Welsh and Arabic – A Similar Journey

by Sophie Dowle, Arabic. Sophie has also included a few photos from the Middle East which reminded her of her hometown in Wales:-

They’re not the most immediately obvious languages to compare, but time and again I have had similar experiences in learning Welsh and Arabic. From the incredulous reactions as I try to explain why I’ve decided to study each language, to the frustration of trying to get my head around grammar points that don’t have any equivalent in English.

I started learning Welsh in year 7 at school, and I immediately fell in love with it. It provided challenges- trying to get my head around mutations- but also a lot of entertainment- learning to say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch faultlessly (and without spitting).

I loved Welsh so much that once it stopped being compulsory after GCSE, I decided to study it for AS level, even though it didn’t fit in my timetable, so I had to study it as an extra in my own time. Trying to explain this decision was never easy. I live on the border with England, so many of my friends never really saw the point in learning Welsh at all, let alone choosing to take it further. Trying to explain to my non-Welsh family members that it was a worthwhile A-level proved even harder. Welsh was dismissed as useless, dead and archaic, and anyway it looks like gobbledygook and has no vowels (this is wrong- Welsh has 7 vowels!), so how could I possibly want to learn it?

I faced similar reactions when I announced that I wanted to study Arabic and Islamic Studies at university. My parents were broadly supportive. When I told my teachers some were very enthusiastic, excited even, some stared at me as if I had suggested a trip to the moon. I still get this reaction when I say what I study. Other reactions range from unabated enthusiasm, to ‘but why bother, they all speak English,’ and beyond to ‘what the fuck do you want to study that for?!’

But the similarities go beyond the reactions of others to me learning these languages, and beyond the challenges of learning two languages that are very different to English. Both Welsh and Arabic are languages that have faced, and are facing, the threat of English. Historically speaking Welsh has been punished in schools and English made the language of administration, thereby excluding Welsh speakers. While these rules are no longer in use, Welsh is still under threat from English. New words are transliterated from English, or become Welsh versions of English words with no anchorage in the rich semantics of Welsh. In colloquial Welsh, English can slip in even more. While some argue that this is just how language evolves, I would argue that the power dynamics are very different to one of language exchange and development. You only have to look at lists of Welsh origin words in English (penguin being my favourite- it possibly comes from pen gwyn, meaning white head) compared to English ones in Welsh to get some idea of the unbalance of exchange. Furthermore, the dynamic is one of a colonial language dominating, taking over, banning and deriding the language of a ‘conquered people’. Trampling the Welsh language was a part of suppressing Welsh identity and culture, and making the Welsh subservient to English power.

We see this colonial power dynamic in Arabic as well. The Arabic language, like Welsh in Wales, is an integral part of Arab identity and culture. Arabic is the language of God and of God’s people. But when Britain and France carved up the Middle East between them, their languages became essential to learn for those with ambitions. They became the languages of the Educated, and they remain thus today. Arabic has its own formal version, which was traditionally the language of the educated classes, but now English and French are threatening the status of formal Arabic. Every other word in a casual conversation in Arabic with a reasonably well-educated Arabic speaker is an English one. Furthermore, if you don’t speak perfect English or French (depending on which country you are in), you are seen as having no prospects for success.

People often look surprised if I say learning Welsh and Arabic have some important similarities, and then claim I could say that about learning any two languages. I beg to differ- my experience of learning Arabic has been much more similar to my experience of learning Welsh than it has to learning French or German. The similarity goes beyond the complicated grammar and the frustration and beauty of untranslatable concepts. It goes much deeper, to questions of power, history and identity.

Living in Amman for the year gave Sophie a number of different reflections. For her previous thoughts about the fortune she felt from having a British passport in comparison to some of her new friends, see The Power of a Passport.

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