Te reo Māori and Welsh: Two indigenous languages, two stories of revival

Welsh is a dead language.

This is what I’ve been hearing my entire life.

I’ve always been aware of the comparison between my language and te reo Māori. Both, I knew, shared the precarious position of being endangered languages.

I was surprised, then, to read this article looking to Wales with admiration for its handling of the language.

Growing up, I would never have confessed to enjoying Welsh language music, television or books. I made a point of not being seen with the patriotic Welsh kids, and spoke to friends in English despite knowing we both spoke Welsh at home.

Wales became the first English territory way back in the 13th century, before being officially incorporated into the kingdom by Henry VIII in the 16th century. While the Celtic name for our land, Cymru, refers to “friends” or “fellow countrymen”, Wales derives from an Anglo Saxon word meaning “foreigners” or “outsiders”.

I learned how Welsh was literally beaten out of school children by none other than Welsh teachers, led to believe by a government commissioned report — known today as the Treachery of the Blue Books — that “the evil of the Welsh language” posed “a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people”.

Any child caught speaking Welsh was humiliated by the wearing of a heavy wooden plaque around the neck, reading WN or “Welsh not”. The child left wearing the plaque at the end of the day was physically and psychologically punished.

It was a real shock, then, to find this video of Jemaine Clement breaking down as he said his kuia would be punished for speaking te reo. Just like us, generations were robbed of the language of their ancestors.

Read more: The Spinoff

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