Struggling With Welsh

by Graham Hughes


I was born and grew up in Port Talbot, which I now know to be a polluted, unlovely steel making town huddled between the mountains and the sea in West Glamorgan. But, surrounded by lovely beaches and mountain walks, it seemed a good place in which to be young. The town in my childhood in the 1930's was on the cusp of the virtual disappearance of the Welsh language. Up in the valleys, in Cwmafan and Pontrhydyfen, most people still spoke Welsh. All my grandparents spoke Welsh and my grandfather on my mother's side, a tinplate worker like all the males in my family, was one of the founders of the Welsh language Baptist chapel, Calfaria, and a scholar of the Welsh Bible and Welsh theological commentary.

My father had been raised in Welsh and spoke Gwenhwyseg, that soft dialect of the south eastern valleys. For "wedodd" he would say "wetws" and, like everyone else in the area, he grossly extended the Welsh "ae" so that "cae" became "ce" and "ymlaen" became "ymlen". His early monoglot Welsh upbringing was indicated by the fact that, like most native Welsh speakers, he could not make the initial sound in the English word "wool". In his speech this became "ool" so that the great Welsh rugby captain of the late 1930s was not Wooler but Ooler and one shopped of course at Oolworths.

Welsh language chapels still carried on and a good deal of Welsh was heard on the streets and especially on a Saturday when people came down from the valley to shop in Port Talbot. But, ominously, it was mostly a language of the older people. In my class of about thirty students in school when I was eleven years old at the outbreak of World War 2, 1 recollect that only two or three could speak the language. So far from being viewed with alarm, this decline was probably greeted with some degree of satisfaction, even among most Welsh speakers who felt that Welsh had had its day, that English was the language of commerce and success and that the ability to speak Welsh could only hamper the development of fluent mastery of English.

My grandparents on my mother's side were an astonishing example of this view of the world. Raised in Welsh and most comfortable in that language, a large part of their lives was expended in the life of the chapel where no English was heard. And yet they somehow accomplished the deliberate and surely difficult feat of raising four children who possessed no knowledge of Welsh whatsoever. My mother's knowledge of Welsh began and ended with "Diolch" and "Nos da". This was truly the generation of linguicide.

My father regarded Welsh as a patois he had curiously inherited and which had brought him some amount of shame as a child when, as he often recounted, he was punished in school for speaking Welsh and once ridiculed by two women because he spoke broken English. He would talk Welsh with those who greeted him in that language but had no interest whatsoever in handing it on to his children. Yet it was always evident to me that he had a fierce feeling of not being English and a stubborn pride in being Welsh, even if any pride in the language had been driven out of him.

Years later I tried to memorialize his conflict in a poem which is printed at the end of this article.

For the language the local environment was chilling. I remember that most of my contemporaries associated Welsh with old people who frequented the chapels and had a stuffy, puritanical view of morality, condemning everything that was thought to be fun. When I was about four and we lived at my grandmother's house I remember the suffocating Sunday evenings when several deacons would come back with my grandfather from the chapel and I would have to sit quietly while they discussed (I suppose) the service and the sermon in Welsh for an hour or so.

Most unfairly, since no one had bothered to introduce me to Welsh, I was nevertheless expected to go to chapel once a week and listen to a lengthy sermon in a language of which I understood not a word. The only thing I liked about the chapel was the annual baptismal ceremony. Like many Baptist chapels in those days, there was a kind of covered over, built in swimming pool which was opened up for the ceremony. The minister would stand in the pool wearing waders while the postulants (the girls in white dresses and the boys in white shirts and grey flannel slacks) would enter the water, be dunked in the. minister's arms and baptised while the choir sung the great anthem that I now know to be "Molwch yr Arglwydd, Molwch yr Oen" (Praise the Lord, Praise the Lamb).

Prodiously interested in learning, in school I soaked up French, Latin and classical Greek like a sponge. I would have liked to study Welsh too but that was impossible since we were presented with the stultifying choice of doing either Welsh or French.

Yet, for all my ambition to succeed and my knowledge that this meant going to England, like my father I always had a sharp awareness of being Welsh and, a fierce resentment whenever it seemed (as it so often did) that Wales was being treated unfairly or even contemptuously. At the age of seventeen I went to Cambridge University and the separation from Wales (as is so often the case) immediately recharged and magnified my patriotism and devotion. It was then, on leaving Wales, that I determined I must learn Welsh; since I am still learning at the age of seventy, it is clear that I have not wholly succeeded. But I have not whoIly failed either.

In a busy life I have not been able to work consistently and steadily on the language. But, in bursts of activity, I have attended courses in the United States and in Wales; I have devoured manuals and grammars, and used every opportunity on visits back to Wales. Most precious were three years in which I lived in Aberystwyth in the early 1960s. As the regional secretary of Plaid Cymru during those years, and a member of its Pwyllgor Gwaith (National Executive) I had to keep committee minutes in Welsh and do my fractured best to talk Welsh on many occasions.

My overall success is mixed. I can now read Welsh about as easily as English, can write a reasonable letter in Welsh, and can speak intelligibly in a slow and rather stiff and somewhat academic fashion. I am, though, very poor at understanding spoken colloquial Welsh. So the efforts of a lifetime have produced only partial success.

But yet it has been wonderfully worth while. I have unlocked for myself the great literature of my own people. I have taken keen pleasure from Welsh poetry and prose, from Welsh songs and hymns. My partial knowledge of Welsh enabled me in the 1960s to work better for Plaid Cymru in a Welsh speaking area and to play a small part in the founding of Cymdeithas yr laith (The Language Society). In recent years I have managed (with some effort and preparation) to comment on American legal and political matters for Welsh language radio and once or twice for Welsh language TV. Having made the effort and conquered a portion of the territory, the consequent enrichment verifies the sense of deprivation that I always felt before I had a reasonable knowledge of the language. Learning Welsh has not been like learning a foreign language, but more like remembering with delight things of which I had been robbed by a fit of amnesia.

At the same time there have been strong feelings of resentment and frustration. Why should I have to struggle to recapture in an imperfect and halting way what should have been a natural heritage from my people and my nation? Whom should I blame? My grandparents for depriving my mother of the language? My father for not bothering to acquaint me with Welsh? The Welsh people for going so long without much heed for the fate of their most precious possession? Or the English for creating a climate that marginalized and deprecated the rich storehouse of Welshness and Welsh culture?
Well, alt and none. Assigning blame is clearly profitless. Everyone now writes that the most encouraging aspect of modern Wales is a renewal of pride in the language and a consensus that its disappearance would be a disaster. This has a measure of truth but it is also dangerously deceptive. It may be that everyone in Wales will know a little Welsh in the future as everyone in Ireland knows a little Irish. And yet the Irish language is no more than a twitching corpse. I would not be satisfied with the status of Welsh until I heard it freely and frequently spoken on the streets of Port Talbot, in the suburbs of Newport, in the arcades of Colwyn Bay. That day is very far away. John Morris Jones wrote exultantly one hundred years ago in the last lines of his great poem to the Welsh language: "Mi welaf ddisglair olau 'mIaen/A dyma dorriad dydd." "I see the bright light ahead / A new day is breaking." Since this was the eve of the greatest catastrophe the language has ever suffered, he was terribly wrong. Let us hope he was only premature.



'Nhad i - My Father

'He spoke the rough Gwenhwyseg,
The language of his class;
With "Jawch Ariodi" and "Iffach Wyllt"
And "wetws" and "shumai was".

But for that sweet tafodiaith
At school he was punished and blamed.
They mocked its epic lineage
And made him feel ashamed.

And, reeling from that poison,
His Welsh speech dropped away.
He made the painful crossing
And spoke the English way.

But on a misted hillside
In the gently falling rain,
As we huddled by his graveside
His first speech spoke again.

For the preacher raised the singing
Of an ancient, magic hymn,
And Welsh voices told the hillside
Of our triumph over sin.

"Bydd myrdd o ryfeddodau
Ar doriad bore wawr
Pan ddelo plant y tormau
Yn iach o'r cystudd mawr."

Now while he lies there sleeping
Mewn hedd, mewn perffaith hedd,
Oh to see his ancient language
"Yn dod i Ian o'r bedd".

By Graham Hughes

Station Road, Port Talbot in 1925


High Street, Aberavon, c. 1910, long before heavy traffic.


Port Talbot steel works.

Port Talbot viewed from one of the valleys


Graham on the right and cousin Keith James
on the left. Taken 1938 or 1939.


Graham on the right with maternal grandfather Thomas James, and cousin Keith on the left


Graham's mother Elizabeth Jane James on the left, wife Hélène and son Dafydd, my brother.


Modern Port Talbot.


Graham's father William John Hughes and his
other son Vernon.


Graham with brother Vernon on the left.


Margam, just east of Port Talbot.


Station Road, Port Talbot, looking west in 1930.




Also by Graham Hughes

Place Names of the Afan Valley

click here for details