A quick response to Ellie Mae O’Hagan on British nationalism and Welsh language

Yes, we should learn various British languages in schools across Britain, but why stop with Welsh?

Ellie Mae o’Hagan has written a piece in the Guardian today picking up on various things from my “40 reasons” series, and I thought I’d take the quick chance to respond. Do read her piece first, or none of the below will make any sense.

First, she explains why she sees the nationalism which I described as “British” as “English”. I don’t quite agree with this – apart from anything else, it was Danny Alexander I was accusing, and he is a Highlander. It would seem odd to accuse him of English nationalism. Later, she outlines how British stereotypes are basically upper-middle class stereotypes, and here, I think she is much closer to the mark.

The United Kingdom was always, and remains to this day, an elite project. It’s kind of in the name. I for example, having been born in Dundee and living in Scotland until I was 23, speak with what most assume is a South East accent. I always have. It is, perhaps more accurately, an upper middle class, or, perhaps, upper class accent.

Posh Scots fit the Hugh Grant stereotype Ellie identifies as much as posh English people do and as much, as Ellie points out, as most working class English people don’t, and this isn’t coincidence. There have been active policies requiring and encouraging Scotland’s landed gentry to be Anglicised ever since James VI demanded that Highland chieftains send their sons to English rather than Gaelic speaking schools in the Statutes of Iona in 1609. In part, this may be evidence of the English empire that Ellie writes about, but it’s an empire whose roots in Scotland are so deep that they have developed their own shape – and it’s that shape that makes them British, rather than just English in Scotland. Posh Scots may have English accents, but we wear kilts, play the pipes and dance reels all winter to keep warm. I can’t speak for the posh Welsh.

Next, to her proposals that basic Welsh be taught in schools outside Wales – as she puts it “I propose schoolchildren take part in compulsory lessons in Welsh and Scottish studies, during which they at least learn how to speak basic Welsh”.

Two quick asides which put this proposal in a particular perspective: first, it’s not just in England that Welsh language was spoken – the “pen” in “Pentlands” – the hills around Edinburgh – reveal a Brittonic language was once spoken as far north as Scotland’s capital.

Second, it’s also worth examining why it is that French is the main language taught in British schools. The obvious answer is that it’s the closest other country to the UK. But if this were the criteria, then Irish, Danish and Norwegian would instead be taught in various places across Britain – and, perhaps, as Ellie suggests, Welsh would be taught in large parts of England, and Gaelic much more widely in Scotland.

Another factor, I think, has to be that the Normans (including the “Ramsays”), formed a French speaking elite for a long period across the UK. Surely this contributed to it usurping Britain’s traditional tongue as the second language of the nation? Looked at this way, Ellie’s proposal is even more attractive – basically, we should learn the language of the old working class (or a big part of it) as well as the language of the old elite.

So, to Ellie suggestion: I would plea for a small amendment to the proposal. First, as I have written before, there are 17 (or so) historic and extant languagesin the UK. It’s true that, by one measure, Welsh is the most widely spoken, but Scots is certainly a different language at one end of its spectrum, and there are more than a million who claim to speak it in some form or other. To this day, Scots children in Scottish schools are told off for speaking English badly, rather than being praised for good Scots, and taught English as a second language. This certainly happened at my primary school. I would therefore plead for Scots to be taught, alongside Welsh, in Ellie’s classes. But what about Gaelic, or, in fact, the more widely spoken Ango-Romani – or the various other languages of our various traveller communities? Or Yiddish?

Likewise, there are many British communities in which Hindi, or Arabic, or Polish are spoken too. For me, I see no good reason not to include them, and every reason to do so. So, to conclude, here is my revised proposal for Ellie: yes, we could have classes in which people were expected to learn about the various cultures and languages of these islands, both historic and new. Over the course of a couple of years, pupils could learn to speak rudimentary Welsh, perhaps to sing a couple of Romani Gypsie songs, recite a Scots Gaelic poem, greet each other in Yiddish and describe a meal in Polish or Farsi or tell a joke in Arabic.

Ultimately, the suggestion is that we embed a recognition that we not only are a multicultural, multilingual society, but that we always have been – that the Anglo-Saxon dominance of these islands has never been complete. Whatever the result in the referendum as to whether Scotland and the rest of the UK should share a Prime Minister, we will still share many cultures, and perhaps it’s time for us all to get to know each other a little better?

This article was originally published on openDemocracy-OurKingdom, and is republished under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence. Homepage image by Jean-Pierre Dalbera/ Wikimedia Commons.


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