The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis purports that a person’s conceptualisation of the world is influenced by the nuances of the thinker’s mother language and this is, of course, in large parts dictated by place. This has had a special interest to me as someone who is Welsh by birth and heritage, spent a large part of my childhood in Germany and has made my life’s work becoming an expert in and teaching the English language.
Currently I am visiting family in Pembrokeshire, my birthplace, and yesterday, while taking the opportunity to go venturing about the beautiful countryside and coast, these thoughts were prominent in my mind. Although Welsh by birth and heritage, I only have a very basic grasp on the Welsh language. My family had lost the tongue, generations ago, convinced that it would be more of a hindrance than a help in the increasing need to interact and transact with a purely English speaking culture beyond the border. All this was long before legislation such as the Welsh Language Act of 1993 or the Government of Wales Act 1998 legislated for the treatment of English and Welsh to be equal within the public sector. Long, long before. At the age of two, my family moved to Germany and it wasn’t until I returned to Wales that I was schooled in the most basic knowledge of the language as part of my Secondary school timetable. It was somewhat frustrating to me that I had reached such an age and become almost fluent in the German language and new almost nothing of this, what should rightly be my ‘own’ language but was not. Perhaps due to this frustration, or in some misplaced act of rebellion, I gave up the opportunity to learn the language further, once the compulsory period of learning ended, three years into my Secondary education. To fulfil the requirement to study two languages, I instead opted for French and German.
It wasn’t until I got much older that I wondered how this has shaped me as an individual – shaped not only my identity as a virtually non-Welsh speaker, but also my conceptualisation of the culture and country that are my ‘own’. In another perverse act, as an undergraduate reading for a joint honours degree in English Language, at a prestigious English university, I chose for my dissertation topic Welsh Cinema. Within this dissertation there was considerable consideration given to the cultural relevance and revelations of Welsh language cinema, which, ironically, I had had to watch with subtitles. I have a brother who has some hearing difficulties and so watches television with subtitles on, as standard – something I have always found hugely distracting. The reason for this is not because I’m distracted by the visual aspect of it – the constantly changing strip across the bottom of the screen. No. I’m distracted by the frequent inaccuracies in the transcripts of the shows. Even mono-linguistic subtitling deceives the viewer – mis-scribes words, summarises complex ideas for brevity. With this experience in mind, I began to wonder how true my experience of Welsh language cinema was likely to be, as experienced through the medium of English subtitles.
On looking into it further, I was assured that it wasn’t likely to be very true at all. Alongside the issues of mono-linguistic subtitling, there was the additional issue of there not being any literal translation for certain Welsh words. The most famously cited example of this is the fact that there are a vast number of additional names for colours than there exists in the English language. This saddened me on a deeper level than I can explain. Suddenly I was confronted with the fact that my linguistic poverty meant not only that I would be disadvantaged in accessing specifically ‘Welsh’ things such as certain Welsh texts, the National Eisteddfod (an annual celebration of Welsh culture conducted entirely in the medium of Welsh and crowns an annual ‘bard’ – poetry being an ancient and integral part of Welsh culture) but also from accessing universal concepts like the fine distinctions between colours and hues. Because how can you experience something consciously if you don’t have the language with which to process it?
Was this the true tragedy of Babylon? That not only would the nations never truly understand each other across the linguistic divide but that they would never truly understand the world they lived in?
It was this realisation that has led me to question many things – not only how many concepts in the universal reality are locked away from me behind a linguistic door but how my voice might alter in a different language. I don’t mean the obvious things like it would sound different because of the different words and sounds it would use that don’t belong in the English language (for example the Welsh ‘ll’ for which there is no use in English.) I mean in terms of the things it would be able to conceptualise and express. Would I be more or less aware of certain things prioritised by the new language I spoke? Would I develop harsher or gentler tones with a new range of subtlety at my disposal? Welsh-speakers are almost all bilingual and will make various choices about which language to speak in based not only on place (with some choosing English for Southern and more urban regions and Welsh for Northern and more rural areas) but also according to what it is that they are talking about – a linguistic practice known as code-switching. This leads me to believe that the answer to both of those questions, and more, would be yes.
It also leads to the natural conclusion that as part of the process of discovering my own voice, I must improve my ‘own’ language. I have to unlock those secrets, to hear this part of myself.
As a writer, I am in good company. Wales has a history of successful writers who write in the medium of English – not least of all Dylan Thomas. I could go on to list and list and list here but it wouldn’t serve the purpose. My interest today is not in what they could or did write but in what they couldn’t or didn’t write and how their voices and worlds might have been different if they had.