Foundation for Endangered Languages
1. Editorial: an Honest Outsider
Travels in an Old Tongue: Touring the World Speaking Welsh — by Pamela Petro. HarperCollins Flamingo: 1997
We native speakers of majority languages have a hard time expressing enthusiasm for, and deriving enlightenment from, other people’s languages. Languages are difficult things to learn as an adult, even if you are a member of the traditional community: how much more so, when you can only visit occasionally, and your only token of membership is personal determination.
Making such a choice seems especially tough in resolutely monolingual countries such as suburban America (a widely distributed part of the USA) — ironically so, since American-ness is par excellence the choosable nationality. But Pamela Petro, for reasons she never makes clear, and perhaps cannot, has made this choice in favour of Welsh.
(Probably such reasons always recede from view, and can never become clear. My own justification for attempted Irishry has become fainter and fainter with the years, even as the determination gets deeper. A weathered teacher like Liam Ó Cuinneagáin of Gleann Cholm Cille says he never asks his pupils why they study the language. And here is Damian MacManus: “If you study Old Irish, it will surely destroy your life. But once you are in, there’s no stopping. And so you might as well go on, and deeper in.”)
This book gives the most honest account I have ever read of the trials that await the world-be learner of a minority language, where almost all the speakers are already bilingual in a language you know better. How to get them to talk to you in it, when it just hampers everyday conversation? — not only while they wait for you to get the words out, but also since you can only puzzle if you really understood what they said to you: somehow the obvious interpretation always eludes you among these alien words. Ah, the guilty relief you feel when they give up the struggle and talk to you in English (or Spanish, or some metropolitan language of global communication).
As a result, Petro (who has a fine feeling for a novel metaphor) felt she could never defeat the angle of repose of the sand into which she was digging for Welsh gold: the more she dug (past a certain point), the more English came slithering back into her hole.
She had the novel idea of trying to solve this problem by looking for Welsh speakers outside Wales. Perhaps there the metropolitan languages would cease to get in the way. With a little support (financial) from her publisher, and more (moral) from her girlfiend, a PhD in Portuguese, she travelled round the global Welsh diaspora, her super-ego trying to get them to talk to her in Welsh (while her id mutely held out for English).
The result is a revealing travel book, full of insights — though mostly about the psychological pitfalls of trying to cope in a language you don’t know well enough. The special horrors of a telephone conversation; the handicap of ‘one-track’ vocabulary, where you only get one shot at expressing a meaning, so that when you fail to communicate you lapse into silence; the particular amnesia whereby something understood at the time in Welsh is not available for recall later in English; the way that, in such a community language, grammaticality and purity of vocabulary just shade off into a ‘sloppy democracy’, leaving the learner with no sense of what is authentic; the lack of sympathy for true bilinguals, who claim it becomes impossible to write creatively in either language.
Petro has a fine turn of phrase too: she blows an ‘inward kiss’ to her vocal chords, when their soreness lets her off having to speak at all; she sees enthusiasm for small cultures as ‘an air-bag for the impact of the twenty-first century’; and ultimately believes that Cymru — hopefully etymologized as the land of compatriots — is ‘a place that only comes into being through speech’.
In the end the book reveals even more than the writer intended. She is well at home among upwardly-mobile expatriates — dotted all over the world in their Welsh clubs, and seeking escape from Wales’ ‘limited apparatus to support people with specialized educations and high incomes’; but less so among the communal exodus of the Patagonian Welsh, which seems far more redolent of the Nonconformist Chapel Welsh tradition than any community left in Wales itself, and where the demanding paraphernalia of The American Way is hard to come by: ‘no-one has heard of de-caffeinated anything’, as she ruefully remarks.
All in all, a good, and thought-provoking, read.
Petro notes at the close that writing the book in English had ultimately brought her further away from her Welsh experience. (At least all the section headings are in Welsh.) But the book’s aim is not to explain how the world looks from a Welsh point of view: it’s more how the Welsh appear when seen up close from the perspective of the world.
And if a world-view is here an American view, that is both ironic, and authentic.