Friday, March 7, 2008

Janet Davies' "A Pocket Guide to the Welsh Language": Book Review

This little guide's only 125 pages of text, but packs an impressive amount of material into its compact size. Part of the U. of Wales Press series, it introduces you to the history of the language more than its features. The first chapter on its origins takes but ten pages, while "The Changing Fortunes of the Language" narrates its growth, flourishing, and shifting into modern times over sixty pages. The state of the current (as of 1999) language takes about the same space, and a short chapter comparing Welsh with 'other Non-state Languages in Europe" densely gives lots of facts in less than ten pages. Finally, "A Note on the Characteristics of Welsh" in a few pages gives only a hint of what I would have wished much more about: how the language works, not as a grammatical overview but a look at its distinguishing features.

Still, given the editorial constraints which undoubtably kept this a pocket guide, Davies manages to express her interest in this ancient language with erudition, insight, and control. Illustrations and charts break up the text; I found many of the latter helpful in visualizing the linguistic points. Maps also assist understanding of dialectal features and where speakers lived yesterday and at present.

A couple of examples of her comments demonstrate Davies' ability to transcend a dutiful recital of statistics, names, and locations. In the 1920s, for example, bus routes linked far-off places to tourists, and cars also began to enable Anglophones to enter where none may have gone so distantly before. "Remote villages where no language but Welsh had been heard for fifteen centuries, now resounded in summer for English visitors." (62)

As for Plaid Cymru's campaign to conserve Welsh Wales, she sees contradictions in preserving Welsh-speaking communities that need "economic infrastructure" to survive. If Plaid (judging from her perspective ten years ago) appeals more to the minority constituency, this may strengthen the language at the expense of the party's contraction from a wider national influence, so "it will be unable to become the party of Wales as a whole." (110) Davies guardedly holds optimism in the language's holding pattern, and its growth in schools, but fairly indicates its decline as a communal language in many places where it once dominated. On the other hand, unique to Celtic languages, Cardiff represents an urban enclave of speakers, and in such developments Davies sees hope for the future.

Finally, as her preface and afterword eloquently if briefly describe, Davies knows what it's like to be curious about the language while remaining on the outside looking, or hearing, in. As no book seemed to give an overview for such curious readers, she wrote one. "Wanting to read a book is the best reason for writing one." (viii) As an adult learner of Cymraeg, Davies convinces you of what she concludes is its characteristic as a "life-enhancing" emblem of culture and knowledge.

[Review posted to Amazon US today.]

Image (reproduced on cover): "Y Wyddor" (The Alphabet) ca. 1900, T.C. Evans."Y Wyddor"

1 comment:

Bo said...

Yes, it's a good little book and I enjoyed this review. Thanks for posting it! Enjoying your bits in Irish too.