Why am I learning a ‘dying’ language?
I’m not. Dwi’n dysgu Cymraeg.
Alongside transcribing, composing, and learning the music for my album ‘Adra’, I have begun to learn Welsh again seriously. I’m hoping that this post will prove the validity of the language for anyone who needs telling, as well giving my own personal reasons for learning.
To anyone claiming that the Welsh language is dying, pointless, or not worth learning, we could have a long debate involving statistics, history, and a lot of subjective opinion. Instead, I’d just like to point you towards the National Eisteddfod of Wales (Eisteddfod Gendlaethol Cymru). Europe’s biggest cultural contest, an annual celebration of Welsh music, performance, art and literature, the National Eisteddfod attracts around 150,000 visitors each year. I experienced this extraordinary event last summer on Anglesey, and it truly is a testament to the living, breathing, growing language. It’s very easy to go to the Eisteddfod, especially when it is held in areas outside of South East Wales, and not hear a word of English all day. Even as a non-fluent speaker, it is possible to gain a huge amount from the visual art, performance art, music, and even literature. If the scale of this event, as well as the possibility of experiencing it more fully, doesn’t make the case for the Welsh language, then I don’t know what will. It’s in Cardiff this year 3-11 August. Go.
The use of the language is also increasing in more traditionally English-speaking areas, such as Cardiff. Welsh-medium schooling is seen by many as superior to English language comprehensives, and demand for places in these schools is high. This has led to a continuing increase of fluent speakers in the younger age group, even if the older generations are beginning to drop off.* I find this incredibly exciting, and perhaps in 10, 20, or even 30 years we might even have a majority Welsh-speaking education system..!? There is also an increase in young Welsh-speakers from more rural areas coming to bigger cities to attend universities, colleges, and conservatoires. I would often hear Welsh being spoken in the corridors of Cardiff University School of Music, at least every week, if not most days. We even had two American lecturers who had both learnt to speak Welsh fluently since being in Wales.
I’m trying to keep this brief, but hopefully anyone needing convincing of the usefulness and liveliness of the Welsh language, has at least been given something to ponder over. If you want any more persuasion, I will leave a (by no means exhaustive) list of Welsh bands and festivals at the bottom of this post for you to explore (and please comment with any that you think I should know about!)
So, what reasons do I have for learning Welsh, other than that it is a genuinely useful skill, both professionally and socially?
The first reason, and the main reason for learning Welsh right now, not at some point in the distant future, is out of respect to the rich, historic culture of Wales. As I mentioned in my previous post, ‘Adra’ features transcriptions from the Robert ap Huw manuscript as the centre-piece, as well as some other arrangements of Welsh folk tunes. I would not feel at all comfortable with simply taking this music as an outsider and using it to further my own career without attempting to learn to speak the language in which it was created, transmitted, and loved. The English have such a huge, colonial history of taking resources, music, and lives, with no regard for the culture and people, that I absolutely wanted to do this music, and country, justice in my recording and performances. In a very small attempt to undo some of the damage done by the English in the 20th Century to the use and reputation of Welsh, I will be attempting to give bilingual introductions to these pieces (even, and especially when performing in England) as well as preparing bilingual CD and programme notes. There have been too many examples of colonialists taking different musics with no understanding of or care for the culture from which it comes, and this continues to happen today in many ways. I am committed to making sure that this album does not become yet another example of post-colonial appropriation.
This point really is similar to the first, but from an artistic standpoint more than a moral one. Namely, how on earth could I claim any kind of validity or authenticity in performing this ancient, bardic music if I wasn’t event trying to learn the language!? As any decent ethnomusicologist would do when learning music from outside their own tradition, I felt it incredibly important to embed myself in the culture and language of Wales as far as possible right from the beginning of this project. As a resident of Cardiff, it would be easy for me to think that simply living and growing up here, in the capital of Wales, would be enough, and for some people maybe it would. However, I know that Cardiff is in no way representative of the whole of Wales. The Welsh-speakers here speak a different dialect to those in the North, the residents haven’t experienced life on the coastline of Pembrokeshire, or in the magnificent, mountainous surroundings of Gwynedd. It’s a completely different life being brought up in Cardiff from that of a kid growing up in Bangor, or Milford Haven. Obviously, I can’t live in all of these places, but I feel that learning the language will take me some of the way I need to go.
I could talk more here about the natural beauty of the language, how it flows beautifully in poetry and song, the way it sounds like the sea, and how resilient the Welsh have been throughout history to endless conquests and crusades by outsiders, but I won’t. I will instead leave you with one final point.
The final reason is simple, yet complex. I would always describe myself as coming ‘from Wales’, though always fall short of calling myself Welsh. Whilst I was born on the outskirts of London, almost all the years I can remember have been spent in Cardiff. From the age of 8-21 I lived here permanently (with a brief period in York), went to school and university here, made friends here, and now that I am living in Birmingham, I strongly identify as ‘from Wales’, but would feel a fraud calling myself Welsh. Mae Cymru yn ‘Adra’, ond dwi ddim yn Cymreig (hyd yn hyn…) Perhaps by learning, I am getting closer to what I really want – to feel able to proudly say that I am Welsh.
That (short) list I promised…
(In no particular order… and like I say, there’s a lot I still need to discover!)
- National Eisteddfod of Wales
- Llangollen International Eisteddfod
- Le Festival Interceltique de Lorient (This year is the year of Wales)
- Gŵyl Sŵn (not exclusively Welsh-speaking, but a great multi-venue festival in Cardiff)
An additional watch, thanks to Ricardo Santos Rocha for sharing!