I’m a big fan of the English comedian David Mitchell, which is why I’ve just spent the best part of hour watching his “David Mitchell’s Soapbox” videos on YouTube. All was well, until I reached “David Mitchell shares his views on the Gaelic language” (i.e. it’s a pity it’s dying, but it’s not “the end of the world”), in which he also shares his thoughts on Welsh (might still be worth learning, since there’s apparently still some people in Wales who don’t speak English), and Cornish (completely ridiculous waste of time).
Now, I don’t think for a minute that David Mitchell is “anti-Gaelic”, let alone “anti-Welsh” – he genuinely seems to think that minority languages are a “good thing” and he certainly isn’t crowing with linguistic triumphalism or anything stupid and offensive like that. But I still think he’s wrong, and it’s sad to see someone who is obviously intelligent and of good faith trot out such cliches as “language is fundamentally a tool of communication” and “languages die as a result of natural selection” as if he’s just worked that out and is rather pleased with himself for having done so.
He approaches the truth of the matter when he talks about Cornish “dying” – what actually died, if not on the operating table, was the last native speaker of Cornish. A person. A human being. There was nothing “natural” about the chain of events that led to Cornish falling into disuse. Economic and social pressures of the type that lead to language shift are not the same as the environmental pressures exerted on plant and animal species which can lead to extinction or the emergence of new species. Of course, there is an argument to be made that learning English in 18th century Cornwall, 19th century Scotland or 20th century Wales, may have led to a decreased likelihood of starvation amongst the indigenous population, but I don’t feel that Mitchell has that in mind, since that would imply that there were agents abroad exerting those pressures, rather than the peasants deciding to switch to English because it has words for “deep-freeze” and “overdraft”.
As is unfortunately common with the liberal, Guardian-reader variety of mostpeculiaritis, what is at work here is a simple case of cultural myopia. Mitchell assumes that cultural nationalism is behind efforts to “artificially” sustain endangered languages by throwing “public” money at them, without seeing the beam in his own eye; centuries of cultural nationalism of a far more pervasive variety is also behind the ongoing language shift towards English throughout the Celtic fringe. The extent to which that shift has been slowed (it hasn’t been reversed anywhere except perhaps in Cornwall and the Isle of Man) is proportional to the extent to which the uppity natives have been prepared to make a fuss about their right to exist as an ethnolinguistic group, or if you prefer, as a “people”. Mitchell doesn’t recognise English cultural nationalism as it is the water in which he swims. And as David Foster Wallace‘s young fish would say: what the hell is water?
The fact that it is more difficult to live life as a Cymro Cymraeg within what is now an entirely bilingual, or even monoglot English, Cymru, doesn’t mean that Welsh is somehow less suited for communication than is English, simply that English is a cultural and economic juggernaut that dominates the landscape wherever it rolls, and it’s been rolling around these welcoming hillsides for longer than it’s been rolling anywhere else. This is no more a case of “natural selection” than the proposed badger cull in Pembrokeshire, or indeed the Highland Clearances. Languages are not subject to Darwinian natural selection because they are human artifacts, not species of living organisms. If you really want to get all socially Darwinian on our asses, what is becoming extinct are Gaelic speakers, and what they are being replaced by is English speakers. Yes, I know those two entities are members of the same species, and might even be the same individual organisms, but it’s your sloppy analogy, not mine.
Like I said, Mitchell doesn’t (quite) include Welsh in his list of languages which should be mourned quietly as they pass inexorably into that good night. The fact that there are still half a million Welsh speakers seems to let us off the hook, though I wonder what he’d say if he realised that some of us had “learned the language from scratch” (e.g. me, more or less) and that some had even done so with the express intention of bringing up our children as Welsh speakers (not me, but a good proportion of my students). And that beyond a vague wish to be bilingual, and to increase our chances in the job market, or possibly help our kids with their homework, the simplest response to the question “why did you learn Welsh?” is that it’s the right thing to do. If you’re a person who cares at all about human culture (which Mitchell obviously does, as does Mark Lawson, come to that) then it behoves you to care about all cultures and to recognise that your own specific culture is not the only water in the pond. When a culture is in danger of dying, being wiped out, “extinction”, or whatever, it is not enough to stroke the spines of our dictionaries and fondly reminisce; if something’s dying, a bit of raging is in order.
Hence the above, I suppose.