Friday, November 23, 2007

Learning Welsh: Resources

Iechydd da! "Good day!" Dia duit. As if Irish isn't daunting enough. Mutations "go leor," fearsome changes, dialectical brawls that make Corca Dhuibne vs. Gaoth Daobhair look like a playground spat. Literary and spoken versions diverging apace with the red shift of the galaxies according to the Hubble constant. But, after thinking about R.S. Thomas and getting Byron Rogers' recent bio (still meaning to read Justin Wintle's one from last decade on the same) on this fractious nationalist vicar who, learning his native tongue (yes, I understand the contradiction) too late, could not write in it the verse which, many claim, makes him the pre-eminent poet of the last part of the last century in English, I figured perhaps returning to find out more about Cymraeg and Cymru would be inspiring. Or, at least make me appreciate my lack of Irish fluency better.

In 1979, staying near a village near the Pennine moors, Upper Cumberworth ("homestead of the Cymri" as one of their last interior North-Central outposts near the vanished realm about which Ted Hughes wrote a Yorkshire-themed collection titled "Remains of Elmet")-- with my decidedly raven-curled and dark-eyed hostess Rachel, whose father was Liverpool Welsh and had studied at Aberystwyth-- I heard on a jaunt to Fishguard (Abergaun= "mouth of the river") a Celtic sentence or two spoken for the first time.

Rachel looked Welsh, and although we had to look puzzled and wait for the question to morph again into our imperial form of address, I was taken by this interaction. The assumption entered into a casual exchange between strangers: that Rachel was Welsh and that she could speak a language other than English-- one that had endured 4,500 years in this part of the island. The bond that was offered chafed against the sundered tie. Emigration from Wales had dissolved ancestral link that connected her family to its roots. Yet, her genetic inheritance still attracted the gesture made by the lads who stopped her. (Me, I don't know-- I guess I was either Irish or American or German for that matter to them-- if not a Brit. Another reason why when travelling I tend not to speak up much, preferring to blend in and observe.)

It was one of those happenstance moments that defines a path for a lifetime. Two Pembroke (we were in Dyfed, formerly Pembrokeshire) Corgis walked with their owner on the shore. Dog loving me took this as a good omen. Locals asked Rachel where she'd gotten the fish & chips she carried as we walked along waiting for the ferry to Rosslare and my first, albeit brief, glimpse of Ireland.

On the middle of the night's return, I also recall being catcalled by local louts as I entered the Kingdom again. I hesitated. I was unsure if I could stroll in as easily as a subject of the Queen, but nobody seemed to care that I was an American in this unlikely port of (re-)entry. Crown security was much more casual back then about such matters, although we were held up an awfully long time before departure. The boat had been boarded and police wandered about amidst squalling megaphones. There were mutterings of the IRA's threats as we waited for the ferry earlier that day. The tension of the Irish campaign churned with dormant memories of what being regarded as English in the principality where holidaymakers meant. I had already enjoyed the lyrical if somewhat sentimental novels of Richard Llewellyn, and not only "How Green Was My Valley." "Green, Green Was My Valley" written in his grumpy retirement in the 1970s lamented not only the closure of the mines but the arsonists who attacked the vacation homes. My sympathies were and remain with the Meibion Glyndwr. Rachel and her innocently uncomprehending sort earned resentment from our Celtic cousins who remained behind, under such invasion by us outlanders for centuries. We forgot our mother tongues, and, like R.S. Thomas or myself (can't speak for Rachel), we labor all the more to regain what to a child comes so much easier.

Irony also entered that resort town. Fishguard's the location of "the last attempted invasion" of Albion. In 1797 a few clueless Gauls were apprehended on the same strand where the Queen's chosen breed trotted. The next "year of the French" resulted in the failed Rising of 1798 with thirty thousand dead Irishmen: history certainly remained relevant.

I was staying with the Johnsons for six weeks on a summer exchange program after I won an essay contest sponsored by the State of California on the quadricentennial of Sir Francis Drake's landing in the Bay Area. Later, the Manx held their assembly-- I think it was on the Fourth of July whose spectacular sunset over Denby Dale lingers in my mind-- and on the BBC I listened to a bit of that revived language also. Ned Maddrell, (arguably) the last native speaker of Manx, had died less than five years before. (See my recent review here of Mark Abley's "Spoken Here" and its chapters on both Manx and Welsh.) And, in the sunny July garden "off Carr Hill Road" (as the postal address went-- "car" comes from a P-Celtic "car[r]"), I read the now famous Jon Savage review, "Death Disco," of a nearby band's debut LP (Sounds, Melody Maker, NME all being my constant companions then along with gammon crisps, lemon curd & Bakewell tarts), "Unknown Pleasures" by Joy Division. Bilberries (blueberries to me) from the fields. Also, my first pints of Guinness at the Toss o'Coin. What a way to bridge my high school- into- college summer; I turned 18 in England! Yes, Rachel had a boyfriend already, Simon in the RAF; he and I went to Mass together in Barnsley, and he was quite a genial gentleman.

I reviewed on the British Amazon site a while back Pamela Petro's "Travels in Another Language" about her experiences trying to speak Welsh while visiting foreign places where, she reasoned, the conversationalists would be less likely to lapse into Saesnag. She had studied, as so many do, at the Wlpan (the only word in Hebrew likely to have been commonly adapted into a Celtic language, I reckon) and at courses at the University campus in Lampeter (whose site no longer has a link to the on-line tutorials, however). Surfing the Web today after a search for Sain Records revealed disappointingly little about their activist past, I wandered into language links.

I credit the post-colonial Beeb for great sites for adult learners in both Irish and Welsh. Following links, I noticed a second Californian writer who learned Welsh at an Wlpan. I guess it's like Oideas Gael, but financially larger and so grandly scaled. There's one year-round in the formerly deserted village of Nant Gwrtheryn. Again, the contrasts between the relatively intimate facilities for Irish learners and the extensive support for adults learning Welsh continues to astonish me; certainly Sabhal Mór Ostaig on the Isle of Skye has developed too a strong Hebridean presence. (I've read "A Waxing Moon"-- a history of SMO-- by Roger Hutchinson and meant to review it but cannot find my notes taken from the ILL copy.) The state sponsorship of Irish, contrarily, as letters continue to castigate Conradh na Gaeilge and the like for their lackadaisical efforts, makes the resurgence of Scots Gaelic and Welsh all the more admirable, undertakings that relied more on community energy than hidebound bureaucracy.

Here's a link to a review of what Thomas published (for the great publisher Y Lolfa, the Celtic cousin to Cló Iar Chonnachta "as gaeilge") about her joys and pains: "You Don't Speak Welsh." http://www.clwbmalu

BBC's Learn Welsh:
Mark Nodine's Welsh course on-line:
Harry Campbell's Welsh Informationary:

Shariah Program: Language-learning links from all over the world (including Ulpan/ Wlpan):

P.S. Image on right= "I'm learning Welsh." Tá mé ag foghlaim Breatnáis. Tá beagan Breatnáis agam. In Irish, the surname anglicized as "Walsh" is really "Breathnach," or stranger/ outsider/ foreigner. Compare "Wallace" in Scotland, as in Braveheart's William W. who, of course, fights the lisping Normans from England via France, Normandy via their marauding progenitors the Northmen or Vikings. Not to be confused with Wallachia near Transylvania or the Galizianers from Galatia on the border of present-day Poland and the Czech lands. (Not to be confused with the Galatians in Asia Minor who received a letter from Paul.) Gaul was conquered as were those Continental Celtic bastions by Rome, who at least named Cambria for the Welsh, Britannia for England, and Alba for Scotland. Confusingly, "Galles" is French for the Welsh. The Welsh speak a Celtic language but not a Gaelic one. Theirs is P-Celtic, or "Brythonic." Welsh, in English, derives from a term for stranger in post-Roman days as Britain was invaded by the Anglo-Saxons. Thus their term "wealasc" (cf. "commonweal"). Contrarily, "Cymraeg" denotes one of the people, a true native and not a sissified Saes in Welsh/ sinister Sasanach in Irish!

P.P.S. Britain derives from Prydain-- the same word used by the late Lloyd Alexander in his splendid tales that revive the Mabinogi. Brittany comes from the flight of the Celts from Britain into non-Frankish "Armorica," as the Romans called it. When the Irish call for "Brits out," they really mean "English," but this is complicated by the Union and the fact that many of the soldiers who were stationed in the North were Scots, or Welsh. (See "Soldiers & Innocents," Russell Celyn Jones' novel.) Many of those who first invaded Hibernia in 1169 were Normans who had taken over Wales a century earlier. And you all know that the Scotti were Gaelic migrants from Ireland, right?

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