Why learn Welsh?

This post is modified from something I wrote for the ‘Rootedness’ group of Paramaethu Cymru / Wales Permaculture and published on the Paramaethu website.

One of my regular tasks in training Relate counsellors was to do a session on working with couples from a different culture from the counsellor’s own. Trainees usually came expecting something on how marriage was done in Pakistan or the West indies or wherever but what they got was an exploration of the cultures in the room even if we were all white, Anglo-Saxon British! What emerged every time was that we assume that people who look like us and live (relatively) near us must be like us, think like us and live like us. In fact sheep farmers from the uplands of Wales and the Yorkshire Dales probably have more in common than either has with a dairy farmer from Ceredigion or an arable farmer from East Anglia. The life cycle of the sheep sets the rhythm of their days and years. Even next door neighbours may ‘do’ Christmas or birthdays very differently. My nuclear family culture is nested in, influencing and being influenced by, my extended family one, the regional one, the national one…

For these reasons I like the idea of rootedness much more. Traditionally the ways in which we are, do, live, have ben determined by the topography, climate, politico/legal system, religion and language of the area. On top of these, of course, issues like occupation  (in Wales think of the Landsker line / A40 divide with English occupation to the South and native Welsh to the North) and immigration (miners to the Valleys and retirees to tourist areas).Out of those opportunities and limits comes culture and since these underlying factors vary across Wales so do the cultures they engender. And it seems to me that Permaculture emphasises the importance of looking at and respecting those factors. By observation, trial and error people grew or reared what did well in the local conditions and what they liked to eat or see. Hence Barley bread across much of Wales where wheat did not do well; fish and laverbread on the coast and mutton in the hills. Religious affiliations and value systems came out of their experience of life and work and built community.; so Labour party affiliations in the mining communities where resources were owned by the few and a more Conservative approach in some of the farming communities where land ownership was more equal. By learning about and respecting those traditions we can save ourselves a lot of bother!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo Welsh culture is a broad church and a slippery thing. Perhaps this is why we keep coming back to language. If I have no word for something then can I think it? I certainly will struggle to communicate it. Just remember the frustration embodied in ‘I can’t put it into words’ or ‘I can’t find the words for it’. Language both shapes our thoughts and determines which ideas, emotions, responses and reflections can, and cannot, be shared with others linguistically. I suspect that one of the extra problems inherent in ‘Welsh culture’ is that the language is not unified – people from North and South may struggle to comprehend each other and this is, I think, a bigger difference than say Geordie and Devonian. But however frustrating it is to me as a Welsh learner that a book in North Welsh is hard to understand, the differences between dialects are less than that between any of the dialects and English with its different alphabet!

But we still need to remember that ‘Wales’ is a man-made, relatively modern political entity. On our boder roots and culture spread both ways.

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