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So What is Wales?

Dai Dragon. Old Castle Road. Llanelli 2007.
dai dragon - Photo Hosted at Buzznet
Welsh culture is one of many casualty cultures, a bit like bits of the ex Soviet Union or even Northern Ireland. Any national identifying culture it may have had was finally destroyed by industrialisation in the C19, and with it the language.
Wales is rightly now trying to reconstruct the language, and with it the culture. But can it work this way round?
In a living language, words regularly come from below and from common usage. But in Welsh, new words almost always appear in print before anyone utters them. The absence of new Welsh slang from the dictionaries is an indicator of this. In Wales, almost anything new arrives via English, and we then make a pathetic attempt to make it our own by coming up with some daft literal translation. 'Crematorium' becomes 'the place where you get burnt' - more or less. For this and many other cringe-making examples, see any road sign in Wales.
The result is that many people who speak Welsh, even as a first language, do not have the vocabulary to discuss genuinely subtle distinctions in an argument. My 65 year old brother - an educated, highly literate Welsh speaker from birth and a militant welsh chauvinist who has sung for the best male voice choir in Wales for forty years - recently admitted to me that there are conversations he could have in English, but not in Welsh. At a certain level of complexity, he just had to use English. This shocked me, and convinced me that if he couldn't have a genuinely free conversation in Welsh, then very few others can. There must be just a handful of dusty academics in an attic in Aberystwyth or Machynlleth who can have a decent conversation in Welsh. And there they are, synthesizing the language as we speak, like an ad agency in a Harry Potter movie.
But a language is important to maintaining an identity, so something has to be done. So the synthesis of new Welsh is a life support system which is vital until the cultural heart starts beating again, and we’re stuck with it. Until the Great Redeemer comes.
Which brings us to the key factor of Welsh culture, The Messiah. King Arthur was our man as little children:
“Arthur awake, don’t sleep for long. Come back, oh come back to your land!.” as our entire generation used to sing at the tops of our voices in our little village schools: “Arthur Deffro! Paid a cysgu'n hir!” However, in the real world, successive bouts of economic depression sent alternate generations seeking for something universal, but with local flavour. Revivalist Christianity fitted the bill perfectly.
The last major example of this, led by the charismatic Evan Roberts in 1904, engulfed the entire industrialized belt and beyond. It created the culture of music and Romantic devotion and misty-eyed longing which has become the Welsh trademark. The thing called ‘hiraeth’. Part blues, part weltschmerz, part schmaltz, part rusting steam engine.
Its message of an individual relationship with a God who understood your suffering and who guaranteed your salvation through music and a Wordsworthian oneness with nature worked like a charm on a generation which had seen its beautiful landscapes carbonized and mutilated, and who spent their lives either underground or servicing the hellish furnaces of the steel mills. We were the Israelites in an industrial Egypt or Babylon. That was the impression we were given at school, even in the early 1960s. And one day, just you wait and see…
Of all the non-conformist sects, the Baptists held a special appeal. In a country of rivers, how could it fail? Some of its appeal must have lay in a sense of reclamation of nature from the scarring, charring industrialization of the Railway Age. Of using the waters to cleanse the soul rather than cool the furnace and temper the steel and wash the coal.

DSCF0769 - Photo Hosted at Buzznet
Adulam baptismal pool. Afon Lleidi. Felinfoel. Carmarthenshire.

Either way, religion was taken very seriously, even that late, and historically was undoubtedly a strong communal working class bond. Those who attended the much grander and over-adorned Anglican churches tended to be either English speakers, those in ‘trade’, isolated farmers, or those who serviced the domestic needs of the ‘county’.
The Welsh industrial working class would have said they were ‘chapel’. And even if they didn’t attend, they still knew the hymns from school. And what glorious anthems they were. Stadium rockers every one. ‘Oh Iesu Mawr!’ ('Llef') ‘Mi Glywaf Dyner Lais’ ‘Calon Lan’ and the rest. All soaring musical expressions of communal defiance and hope, whatever the lyrics.
The sound of a full Welsh chapel in full voice is like no other sound on earth, and part of the credit must accidentally go to the architects of the buildings themselves. Architecture which produced an acoustic which must have fed into the composition process at some stage.
So the chapel stood in for the theatre. As there was no popular indigenous Welsh Theatre at the time, to speak of. And everyone was allowed to perform. If you were very good, you got to solo. As in the best tradition of the American Southern Baptists. The other black people who used the call-and-response choral form and relished those big fat rousing chords that dripped with loss and promise. Amazing Grace, the seminal hymn of romantic individualism, is dear to all Baptists. And for all I know could be a key stone in the foundation of early Blues.
That black culture went on to become what it is today while Welsh culture stayed more or less where it was in 1904, give or take the odd micro-wave, is the mystery. A culture does not rely on either its own language or favourable circumstances to make an impression on the world, it seems.
But a community in trouble, like the Wales of its formative period, the 1930’s, does establish its own forms of self-defence. Enter the trade unions and the labour movement.
It could be said that the ultimate political expression of Welsh politics is the NHS. Aneurin Bevan the True Redeemer – betrayed of course, by those nearest to him – but still the man who left one of the greatest legacies in history.
That is Bevan’s place in the Welsh pantheon. But whatever his achievements, he is still only a hero. And a culture that relies on heroes to define its identity is, again, in trouble.
The heroes today are the entertainers. Sportsmen and musicians. Can this class be trusted to carry the burden of the Welsh identity? Does any nation have an identity any longer? Look at England if you want a real identity crisis.
At least we never had an Empire to lose. That must have really hurt.



  1. 'Crematorium' becomes 'the place where you get burnt' - more or less.

    As opposed to what it is in English: 'a place where a corpse gets reduced to ashes'. Yes, the difference in subtlety is amazing. No wonder we're still sucking on leeks and worshiping Tom Jones.

    Your brother belongs to a generation which was educated in English. In the last week I've heard Welsh being used to dicuss constructivism, conservatism and contraception.

    I'd loved to stay and chat longer, but I have an appoitment with a dozen eager adult learners of this moribund tongue.

  2. No time for proofreading either, it appears ;-)

  3. It is true; there are conversations I could have in English that I couldn't have in Welsh. But I have Welsh conversations that I couldn't have had in English every day.

    As one who has taken part in and enjoyed Welsh culture my whole life, I sometimes feel as if I'm being buried alive by those with little understanding of these matters who think the culture and language is dead. If you can't feel a pulse, you're looking in the wrong place.

  4. If you genuinely think there are no slang words in Welsh working their way up, yet again you're looking in the wrong places. I hear it all the time when I go out in Aberystwyth; I read it in the works of Bethan Gwanas and the like; one may see it on the Rhegiadur on the internet; you hear it on the TV in Pam Fi Duw?

    There are conversations and ideas I can express in Welsh that I cannot even begin to express in English. I attend academic conferences where people discuss learned subjects perfectly well in Welsh. And as you complain about loan-words - my mother was once asked by a particularly truculent Englishman "So what's the Welsh word for Piano then?" To which the reply is, inevitably - I'll tell you, if you can tell me the English word for piano. All languages have got loan words - English is built on it - so no sense in denigrating my language because it has some.

  5. No new coinings or slang? I'd better send a nodyn bodyn to my partner to tell her, but I suppose it can wait until I've warmed up my dinner in the popty ping; I really need to eat something - I've got a hell of a penmaenmawr on me after last night.

  6. Nice to hear that the cultural heart IS beating, but I still need convincing that it's still not 'just a handful of dusty academics in an attic in Aberystwyth or Machynlleth who can have a decent conversation in Welsh.' ("Aberystwyth" "academic conferences" "on the internet" - Anywhere it matters?)

    Look, I admit it, I was trying to cause trouble. A bit. But I was genuinely shocked by my brother's revelation. His generation was enormous. And the effect of the cultural distortion myust have been enormous.
    And while his secondary education was in English, that was partly an admission of guilt at the time that Welsh couldn't cope with the needs of a modern education.
    If things are better now, fine. But where's the beef?
    How is it different now, how is the language driving itself, when the word for crematorium is so ugly? For god's sake, this is Welsh we're talking about - not some staccatto Boer dialect.
    Or is it merely this - when I see the construction., I see it literally translated because yes, I admit it, I am a Saescyntaf - there - even I can do it - with my miserable peasant welsh.

    (noun) Welsh person whose first language is English but may have varying degrees of incompetence in Welsh. As in any footage of Welsh Rugby team singing National Anthem.

    And as for - what was it? 'popty-ping' - Would you seriously use that down the pub?

    And as for being buried alive - worry about Asda, not me. Walmart World will totally scupper any attempt to heal the wounds of Victorian industrial exploitation.

  7. Nic is wrong about the English for crematorium. The English for crematorium is - get this - crematorium. Nic's translation is from Latin into English. Yes the English word derives from Latin but then, just about every word in English is from Latin, German, Anglo-Saxon, Hindi, whatever.

    The Welsh for crematorium is the literal Welsh-language neologism Richard described beause 'protectors' of the Welsh language, like those of the French language, don't have confidence in a viable future and try to legislate against spontaneously occurring imports (usually from English) with 'correct' native-language versions.

    And we are stuck with Tom Jones as a hero - a recent poll, paid for by the Welsh Assembly (us), gave him 3 times as many votes as his nearest rival and had to be secretly fiddled and fixed because the Assembly nabobs (look, Hindi) didn't want to look silly.

    I hazard a guess that Nic's eager club of learners mightn't be quite so eager if bilingualism wasn't unneccessarily made a requirement for so many jobs in Wales and if children weren't obliged to attend primary schools where they were taught in medium of Welsh. For whatever reason historically the first language of Wales is now, very firmly, English.

  8. I'm learning the language because I love it and because my partner's family are all far more confident in Welsh than in English -
    for many of them, and not just the older ones, their English is about as good as my schoolboy German. so much for the first language of Wales being English.

    I have no children, and I work in a field where the language is irrelevant. Most of the people I learn with are in the same situation. We're learning the language because we're foreigners here. It's the right thing to do.

    Another reason is because as I'm learning, I'm becoming aware of the vast world of Welsh language culture, all but invisible to English speakers. Have you got any idea how much of this stuff there is? Right from the cynghanedd at one end to Datblygu at the other, it's a whole world, it's bloody marvellous, and most of it just doesn't work in translation.

    BTW, I'd imagine that the Welsh translation of "crematorium" looks a bit weird to an English speaker because English is a language which always either borrows a word from another language or neologises from Greek or Latin. It's pretty unique in this and yes, it's one of English's great strengths. That doesn't mean Welsh should emulate it.

    And yes, we do use popty ping down the pub :) Penmaenmawr might be more of a joke one, to be fair. Although I have heard that used, too.

  9. Most of my eager little club are retired. They are learning Welsh because that's the everyday language of their neighbours. This is in Cardigan, 40 miles away from anything resembling an ivory tower.

    The argument about amlosgfa is interesting. The root amlosgi (to cremate) has a citation from 1632, and if the suffix -fa is a 20th century development, it's hardly surprising given that cremation was illegal until 1902, and Welsh didn't generally appear on roadsigns until the 1970s. It's hard to imagine a better word being coined. Since the first modern British cremation was performed by a Cymro Cymraeg, it's altogether possible that amlosgfa predates crematorium in colloquial useage.

    As for "where is Welsh being used", well, where is English being used? I use Welsh in more places than I do English, since I don't use English at all in the workplace (after the first weeks of any given course, that is) and only use it at home when we have guests who have no Welsh. In the pub I use whatever language is appropriate, depending on who else is there. Welsh with Aled and Cynyr, English with Mike and Chrissy, bit of both with a mixed group.

    The first language of your part of Wales (assuming you live in Wales) may well be English, but round by 'ere it's still Welsh, sorry. The situation is changing all the time, of course but there's nothing inevitable about language shift. There's certainly nothing "natural" about it, unless you believe that market forces are as incontrovertable as the laws of nature, and that's never been a popular position in Wales.

  10. Amlosgi - 1632? You don't say. Still sounds like a modern lego word though. My copy of the Geiriadur Newydd didn't have crematorium OR amlosgfa. Now I know why.

    I know that Welsh is spoken all over Wales - and the world - and more widely now than for a long time. But that's the problem. Welsh was in deep freeze while the major social and technological changes were happening in English. Even French had problems coping with the proximity and power of the English mass-communications world, and had to try to control Anglicisation. So imagine how much bigger a problem it was to Welsh.

    So if a language has been in hibernation for a century, what is the best way to regenerate it? My complaint isn't that Welsh is being spoken or that the language doesn't live on the street, merely that official Welsh does not come from the streets but from an office in a department in an agency somewhere.

    If the culture is alive, that shouldn't happen. Neither should it rely so heavily on (gorbless im) Tom The Jones. Or even, blasphemy of blasphemy - rugby. Now I know that won't mean much in parts of Cardigan (or didn't used to) but in more heavily populated areas. . . it is a badge of 'national identity' as pernicious as football is in England. And that's pretty pernicious.

    Some of the posts on the Blackjacks and Scarlets sites are carbon copies of the hooliganism of the Everton site, for instance. Which, the last time I visited it, had a huge sign on the homepage warning that if there was any more roughousing and obscene abuse, they would pull the plus on it and ban anyone they could identify from the club. In other words 'Any more and you're ALL barred!'

    Anyway, if you tell me everything's fine, then fine. Personally, I think there must be a few little glitches in there somewhere - what are we talking Utopia here? Two hundred years of the most savage environmental and human exploitation and everything's fine he tells me. How can that be? What is it that gives both Rhys Ifans and Rob Brydon a unique insight into the English public school intellectual type of the mid-twentieth century?

    How can Wales escape the fate of England and not be dragged into a homogenous real-estate virtuality, where the language, design and appearance of the world are determined on the computer of some corporation in Seattle or Osaka. Because whether you believe that market forces are a good thing or not, they are out there and they aim to getcha.
    If Coca Cola were seriously planning to replace tea as the dominant 'non-alcoholic beverage' in China, imagine what global market forces could do to Wales, unless they've already done it. Or rather, done it again. For it was C19 global market forces which did for Wales the last time.

    So? What is Wales? Butterfly emerging from cocoon or Rip Van Winkle on crack?

    The post-industrial remnants of a mysterious lost Tolkien land of nearly forgotten magical tales and legends? The site of a refined and sophisticated golden Age with its capital at the confluence of great rivers? A Golden Crescent of prehistoric learning and civilisation? A northen Mesopotamia?
    I'll buy all that from the past, and also the political heritage born out of the necessity for collective action - the library I joined at 9 was built with the shillings of miners and steelworkers, as was the hospital I had my tonsils out in. During the general strike the town (I finally find out) was occupied an run by the union forces. All the major services were controlled by the workers. We were never taught that at school. Why was that I wonder?
    If we're ashamed of that whole section of our past, how can we expect to turn into anything but another regional variation of Global TV culture.
    Can a culture (as opposed to a history) to be proud of possibly be built on hero-worship and a language with a dodgy knee?

  11. Incidentally, this assertion "in Welsh, new words almost always appear in print before anyone utters them," is interesting. I'm not sure where you're getting that from. Who are these mysterious agencies who are creating all these words? Do they publish a circular?

    I'll grant you that in some very specialised fields vocabularies have had to be created, such as Robyn Lewis' Geiriadur Newydd y Gyfraith for legal terms - which a lot of people are cheerfully ignoring. But there are plenty of new words being generated all the time, and passed around by word of mouth. Just like in any other language. Often there are quite a few competing words in circulation - there are people who say "laptop" (or "loptap" after Wali) and there are people who say "gliniadur". "Gliniadur" will probably win that one, not because it's not borrowed, but because it's a lovely word.

    As for slang, the problem here is that many of the dictionary compilers do have a romantic view of the language, and so omit the more
    colorful phrases

    There is no Welsh Language Police, not that I've ever noticed, anyway.

  12. "Gliniadur" will probably win that one, not because it's not borrowed, but because it's a lovely word." And sounds landscapey and tell the truth, is it one of yours?
    See, e're doing it now. Synthesizing a langauge. Why do we need to consciously do that?

    'Gliniadur' - "knee-thing?" I suppose so.

    What about 'lechen trydan'? Not as euphonious, but just as Welsh.

  13. A workmate created a Welsh-language site centered around the yoof of Welsh people today, using slang and other modern tools. The number of complaints it got from die-hard traditionalists was just staggering.

    Sometimes (like in religion), the thing that stops a language/religion growing are the die-hards who just want it left the way it was. When nothing stays the same.

    (And no, I can't translate that into Welsh. I got congratulated by my gf for uttering lle mae'r parti, so you'll understand the level of Welsh I'm engaging in at the mo'!)

  14. Before I read on and answer in a more intelligent way, can I please ask you to refrain from further sterotyping.

    Tom Jones' official fan club was intent on securing his place as the nation's favourite, so there was little wonder that he pushed Aneurin Bevan into second place in an internet poll.

    Rugby is not the most popular sport in north Wales, by a long stretch of the imagination - we don't all care for scrum halves and props.

    Choirs aren't what makes us Welsh ... and guess what, we didn't all used to work down the mines.

    The industrial revolution did little to change the landscape in north west Wales nor in west Wales. The language didn't have a "century of hibernation" in these areas as you seem to suggest.

    I'll endeavour to answer your points later, but I'll have to brush up on my Saesneg first.

  15. Synthesizing a langauge. Why do we need to consciously do that?

    Who invented "laptop"? Do you think the word just dropped out of the ether?

    If laptops had been invented in Wales (as cremation was, heh) perhaps they'd now be called "kneethings" in English.

    When I set up I first had to translate the phpBB language pack. Some words, as far as I knew, had no Welsh equivalents, because there had never been a Welsh language bbs before. What was I supposed to do, just leave "smiley" and "avatar" in the English and hope that no-one noticed? I made stuff up, then asked for opinions. Some things got changed, always for the better. Some things stuck, even though no-one really liked them, because, we realised, contributing to a "thread" is more important than worrying about what to call it.

    When I started blogging in Welsh no-one else was doing it. Forming a committee would have been difficult. It seemed more important to use this new software (literally *this* new software, Blogger) than to wait until Evan Williams provided a Welsh localisation - which Blogger still haven't done - and to try to get other people to join the fray. A term for the Welsh blogosphere - rhithfro - did emerge eventually, but only after enough people knew what that might refer to.

    Things certainly aren't fine. Living one's life through the medium of Welsh does require conscious effort, although not all the time, and the rewards are palpable, though difficult to quantify (evidently). What choice do we have? Embrace the Mouse?

  16. Ok, let me try an stay focussed.
    Is the future welsh identity to be created around its language?

    Is that what it will mean to be Welsh - to be able to speak Welsh and be prepared to make the effort.

    It is the only unique thing we have, surely? And if so, can a culture survive merely on language as its raw material?

    Isn't that the origin of the Welsh Windbag sterotype from Lloyd George to Richard Burton? Someone who loves the sound of their own voice because it represents a form of liberation?

  17. What else does a culture build its identity around but its language and the material produced within it? It is hubris to underestimate the importance of the relationship between language and culture. All other human activities are very ephemeral, language and the items produced with it are the things that relate the unique human story of a culture from generation to generation.

  18. An additonal thought... there are indeed many thousands of well educated Welsh speakers who work and teach through the medium of the Welsh language. On the same token, there are many more Cymry bob dydd who converse on every aspect of their life in Welsh. A good friend of mine lives in a tiny village in N. Wales; she was a nurse before she retired. She and I have had extremely complex conversations about politics, history and the environment all in the medium of Welsh, she an "every day" native speaker, and I, a second language speaker. I think you should put your experience with your family members in perspective; individuals may indeed have more facilty on certain topics in one language than in another. This is a sign of bilingualism, producing the language in the conversation with which the association is most closely linked. Of course, anyone who is comfortable in Welsh could certainly communicate whatever point they wanted in it, it just may be that for social reasons the associations with certain topics are greater in one language than in the other.

  19. Anonymous12:21 pm

    Cefais y profiad yn ddiweddar ddysgu cyfraith morgeisi drwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg. Y mae'r cysyniad hwn, sydd wedi bodoli yn sustem gyfreithiol Cymru a Lloegr ers canrifoedd yn llawer haws i'w egluro a'i ddeall yn Gymraeg nac yn Saesneg, er mai Saesneg oedd unig iaith y gyfraith am dros 400 mlynedd. Y rheswm am hyn yw bod y termau Cymraeg yn disgrifio'n gryno yr hyn a ddigwydd - rhywbeth sydd yn hanfodol gan fod cyfraith morgeisi yn anghydfynd yn llwyr a'r hyn sydd yn dilyn rhesymeg reddfol.

  20. Dear Dai Enw,

    I get your drift, believe it or not. And I'll do it justice in a bit. Law is not conducted in language, but in doublespeak. So no wonder you had problems.

    In the meantime, I've forwarded it to my big brother - the one who started all the trouble, and see how he gets on with it.

    Will report back to group with transcription.

  21. Gwyddno,

    "tiny village in N. Wales; ... extremely complex conversations about politics, history and the environment all in the medium of Welsh, she an "every day" native speaker, and I, a second language speaker.."

    I was appalled that someone like my brother could make that admission. I'm not claiming he's typical but he was the last person i would have expected to say that.
    That has to be worrying.

    And I notice that there does seem to be a North South divide going on.

    It's fairly obvious I was talking about industrialised Wales, where most people live. But the sanctions on Welsh in schools was nationwide, if I remember rightly. So trying to say that development of the language has NOT been put under stress just doesn't work for me.
    And millions did work in life-wasting labour for no reward and were punished for speaking Welsh during the brief education they were allowed. To deny that crime is to whitewash the entire history of the British Empire, which treated its coolies in Cynheidre much the same as those in Calcutta.

    "What else does a culture build its identity around but its language...?"

    As for the role of language in creating national identity and culture, my point was, however crude, that african slaves lost their entire language, and much of their culture, and yet black American culture has been one of the most dynamic in the world for the past hundred years.

    How does that square with language as the esential defining component of a culture?

    In the case of American slavery, was the loss of language one of the factors which objectively encouraged a dynamic culture?

  22. Anonymous10:43 pm

    A lot of what you're talking about here (haven't got the time to follow every interesting sgwarnog that's cropped up, sorry) is the inevitable divide between experiences of speaking Welsh in or outwith areas where it has community density.

    Where a language has community density, it is normalised, and a full range of conversational experience is possible. Someone who speaks Welsh fluently but lives in an area where it is not natural to start every conversation in Welsh will almost inevitably develop lopsided bilingualism similar to what you have described in your brother.

    To put this into context - I am a comparatively recent adult learner of Welsh (5 years and counting), but because I work in the political sphere, and do so almost exclusively in the medium of Welsh, I find certain conversations significantly more difficult to manage in English than in Welsh. I had to do a bilingual radio interview today, Welsh questions first, then the same questions again in English - as usual, the English was a complete mess. Often, I simply don't have the vocabulary in English, because I was not politically active before learning Welsh. Reporters have had to help me translate Amcan Un, Cynllun Cymorth Prynu, even Cynulliad...!

    If that can happen to me, voluntarily moving into a linguistic minority, it's no surprise that the reverse can happen to your brother, surrounded by the world's strongest language.

    The difference that community density makes is why Cymuned are campaigning for recognition of the Fro Gymraeg - see for further details.

    The next decade is key. If the remaining communities can be supported and strengthened both linguistically and economically, we've still got the engine needed for successful reversing of the language shift. If not, we'll be into hypothetical territory with regards the rebuilding to community level of a non-community language.


  23. Aran:"The next decade is key. If the remaining communities can be supported and strengthened both linguistically and economically, we've still got the engine needed for successful reversing of the language shift. If not, we'll be into hypothetical territory with regards the rebuilding to community level of a non-community language."

    Are you saying that as long as there is a community to lead, the language will follow?
    If so, how do you maintain community in a Walmart World?

  24. Sorry, never saw your answer! Hope you'll see this comment at some point...;-)

    If there is a linguistic community, the language will survive.

    And then yes, your next question is spot on the money - a huge amount of the necessary language planning is about withstanding Walmart World, McDonaldsation, whatever you call it - rebuilding community, rebuilding locality. There's great work being done with Community Land Trusts (in Scotland, England and Cymru), but there's a whole load more that needs to be done.

    But this is our key point - that the language IS self-sustaining at the moment, by the skin of its teeth, and that if the *existing* language communities are allowed to remain Welsh, then we have the necessary community density to move forward (and with time to help sustain the growth of Welsh-medium education in the industrialised parts of the country).

  25. 'I am a little collier and I gweithi underground.

    The raff will never torri, when I go up and down.

    It's bara when I'm hungry, and cwrw when I'm dry.

    It's gweili when I'm tired.

    And Nefoedd when I die.'


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