In 1967 J.R. Jones, then Professor of Philosphy at Swansea University, gave a lecture in Welsh with the title ‘A Oes Rhaid i‘r Iaith Ein Gwahanu’ (‘Must the Language Divide Us?). It polemically re-stated some of the ideas put forward in his book Prydeindod which analysed the destructive power of the ideology of ‘Britishness’ for Welsh identity. One thing he asserts in his lecture is the idea that the Welsh language is an essential component of Welshness. But, significantly, he doesn’t assert alongside this that someone who doesn’t speak Welsh cannot therefore claim Welsh identity. Embedded in his argument is a crucial insight into the nature of language as a structural component of cultural identity rather than simply a functional medium of communication. Here is part of what he had to say in this respect:
One of the mistakes which has contributed most to our conditioning to restrict the language and its significance to the functional level is our idea that language is nothing more than a means or technique of communication. This idea arises from ignoring the dimension of a past in a language – the way in which it becomes, after being spoken over the generations by the inhabitants of the same region, a vessel to collect and store their past, and through that a means to form them into a People. This misapprehension causes language to be confined to the present. […..]
[…..] in the present alone, language is a technique of communication and nothing else, and either one can speak it or one cannot. And it is exactly there that language cuts cruelly through the bowels of the nation.
So what he calls for is not a functional solution, or even political action in the sense of politics being ‘the art of the possible’. What he in fact calls for is something which he acknowledges as, in this sense, ‘impossible’. Culture and language here are not means to an end but ends in themselves. Articulations of identity that can be made also by those who do not speak the language which defines that identity do seem to be logically impossible. But to some extent this has happened since Jones gave the lecture over 40 years ago. Many who don’t speak the language are eager for their children to learn it and acknowledge its historical importance in Jones’ sense even if they don’t consciously articulate the knowledge in this way. That is not to say that Welsh is safe. Were it just to fulfil the role of the ‘Soul of Wales’ without having a body to inhabit it would soon become a ghost.
So maybe it doesn’t matter if the language is divisive. Better that than a bringing together for no significant purpose. But the insight of the historical importance of language (any language) in forming the structure of identity is surely one that needs to be kept sight of in our functional age.