Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Weaving through Wales

This weekend two friends and I took a little road trip to South Wales. It was my first time there so it was a good opportunity to see more of the UK than just London, or even just England. It’s a beautiful landscape, but once again I found myself perplexed by some of the historical curiosities of modern Wales.

On the way to Wales we made a quick stop at Stonehenge, something I’ve been dying to see since I arrived here. The Brits seem to really have something against it. Everyone we talked to told us not to go, or if we’re going to go make sure it’s on the way to somewhere else, because it’s horribly boring. But I thought it was quite interesting. First off there’s the natural appeal of getting a photo of yourself in front of a world-famous landmark. But beyond that it is interesting to actually see this thing you’ve seen so many times in photos up close and personal (or as close as they’ll let you get). It is much smaller than you’d think it was, but I think it’s worth the trip.

We stopped off for a pub lunch in a little English village called Bromham, which was quite charming. Then it was on to Wales, crossing the massive Severn estuary. The water level was shockingly low, which was a preview of the rest of the bodies of water we would encounter in Wales. I don’t know if we just kept encountering these things at low tide, but everywhere we went there was no water but just massive banks of mu

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Our first stop was Chepstow Castle, which lies on a cliff above the River Wye (also practically empty as you can see on the right), which forms the boundary between England and Wales. It’s the oldest surviving stone fortification in Britain, built by the Normans to defend the border as the new French arrivals tried in vain to conquer the Welsh kingdoms. There aren’t any cheesy recreations or redone interiors, which I quite liked. It’s just the ruins of the actual castle, and that combined with the fact that there wasn’t really anybody else there was quite nice.

Then we drove into Cardiff to spend the night. I was really impressed with the city actually, particularly the nightlife. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had suspected that Cardiff would be a small, quiet regional city with little in the way of nighttime activities. But being out in downtown Cardiff, you could have been out in Soho. This was particularly true in the level of obscene drunkenness on the streets in the early hours of the evening. Nice to see that isn’t just an English thing!

The city has been transformed by its designation as the national capital of Wales in 1955, and transformed further still toward the end of the millennium when Wales was given devolved powers as its own country at the same time that they had the World Cup in Cardiff. Because of this, the Millenium Stadium (pictured), Millenium Hall and the Welsh parliament building were all constructed around the same time. We stayed at a hotel across the river from the stadium (my room had a nice view of the crowds heading into the monster truck rally inside) and I thought the building was magnificent. My friend Josh didn’t like it though, and he’s an architect so he probably knows more about this kind of thing than me.

The next morning, after checking out Cardiff Bay, we drove up to Castell Coch, another Disneyfied fairy tale castle which I found underwhelming. The UK is full of these things. In this instance, a wealthy aristocrat took some ruins of a medieval castle from the 13th century and had it reconstructed into a whimsical Gothic revival country home for his family. The exterior is supposedly historically accurate, but the interior is pure Victorian fantasy. William Burges, the same man who did Cardiff Castle, was the architect. This kind of thing is great of kids I guess, but personally I’d rather visit a ruin.

We drove on to the Gower Peninsula, first to Swansea, an industrial town on the Bristol Channel. It wasn’t particularly interesting, but we drove on to a town called Mumbles just south of it for another pub lunch. From there we went on to the tip of the peninsula at Rhossili, which had absolutely stunning views. Fortuitously it only seemed to rain when we were driving places and would stop every time we got out of the car, and for most of the day Sunday it was sunny and beautiful out. Rhossili had these islands off the coast which you can walk to at low tide, apparently people die every year trying to do it. I don’t know if we would have chanced it or not, but it was a non-issue since by the time we got there it was high tide.

As we expected all of the signs were in both Welsh and English, as were menus and literature. Both are co-equal national languages of Wales. Yet our whole time there, we didn’t hear even one person speaking Welsh. And when meeting random people in Cardiff, we asked people if they spoke it, and we couldn’t find one person who did. Granted, we were in South Waes which is much more Anglicized than the Northwest (60 percent of Snowdonia, for example, speaks Welsh). But in all of Wales only 22 percent of people speak Welsh at all, virtually no one speaks Welsh as their only language. So I found myself asking, if there are no monolingual speakers of Welsh, there is no practical purpose to having the signs in both languages. It was the same question I had asked in Finland, where all signs were in both Swedish and Finnish, even though virtually every native Swedish speaker in Finland would also speak Finnish. In Wales I understand the symbolic importance of it, keeping a dying language alive, but doesn’t one have to ask at a certain point whether this is really worth all the money and effort?

It also strikes me as odd that this is done with many of these minority European languages in Europe (Gaelic, Basque, Sami, Romansch, etc) yet it is steadfastly resisted in other areas of the world where it might be more useful. For instance in the Southwest United States, there are many people who speak Spanish as their only language (as well as in big cities in the rest of the country). Fifty percent of the 40 million Spanish speakers in the US speak English below a fluency level, and 20 percent speak only Spanish. In New Mexico, 43 percent of the population speaks Spanish. Yet in the US the idea of having signs in both English and Spanish is very controversial, and there is a huge “English-only Movement" that wants to make English the official language (right now we have none) and make translations in Spanish illegal on government documents and signs. Similar comparisons can be made to Tibetan languages in China or central Asian languages in Russia.

How interesting that it seems to be only in places where the minority language posts no realistic threat that its use is fully embraced by the government. In Wales, as in Ireland, the language seems to have no meaning in itself except for its opposition to something, namely English and England. In a country like Wales, which unlike Scotland never existed as a functioning, unitary country before its conquest by England, these symbols of national pride are given great importance. Considering that over a quarter of the Welsh population was born outside Wales according to the 2001 census, is it really practical to be spending so much money and effort to try to make people speak differently from one another? I cant think of any historical example of a minority language that was successfully kept alive by state intervention. Would it be insensitive to posit that the Welsh language efforts are a useless endeavor?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi there... I was interested in your comments on the Welsh language... but feel compelled to expand your understanding of the use of Welsh in Wales... in my work I regularly travel around Wales speaking with groups of people... in parts of Wales North West, mid, South West often times I am the only non-Welsh speaker in the room... your travels took you to the most anglicised parts Wales where indeed Welsh isn't in common usage... though most Welsh people know some Welsh even if they are not fluent... had you visited Cardiff Ikea for example you would most certainly heard Welsh in the cafe...