Saturday 1 October 2016

Muddled thinking - Pam Palmer speaks to the Nation

Language Police

One of the Twitter accounts followed by Y Cneifiwr is @YBeiroCoch ("the red biro"). Y Beiro appears to come to life only fitfully, usually to criticise and correct examples of sloppily written Welsh churned out by journalists, politicians and public bodies. Very occasionally, Y Beiro will take to Twitter to congratulate someone for getting it right, a fate which probably makes the targets squirm even more than when they are being pilloried.

For example, Golwg360 was praised earlier this year for remembering that, correctly, 'last year' is y llynedd, rather than plain old llynedd, and Y Beiro reproduced a screenshot to prove it. Unfortunately, what grabbed  Cneifiwr's attention was not the headline selected by Y Beiro, but the one underneath:

Cyngor yn ymddiheuro ar ôl dangos pornograffi ar gam mewn angladd

(Council apologises after showing pornography by mistake at a funeral)

But, I digress.

It's fair to say that Y Beiro does not have many friends on Twitter. All we know about this individual is that he (and it is a he) is a teacher, and pretty much every time he writes something, down comes a storm of angry tweets about the Language Police.

For a short while, there was even an entertaining debate on whether his Twitter handle should really be "Y Feiro Goch". Are biros masculine or feminine? The answer is that they are grammatically hermaphrodite.

But Y Beiro has a point. Public bodies, journalists and politicians are in the business of communication, and we have a right to expect that they communicate clearly, whichever language they use.

His tip for writing good Welsh is to read good Welsh. Substitute English for Welsh, and his advice remains equally true:

If there is plenty of sloppy Welsh about, the law of averages dictates that there is infinitely more bad English, and it's not just minor infringements of usage, grammar, spelling and punctuation, such as saying 'less' when it should be 'fewer', or writing 'it's' (= it is) instead of 'its' (= belonging to it).


A particular bête noire of Cneifiwr's is 'iconic', a word which seems to be used only by lazy journalists and PR operatives.

Is County Hall in Carmarthen 'iconic', or does its lowering, grey bulk simply dominate the town's skyline, proof that questionable planning decisions were around long before Eifion Bowen?

Much worse than any of that is language so badly formulated that it does not make sense, or actually means the opposite of what the speaker or writer intended.

Oliver, the blind parrot

Anyone who has trawled through county council archives will have come across examples of badly written reports which leave the reader struggling to imagine what the author intended to say. That is at the serious end of the spectrum; at the other we have Carmarthenshire County Council's press office. Here's one of their gems from a couple of years back in a report about a blind parrot and an elderly husky (yes, really):

Oliver was going to euthanized when Fran and Mick adopted. Ion his 18 years and he has become a star of the South Wales dog circuit and is even mascot of the Sled Dog Society of Wales.

Not quite in the same league, but pants English nevertheless, is this item from a decision meeting held recently by Cllr Pam Palmer:

A statement of the bleedin' obvious followed by two lines of dodgy grammar and punctuation.

Since Pam Palmer is the sole member of the "Executive Board Member Decisions Meeting for Communities", it is only fair to assume that she read and approved this garbage.

A Woman for all Seasons

Pam Palmer is one of two Deputy Leaders of the Council, the other being Cllr David Jenkins. Unlike Cllr Jenkins (finance and budget) or any of the other members of the Executive Board below Council Leader, Pam Palmer does not have responsibility for a department, just a rag-bag of mostly meaningless titles, such as "Rural Affairs", "Community Planning", and ludicrously "Youth Ambassador".

Here's an example of what Pam has done for young people in Carmarthen.

In the past, her responsibilities included Food Hygiene, but that disappeared at some point, food hygiene presumably no longer being important.

A few years ago, another of her responsibilities was "modernising local government", which boiled down to vehemently opposing modernising local government and the filming of council meetings in particular. In Pam's view, councillors deserved the same protection as children from being filmed.

More recently, she was one of the most vocal critics of proposals to reform local government ("an abomination"), including restricting the number of terms councillors can serve in top jobs, opposition which probably had something to do with the fact that Pam has sat on the Executive Board for more years than anyone can remember.

She followed that up with a call for more younger people to stand for election as county councillors, apparently blind to the irony that she is leader of the "Independent" group on the council, an allegedly non-political political group whose average age must be hovering somewhere north of 70.

Pam did not specify how this admirable goal might be achieved, but the mass resignation of Independent councillors would go a long way to bringing in much-needed new blood. We might even get a Youth Ambassador who can vaguely remember what it is like to be young.

Money, money, money

Like most of our county councillors, Cllr Palmer is some way past retirement age, and so will enjoy benefits including a free bus pass, the winter heating allowance and a reduced TV licence fee. In addition to her pension(s), she was last year paid very handsomely for performing functions which would probably be within the capabilities of Oliver the blind parrot:

Source: Carmarthenshire County Council

The advantage of being Executive Board Member for Communities is that she gets to sound off about anything and everything, because what is local government about if not "communities"?

The world as Pam sees it

And sounding off in council meetings is what Pam Palmer is good at. If you like the sort of toe-curling, socially excruciating comedy of Alan Partridge, that is. Often bad-tempered, nearly always spectacularly graceless and invariably unprepared, off-the-cuff contributions which manage to cloak small-minded prejudice and complete ignorance of any given subject in a confused miasma of platitudes, delivered patronisingly from on high.

Harsh? Well, let's take this contribution from a recent Executive Board meeting where Cllr Palmer was giving her colleagues, council officers and the public her views on the Welsh language:

"I would ask everybody who is in the fortunate position of actually speaking Welsh, especially as a first language, to not make fun of people or correct them. I am aware of instances where e-mails have been sent....and have been sent back corrected."

"That does not send out the right message to people who are trying very hard to learn a language most of you will agree here, and everyone says is a very difficult language to learn - I found it extremely difficult."

Where to begin? Firstly, note the regally patronising, de haut en bas tone.

The Welsh language and the people who speak it have endured hundreds of years of persecution, ridicule and humiliation, and it is still going on. Since the Brexit vote, for example, Welsh speakers have been attacked on trains because idiots thought they were speaking Polish, and this week an English historian and broadcaster called Lucy Inglis launched a tirade of abuse against Wales, the Welsh and the language.

While writing this rant, Cneifiwr received a phone call from someone who was ordered out of a charity shop in St Clears for speaking Welsh. "I've told you before not to speak that language in here", she was told.

But in Pam's view, it's English speakers who need protecting.

The reality, and a large part of the problem facing Welsh, is that Welsh speakers have always been far too accommodating, switching to English to avoid making non-Welsh speakers feel uncomfortable. Dr John Davies, the historian, used to tell a story about elderly people in Ceredigion struggling to speak to each other in English on the phone because they thought the GPO, as it then was, would only carry messages in English, and anyway, it was "official", and official things had to be in English.

It's a phenomenon sometimes known as the "Welsh cringe".

Only Pam Palmer knows the truth about her own efforts to learn Welsh, but let's be kind and assume that the balance of probability is that she did not try very hard, rather than a lack of grey matter. A few years ago she referred in a council meeting to Machynlleth as "that town whose name I shall not endeavour to pronounce".

If she had been to a Welsh class, she would have mastered that by Lesson 2.

If she had made a serious effort to learn Welsh after living in a largely Welsh-speaking community for most of her adult life, she would know that Welsh learners really appreciate being corrected, sensitively if possible. It's the linguistic equivalent of being told that your flies are undone or your skirt is tucked into your knickers.

Where people learning Welsh have a right to feel aggrieved is when a Welsh speaker tells them "we don't say it like that", and then switches to English. If that happens to any readers learning Welsh, stand your ground and ask "how would you say that, then achan?"

And then Pam tells us that "most of us" will agree that Welsh is very difficult, before adding that "everyone" says it is very difficult. Which is it? Some, most or all?

A free grammar lesson

Learning any language presents difficulties. If you have ever tried explaining English to someone learning that language, you will know that English can be pretty challenging.

"Where's John?"

"He goes to school." 

It should really be "he's going to school", but in Welsh there is no difference. Mae e'n mynd i'r ysgol means he goes to school or he is going to school. And if you want to make it clear that John has departed and probably arrived at school by now, in English you have to change "is" to "has" and "goes/going" to "gone". In Welsh you simply replace that little 'n with wedi. 

Mae e wedi mynd i'r ysgol - He has gone to school.

Welsh is very different from English, true enough, but being different does not mean that it is more difficult.

Perhaps Pam should listen to her fellow Independent, Giles Morgan, who this week urged councillors in a different context to stick to the facts.

But then, Pam, that would mean that you would have to do your homework before sounding off, wouldn't it?

In the meantime, you talk about sending out the right message. Perhaps you, Deputy Leader no less, might want to consider what sort of message you have sent out to council staff, children going to Welsh medium schools, their parents and adults who are prepared to put in rather more effort than you did as they set about learning Welsh.


Anonymous said...

Very good and commendable.

Just a shame pam likely won't read it, let alone comment. Although that too would involve employing 2 skills she seems to be bereft of; engaging and employing the grey matter and reading/understanding what's been written.

Only sensible folk know the difference between knowing their sh!t and knowing their sh!t.

Sadly and predictably patsy pam falls into neither category.

Cneifiwr said...

I wouldn't be surprised if she did read it. At least, someone is very likely to bring the piece to her attention.

What she did was incredibly stupid and insensitive. There are no signs that she is planning to stand down next year, so let's hope she is finally given the order of the boot by voters in Abergwili.

Anonymous said...

Only sensible folk know the difference between knowing their sh!t and knowing their sh!t.

That should read

Only sensible folk know the difference between knowing they're sh!t and knowing their sh!t.

Lets hope it is brought to her attention after all it is very relevant. I completely agree with your comments, to be so insensitive in todays society is only demonstrating how out of touch she has become.

The time for new blood has never been better, however I am concerned many will simply not show any interest as their perception of county hall and councillors is one of stuffed shirts and pompous fools who have no time for the younger generation, let alone keeping abreast of trends and developments.

That said, the example of Jacob Williams in Pembrokeshire should be a good example to encourage younger member applications.