Academic journal article Folklore

Perceptions of the Past in Welsh Folklore Studies

Academic journal article Folklore

Perceptions of the Past in Welsh Folklore Studies

Article excerpt

Introduction: Tea Towels and Ancient Celts

Among the many souvenirs available in Welsh shops is a colourful tea towel showing a girl wearing the "typical" Welsh costume of high-crowned black hat, paisley shawl and check-patterned dress in red wool, and holding a daffodil or a harp. She is surrounded by a selection of Welsh words with English translations, proclaiming Welsh to be the oldest language in Europe. Across the lower edge is the famous Welsh place-name Llanfairpwyllgwngyllgogerychwryndrobwllllanty-siliogogogoch.

The tea towel is an intriguing index of cultural misinformation. The romantic origins and synthetic nature of Welsh folk costume have been well documented (Payne 1964, 42-7; Beddoe 1980, 232-34). As an expression of Lady Llanover's nineteenth-century romantic nationalism, Welsh folk costume emphasises largely artificial differences between Welsh regions and traditional modes of work and uses fabrics in so-called traditional Welsh patterns. Nevertheless, Welsh schoolgirls wear the costume on St David's Day, souvenir dolls are dressed in it, and Welsh Women's Institutes continue to hand-sew versions of it for public displays of Welshness. Among the words used as examples of "the oldest European language" are modur and beic, which are recent English borrowings, and castell and ffenestr, which are Latin borrowings. To be fair, words with Celtic roots, such as llan (a sacred enclosure), also appear. However, the choice of vocabulary, if it illustrates anything, points to an ecletic rather than an ancient strain in the language. The celebrated place-name owes as much to nineteenth-century popular perceptions of the Welsh language as to actual place-naming practice. It was roundly denounced by one prominent Welsh scholar as an "absurd rigamarole and monstrous caricature" (Morris-Jones 1965, 54-5). Nevertheless, this overlong conceit still graces the railway station platform, though road signs use the shorter forms "Llanfairpwllgwyngyll" or "Llanfair PG." The very artificiality of the long name is acknowledged ironically on some Welsh postcards and is fondly noted in a recent brochure published by the Welsh Tourist Board (The Isle of Anglesey, 12).

The claim that Welsh is the oldest living European language suggests a link to the ancient Celts. This view is often attributed to famous Welsh scholars such as Saunders Lewis, John Morris-Jones or Ifor Williams, or explained by the suggestion that the Gododdin (allegedly datable to the fifth-sixth century) is older than Beowulf (eighth century) - a "fact" which is taken to "prove" that Welsh is older than, in this instance, Anglo-Saxon. In many ways, folkloristic concepts of Welshness parallel popular ideas of Welshness as illustrated by artefacts such as the tea towel and by popular constructs of Welshness as presented by media and tourism. Among the images which inform iconography is that of extreme antiquity as regards the language and a "folksy" Welshness embodied in images of costume, harp and daffodil (Morgan 1986, 25-40). Such attitudes to the origins of the Welsh language and to the nature of Welsh folk culture function as powerful ethnic markers in popular displays of Welshness, outsider views of Wales, the development of folklore studies, and even Welsh scholarship.

The history of folklore studies in Wales is largely unwritten.(1) Too often the study of Welsh folklore is seen in terms of the larger context of British folklore. An example of this is the important study on the history of folklore studies in Britain published nearly thirty years ago by Richard Dorson (Dorson 1968, 247, 301, 306, 419-23, and 426-7). He considers the Celtic folklorists peripheral to the concerns of the core group who dominated British folklore research at the end of the nineteenth century. He stresses the links between Celtic scholars and theories of national romanticism and evolutionary rationalism, whereas their main interest was in language. When their work is seen in the context of the collecting and theorising about folklore which took place in Wales from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries (Thomas 1975, 33-52), it becomes clear that Welsh folklore studies cannot be explained solely in relation to intellectual movements prevalent in Britain and Europe. …

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