A parent’s love of language: “you have to take your inspiration from where you find it…”

Back in the 80s, I remember an elderly aunt in Beechmount telling me about the day her mother told her to fetch my grandad from the Donegal shore of their small farm, and her remarking that ‘she spoke us, as she always did, in Irish, and we replied in English’.

It was only then it struck just how immersed my own father must have been in a language I sweated tears to get my head round as a kid and teenager in a very English speaking Holywood. It also struck me just how suddenly and genuinely without care it could be lost.

The reclamation of the language for some us has powerful emotional drivers many of which are not in the least large p political despite appearances to the contrary. If I am not Gerry Adams’ greatest fan, I’ve always admired his frequent use of that rusty ‘jailtacht’ blas.

Beagán ar bheagán, as the saying goes.

My mate Dom was born in Clare Limerick, but grew up in Welsh speaking Anglesey. And, now in England, he’s bringing up his boy if not in Welsh, then with the language as a foremost feature of his young life. He offers four very personal reasons why:

Firstly, even though I was an immigrant to Wales, I realised when I did finally travel to the former Holy Roman Empire and other mildly exotic parts of the world that I did actually identify myself with Wales and Welsh people, that I did have some knowledge of Welshness – even if as an outsider. I was maybe a bit like those colonial types who grew up in Kenya or Sri Lanka and were caught between the mother country and the locals – fish that swam comfortably in neither water. I am, as my bio suggests, living at least partly in the Wales of the mind.

Secondly, and perhaps this is related to the first answer, I feel that a language is a tremendously valuable thing to let die out. There are languages in places like Australia that are almost literally on their last pair of legs, as the final native speaker is old enough and unique enough to breath the last living words of that language any time soon. With the disappearing language goes a whole view of the world, a whole philosophy encoded in the very words themselves that is almost impossible to replace. I frequently feel the need for continuity and this is one of those times.

Thirdly, I like Welsh – the way it sounds in my half-stopped ears and feels in my clumsy mouth. There are some great words and ideas, and I love the fact that knowing there is more than one language early in life means you understand that much more quickly that a chair isn’t a “chair”, it’s something some people call a “chair”. If that makes sense.

The secret fourth reason (a secret reason only dimly perceptible to myself) is that it feels a clever thing to do and all the more so for my complete inability to perform the task. I like the sense of difference, of awareness of alternatives that it can lend. But like I say, that’s a dark path of thought I chose not to follow in public…

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