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Monday, August 29, 2011

Without Language, Without Heart

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.

8 comments:

Lily Dewaruile said...

Oops! I forgot to include a question, so here it is:
In which city is the Fringe Festival held every year?

Emma said...

Fascinating! And, yes, I can see why you are often in arguments. I see your point and, to some extent, I even accept it but I would also argue nothing stays the same, not even language. The English I speak would be unintelligible to someone from the 14th century. And, even withing the language, we have different versions. (I'm reminded of Oscar Wilde's description of the U.S. and Great Britain as two countries separated by a common language.)

Cultures change. They grow and die. Things get lost in the process. I don't criticize anyone who tries to preserve their culture or their heritage. But, let's face it, if you're teaching Gaelic in schools the battle has already been lost. If the language were alive and vibrant, there'd be no need to teach it. People would know it going in.

No easy answers on this one. But thank you for something genuinely thought provoking. I have been thinking about it since I read it and, since you are in Wales and I'm in the U.S., alas, I am arguing with myself!

Take care!

Terry Blain said...

We didn't make it to Wales when we were in the British Isles, but at least now we have a Pembroke Welsh corgi.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Lily, your post made me sad. You don't sound happy to be moving.

The answer to your questions is Edinburgh.

Bless you in your new home!

Lily Dewaruile said...

@Emma, The fact that languages change with the times is exactly my point. Languages are alive and keep changing. Traditions, symbols and outward trappings are stagnant.

I take your point about languages taught in schools, however, English is taught in schools and grows continually - sometimes in surprisingly creative ways. The Welsh language is growing and changing with the times, perhaps not spoken by millions but it is spoken daily among its hundreds of thousands of speakers.

While I was in Ireland, I rarely heard Gaelic but I heard a lot of people arguing about the proper pronunciation of a word they never used in a conversation.

Thank you so much for your thoughts on this topic. I'll be in the US within a few months, so we can have a chat.

Lily Dewaruile said...

@Terry, Corgi means 'splendid/superior dog'. Charming little creatures. A favorite of Elizabeth Mountbatten I understand. The next time you are in the British Isles, visit Wales. You won't forget it or regret it. You may be captured by it as I have been.

Lily Dewaruile said...

@Caroline, You are right. I am very sad to be leaving this country. I haven't quite faced the reality but the sorrow is edging in.

You are also right about the Fringe Festival.

And thank you so much for your blessing.

Lily Dewaruile said...

PS @Emma, and all the times I have visited and stayed in Scotland, I have never heard a word of Scots Gaelic. Plenty of bagpipes and kilts - all the things that the tourists love most.