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The two most obvious attributes of any country, those that most reflect the culture, are architecture and language. In Wales, where bilingualism is mandated by law, the Welsh language is everywhere around you. Every sign, menu and brochure is printed in both English and Welsh, and you’ll find Welsh speakers in every corner of the country. Though the vast majority of Welsh speakers are in the north and midlands, even Cardiff has its share, as young people have moved to the more urban south in search of better jobs.

As a shrewd traveler, you’ll want to know how to pronounce the seemingly unpronounceable place names that you see on every sign. There are several books on the subject. I found Pronouncing Welsh Place Names, by Tony Leaver, both entertaining and highly informative. It makes it much easier to read signs and ask directions when you understand that dd is pronounced “th” as in the English word “that” — so Gruffydd sounds a bit like Griffith, and Gwynedd sounds like Gwyneth. Just knowing how to pronounce the words is an accomplishment. Learning what a few words mean, helps you make sense of the signs. For instance “nant” means “stream,” and pops up in all sorts of place names. For most of us on a short trip, a book on Welsh pronunciation is just the ticket. If you are more intrepid, you may want to take Welsh lessons.

 

Nant Gwrtheryn (The Welsh Language and Heritage Centre) on the Lleyn Peninsula, Wales

Nant Gwrtheryn (The Welsh Language and Heritage Centre) on the Lleyn Peninsula, Wales, photo by Scott W. Clemens

Though Ireland, Scotland and Wales all share Celtic roots, the Irish and Scottish languages are both dialects of Gaelic, while the Welsh language is related to Cornish and Bretons, the latter spoken in Brittany across the English Channel. It’s ironic that Henry VIII, himself a descendent of the Welsh house of Tudor, nearly destroyed the Welsh language. During his reign laws were passed that prevented Welsh speakers from holding civil servant jobs, thus relegating the Welsh to second-class citizens. Though the language held on for another 400 years, there was a precipitous decline of Welsh speakers after World War II, probably a result of exposure to radio, film and television. To stave off the extinction of the language, in 1962 the Welsh Language Society was formed, which eventually led to the official adoption of bilingualism by the Welsh Assembly.

Cardiff University offers courses in Welsh, as does Aberystwyth University (www.learnwelshinmidwales.org), and Nant Gwrtheryn (The Welsh Language and Heritage Centre on the Lleyn Peninsula, an area where Welsh is predominantly spoken). Nant Gwrtheryn, once a town built for quarry workers, is located on a remote section of coast in northern Wales. Perched on a rocky bluff above the ocean, at the base of the mountain that provided the granite from which the buildings were constructed, the workers’ homes have been remodeled into living quarters for students, though you don’t have to be a student to stay there.  Since 1978 more than 28,000 students have taken courses at the school. The courses are designed around your needs, beginning with a simple introduction to the language, to a full immersion course designed to bring you to fluency.

Our tour guide, Idwal Jones (www.countrylanetours.com), grew up in a Welsh speaking community and didn’t learn English until he was 12-years-old! These days children are taught both English and Welsh from the moment they go to school, so the number of Welsh speakers is on the rise.

 

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