What being a Welsh speaker taught me about feminism

// 23 July 2013

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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.

Comments From You

Marcus Grey // Posted 23 July 2013 at 11:23 am

As a cis-male bilingual English-Welsh speaker, I’d like to thank you for this article. It’s not easy to understand male privilege and hegemony when you are inside it; the parallel with my language is a very useful one. Diolch yn fawr!

Beth // Posted 23 July 2013 at 8:09 pm

Diolch :)

A really interesting post. It got me thinking as to how many people really do feel they fit in an ideological default position, though. Perhaps it is less laziness and more fear and the feeling of ‘discomfort’ you mention that provokes an antagonistic attitude toward difference? The fear of having a lifetime’s hard work (or lazy routine, I suppose) trying to fit into and occupy a position challenged or undone? Isn’t one of the most disturbing things about ideology that it isn’t ‘natural’ at all but it so effectively seems so that people are keen to conform? Which is perhaps why you say ‘male’ not male – as I expect fitting in that category isn’t all that easy at all. Thanks again for an interesting post. Cymru am byth!

Elisa // Posted 24 July 2013 at 3:08 pm

Diolch am eich sylwadau!

Beth, I’m not sure how much Welsh you speak so I’ll go for it in English though that feels ironic in this context :). I din’t really think about ideology when I wrote this. I think that when people are used to situations having been set up for people like the, used to fitting in quite easily most places, then there is an instinctive sense of injustice when they don’t. English speakers (us multilinguals included) can expect to be accommodated basically wherever we go in the whole world, so to come up against something different to that seems to provoke an immediate “that’s not right” response that doesn’t question how right it is to expect accommodation everywhere else. A lot of men have the same response when told they’re occupying to much space/ talking too loudly in feminism. That kind of behaviour is positively encouraged in men everywhere else, after all!

Elisa // Posted 24 July 2013 at 3:25 pm

Another thing about occupying the default position, being the kind of person most spaces are geared towards accommodating, is that you experience anything different as a personal affront, so Welsh speakers aren’t speaking Welsh coz that’s just what we do, we switch into Welsh on purpose to make non-Welsh speakers feel uncomfortable and excluded. This is very similar to the way in which MRAs construct feminism as being an attack on men and the way in which even men who identify with feminism will storm off and set up an Aberystwyth and South Wales Masculinist Society if you insist they modify their usual male behaviour in a feminist space (genuinely, this happened). They’re so used to being the yardstick to which everything is measured, they make it all about them and not about women needing to have certain kinds of spaces, free of pointless, triggering debates for example, in order to get things done.

Beth // Posted 25 July 2013 at 9:47 am

Aberystwyth and South Wales Masculinist Society? Crikey! I have to know more about that! Any links? I am a rhugl Welsh speaker in theory (grew up in North Wales) but don’t get much opportunity to speak it these days and it’s a little rusty to say the least… I completely agree with the need for women only spaces, I only wish there was not a need – gender neutral spaces would be good too! Now I have moved to England I have to content with this….an actual political party registered and called ‘Justice for men & boys (and the women who love them)’ – I kid you not. http://fightingfeminism.wordpress.com/

Helen // Posted 26 July 2013 at 11:23 pm

Just so good to see this being discussed. I learned Welsh as an adult, because of my socialist, nationalist politics. And I’m a feminist. So I’ve been the person who walks into a room and everyone switches to English because you’re there.Awful. But I’ve also been the woman who is told that the struggle for the language and the future of the nation is all and that everything else must wait. Nonsense!

Women in Wales have worked hard to make sure that these false dichotomies have been challenged. We are getting there. But it isn’t sorted yet.

It will be great when feminist sisters across the nations on these islands can support and understand our standing up for our language and our nation. We are not shutting you out.

We are being ourselves.

Elisa // Posted 1 August 2013 at 4:29 pm

Jyst am ddiolch i chi gyd am eich sylwadau cadarnhaol. Nes i hefyd feddwl am y dyfyniad hwn gan Audre Lorde wrth ddarllen sywl Helen: ‘there is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives’. Dwi’n amal am weiddi hyn yng nghwmni cenedlaetholwyr eraill. Beth, dwi hefyd yn cytuno: mae angen ‘gofodau annibynnol’ (?) ar ferchaid fel mae pethau ar y foment, ond y gobaith yw y gallwn ni greu byd lle na fydd ei hangen!

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