Sunday, 20 December 2009

Bilingualism in Ar y Tracs

I've just finished watching the new comedy from Ruth Jones, co-writer and star of Gavin and Stacey. Ar y Tracs (On the Tracks) is a Welsh-language production for S4C (Tidy Productions/ Green Bay) following the lives of a train crew over the festive period. Ruth Jones, who is learning Welsh, co-wrote the script with Catrin Dafydd who has written for the Welsh-language soap Pobol y Cwm.

Having been away from Wales for a while, it's always a bit weird to see people speaking Welsh on TV, but this programme was notable for its extensive use of English. Characters moved in and out of thier two languages all the time, much more than you'd usually see on Pobol y Cwm, or S4C's answer to Hollyoaks, Rownd + Rownd.

As well as switching to talk to non-Welsh speaking characters, and idiomatic borrowing ("Does dim second chance da fi nawr - I've had my lot") there was plenty of inter-sentential language alternation:
"Pan ti’n mynd trwyddo i Big Brother 10, bydd, like, masif support i ti ar y we yn barod."
(When you go through to Big Brother 10, there will be like massive support for you on the web already)
Also, a good use of marked language change to emphasise dramatic turns:
A: Pwy yw Billy Bricks?
(Who is Billy Bricks?)
B: Billy Bricks was my father.
There was also a nod to Gavin and Stacey with a typical Welshifying of the catchphrase "Beth sy'n occuro?" (What's occurring?). It was really nice to see naturalistic speech. Carolyn Hitt from the Western Mail voices the same opinion.

S4C 's language scheme states that "a substantial proportion of the programmes broadcast ... must be in Welsh, and, in particular, that those programmes which are broadcast on S4C during peak viewing hours are mainly in Welsh." However, nowhere in S4C's language policy (or any other official document I've seen) is 'Welsh' actually defined. If a programme had half English words and half Welsh, would this count as a Welsh-language programme? What would a word with a Welsh stem and an English affix be counted as? What if Welsh were always the matrix language? Will broadcasters have to start hiring linguists to check their statutory obligations? I hope so (my persistence with this blog shows how far my PhD has progressed).

A possible defence for S4C in light of its language duties is to recognise that the majority of 'Welsh speakers' in Wales use Welsh as part of a cohesive Welsh-English code. Since Ar y Tracs was certainly in peak time, this may be the first endorsement by a public institution of a code-based view of communication! There's hope yet.


  1. This programme probably would have been better suited to broadcast on BBC Wales rather than on S4C. There is only one Welsh language channel in a galaxy of English language content. Although probably not doing much harm in itself, it does open the door to a dilution in the quality of Welsh presented on television. Broadcasters, especially those with public service obligations, have a great role to play in ensuring that languages are presented correctly. This is especially true in cases where the broadcaster is not merely an entertainment channel, but has been established with the dual purpose of reversing language shift. A heavy cross to bear, but one which all Welsh language media carry.

    The BBC can afford to air programming (such as Radio1's Newsbeat) which has a wholly ungrammatical register, and this on prupose in order to attempt to 'connect' with younger viewers, but this is something which a single small channel can ill afford to do on a regular basis.

    Reflection of reality is of course necessary, and there are occasions when having everybody in a drama speak Welsh seems absurd. But the line which one has to tread in order to keep presenting a grammar and lexicon which can keep a language as a vibrant and rich spoken language, is a very difficult one indeed.

    It was not the code-switching mid-sentence that made Ar Y Tracs slightly uncomfortable viewing for me, but the large passages in which only English was spoken. This, for me was unnecessary and grated for an S4C programme. Wouldn't it have been a rather more impressive first had it been aired on BBC Wales?

  2. Just found this blog -looking for something else.
    I loved the programme. Hope it becomes a serious. And yes, it could be as happy on BBC1 as S4C. Isn't that what bilingualism means?

  3. I also watched and loved this programme. More of these kind of programmes are needed. Is there to be a series? The English and Wenglish used added to the realism of the drama. Saying this, it was a Welsh Language drama and was rightly broadcast on S4C. But what Ar Y Tracs did in my oppinion was to get many non Welsh speakers to take interest in a programme/film on S4C. This must be a good thing?