquest deure. D’acord amb el que disposa l’article 32, no hi pot haver discriminació per l’ús de qualsevol de les dues llengües.

Artigo 5

1. A lingua propia de Galicia é o galego.

2. Os idiomas galego e castelán son oficiais en Galicia e todos teñen o dereito de os coñecer e de os usar.

3. Os poderes públicos de Galicia garantirán o uso normal e oficial dos dous idiomas e potenciarán o emprego do galego en tódolos planos da vida pública, cultural e informativa, e disporán os medios necesarios para facilita-lo seu coñecemento.

4. Ninguén poderá ser discriminado por causa da lingua.

6 Artikulua

1. Euskara, Euskal Herriaren hizkuntza propioa, hizkuntza ofiziala izango da Euskadin, gaztelania bezala, eta bertako biztanle guztiek dute bi hizkuntzok jakiteko eta erabiltzeko eskubidea.

2. Autonomia Erkidego osorako erakundeek, Euskal Herriaren aniztasun soziolinguistikoa kontuan hartuz, hizkuntza bion erabilera bermatuko dute eta bion ofizialtasuna arautuko, eta beren ezagutza ziurtatzeko behar diren neurri eta baliabideak bideratu eta arautuko dituzte.

3. Inor ezin izango da hizkuntza dela-eta diskriminatu.

The question is what "la llengua pròpia de Catalunya", "a lingua propia de Galicia" and "Euskal Herriaren hizkuntza propioa" actually mean, and how best to translate the words "pròpia/propia/propioa". It is misleading and incorrect to translate them into English as "proper" or "appropriate" in this particular context.

If we say that Catalan is the "proper" language of Catalunya, that Galego is the "proper" language of Galicia, or that Euskera is the "proper" language of Euskal Herria, the English word would immediately imply that Spanish is somehow "improper". If we used the alternative word "appropriate", it would immediately imply that Spanish was somehow "inappropriate". This is not what the wording in these Statutes of Autonomy is trying to convey.

The problem is that the English words "proper" and "appropriate" have largely lost the idea of ownership or belonging. In etymological terms the root is similar, but the only real way the idea of ownership or belonging is retained in modern English is in the verb "to appropriate". And although "to appropriate" certainly conveys a sense of possession, it is as a result of grasping or seizing something and usually implies that it is being used without permission ... which is in fact the exact opposite of what is meant in the statutes. So in every sense "proper" is the wrong English word to use in this context.

So what is the right word? Helpfully, the Generalitat of Catalunya have provided a few official translations. In other romance languages, a very similar word to "pròpia" can be used. In French it is, "La langue propre de la Catalogne est le catalan"; in Italian it is "La lingua propria della Catalogna è il catalano"; and in Spanish it is, "La lengua propia de Cataluña es el catalán."

But in germanic languages the idea has to be expressed using a different root word. In German it is, "Die eigene Sprache Kataloniens ist das Katalanische"; and in English it is, "Catalonia’s own language is Catalan." This is the correct translation.


Now let's look at how to apply this to our situation in Wales. The idea that we are trying to convey is that Wales has two languages, Welsh and English, but that Wales as a nation has a special and unique relationship with Welsh that we don't have with English.

It would be foolish and wrong for anyone in Wales to deny that English is our language too. But English is also the language of a number of other countries around the world. In other words we share a common ownership of English, but a have a unique ownership of Welsh. Both Welsh and English are ours, but Welsh is our own.

The reason I'm making this point is that it is all too easy to see things from our perspective, but not realize how things look to other people. We want to see Wales become a fully bilingual country, and indeed for Welsh to become the more widely used language, at least in some parts of Wales. My concern is that if we unthinkingly adopt the formula that "Welsh is the 'proper' language of Wales" we are going to needlessly alienate, and probably offend, those who will naturally assume that we are saying that English is somehow "improper". I think we realize that it isn't exactly the right word to use, otherwise the document wouldn't put "proper" in quotation marks.

The words we choose are vitally important, and to avoid misunderstanding we must balance any statement we make about Welsh with a statement affirming that English also has a place. To my mind that can best be expressed by the formula:

Welsh and English are the languages of Wales, but
Welsh is Wales' own language.

Since I wrote this, however, one of the people who left a comment below has come up with something which I think is even better:

Welsh, Wales' own language, and English are the languages of Wales.

I think that this formula works irrespective of what stage of the journey towards becoming a bilingual nation we have reached. To show this, it's worth looking again at the three statutes, this time in translation:

1. Euskera, the Basque People's own language, shall, like Spanish, have the status of an official language in Euskadi. All its inhabitants have the right to know and use both languages.

2. The common institutions of the Autonomous Community, taking into account the socio-linguistic diversity of the Basque Country, shall guarantee the use of both languages, controlling their official status, and shall effect and regulate whatever measures and means are necessary to ensure knowledge of them.

3. No-one may suffer discrimination for reasons of language.

1. Galicia's own language is Galician.

2. The Galician and Spanish languages are official in Galicia and everyone has the right to know and use them.

3. The Galician public authorities guarantee the normal and official use of the two languages, and promote the use of Galician in all planes of public life, cultural and informative, and will have the necessary means to facilitate their understanding.

4. No one shall be discriminated against because of language.

1. Catalonia’s own language is Catalan. As such, Catalan is the language of normal and preferential use in Public Administration bodies and in the public media of Catalonia, and is also the language of normal use for teaching and learning in the education system.

2. Catalan is the official language of Catalonia, together with Castilian, the official language of the Spanish State. All persons have the right to use the two official languages and citizens of Catalonia have the right and the duty to know them. The public authorities of Catalonia shall establish the necessary measures to enable the exercise of these rights and the fulfilment of this duty. In keeping with the provisions of Article 32, there shall be no discrimination on the basis of use of either of the two languages.

It is worth noting that, although all three languages are described as "propioa/propia/pròpia", they have a different statutory status in each nation.

In all three cases the respective own language is official, people have the right to know and use it, and no-one can be discriminated against on the basis of whether they use it or Spanish. However in terms of use and promotion, Galicia's statutory provision is slightly stronger than Euskadi's in that there is a more explicit duty to promote it, and Catalunya's statutory provision is much stronger in that it explicitly prioritizes Catalan over Spanish. It also makes knowledge of Catalan a duty (as opposed to just a right) for Catalan citizens.

In Wales, we are still some way behind all three. Welsh has now become an official language; we are in the process of establishing the right to use it, although it is probably too early to know whether the promise of the new Welsh Language Measure will be matched in practice; and people who use Welsh are still discriminated against in at least one official area, namely that there is no right to be tried by a Welsh-speaking jury. So irrespective of what declaratory formula we adopt, we still have some way to go in terms of statutory provision.


Finally, we need to look at the best way to say this in Welsh. A few years ago, when the form that the new language measure would take was a hot topic, Cymdeithas Yr Iaith came up with their suggested version. The first statement was, "Y Gymraeg yw priod iaith Cymru." This is also the term used in the Welsh version of the document Plaid have just published.

It's perhaps fair to say that some people thought "priod" was the wrong word to use in Welsh, for much the same reasons as I think "proper" is the wrong word to use in English. There's one example here. I don't see it that way. Again, it's a case of a word in one language seldom being the exact equivalent of a word in another language. So although "priod" and "priodol" are suitable translations of the English word "proper" in many contexts, the Welsh word has a wider range of meaning which specifically includes the idea of belonging and ownership. In that sense, it's very similar to "propioa/propia/pròpia" and is therefore a very good translation of the idea expressed in the Statutes of Autonomy of Euskadi, Galicia and Catalunya.

In fact the Welsh word might be even better, because "priod" is also the word for "married". The idea of each partner in a marriage belonging to the other is a good illustration of the relationship between Welsh as a language and Wales as a nation ... and, I daresay, of many other nations in the world too. The vast majority of people in Wales see Welsh as something which belongs to everybody in Wales, yet at the same time we also belong to the language. For if it wasn't for the sheer, bloody-minded obstinacy of holding on to our own language, Wales would have ceased to be a nation years ago.

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MH said...

I've just noticed that Owen has put me to shame by doing an article on the whole document, rather than just one point in it. It's here.

Owen said...

Funnily enough, MH I was hoping somebody would clear up what was meant by "language proper".

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece. I always thought that "unique" language would be an appropriate English-language functional equivalent to "llengua propia", but the term "own language" does much the same job. I would suggest however that the "but" in your formulation sounds rather awkward and my suggestion would be along these lines:

"Welsh, Wales's own language, and English are the languages of Wales"

Efrogwr said...

Thanks for this. I like Anon 13:44's formulation. MH - is your use of "but" in your suggestion once again undermining English,which you were trying to avoid? You could say: "Welsh and English are the languages of Wales, and Welsh is Wales' own language."

Anonymous said...

Anon 13:44 again. I think Efrogwr is right- the 'but' I think inadvertently reproduces the same problem that MH refers to in the original post- it suggests a kind of qualified/limited acceptance of English as a language of Wales which could be misconstrued, rather than a formulation which unambiguously states that both languages are equally 'of Wales' whilst expressing the unique position of Welsh within that through positive affirmation (as distinct from any implied/accidental legitimization of English).

kp said...

Fantastic to focus on the language of Wales when our health and education systems are going down the pan.

No wonder Labour is destined to rule the country forever.

Anonymous said...

What about "Welsh and English are the languages of Wales, whilst Welsh is Wales's own language"?

Anonymous said...

'Whilst' has the same problems as 'but'. Plus having the statement at the end looks and feels tacked on.

MH said...

Yes, I agree that the "but" is a bit negative, and one of the positive things in all three Statutes of Autonomy is that the statement about Catalan/Galego/Euskera being their own language comes first.

So I think what 13:44 has come up with is a definite improvement, and I've added it to the main post. Thanks.

Efrogwr said...

In the light of MH's last sentence in the main post, Interesting that "a spokesman for the Welsh Conservatives" is today reported as referring to Welsh as "our national language":

Anonymous said...

We've been using 'priod iaith' which, I see is translated as 'proper' in English but the English word doesn't encapsulate the meaning correctly. Priod is closer to 'approriate' or maybe 'original', implying a language which was dislodged.


MH said...

I've no problem at all with "priod iaith", M. But is there anything significant in the "we"? Are you talking about Cymdeithas, or who?

Anonymous said...

MH - I've heard priod iaith used by some academics and language activists. I think the term is a recent one which has come from contact with Basque, Catalan and Galician links.

It's a very recent idiom, ten years or so. Gwion Lewis, the barrister also discussed this terminology in his 'Hawl i'r Gymraeg' booklet, if I remember correctly.

It works for me because it says that Welsh is the priod iaith, it was the language of Wales, which has been dislodged.

But, you're right, it's a term which ie used by Cymdeithas which has come through their Iberian links.


MH said...

Thanks, M.

I have to say I'm a little surprised to learn that priod iaith is only ten years or so old. The three Iberian SoAs all originally date from the late 70s, in the first steps towards democracy after the death of Franco. So the formula has been around for some 35 years.

To me, it's important that there is a formula or narrative that everyone can get behind, and that's why I wanted to get it right in English as well as Welsh.

But it is just a formula. What it "implies" is a far more subjective question. I'd just repeat the point I made in the main post, that in practical terms, the statutory position of the language is different in each of the three countries. For example, only Catalonia prioritizes Catalan over Castilian and makes it a duty for all its citizens to know Catalan (this is actually a reflection of the Spanish constitution, where all citizens of Spain have a "duty to know" Castilian). But Catalunya's current SoA dates from 2006, and reflects how things have moved on since the 70s. This was the 1979 version:

1. La llengua pròpia de Catalunya és el català.
2. L'idioma català és l'oficial de Catalunya, així com també ho és el castellà, oficial a tot l'Estat espanyol.
3. La Generalitat garantirà l'ús normal i oficial d'ambdós idiomes, prendrà les mesures necessàries per tal d'assegurar llur coneixement i crearà les condicions que permetin d'arribar a llur igualtat plena quant als drets i deures dels ciutadans de Catalunya.

1. Catalonia's own language is Catalan.
2. The Catalan language is official in Catalonia, as also is Spanish, which is official throughout the Spanish State.
3. The Government of Catalonia will ensure the normal and official use of both languages, will take the measures necessary in order to ensure knowledge of them, and will create the conditions making it possible for them to achieve full equality in terms of the rights and duties of citizens of Catalonia.

So the basic formula remains the same, but the concrete ways in which it is operates can be strengthened over the years, to reflect political will and whether the language is getting weaker or stronger.

In Wales, I don't think we can yet say that all citizens of Wales have a duty to know Welsh, but we might well get there before too long, depending on the extent to which Welsh-medium education becomes the norm. Each of the three Iberian countries is on a different rung of the ladder. In Euskadi, it is a matter of parental choice, although the percentage is greater than in Wales. In Galicia, since 1995, certain subjects have to be taught in Galego in all schools. In Catalunya all teaching is in Catalan. All three countries are ahead of us, and we can learn from them and follow in their footsteps.

Anonymous said...

Presumably once we've reached the point whereby 'all citizens of Wales have a duty to know Welsh' we can swiftly move on to the next matter ...... all citizens of Wales have a duty to be either handsome or beautiful.

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