Language, Class and Cywilydd

Colourful, abstract illustration of flowers, plants and patterns. With two welsh words "Ofn" and Goresgyn" written in red

By @DiffwysCriafol

Thank you to Peter Davies for the insightful editing of this piece. Thank you also to Rhiannon White & Ffion Wyn for creating the rare opportunity to explore the topic of Class and the Welsh Language with their project We No Longer Talk.

In Cardiff, Welsh speakers are generally perceived as middle-class incomers. Is the Welsh language an imposition by outsiders then? Is it in this context a form of linguistic gentrification? If we look to history, in 1850, 80% of people in Cardiff would have been Welsh speakers – and from historical records it was the language of the common people. The book, The Welsh Language in Cardiff, is a treasure trove of the linguistic history of this city. The author, a Cardiff man himself, points to the fact that there is a myth that Cardiff has never been a Welsh speaking city, with even First Minister Rhodri Morgan espousing this.

Today however – there is no denying an association between the Welsh speakers and the middle class in Cardiff. Where did these people come from?

The pressure on the Welsh language succeeded in all but wiping it out before its recent revival (or at least, when numbers of speakers stabilised in 1991 census), fuelled by the movement for Welsh education and language rights. The legitimate struggle for Welsh language rights, is part of how class and language may have become geographically bifurcated in Wales. Cardiff versus y Fro Gymraeg, where assumptions about the language and its class composition are very different

Young people have been and still are leaving Welsh speaking areas in their droves to come to Caerdydd. The economic and cultural pull has been so strong that the demographics of the Fro Gymraeg became heavily impacted. On a night out in Caernarfon for example, there are noticeably few people in their 20’s. Many of the people that would have traditionally been active in their communities at this age have been pulled elsewhere. This shift in demographic is so pronounced that it is to the point of a decline in Welsh speakers in the “traditional” rural Welsh speaking areas.

We can attribute the rise of the Welsh speaking middle class as a byproduct of the struggle for Welsh language rights. This movement has campaigned tirelessly so that the decline of the language can be halted and even reversed. This has led to the formation of several institutions such as S4C, and the private companies involved in TV production, the Welsh Language Commissioner, Mentrau Iaith, numerous translation companies supporting the adherence of public bodies to the Welsh language measure, the Welsh language provision on the BBC and so on. Cardiff is the political and administrative capital, the civil service and Senedd is also based here, this also feeds into this, making the city a centre of Welsh middle class gravity.

Often the vision for these institutions was community based and democratic, but in reality, the campaigners, many of whom were burnt out, had little influence on the shape of these institutions that they fought for. The neo-liberal paradigm swallowed these radical gains and they became part of our late capitalist furniture rather than part of the revolution for rights and freedom they spawned from.

These new institutions inevitably became statist and capitalist models of organisation. Following this neoliberal logic, the majority of these institutions became concentrated in the capital city. There has been a more recent effort to move away with this as S4C moved it’s HQ to Caerfyrddin in 2014, but was it too little too late?

Oil paster drawing of mountains in red, green and yellow against a blue and purple sky

Welsh speaking rural communities in the west and north suffered a loss of their young people as Welsh speaking young people left en masse for Cardiff for work. The industrial hubs of the quarries closed down back in the 60’s and farming and tourism do not offer consistent, well paid work all year round. It wasn’t just middle class kids either – I know plenty of people that scraped by in north Wales and found a way by hook or by crook to move to Cardiff, where getting by seems to feel a bit easier. Jobs are more readily available all year round, services are more accessible, and public transport is far more developed.

It’s clear that the formation of a Welsh speaking elite was never the intention. Cymdeithas yr Iaith is historically a radical grassroots organisation (take a look at their historic Manifestos) and consistently at the forefront of the struggle to defend rural Welsh speaking communities.

Welsh speakers have social and psychological issues around respectability. This is a unique manifestation of the manufactured divide between the respectable working class / aspiring middle class and the lumpen “underclass” (working class long term unemployed/unable to work). Authors such as D. Hunter, Kathi Weeks and Owen Jones have explored these ideas at length in their books.

This has something to do perhaps with nonconformist moralising, but also with an event that left a deep wound in the Welsh psyche as far back as 1847 – the Treachery of the Blue Books. This refers to a report carried out by the British state to investigate why there was unrest in Wales following a series of riots led by workers and the poor. The results of the report concluded that the Welsh had loose morals –  and the Welsh language was implicated asd a major factor in this.

It was also said in the report that “the Welsh language was… a manifold barrier to the … commercial progress of the people”. Subsequently the British Government brought in the Education Act of 1870 which made English compulsory in schools. This led to the “Welsh Not” which routinely doled out corporal punishment to children who spoke Welsh in school, and encouraged them to grass on each other to avoid being beaten. This accelerated the rapid decline of monolingual Welsh speakers, and was a grotesque example of an attempt to break down community solidarity and impose divide and rule.

In Welsh literature, a lot of things are explained by a reaction to this “treachery”. We often in Welsh literature see a divide between the poor who are depicted as culturally and morally superior – the deserving poor; in contrast with those who drink alcohol, gamble, beat their wives and are generally dissolute. This is not a modern phenomenon but has been part of the establishment’s divide and rule tactic for a long time.

The concentration of the phenomenon of the middle-class Welsh speaker in Cardiff creates an illusion of Welsh speakers being a homogenous middle class elite. This erases the experience of Welsh speaking working class people.

Rainbow colurs in the foreground, purple, blue, green yellow, with red writing above, and in large letters "Cyd-gymarth"

There is a geographical dislocation going on. The lot of Welsh speakers that have stayed in the economically declining rural communities is very different from those who left. While the previous generation may have worked in quarries or on farms, their offspring in Cardiff are very much upwardly mobile.

Owen Jones writes extensively in Chavs about this process of destroying industry, that in turn destroyed the working class power and collective culture of solidarity that had been consolidated in the trade unions and communities based around heavy industries. This built on an existing narrative of deserving and undeserving poor that had its roots in the Victorian era “Poor Law” that established the Workhouses. The public narrative of blaming the victim was much ramped up by Thatcher – who ideologically championed rampant individualism and after closing the mines people either went on the dole or on the sick. These economically hopeless conditions in mining communities were the perfect incubator for addiction and mental health problems for its inhabitants. Their economic and class power and status was stripped from them overnight as the pits closed.

Working class locals have made the point that Welsh speakers become “the oppressor” in Cardiff. Welsh speakers are participating in the inverse process of what is going on in their own rural communities. Welsh speakers are being gentrified from their communities by holiday homes, Airbnb businesses and “escape to the country” types from England while the pull of Welsh language jobs and the excitement of city life is pulling often some of the most privileged individuals of these areas to Cardiff where they in turn make the local area unaffordable to those who grew up in the city. However much I agree that this is wrong, this is a systemic issue which has no easy solutions and would require radical political and economic changes.

Airbnb landlords and holiday home owners are parasites and I believe they have no right to use homes as assets or leisure – however I’m less certain that appealing to the white guilt of individuals and shaming people out of moving to places that they are being pulled to economically is effective. People are well within their rights to call out gentrification –  but this alone is not enough. Systemic issues need systemic answers.

I struggle to understand my identity as a working class Welsh speaker with stigmatised underclass life experiences. Welsh literature and culture tells a story of a close knit community, a certain degree of trust because we are a minority in a big world overwhelmed by Anglo-American influences.  As in Dafydd Iwan’s famous song Yma o Hyd we have survived it all and we still stand together as a people.

abstract landscape in oil pastels. yellow sun peeks out from behing a green hill shape.

In Paul O’Leary’s fascinating article, the term Crachach is explored – the fact that the meaning of this word has “shape shifted” over the last century attests to the change in the class make up of Welsh speakers. Once a word used for cultural (and political) scabs, now it portrays a perceived minority elite with undue influence on government and civil society.

I have been in gigs where the headline band, Derwyddon Dr Gonzo – would sing a song that translates as “Chavs, you’re f*cking disgusting”. This however is not a phenomenon of middle class Welsh speakers alone – I was interested to read that in Owen Jones’ book Chavs he points out how the Kaiser Chiefs song “I Predict a Riot”, from the same era – contains appalling lyrics depicted what can only be described as class hatred:

“I tried to get to my taxi, The man in a tracksuit attacks me, He said that he saw it before me, And wants to get things a bit gory. Girls scrabble ’round with no clothes on, To borrow a pound for a condom, If it wasn’t for chip fat they’d be frozen…”

Around this time while I was at university there was a very alienating tradition of the Welsh Language drinking club. The Gym Gym (Welsh Society) was hosting nights where people would dress up as chavs. In other words they wore exaggerated costumes of what my family and friends would wear in our daily life. It made me feel uncomfortable at the time, though I couldn’t place why.

Again according to Owen Jones’ book Chavs, this was also happening around the same time at elite English universities.

It seems that this attitude became prevalent among the middle-class on a UK wide scale during the era where the prime minister at the time, David Cameron was harping on in the media about “Broken Britain”. This was a myth he perpetuated and his party benefited from. His predecessors in Labour and before this Thatcherism laid the groundwork for this myth, putting the blame of our social ills on the individuals from communities decimated by the unemployment brought on by the destruction of heavy industry. An example of this is when John Redwood was Welsh secretary in the 1990’s he perpetuated a moral panic about single mothers in the St Mellons area of Cardiff.

This wasn’t just Welsh speakers exuding this contempt and hatred for the working class, it wasn’t a uniquely Welsh speaking problem. However, considering that Welsh speakers often vote for left leaning Plaid Cymru, and that we often see ourselves as an oppressed minority, after just one generation of social mobility class-phobic attitudes amongst the Welsh speaking middle class seem prevalent.

One shameful example of Welsh speakers seeing themselves as oppressed is a Welsh language punk song from the 1980’s called “N**** Cymraeg” by the popular band ‘Y Trwynau Cochion’. This song makes a grotesque and ridiculous comparison of Welsh speakers with the oppression black people face, appropriating a slur that was never theirs to “take back”. These blatantly racist and  idiotic comparisons are sadly symptoms of attitudes at large.

Meritocracy and individual aspiration are two of the main elements in contemporary neoliberal ideology. They promote the idea that any individual who works hard enough can be successful and break what Labour are currently calling “the class ceiling”. There seems to be no consideration given to the idea that not everyone can (or wants to be) a CEO or a solicitor. Certainly the principle of collective struggle to improve the situation of the entire working class, no matter what job they do, has been rejected.

Similarly from my lived experience all I can gather is that the price of being Welsh speaking middle-class is putting a wide berth between yourself and anyone that could drag you down the social ladder. If you don’t fit the profile, you’re out of the club.

Why is it like this? I feel that shame is a big part of the reason. From the treachery of the Blue Books, and the culture it helped create alongside nonconformism, shame has always been palpable in Welsh culture. The shame of losing our language to such an extent, and our complicity in it, has left a scar on the Welsh psyche.

Just as in the Victorian times, a line is drawn between the deserving and undeserving poor, the respectable and the shameful. Salem, is an iconic piece of welsh art, where a woman arrives late to chapel in a beautiful shawl that on closer inspection looks like the devil peering out. This image has patriarchal and gendered and classed shame at its core. it suggested implicitly that we all ought to have more shame, pride in her shawl being the old lady’s greatest sin.

The tension between my background as a first language Welsh speaker and a working class woman with underclass life experience feels like something I continually need to negotiate to make sense of my life. The class conditions of our lives absolutely dictate our ability to act and reach our potential in anything we attempt – in the blog “Class: It’s not what you think” I explore this.

An abstract oil pastel drawing - vibrant colours of blue, green, yellow, pink and purple.