Speaking out of turn

Welsh language education is dangerous territory for someone born in England and judging from the comments regarding the new Welsh school in Haverfordwest on the Western Telegraph’s website it is a subject that causes enough controversy without an incomer like me adding fuel to the flames.

However, having lived in Pembrokeshire for almost 50 years, I feel entitled to dip a tentative toe into the water.

I was brought up in the little town of Wigton, Cumberland (now Cumbria).

Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins visited the town during their tour of Cumberland in 1857 and one or other of them was supposed to have said: “In Wigton, they speak a language that the strangers do not know”.

In his book “The Adventure of English” my fellow Wigtonian, Melvyn Bragg, describes the strange lingo used by the people of our home town.

I would be going too far to dignify Wigtonese as a language.

It graces neither song, poetry nor heroic epics, but it plays a big part in the cultural identity of the people of the town and because it set us apart we were rather proud to speak “a language that the strangers do not know”.

Some of it was basic Cumberland dialect where ‘home’ is ‘yem’, ‘gate’ is ‘yat’ and ‘ah’s garn yem’ means ‘I’m going home’.

In addition to these county-wide features, Wigtonese has a host of words – thought to have Romany roots – that are unique to the town.

These include gadjie (man) mort (woman) baarie (good) cower (thing) cady (hat) cuddy (donkey) and charver (boy).

And we children would nash (run) and laik (play) and afterwards we would be paggered (exhausted/out of breath).

Local words included dubb (puddle) lonnin (lane) scoppie (chaffinch) spuggie (sparrow) kebby (walking stick) and piet (magpie).

Because of their egg-stealing habits magpies were widely disliked, so piet was used as a suffix in insults such as flaity-piet (coward) – flait being the word for frightened – and telly-piet (someone who told tales).

‘Mang nix’ (say nowt) and ‘his patter’s rotten’ (he’s a bore) are two of my favourite remembered phrases.

And, as Bragg says: “We thee’d and thou’d each other as if we’d just got off the Mayflower”.

Though, actually, ‘thou’ was always pronounced ‘thew’ as in ‘thew’d better mang nix’.

Unsurprisingly, this caused problems at the grammar school we attended where the teachers were constantly reminding us – sometimes painfully – to speak proper English.

I recall that Melvyn was one of the first to mend his ways and by the age of 16 he had come over all posh – the result, it was rumoured, of his mother sending him to Carlisle for elocution lessons.

But for some of us, brought up in a working class culture where getting above yourself was regarded as a mortal sin, defiance was the order of the day.

One practice that caused particular difficulty was the practice of using ‘uz’ in place of ‘me’.

I remember returning from an interview and being called up to headmaster’s study for a debriefing.

I started: “They ast uz…” (asked was either ‘ast’ or, sometimes, ‘axt’).

“Who’s uz?” the head demanded, “Did you take your mother with you?”.

Once I moved to England proper, the contest between Wigtonese and the need to be understood could have only one outcome.

So I can claim some experience of linguistic persecution even if on nothing like the scale or duration of that inflicted on the Welsh.

Bragg’s book has a lengthy section on the Welsh language which refers to a Royal Commission in 1847 which concluded: “The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people” and “He [the Welshman] is left to live in an underworld of his own and the march of society goes completely over his head.”

The Royal Commission’s findings were published in two volumes and became known as the “Treachery of the Blue Books” because of the colour of their binding.

To be fair, the commission was referring to a situation where many were monoglot Welsh speakers, compared to the bilingualism of today.

Worse was to follow because the Education Act 1870 demanded that all Welsh children should attain a certain standard in English and in some places this was taken to such lengths that Welsh was entirely forbidden and children caught using it on the playground would have a sign with the words “WELSH NOT” hung round their necks.

We now live in more liberal times and there are Welsh language radio and TV stations, road signs, Welsh medium education and bilingual official documents.

However, despite government encouragement over the past several years, the language has failed to make any significant headway.

According to a report that went before Pembrokeshire County Council’s Cabinet in January 2015, Welsh speakers made up 19.2% of the population of Pembrokeshire at the 2011 census – down 3% from the 2001 figure.

This report contained the results of a county-wide consultation that found that 73% of the respondents were in favour of an increase in Welsh medium education.

This prompted Cllr Huw George to tell Cabinet: “One small step for the local authority, one giant leap for the Welsh language.”

However, an analysis of the responses reveals that this was wishful thinking on speed, because only 445 people took part.

And, as anyone who knows the first thing about opinion surveys will tell you, such a small sample tells you nothing useful.

In addition, such surveys suffer from the defect known as self-selecting sample i.e. the people who respond are more likely to have a keen interest in the subject.

For instance, the biggest response came from central Pembrokeshire (Haverfordwest/Milford Haven) and as the report says: “Within this group, the largest number of responses were received from the parents of pupils attending Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Glan Cleddau.”

Glan Cleddau is the Welsh medium primary school in Haverfordwest whose pupils face the long journey to Crymych if they wish to continue education in Welsh post-11, so it is little wonder that they would favour the introduction of 11-16 Welsh medium education in Haverfordwest.

There were also 63 responses from South East Pembrokeshire (assuming 73% that would mean 45 in favour of Welsh medium education) and on this basis Tenby is now to have a Welsh medium primary school.

PCC is under pressure from Welsh Government and Estyn to expand Welsh medium education so it is no surprise that the report by officers concluded: “There is overwhelming support for establishing Welsh medium secondary provision in mid/south county.”

Of course, 73% support seems overwhelming, but looked at in the context of the tiny self-selected sample it is meaningless.

This phenomena is known to psychologists as “confirmation bias”; a process by which the data is cherry-picked for favourable indications while that which doesn’t fit the agenda is studiously ignored.

And, as has been said: “If you torture the data for long enough, it will confess to almost anything.”

In some circumstances, “confirmation bias” leads on to “noble cause corruption” whereby proponents of a particular political agenda become so certain that they are right they feel justified in inventing evidence to support their cause.

Unfortunately, in an increasingly globalised world, minority languages such as Welsh face an uphill struggle.

There is even a fear that French will be steamrollered by the three truly global languages: English, Spanish and Mandarin.

And it is arithmetic, not prejudice, that brings about their downfall.

Even if the dream of all children being taught in the medium of Welsh could be realised, the situation would not endure because every time a Welsh-speaking teacher moved to England there would be no way to replace them.

So you would either have to close the border, or train enough Welsh-speaking teachers to compensate.

And, as some of the respondents to the survey hinted, the fear is that teachers will be appointed on their ability to speak Welsh rather than their ability to teach.

As I said at the beginning, this is a subject that inflames passions so I expect there will be those who take offence at my suggestion that, like all minority languages, Welsh is destined for a long, slow decline through a process of asymmetric attrition.