For my project, I investigated the preservation of Welsh language and folklore. I was originally interested in this project because I am of Welsh ancestry. My mother is Welsh, and growing up she would tell me and my four sisters Welsh folk tales. She would sing to us in Welsh. I had that emotional connection to it, and as I got older I became more interested in the intricacies of the language and how all of these folk tales and the language itself managed to survive. Welsh is a very ancient Celtic language, and languages similar to it, like Cornish and Manx, have long been extinct. It’s really fascinating how it has survived, and now it’s growing, which is amazing. I wanted to trace that history and figure out how that came to be.
I spent June 2011 in Wales. Wales is complex in that even though it’s very small the different regions are very different in the way the language operates. For example the north of Wales is dominantly Welsh-speaking while the south of Wales is historically more infiltrated with English. I wanted to be sure to hit all the points and be able to speak at least a little bit to the culture of each area. Consequently, I stayed a week in south Wales, in the capital Caerdydd, then a week in Aberystwyth which is in the center of the country, and I closed with Caernarfon in north Wales.
I originally approached this topic in the wrong way. I was looking for factors that had contributed to the maintenance of the language over the course of the past 15 centuries when in reality there was no continual maintenance. The language was not evenly preserved the whole time. What I found was that the language was maintained through crisis and revival. Periodically there would be a political, economic, even religious crisis that dangerously threatened the existence of the language and folklore. Reacting to that inspired people to take action, to realize that their language would die if they didn’t do something about it. So, paradoxically, the language survived because of periods of crisis, and every time it was renewed the Welsh identity changed a little bit.
For an example, the 18th century Methodist revival brought in nonconformity, which previously had not been a presence in Wales. Because people were able to worship in Welsh, where previously they were only able to worship in English, there was a revival of the Welsh language. This moment also completely changed what it meant to be Welsh. Now people immediately associate being Welsh with being Methodist, something that had never before been part of the Welsh identity. So every time the language was revived it shifted what it meant to be Welsh.
I never would have imagined that I could have traveled by myself across the Atlantic to a country where I kind of spoke the language but had never really spoken with anyone except my mother. To a place where I didn’t know anybody, then to boldly interview these people who had done translations.
I also learned that the most important discoveries were almost all due to chance. I started off months before I left emailing people, people at the three main universities and principals at Welsh language schools. The most amazing resources, however, ended up happening out of sheer coincidences after I got over there.
For example, I had been trying for months to contact members of the Welsh language society. They’re historically the inspiration behind all the revivals; they were always the ones who were pushing to save the language. It’s always a group of young people, and they’re impossible to contact. I randomly went to this underground church service and all the members of the group were there. I told them about my project, and they brought me to their protest the next day. I also randomly met Robin Gwyndaf, who is a very famous Welsh folklorist and interviewed 3,000 Welsh story tellers. So, the most important contacts came out of coincidence.
Stepping back from the specificity of Welshness, if you look at humans in general, all of our language and histories are so precious. They are part of the way we identify ourselves. Understanding the importance of preserving culture and language and understanding that each culture and language needs its own revival of language is important for preventing linguistic and cultural abuse and neglect.