Two generations to lose it

Yesterday’s piece about my grandparents, and the beginning of Welsh being lost in our family, struck a chord with some of you.

But in most cases, it’s not a one generational thing – it takes a couple of generations for the language to be completely lost.

That’s exactly what happened to us.

My mother was a war baby – and my Nain moved with her from London to my Taid’s family in Pen Llŷn when the bombing started.

She was there on the outskirts of Rhydyclafdy until she was about 6, we think – her memory isn’t particularly reliable on this.

She’s always said that she only spoke Welsh until then – and in the little bits of Welsh she’s willing to use now with our kids when she thinks we’re not listening, you can certainly hear some first language patterns. And her grandparents would definitely have spoken Welsh to her, and she spent some time at the primary school in Rhydyclafdy, which would have been Welsh only.

I’ve never been sure about the idea that my Nain spoke Welsh to my mother, though – just because I never heard her speak Welsh myself. And I know my great-aunt used to visit, and she definitely didn’t speak Welsh.

So it was probably a fairly bilingual environment, at the least – the kind of thing that is much more common these days, when the sheer muscle of English finds a way in pretty much everywhere.

But after the war, when my Taid came back from the Army, he and Nain moved to the south-east of England for work – and the story goes that my mother was bullied at school for not having any English, and so they decided to change the language at home to English (I suspect it probably was already).

Either way, she lost her Welsh then – adapting as quickly as we can now see children in Gwynedd doing the other way round – thanks to the fantastic immersion courses for children that the council should not even be THINKING about stopping funding.

And she met and married an Englishman – and that was it.

Apart from those little tastes of Welsh in Cwm Cynllwyd and y Felinheli in my first two or three years (my brother, born three and a half years after me, didn’t even get those), we were away overseas and the language of that side of our family was dead.

And once it’s dead, it’s really dead.

It doesn’t just spark back into life by accident.

It’s dead for good.

Unless we DO something about it…

Which is what I did – the best thing I’ve ever done – and it’s what I see more and more people my age and younger doing.

I’ll explain how that happened to me tomorrow.

In the meantime – if you’re on the verge of winning your own language back – have a look at these:

2 responses to “Two generations to lose it

  1. *nods knowingly* My grandfather moved to America from Italy when he was in his 20s. Married an Italian-American and they spoke their dialect together, but they didn’t speak it around the children. My mother tells a story about how she found her mother’s love letters and was teasing her in dialect about them. After than, my grandparents never spoke their dialect around their children, and I heard only one or two phrases growing up. It’s a shame how we lose things.
    If I’m not being too verbose, your journey to “being Welsh” engendered a fellow feeling with me. My full name is Kathleen McGann. So although I’m half Italian, I got teased in school for “being Irish”. Now my Irish ancestors came to the States in 1847 and I never met anyone in my family who’d even been to Ireland, much less was born there. But instead of complaining, as my family members frequently did, about “Look what the English have taken away from us” (when every single one of them was born in the US and most had never met an English person), I found an Irish language course at a local University and took it. Then I went to Irish college in Co. Donegal. I felt that feeling your describe in your book — of “coming home”. Now I had never heard a word of Irish in my family. It was far too long ago for anything to remain. But my family was likely Irish speaking (from Galway). Acquiring Irish was like a genetic imperative to me. I felt like I’d suffered for “being Irish” but what actually made me Irish? A name? Curly hair and fair skin? An ability to drink a lot of whiskey?
    I am afraid I’m blithering, but you really struck a chord with me. Thanks for your blog and your book and your lessons!

    • Oh, thank you so much for such an interesting post! Yes, it sounds like a very, very similar process/journey – there’s something so very powerful in place, in the thought that your ancestors trod on these stones, and then something perhaps equally powerful in language – here are the very words they used – and particularly at a time when we’re becoming less connected in so many ways… I often think that real, positive belonging is the great antidote we need to the kind of hatred-fuelled false belonging that is being driven from the dark corners of the internet out into the complicated world…

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