Over the thirty years I have lived in Wales, I have had many arguments with traditionalists regarding the symbols of culture: pipes, kilts, tambours, folk dances, tabor-tossing, lovespoons and music but nothing represents a culture and keeps it vibrant like its language. Folk customs and traditions are rigid, unchangeable, museum-ready artifacts of what was. A language is a living testament of a people and culture and is always changing.
Most often, the reason enthusiastic followers of a particular culture prefer the outward trappings of that culture is because they see language as an insurmountable barrier whereas kilts, pipes, dances and music are easily obtained. You can buy any cultural symbol over the counter or over the internet. You can have your kilt, leprechaun, and fluffy dragons in moments. You don’t have to be among the people or speaking to them. You can possess the physical elements without ever setting foot on their soil or living among them while their culture is prostituted and stripped of its essence for the sake of tourism.
About six years ago, I attended an international conference on cultural tourism. The then Irish Minister of Economic Development gave his endorsement to the spreading of Irish culture through dance and music. He claimed that Ireland needed nothing more than Riverdance to secure their stake in world class tourist attractions.
This reminded me of the Native Americans I have worked with over the years I lived in the United States. Many of them were critical of the reduction of their culture to beads and trinkets for the sake of the tourist trade. Their languages and spiritual observances were pushed aside as irrelevant barriers to the accessibility of their ‘culture’ through baubles.
The Irish Minister was proud of the reduction of his country to a dance troupe and its language and history to the museum. Yes. All Irish children are taught Gaelic in school but the language’s use on a daily basis is limited to pockets, largely in the west.
This time of year, Edinburgh is overrun with tourists who attend the Fringe Festival. This brings to the city a huge amount of money but it has nothing to do with the culture of Scotland. You will see men in kilts playing bagpipes at nearly every street corner, their sporran on the ground in front of them to beg the tourist pennies. Although they have to have a license to entertain during the Fringe, these proud men are beggars in their own country.
Before I moved to Wales, I took a course at the university about the impact of the loss of language on Celtic cultures. The lecturer was a Breton. Once a language is lost, the dead remains of the culture are all that are left to testify to its former existence. That quintessential sense of self and worth is gone. The ‘culture’is a commodity and its practitioners become street hawkers.
This may be one of my last posts written in my study in my house in my hometown of Caerfyrddin. When I move away from this place, I will take the physical remnants of my thirty years residence in this country and very little of that will be of the ‘fluffy dragon and lovespoon’ variety. I will speak and dream in Welsh.
Heb iaith, heb galon.