Monday, 30 April 2007

Red Dragon Rising

A recent news article revealed that school places in Cardiff’s Welsh medium schools are being snapped up by parents. The supply of 505 places is not enough to fill the demand. There have been 540 requests for places and parents aren't happy. The solution offered by Cardiff city council was to create a number of ‘starter classes’ in existing English medium schools across the city. Some parents say they should build more Welsh medium schools.

This is a very encouraging sign for the future of the Welsh language.

Wales has a population of around 3 million people and according to the last census (in 2001) there were around 21% who could speak Welsh, an increase of 2.3% from the last census, 10 years before. While this is a small increase it is an increase all the same but there is still a lot of work to be done if we are to get back to the 54.4% of 1891 and beyond.

The decline in the language can originally be attributed to invading forces such as the Vikings, the Normans, Germanic tribes and in more modern times the English. Devices such as the ‘Welsh not’ were used by the English to try and break the spirit of the Welsh people and destroy the language. The ‘Welsh not’ was a small sign that was put around the neck of children who spoke Welsh in school and was passed around from offender to offender. Whoever remained with the ‘not’ at the end of class would be punished. Devices like this were responsible for many children growing up with not being able to speak their native language and I’m sure many children of subsequent generations didn’t even get the chance to speak their language.

As with all imperialist regimes and conquering nations language represents a big, if not the biggest threat to any hostile takeover. The fact that any occupying force may not be able to see, or more appropriately hear a revolution being formed under their noses was too much of a risk. It happened in Korea (as well as many other countries I’m sure) when the Japanese invaded and gave all the Korean people Japanese names and made them speak Japanese. The hatred for Japan and the Japanese runs deep in Korea to this day. Much the same happened in Wales although I hasten to add that the hatred is not felt in Wales with the same venom most Koreans feel for the Japanese.

I don’t speak Welsh, it’s a sad fact and a hard one to admit when people from other countries find out I’m from Wales and ask me if I can. I have a moment of shame almost but then I feel I have to justify it by telling a brief and probably factually inaccurate version of history and why I, and many Welsh people don't speak Welsh. As long as they get the point I don’t care.

I'm from South East Wales and live about as close to England as I do to Cardiff and any invading forces would surely have stumbled into my future home before marching into the rest of the country. Wales did get invaded, many times and as a result ( plus other factors) the percentage of native speakers in Wales has dropped to a very sad figure indeed. The same year I left school Welsh became part of the compulsory education you received up to GCSE level which was too late for me, I had to make do with learning French. But with the advent of initiatives like that one and others from the assembly government, the Welsh language looks like its getting some protection and hopefully there will be a new generation who grow up with Welsh not looking like a foreign language. Bill Bryson said of the Welsh and our language in his book, ‘Mother Tongue’ “The fact that the Welsh language has survived in the face of such adversity is due to the character of the Welsh people.”

There is a legend in Welsh mythology about a battle between a Red dragon and an invading White one and maybe sums up the spirit of Wales.
The Red dragon fights with the invading White dragon. His pained shrieks cause women to miscarry and animals and plants to become barren. Lludd, king of Britain, goes to his wise brother Llefelys in France. Llefelys tells him to dig a pit in the centre of Britain, fill it with mead and cover it with cloth. Lludd does this and the dragons drink the mead and fall asleep. Lludd imprisons them, still wrapped in their cloth, in Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia
The dragons remain at Dinas Emrys for centuries until King Vortigern tries to build a castle there. Every night the castle walls and foundations are demolished by unseen forces. Vortigern consults his advisers, who tell him to find a boy with no natural father and sacrifice him. Vortigern finds such a boy (who is later, in some versions, to become Merlin) who is supposed to be the wisest wizard to ever live. On hearing that he is to be put to death to solve the demolishing of the walls, the boy dismisses the knowledge of the advisors. The boy tells the king of the two dragons. Vortigern excavates the hill, freeing the dragons. They continue their fight and the Red dragon finally defeats the White dragon. The boy tells Vortigern that the white dragon symbolises the Saxons and that the red dragon symbolises the people of Vortigern. If Vortigern is accepted to have lived in the fifth century, then these people are the British whom the Saxons failed to subdue and who became the Welsh.

I think the story has a nice metaphorical ring to it when talking about the Welsh language and our hopes for its rise from near extinction.

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