Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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How to spot a Welsh speaker in the wild

In this post, I'm going to look at a common problem that Welsh learners encounter, namely spotting a native speaker in the wild.

There is a prevalent myth that Welsh people only speak Welsh in public to annoy the English. Time and time again, I've heard people claim that while they were standing outside the shop, they could hear that the conversation was in English, but the moment they cross the threshold, it turns to Welsh to exclude them. Well, I've lived in Wales for over 30 years and I can say categorically that it just never happens.

If only it were true!

If it were true, we Welsh learners would have no difficulty at all in finding people to practice with.

No, sadly the reverse is what normally happens. As a stranger, when you approach the counter, apart from in one or two very rare cases (where they are doing it to Make A Point), the person serving will address you in English.

So how about ignoring their opening remark and addressing them in Welsh?

No! Unless you are absolutely confident that they speak Welsh, don't do it.

Even though Welsh now has official status, it is a minority language. You can't assume everyone dealing with the public will speak it, even in the North which is the Welsh language's stronghold. Also, because there is a huge wagon train of political baggage attached to the language, using Welsh to the wrong person can have an unintended meaning. It's too easy to cause offence without meaning to. This is why I'm going to attach caveats to Benny Lewis's otherwise excellent suggestion to take the plunge and start speaking a new language as soon as possible. In the right circumstances, this is good advice, but with Welsh, before you address strangers in public, you need to take some care.

For one thing, you need to understand the difference between "ti" (you singular/intimate) and "chi" (you plural/formal). English dropped this distinction a couple of hundred years ago. I suspect that it's almost gone in those dialects that preserved it into the 20th century. However, it's alive and well in Welsh, just as it is in French (tu/vous) and possibly many other languages.

My tutor told me of one very embarrassing moment on the Eisteddfod field where a learner she knew launched into a conversation with the Arch Druid and addressed him as "ti" throughout!


This is like going up to someone with the dignity and stature of the Archbishop of Canterbury and addressing them as "Mate" thoughout the conversation. Not a good idea!

Basically, "ti" is for talking to people you know really really well, children (whether previously known to you or not), pets and God.

"Chi" is for addressing more than one person, also for addressing anyone you don't know well or people with higher status and/or that you are only on formal terms with, such as teachers and doctors or, if you're a child or young person, anyone significantly older than you. Traditionally, children called their parents and grandparents "chi", but in today's more relaxed society, this probably now depends on the individual family.

Now, some people may say, "What does it matter if you get it wrong? Chill! Just get over it. Everyone makes embarrassing mistakes when speaking a language."

Yes, indeed. If it were just a case of sparing your blushes, then I'd say, "Go for it!" however, this is where the wagon train of political baggage comes lumbering over the horizon. As well as "ti" being the intimate form, it can be used as a put down because it is the form of "you" that someone would use to an inferior, the form that a master would use to a servant. When you remember the history of Wales in relation to England, it's not a mistake that you want to make.

OK, moving swiftly on...

Let's assume that you're confident that you're not going to put your foot in it by using the intimate form incorrectly and you have enough vocabulary to buy that cup of coffee and slice of bara brith, how then can you find a Welsh speaker to practice with?

Basically, you have to be alert. Some shops and cafes display a sign saying that Welsh is spoken there. Very occasionally, someone may wear a badge conveying the same message. I have one that says Dw i'n dysgu Cymraeg (I'm learning Welsh (see icon)) and there was an equivalent one given out for people who were willing to speak with learners. However, speaking personally, I never spot the "Welsh spoken here" sign until I'm half way through the transaction. All you can do then is remember for next time. From now on, one of my goals is to make a list of places that do have Welsh speaking staff. I'm also going to try to make a note of which of the checkout staff at the Co-op are Welsh speaking because some are and some aren't.

Otherwise, keep your ears open. What language did the person in front of you use when speaking to the shop assistant? If it's Welsh, then it's safe for you to do the same.

(Crossposted to LJ and Dreamwidth. If you want to comment, please feel free to do so at whichever site you find most convenient.)

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