Monday 8 May 2023

We are all Welsh


The coronation has made many people think about what it is to be British. It rightly represented and included people from all backgrounds and faiths. We are all equally British citizens, and all equally have the right to live here and live as we please within the law. We are all also in some ways immigrants whether our ancestors came to Britain a long time ago or a short time ago. But I have come to the conclusion that there is one group of people who have a claim to be more British than any other. Unfortunately, they may not like this, but it is nonetheless true. I am talking about the Welsh.

The Welsh too were originally immigrants. They arrived here at some point in the Bronze age or the Iron age and mixed with, supplanted or destroyed the people who lived here originally of whom we know almost nothing except the archaeology they left behind.

But there is no doubt that the people who lived in Great Britain prior to the Roman conquest were essentially Welsh speaking. They were the Ancient Britons who spoke Common Brittonic from which Welsh, Cornish, Breton and the extinct Cumbric are derived. It is likely too that Pictish, the language of the north of Scotland was also a form of Common Brittonic.

In ancient times the people living in Ireland spoke a Celtic language too, but this was from what is now called the Goldeic branch of Celtic. From this descends Manx, modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic.

The story of Great Britain is of an island that once spoke a Common Brittonic language, but due to waves of immigration ceased to do so and had its ancient language supplanted almost everywhere by English.

When the Queen of the Iceni Boudica rebelled against the Roman invaders, she would have spoken to her people in a language that became Welsh. When the leader of the Picts fought against those same Romans, he would have spoken equally a language that became Welsh. When some centuries later his successor fought against the invading Goldeic speaking Irish, he too would have spoken a language that became Welsh.

Since then, Welsh has been pushed to the margins. It was essentially destroyed in Scotland, being replaced first by the language that became Scottish Gaelic, and then by English. The only remnants of Pictish are a few place names with Brittonic prefixes Aber-, Cat-, Dol- and Pit-. Thus Aberfeldy, Pitmedden and others.

The Scoti were not the inhabitants of Caledonia who the Romans fought, but rather arrived some hundreds of years later. They were all Celts but probably could not understand each other as their languages had diverged too far.

Just as the Welsh/Brittonic were pushed to the margins or destroyed in Scotland so too the arrival of the Angles and Saxons pushed them still further westwards towards what is now Wales and Cornwall. Some of the Brittonic people migrated further to modern day Brittany where they continued to speak a language that originally was very similar to Welsh, but which again diverged to become modern Breton.

The Ancient Britons/Welsh plus the Cornish and Cumbric continued to fight against the Angles, Saxons, Normans and Vikings who came to the island of Great Britain, but it was a losing battle. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd wast the last king of Wales while Owain Glyndŵr rebelled against the invader just like his ancestor Boudica, but ultimately failed.

Since then, the only people living in Great Britain who can truly say they descend from the Ancient Britons are the Welsh. Cornish died as a living language with its last native speaker in 1780.

Now this might just be of historical interest, but it actually tells us something about ourselves. The language most of speak is not the original language of Great Britain. We were one people. We had a common language, but its descendant is only spoken in Wales and only by about 17% of Welsh people, probably rather less as a native language and fluently.

Scottish Gaelic is just as much as English a non-native language which supplanted the language that was spoken in Caledonia when the Romans came. Scottish Gaelic descends from Middle Irish it does not descend from Brittonic.

We should respect all of the languages that are spoken in Britain. Whichever language you learn, whether it is Gaelic or Welsh, Polish or Urdu, will enrich you the learner and give you opportunities to speak with others and to think about life in a different way. A new language gives you a new soul.

But I believe there is a case for singling out Welsh for study. Just as modern Greeks learn ancient Greek and modern Italians learn Latin, there is a good case for every British person whatever his or her background to learn some of the language that was originally spoken here or at least its modern descendant.

If it hadn’t been for the Romans, Angles, Saxons and Scoti we would all in Great Britain be speaking Welsh. It’s something therefore that we should celebrate as being not merely part of the heritage of Welsh people, but part of the heritage of all British people.

Our greatest hero King Arthur was Welsh as was Boudica. So are we all.

Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi [O Land of my fathers, O land of my love]