What being a Welsh speaker taught me about feminism
Elise Haf // 23 July 2013
Basically, speaking a minority language taught me that it’s ok not to understand everything all the time. I don’t mean because we Welsh speakers are a little deficient in our English, as if language was a zero sum game in which you can only really be fluent in one. I mean because if we Welsh speakers never spoke Welsh around people who can’t, we would never speak Welsh. The language would just die, along with some of the most beautiful poetry, one of the most complex singing traditions and some of the funniest jokes in the world.
That’s why we speak Welsh. Not to exclude those who can’t. There’s no need to yell ‘oi, speak English’ across the office if you hear your colleagues doing it, or to patronisingly interrupt with ‘I don’t speak Welsh’ if you’re in a group and someone says something to their friend in that language. I promise, if you need to know what we’re saying, we’d be more likely to say it through the medium of interpretive dance than to someone else in a language we know you don’t understand but in your hearing.
It would simply be a shame if the Welsh language died all so that monolingual English speakers could gain one more space in which they didn’t have to examine the hegemony of English. This short post on Tumblr spoke volumes to me when I read it, even though as someone who speaks English alongside my other languages, I share in the entitlement described.
So it rubs me up the wrong way when people – often the most right-on, smash-the-variously-supremacist-patriarchy type people – say things like ‘It just makes me uncomfortable’ about Welsh, as though expecting me to say ‘Oh, it makes you uncomfortable. Oh I see. Well then by all means, my language and heritage and culture should go fuck themselves’.
Hopefully, the feminist relevance of entitlement complexes in people occupying hegemonic positions is obvious. But I think the ideas of comfort and of understanding are key to how hegemony translates in actual situations.
A quick and easy way to describe hegemony, or what it means to occupy a hegemonic position, would be to say that you or something about you is as society would expect. It’s the default.
Feminists know all about this, of course. We all know ‘people’ really means ‘men’ in our society and ‘women’ are a sub type or interest group.
Black and intersectional feminists also know that when society talks about ‘people’, the people it’s really talking about are white people.
There’s loads of examples of this, where something that is your default as an individual – like being gay or trans* or a wheelchair user or not a monolingual English speaker – is something that society questions and requires you to answer for.
But no one asks ‘why are you cis?’ or ‘how come you speak English?’, unless they’re micro-aggressing you about some other way you don’t match their default, like by being really butch or an immigrant or something.
Responses to deviating from society’s expectations vary from rejection to celebration but it’s obvious to me that the responses at the negative end of the spectrum are born of laziness. It’s more common (and charitable) to attribute them to fear, but I think laziness is at the root of that fear: it’s a fear of having to do the work of adjusting your expectations or of getting rid of a default set of expectations in the first place. It’s a fear of having to start adjusting yourself to situations instead of them being ready adjusted to you. It’s a fear of having to learn a new set of rules and playing in a way you may not be very good at yet.
Occupying a default position such as ‘male’ is easy. It requires no defending, and that leaves you with loads of time and energy to run the world. If you find yourself in a situation where that feels threatened – be it amongst feminists who won’t let your usual male behaviour fly, or with Welsh speakers who reassure you that they were speaking Welsh well before you walked in and aren’t going to suddenly switch from the habit of a lifetime into English any more than they would bizarrely switch from English when they see you coming – then you probably will have a hissy fit. That’s much easier than coming to the realisation that maybe you don’t have to understand, just accept. The way you accept the fact that you do understand everything everywhere else.
But of course, that’s not how English became the world’s default language for business, ‘diplomacy’ and travel. That’s not how patriarchy made it whole and entire into the 21st century either.
The Welsh language also made it into the 21st century, though, despite living next to the most expansionist language in the world, with the most colonialist history. It managed this unlikely feat because Welsh speakers insisted on safe spaces where Welsh could be the default language. They rejected the false equivalence of claims, for example, that an ‘English Not’ would soon be brought in in Welsh medium schools, and just went for autonomy.
I think feminism should do the same.
The public domain image of the Welsh flag is taken from Wikipedia.