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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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6.1 Language and identity

I arrived in Wales in 1976 to carry out fieldwork on the Welsh nationalist movement. I was aware that Welsh was the first language of just over one fifth of the people of Wales and the main language of many of its communities. But I had also been assured that learning Welsh was not a formal requirement for my research since virtually the entire adult population also spoke English. Nevertheless, as an anthropologist, I was conscious of the importance of language for understanding other cultures, and so for some months prior to my departure, I tried to teach myself something of the language, including the words of the national anthem, ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’. I also enrolled in a Welsh-language summer course upon arrival. My intention at the outset was to acquire at least a basic competence in Welsh, in order to promote goodwill and facilitate access to certain factions and individuals.

In practice, I did not maintain this detachment for long but quickly became fully committed to acquiring fluency in Welsh. I came to realise that my immersion in the Welsh language was necessary for my research, not in the technical sense that Welsh-speaking informants would be less forthcoming if interviewed in English, but because learning Welsh gave me a deeper understanding and more immediate access to the complex relationships between language and identity.

An illustration of this occurred in an interview with one individual, a nationalist, who, as a product of a non-Welsh-speaking home and area, had for years promoted the perspectives and advancement of non-Welsh speakers in Plaid Cymru. He had been very successful in this regard, but eventually decided to learn Welsh himself. Reflecting on the experience, he remarked, ‘I still identify with the non-Welsh-speaking Welshman. But as a speaker you do begin to take on some of the political overtones of the linguistic nationalists.’ From his testimony, as well as my own experiences as a Welsh learner, I felt sure that he was not referring to a change in his perception of where his interests lay politically but to a very basic shift in standpoint, an ability to see issues from a different perspective entirely.