This post can be seen as a continuation of a series begun with a post I wrote in August called Two stupid things people say about Welsh. Today’s post is less about really stupid things as about persistent myths, which people are perhaps a bit silly to believe. They are the following:
- Welsh is the oldest language/one of the oldest languages in Europe. It’s not clear where this idea comes from, or quite what it would mean. It’s true that of those languages now spoken in Great Britain, Welsh has almost certainly been there longer than any other. But the only competition here is provided by English, Scots, and Scottish Gaelic. The first two are descended from the dialects of Germanic settlers who started arriving around the fifth century. Gaelic was brought over to Scotland from Ireland at an uncertain date, but pretty certainly after Welsh was brought to Britain. But the oldest in Europe? Welsh is an Indo-European language, which means it’s descended from the same ancestor language (called Proto-Indo-European) as such languages as English, German, Swedish, Russian, Hindi, French, Iranian, and lots of others. There are two ways Welsh could be older in Europe than any of these: first, Welsh could have split off from the other Indo-European languages outside Europe and been brought to Europe before any of the others. There is no evidence at all, or even reason to suspect, that this is the case. Second, of those modern Indo-European languages that split off from each other in Europe, Welsh could be one of the first. This is hard to determine—dating language splitting events is very tricky and uncertain—however, there’s just no reason at all to suppose that Welsh might have split off earlier than the others. This is a myth that has nothing to it.
- When English people go into a pub in rural Wales, everyone in the pub starts speaking Welsh. Now, this isn’t completely implausible; after all, language is sometimes used to exclude others, and small rural communities don’t have a reputation for friendliness towards outsiders. However, there’s something deeply suspicious about this claim. The thing is, for this to be true, almost everyone in the pub would have to speak Welsh fluently. This is entirely reasonable; in many areas of rural Wales, the majority of people are native speakers of Welsh. But if most people in the pub are fluent Welsh speakers, and probably native speakers at that, why on earth would they be speaking English before the English people came in (and how would the English people even know what language was being spoken before they came in), especially given their apparent antipathy towards the English? This myth seems to rely on the quaint anglophone assumption that everyone else in the world speaks English when you’re not looking. Well they don’t, and Welsh speakers are no exception.
- Welsh stopped being spoken and was revived in the twentieth century. This is just untrue, and probably comes from people confusing it with Cornish, which stopped being spoken as a first-language in the twentieth century (although some second-language speakers have brought their children up in Cornish, so now there are new natives). But the situation for Welsh is completely different; it’s certainly declined over the twentieth century—from around a million speakers in 1911 to around 600,000 now—but this is about as low as the numbers have got.