Why Oxford University should hold on to Celtic languages

Emily Dixon justifies why the shutting down of less profitable departments should stop

I have had a beautiful image of Oxford University in my head since I was around seven years old. Being here, after more than a decade of dreaming and hoping and insisting to my parents that I was going to manage it, the town has lived up to the hype in a lot of ways. Being at this institution where you really feel like you can learn about every book, theory and fact that’s ever existed makes the world seem so much bigger.

But it’s starting to seem like the University I love is coming dangerously close to trying to shrink the world down again. It’s doing this by starting to trim the less profitable courses, and Celtic languages and literatures are the most recent casualty.

This year I’ve started a paper in Middle Welsh, which is a difficult, fascinating and under-studied language with a unique and brilliant body of literature that few people other than specialists have read. I’m aware that Middle Welsh is never going to be the biggest or most headline-worthy subject in Oxford, but it deserves better than to have the life slowly choked out of it before finally being axed without ceremony. The Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages has probably accepted its last undergraduate student to read Celtic (which has to be taken with another language such as German, French, or English) and the tutors are starting to vanish. The same is true for the Irish language, though I have less experience of that.

I’m a firm believer that people and communities can achieve a kind of afterlife when their stories and poetry are remembered and passed down. One of the most wonderful and beautiful parts of human culture is our capacity to keep stories going for hundreds or thousands of years. There are named writers from more than four thousand years ago whose words we can repeat verbatim today and whose ideas we can still interact with as if they were just published. When we cut off the modern world’s last ties with the language of an entire nation or community we really are ensuring that they die a last, final death; ideas can survive for centuries past the deaths of the people who thought them first, but nothing survives being forgotten.

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I’m not trying to argue that the shutting down of this one department at this one university signals the immediate death of Celtic languages, obviously, but it’s part of a worrying trend. Welsh will live on at universities in Wales (and in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at Cambridge), but the strange, haunting fairytale worlds of the Mabinogion deserve to be read more widely than that. In two years’ time, this course won’t exist anymore, and generations of Oxford students to come will be completely cut off from medieval Welsh and Irish literature, and it is some of the most powerful and beautiful writing I’ve ever seen.

These stories deserve to be internationally renowned works of classic literature, held up alongside Middle English and continental works, not just a curio of one country’s history. Seriously look it up – there’s a guy who will die if his feet aren’t being touched by a virgin and a cauldron that creates armies of zombies. King Arthur kills a giant while on a pig fitted with spears. Seriously.

Departments are being scrapped because they aren’t profitable, and that’s not something I want to believe about the Oxford I spent so long dreaming of. Middle Welsh is the tip of the iceberg – the option I tried to take in Middle Scots no longer exists, and the same goes for Irish, Czech and Slovak.

Conservative Britain and its insistence on turning universities into places of business rather than places of learning, creating an assembly line making identikit engineering graduates (and I have nothing against engineers, but other subjects matter too), is having a serious and dangerous impact on academia. Areas of study are having to justify their own existence in ways they’ve never had to before, and people with no interest in Middle Welsh can agree that an academic system run by accountants and politicians rather than students and academics is terrifying.

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In their relentless pursuit of efficiency and profit, the current government and the university system they are creating is making the world smaller and smaller, cutting us off from our heritage, and breaking one of the oldest traditions of language learning in the world.

7 COMMENTS

  1. The loss of the Chair of Celtic is a really sad development. The long history of care and study of Welsh material in Oxford may be small in the university’s bigger picture, but it means a lot to pushing ahead with the study of Celtic languages and literature

  2. This article is both true and very sad. But it’s just the tip of a much larger problem which exists across Oxford’s Humanities subjects. I’m a postgrad in the History Faculty: our government funding has been cut; now we’re tipped to lose our EU funding too. What will we have left? The University’s answer has been to plug the gap with massive, totally useless, M.St and M.Phil degrees that make money and cost little to teach. The result is that standards where they matter most (in research) are inevitably slipping because the criteria for admission are clearly more related to paying power than actual ability.

    All of this is bad – but what’s the alternative? I fear some much more mainstream subjects than Welsh will disappear in the near future.

  3. The problem extends far beyond ancient languages. Those stories are the warp and woof of the culture that made the United Kingdom great. Without their ability to provide historical knowledge the UK will become nothing more than a collection of shopkeepers helpers.

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