Travels in An Old Tongue (Welsh and English Edition) Review

Travels in An Old Tongue (Welsh and English Edition)
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Travels in An Old Tongue (Welsh and English Edition) ReviewAs a longtime learner of Irish, I can relate to Pamela Petro's predicament. She wished to better her basic Welsh, picked up in a two-month intensive course at the U of Wales, Lampeter, but also needed to avoid the trap of falling back on English when practicing her Welsh in Wales itself! With her roommate, she decides to travel five months around wherever Welsh expats and learners lurked in other countries, assuming that if she went to Norway or Singapore or Argentina, that the lack of English from her co-respondents would force them both into Welsh. This only worked best in her final destination, (providing the strongest part of her narrative, and by far the most assuredly conveyed) the remnant of the Patagonian Welsh pioneering community. But, in the meantime she, a travel writer anyway by profession, manages to cram in everything that happened to her.
This makes the results here better than the average travelogue, for she relentlessly focuses upon the question of what it is to be Welsh. Is it native speaking of the native language? Or simply learning it? If so, how perfectly? Not knowing it but being proud of one's Welsh birth anyhow? Not being Welsh (Pamela's category) by any heritage but simply enamored with the idea and ideals of Wales? The hierarchy she discovers among the Welsh she encounters reveals persistent unease with always another--elusive and not there present--person's level of Welsh being better than whoever she talks to at that moment. Pamela battles through many drinks at soirees, singing contests, and stilted conversations along with the usual mishaps on the road.
At times, she describes her surroundings well. Often, however, the book reads like transcriptions and elaborations of that past day's chitchat from her copious notebooks, sometimes in prose and detail too earnestly cute and so rather limp on the page although probably lively enough in person (especially with a couple more drinks!). Too many often mundane incidents blur together, but you too feel her jet lag, queasiness, hangovers, or general disembodiment all too well. Whether this is what you want in a travel account is up to you. This book could have done with severe editing and not lost its flavor. It gets too giddy and self-consciously meticulous for long stretches. True, the admirable enthusiasm Pamela generally has is infectious but not always that contagiously rewarding for the loyal reader.
Therefore, I recommend this book to those interested in how languages and cultures merge and clash in a globalized world (the book takes place around 1995) but with the warning that it does take a lot of patience and that after awhile the incidents jumble and blur as one country follows another without respite. An admirable conceit, but rather wearisome. You do feel like you're with Pamela every faltering step of the way, however!
[Those curious about the workings and the impacts of Welsh will enjoy Janet Davies' compact "The Welsh Language: A Pocket Guide" (1999, U of Wales P). For a gloomier perspective on the state of the Celtic languages and cultures today, and a much more pessimistic outlook unfortunately on the Patagonian Welsh, see Marcus Tanner's 2003 "The Last of the Celts" from Yale UP.]Travels in An Old Tongue (Welsh and English Edition) OverviewStudying in Lampeter, Dyfed and learning Welsh, Pamela Petro found it infuriating that whenever she stumbled with her Welsh, the locals would always revert to English. She decided to go where English was not an option - all kinds of unlikely places with long-standing Welsh-speaking communities. She visited the Hong Kong Men's Choir, all Chinaman who sing in Welsh; the Japanese bardic "eisteddfod" in Tokyo; the Welsh golfers of Oslo; the diners of the Paris Welsh society; and Patagonia.

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