~ Posted by Jasper Rees, January 11th 2013
Why do we learn other languages? The English are subject to no pressing need, having successfully exported their own communication tool around the planet to the extent it has now been mulched into something called Globish. And yet since Intelligent Life asked which is the best language to learn, Robert Lane Greene's article has become this site's most read article of 2012.
Languages fire people up because they have to do with identity—none more, I would suggest, than one as yet unmentioned in dispatches. Welsh, the oldest living language in the British Isles, attracts its critics in Britain—bean-counters who see it as a drain on the national exchequer, Little Englanders narked by the uppity continuation of an indigenous but alien sound. The travel writer H.V. Morton encapsulated it best between the wars. No sooner over the border than he was excluded from conversation and prey to paranoia: "It seemed to me that they were hatching another Glendower rebellion. A Roman might have felt like this in a British village."
Four years ago I set out on a quest to reattach myself to attenuated Welsh roots. The stimulus for what became a book was published as a travel article in Intelligent Life. Integral to the journey was making a stab at the language of our forefathers—because before the Romans, the Saxons and the Normans, there were the Britons. Who spoke an ancestor of Welsh.
Having learnt enough Welsh not to feel like an outsider in an Aberystwyth pub, I'd recommend the same course to all who call themselves British. Let me list, before you do, the reasons for steering clear of Welsh. Consonants. Vowels. The fact that (outside the Patagonian diaspora) its speakers all know English. Unconscious feelings of Anglo-Saxon annoyance that Welsh has the temerity to keep buggering on.
These are also of course precisely the reasons for giving Welsh a go. Those vowels and consonants are the nuts and bolts, once you get to know it (and it's not actually so very hard), of a decidedly wondrous language.
Meanwhile, rather than faintly resent the survival of Welsh, why not contribute to it? Having weathered two millennia of invasion by sword and by word, Welsh has earned the right to neighbourly tolerance. For all its seeming otherness, learning Welsh will put you in touch with your own pre-Christian DNA. Although by no means all Welsh people speak the islands' senior language—the 2011 census even suggests a slight downward trend caused by in-migration mainly from England—the 562,000 who do will extend the hand of friendship. Only then you will truly understand the meaning of the roadsign upon entering Wales: Croeso i Gymru.
Jasper Rees is a regular contributor to Intelligent Life and the author of "Bred of Heaven" (Profile), a book about Wales and Welshness