Voices: Is being Welsh affecting our mental health? I think so
Depending how charitable our neighbours are feeling, the language I use to communicate with the world is either dead, dying, or useless. Or I’m saving it for when the English walk into the pub.
I was pleased, then, about psychiatrist Dr Olwen Lisa Payne’s documentary questioning whether being Welsh may affect our mental health. It’s the elephant dressed in sheep’s clothing we’ve ignored for far too long.
Hear me out. I speak Welsh with my family, friends and colleagues. My dog speaks Welsh, my ATM speaks Welsh and the self-serve machine at McDonald’s speaks Welsh. It’s extremely bloody offensive, then, to be told so relentlessly that something integral to my life is devoid of any use.
One of the biggest culprits is the London-centric British media. On Unesco World Mother Tongue Day, language expert Alex Rawlings was left “speechless” when a Sky News presenter suggested Welsh was the world’s most “pointless” language. The Telegraph tweeted a poll asking followers their views on the “reintroduction” of the Welsh language, as if we haven’t been jabbering away in Welsh all along, while travel journalist Simon Calder used a flight to Cardiff to ponder the correlation between bilingualism and plane crashes in 2021.
In his column for the Sunday Times, Rod Liddle once pontificated about the “moaning Welsh” and their aversion to renaming the Severn Bridge. Who cares what it’s called, after all, as long as it links our “rain-sodden valleys with the First World”?
In December, Countryfile viewers were so incensed by the use of Welsh they took to Twitter to air their grievances, one claiming they would no longer tune in while another lamented: “These Welsh speakers aren’t being very inclusive.” Swap “Welsh” for “Urdu”, “Polish” or “Hebrew”. I dare you.
And let’s not forget the backlash when Eryri National Park authorities announced it would refer to its tallest peak exclusively by its native name Yr Wyddfa. Contestants on Have I Got News For You compared its use to the dead naming of transgender people; meanwhile, “It will always be Snowdon to ME!” cried the masses.
On that note, time for a history lesson. Despite Welsh deriving from the ancient Brythonic – making it one of the oldest languages in Europe, and the oldest in Britain – it only became an officially recognised language within Wales in 2011. Rewind to 1847, when a report commissioned by the British government – later known as the Treachery of the Blue Books – condemned “the evil of the language”.
Fuelled by such anti-Welsh sentiment, we even came to oppress ourselves. Throughout the 19th century, schoolchildren caught speaking Welsh were forced to wear a heavy wooden plaque – reading “WN”, or Welsh Not – around their necks, and were physically punished if found wearing it by the end of the day.
The only reason we have Welsh language channel S4C is because former Plaid Cymru president Gwynfor Evans threatened a hunger strike if Thatcher’s Conservative government did not honour its commitment to provide one.
Such superior attitudes are not limited to the language itself. In 1965 the Welsh village of Capel Celyn was drowned to provide Liverpool with drinking water despite 35 out of 36 Welsh MPs (the other neglected to vote) voting against it – a story so remarkable it appears in, of all places, an episode of cartoon spy comedy Archer.
With such injustice in mind, consider how galling it is to have an English Prince and Princess of Wales. We’re also subjected to frequent character assassinations, with one tirade by late Sunday Times columnist AA Gill calling us “ugly, pugnacious little trolls”. So much for a “United” Kingdom, eh?
And yet, when we suggest we’d be happy to leave you all to it – one poll put support for independence at 39 per cent – you’re quick to insist that “we’re all in this together”.
We’re routinely painted as hostile – as in 2023 Bafta nominee Brian and Charles, for all its quirk and charm – yet no one wonders why. How exciting to hear the Welsh language in a videogame, as was the case in 2020’s Assassin’s Creed’s Valhalla, and how disappointing to hear its bungled pronunciations on top of that same lazy old stereotype.
Speaking of pronunciations, we’re seeing ancient place names vanish from guidebooks in favour of tourist-friendly translations. Take Llyn Bochlwyd – literal translation, Lake Greycheek – named after a grey stag which leapt into the waters to evade hunters, only its cheek visible above the water’s surface. In some travel guides it has been renamed Lake Australia. Meanwhile, we’re seeing Ynys Llanddwyn – associated with Dwynwen, patron saint of lovers – referred to by visitors as Lovers’ Island.
Not to tar all tourists with the same brush, but there are too many who take without giving anything in return. Any rebuttal is met with a “don’t bite the hand that feeds you!” when you’d be lost without us.
It’s Wales many fled to during the pandemic â in defiance of a closed border intended to protect medical resources in rural communities. We also saw a mammoth increase in homes hoovered up as country boltholes or buy-to-let cash cows.
Yes, this is happening across the UK, but in rural Wales it has the secondary effect of decimating predominantly Welsh-speaking communities like mine. No need to learn Welsh, of course: we all speak English anyway. Despite Wales being officially recognised as a country since 2011 – no, not a principality – this attitude of ownership still prevails. We’re referred to as “parasites” for accepting free NHS prescriptions, but let’s be honest â reparations are long overdue.
I’m not saying it’s only the English; I’m saying that in all my worldly travels, I’ve never had my Celtic identity mocked and belittled by anyone else. Even actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney – Wrexham FC darlings of Hollywood fame – were honoured for promoting Wales and its culture.
When an integral part of our identity is constantly invalidated, let me ask you: is it any wonder being Welsh might affect our mental health?
Watch Drych: Meddwl yn Wahanol with subtitles on BBC iPlayer now