David Mitchell on Gaelic

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.


About Nic Dafis

Yn wreiddiol o'r Waun, Wrecsam, bellach yn byw ger Llangrannog, Ceredigion. Gweithio fel tiwtor Cymraeg i oedolion.
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9 Responses to David Mitchell on Gaelic

  1. nicdafis says:

    Blimey, I’m long-winded in English.

  2. nicdafis says:

    It behoves me to be more concise.

  3. Cristian Davies says:

    Da iawn, erthygl wych /v.good, great article

  4. Carl Morris says:

    I don’t think this is “long-winded” at all. This Mitchell video has been rattling around in my head for weeks. I have to admit it’s a very eloquent summary of a painfully common viewpoint.

    There are several linguistic assumptions and falsehoods put forward here.

    But two I really want to tackle are:

    1. this notion of languages surviving or “dying out”. The English language has no intrinsic life of its own, neither has Welsh, Gaelic or any other language. Languages are sustained by parenting, government, education, institutions, organisations, media. That’s it. That’s why it would be ridiculous to say “The English language is propped up by a staggering amount of investment from the UK government and EU every year…”. Just as it is ridiculous to make that claim about for any minority language which people speak or for which they require services, education and so on. And for which they pay taxes.

    2. the use of the condescending putdown “ancient language” for modern European languages. Gaelic/Welsh are in use TODAY. Just because they are arcane to you David, doesn’t make them archaic. Their lineage can be traced, but they have evolved and been extended just like your (and my) beloved English. They’re not “private codes”, they are open and available to ALL and not difficult to learn.

    Personal note… I chose to learn Welsh, not primarily because 0.5m people speak it, but because it was and is a major language in MY WORLD. If it were all about numbers around THE WORLD I would of course have chosen Mandarin. But for what it’s worth, doing it has taught me more about The World than almost anything else I’ve done. Next time I’ll let you know in full what it’s like to replace your cultural myopia with dazzling cultural 20:20 vision. Let’s just say the horizon is pretty awesome.

  5. Carl Morris says:

    Oh yeah, another thing I just remembered…

    I’m tired of people like David bringing up Hindi and other widely-spoken majority languages as relevant reasons to minimise the value of Welsh, Gaelic etc. And then patting themselves on the back for being “internationalist”.

    New rule: any language is fine but you CANNOT invoke an exotic language in these kinds of discussions unless YOU YOURSELF can understand it. It’s called the Mitchell Rule.

    Learn Hindi then get back to me.

  6. RobertBruce says:

    Scots is a dialect of English? Well, OK. But only if English is a dialect of Friesian.

  7. Pingback: Tongue Lashing With Friends | A Wilderness of Peace

    • Nic Dafis says:

      Diolch Peter. That whole post, and mine too, is best summerised by that one classic quote from Mitchell’s back catalogue: “are we the bad guys?”

      Yes, David. This time, you are the bad guys.

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