Trey McCain is an American writer, videographer and language scholar, raised in Mississippi and currently residing in New Braunfels, Texas. His language studies at the University of Mississippi placed him in Paris where he developed a strong interest in minority languages and language rights movements. A cultural exchange visit to North Wales as part of his degree sparked a continuing love affair with Wales and the Welsh language. Below, McCain examines the cultural similarities between Wales and his native Deep South, and the valuable lessons that a passion for language can teach us.
My best days start on the street, before the rest of the house begins to stir. Occasionally I run, but I prefer to slip on sandals and walk with a pair of bright pink headphones, lifted from my wife’s bedside table. The dogs bark and often howl as I stroll by, in what I imagine to be xenophobic fits of rage, while I avoid eye contact with other early risers. I’m practicing my Welsh aloud, and here in the heart of Texas, it doesn’t do to stick out on the street.
Of course, I have a difficult time blending in without furrowing my brow and muttering under my breath. My red mop of morning hair and matching beard set me apart in the Texas hill country and my native Mississippi. My hair attracted attention from an early age when my mother would tow me through the supermarket through what seemed to be hoards of envious grannies, each with their grasping handful. It was a surprise for my parents, both dark brunettes, but then there were a few cousins on either side with auburn locks, and didn’t Grandma Lille Bell have red hair? In North Mississippi, it’s not uncommon at all to have a redheaded baby, sparking conversations that sound the depths of family history and Scotch-Irish heritage.
Like much of Appalachia, of which Northeast Mississippi constitutes the final, rolling end, people hearken back to indefinite Irish and Scottish ancestry to explain complexions, hair colour and bad tempers. And while imaginations make leaps that missing census records encourage, there is some truth in these folk genealogies. Names like Carlisle, Carroll, Monaghan and Murphy are plentiful throughout the region, not to mention my own, McCain. Speech patterns reveal similar links with the distant past and the British Isles. A friend’s grandmother just a couple of counties north still calls boots ‘brogans’. Her family has lived in the area for several generations.
These influences, reinforced by elements of pop culture and historical narratives, coalesced to form my own vague, Scotch-Irish identification. So much so that in 2006, the summer after my first year at university, I signed up for a cultural exchange programme that would take me backpacking across Ireland. I had enjoyed my first year, but I was leaning toward concentrating in language and wanted more than the basic French and Spanish offered. So I explored other languages on my own, including Gaelic and Irish Gaelic. I had heard of summer programmes for students abroad, and when I learned that backpacking in Galway was an option, I jumped at the chance. Too late, it would seem. When I had news of my application, all of the places in Ireland were taken. So were the spots in Scotland, my second choice. I had been assigned to Wales, though I barely remembered ticking the box, much less where it was on the map.
We landed in Manchester Airport at around 9am. Once collected, we piled onto a coach and headed for Wales. I remember pressing my face against the window, looking at the roundabouts and the cars in the left lane. As we neared our destination, the mountains and the coastline appeared, meeting with the suddenness I could later only describe as Welsh. Our first stop – in an effort to keep us awake and fight jet lag – was Conwy Castle.
At the time, I had no comparable experience by which to measure that day, since I had seldom travelled outside of my corner of the South. The mountains held me in Mississippi wonderment. The breaking waves on rocky beaches and cliff sides defied Floridian expectations. The abundance of sheer rock had me grasping back to the stony faces of Tishomingo County, my state’s highest point. The tide was low when we crossed the bridge into Conwy, revealing the hulls of sloops and motorboats, but the sight that held our gaze was the castle itself, looming over the shrunken river and the encircled city, a picturesque scene to our American minds. That afternoon we explored turrets, powder keeps and the walls of the city. By the evening we were exhausted, ready to collapse into whatever bunk would take us to the castle now towering in our dreams.
Our first week was general orientation at a camp on Pen Llŷn. We had an introduction to the Welsh language that included a visit to a Welsh chapel one Sunday morning. All week long we had practiced unfamiliar words at the hands of a patient teacher, managing to comfortably bid ‘bore da’ and ‘Be’ ydy dy enw di?’ Chapel was one of our first opportunities to try our Welsh. We stumbled over the words in the hymnal, but enjoyed ourselves amid the rousing chorus the parishioners gave. The pastor even paused every few lines in his sermon to give us a synopsis in English in a thick, North Walian accent. There were so many friendly faces as we filed out at midday. People were genuinely delighted to hear their language in our loud American voices, no matter the forgotten mutations and poorly rolled r’s. This first foray into Welsh in the wild set the stage for similar encounters all summer long.
I remained in North Wales until the end of July, living in Bangor, but often visiting Caernarfon, Ynys Mon and Llandudno. The weather was warm and sunny that summer, and we spent many days on walking paths or driving through the mountains. I didn’t make the effort to speak Welsh every day, and hindsight has led me to regret those missed opportunities. However, Welsh sought me out all the same during my stay, typically in small moments with people I would characterize as warm and friendly. I’ve tried to keep up with one friend from Penygroes, a kindred wit who taught me to recite to other speakers, ‘Mae fy marf yn ogoneddus’ (my beard is magnificent). That summer was such an important time in my life. It was over much too soon.
Returning home was difficult. My perspective of the world had shifted, while my friends and family lacked the experiences to make the same leap. One socio-political behemoth that surfaced again and again while in Wales was the Iraq War. Before Wales, I hadn’t given much thought to the necessity and the justification of the war. Tough questions abroad led me to examine the validity of American exceptionalism, the value of nationalism and the nature of faith in the patriotic and church-laden South. But these questions were rarely welcome at home. I found solace in sharing my experiences with some of the students from my programme. As the year progressed, a handful of us decided to return to Wales the following summer.
I had kept up with one student regularly throughout the year. Amelia and I had shared several conversations late at night that continued when we reunited in Wales. The summer was busy for me, as I spent a couple of weeks visiting Paris and Brussels as part of my programme. Amelia and I stayed in touch by e-mail and enjoyed the moments we had together in Bangor when our schedules overlapped. At the end of our time in Wales, we began dating; we married just two years later. Today we are able to say we spent our first day together traipsing around a castle in North Wales. It makes for an excellent, one-upper story.
Returning for a second summer deepened the changes that had begun during the first. Our time with the Welsh led us to value small, quiet acts that underscored the importance of self-expression and choice. Welsh history and literature offer their own compelling narratives of adversity, but the people of Wales made it personal. National stories of economic hardships and social struggles took the form of family histories in the mouths of Welsh speakers. Beginning a conversation with ‘bore da’ or ‘sut mae’ became both memorial and pledge. Through these small words, we could celebrate the perseverance of the Welsh language and laud the efforts to promote its growth. The pleasure we had in travelling abroad had transformed to something much more profound. Simple novelty was replaced with a deep affection for Wales.
When I returned to university in the fall, I was disappointed to find a dearth of Celtic language classes. Courses kept me from devoting significant time to Welsh, but my experiences in Wales still informed my studies. Studying language variation in American English once again revealed the importance of choice in speech, which prompted me to examine my attitude towards language closer to home. Southern American English (SAE), that is to say English in the South-eastern portion of the United States, and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) are often disparaged as lazy and backwards, compared to more prestigious standards of English in America. Wales taught me first-hand the importance of linguistic identity and the way in which how we speak conveys more meaning than the sum total of our words. When I applied these values to the way my people spoke, I realised an injustice in which I had been complicit.
National opinion and popular rhetoric in the U.S. often create a South defined solely by its shortcomings, namely cronyism, latent racism, weak education systems and moral whitewashing. In the eyes of mainstream culture, we are often reduced to ignorant, uneducated hicks who barely speak English. Sadly, the variation in our speech is often the yardstick by which the content of our character is measured. These narratives even affect perceptions we hold of ourselves. We read between the lines, learn we shouldn’t sound different and carry negative connotations with the way we speak. The urge to reconcile our speech reminded me of the impact of the Welsh Blue Books and subsequent efforts to reclaim the language. Wales began to teach me about the South.
Wales and the South are similar on various fronts. Both regions are rural and traditionally agricultural, with a history of economic depression that has left us with unstable growth. We’ve been slower to modernise due to our scattered populations. Change comes slowly to some towns and villages, many of which look and feel the same as they did decades ago. People carry long memories of conflicts long past; some grudges are justified, others are obsessions better left forgotten.
Their histories are not wholly analogous, due in part to their difference in age and political structure. Wales is distinct from the rest of the UK by nature of its shared culture and language, historically if not always literally nowadays. The South is distinct from the rest of the U.S. by the shared legacy of slavery and the war for it. It has no exclusive claim to either, but both endure in our collective consciousness and they continue to bear influence on the structure of our society and culture. Modern politics in Wales and the South are not entirely comparable, but streaks of independence run through them both. Central governance has been criticised in favour of more local control and accountability. This balance between state and federal authority has always been present in the U.S., but many Southerners put increased importance on local control, in part due to the legacy of Reconstruction. Likewise, many in Wales have celebrated increased devolution with calls for increased autonomy.
Both regions suffer from marginalisation at the hands of mainstream culture. In a strange twist of irony, the complementary stigma to a backwards Wales and the ignorant South is a romanticised version of both, each presented in a bucolic bubble. Idyllic scenes of unpopulated landscapes and quaint residents with a twinkle in their eye and a penchant for good manners permeate national discourse. Look no further than Hollywood to find idealised versions of both Wales and the South, in nearly the same breath. The film version of Gone with the Wind (1939) remains the prototypical story of the Old South, covering its zenith, fall and reconstruction through the eyes of a woman who only wants to keep her family together, regain the high living and status she lost and render everything as it once was. Three years later, How Green Was My Valley (1941) debuted to similar success. The credits open with a rousing chorus of Welsh singers and the reflections of an aged Huw Morgan, who vows he will always remember his valley as it once was, full of the voices of his family and friends.
These two films are cut from the same cloth, pitting a family against the turns of time, the pangs of unrequited love and the snipping gossip of their community. Though both films deserve praise for aspects of their production, they compress complicated societies and complex questions to a two-dimensional approach. Tara, painted in vivid Technicolor, offers a monochromatic view of plantation life, where the slaves are content to work till ‘quittin’ time’ and the young men only worry about the glory of war and wooing the women, who are themselves backbiting harpies jockeying for good marriages and happiness. The families in Cwm Rhondda are similarly disposed of most worries, content to labour in the collieries from which they issue in song every day, if they’re not thronging around a flowing firkin. When anything unsettling arises at work, in chapel or at home, the boys pop off to America or someone storms out of a room and everyone is eventually laughing and singing again. Well, at least till the end. Though the overall tone of both films emotes sadness, loss and more than a touch of hiraeth, the final thought in each clings to an idealised past that does not and never did exist.
One unsettling thread that runs through both films is the way in which variation in speech is used to mark the qualities in characters. Rhett Butler, though he comes from Charleston, does not sound in the least Southern. His opening lines in Gone with Wind warn the hot-headed plantation owners and their sons against war with the North. He continues to disparage the values created within the film in a running commentary that nearly devolves into asides. He recognizes an ‘historic moment’ as the South crashes around them, providing the audience with a character through which to project their own omniscience. Melanie Wilkes offers a similar role largely void of Southern speech markers who reflects kindness, genuine affection and unwillingness to speak ill of anyone, in contrast to Scarlett, the belles at Twelve Oaks and the gossiping ladies in town. These two characters demonstrate laudable qualities in language distinct from the rest of the group and the South. The effect is subtle, but it reinforces prejudices already ingrained subconsciously in speakers.
Mr. Gruffydd provides a similar character in How Green was My Valley with his resonant, American voice ( I am conflating the difference between speaking Welsh and speaking English with a Welsh accent for the purpose of this comparison). He explains to young Huw in unwavering certainty the various difficulties of life in the valley. At the head of the church he lambasts the deacons and congregation in righteous anger. The effect becomes even more pronounced when contrasted with the heavily Welsh-accented snivelling of Deacon Parry and nattering among the village hens. The pastor’s voice never condescends; that is left to the English schoolteacher along with the rich colliery owner and his son, providing Gruffydd with unmitigated access to the moral framework of the film. The results of these precise shades of character portrayal create negative associations with variations of English outside of the accepted, national norm.
These two-dimensional depictions of Wales and the South cannot stand the test of time, so long as we dig deeper for the multitude of narratives that underpin our societies and reject the watered-down simplifications that belies their inherent richness. We must stand firm against language prejudice in its myriad forms and fight against the division it creates within our own communities. We must also resist the temptation to reach back to a glorious past, to a ‘Wild Wales’ or to the ‘Old South.’ Exploring a culture different and yet similar to my own allowed me to see my surroundings in a new light. The connection of these two regions may seem odd, but I’m not the only Southerner to build an affinity for Wales.
Eris Culpepper, a friend and fellow Welsh learner from Meridian, Mississippi, first visited Wales in 1989 while serving in the U.S. Air Force at Woodbridge in Suffolk. He found similarities between rural North Wales and his own home; life for his family in the 1950s resembled 19th century living standards. ‘They couldn’t afford a tractor, so my father would borrow the neighbour’s mule to do the ploughing’. He described his return to Wales some ten years later whilst revisiting Blaenau Ffestiniog: ‘It was like I had been gone five minutes. Nothing had changed… but everyone was so kind and friendly, they replied to me in Welsh and never asked where I was from.’
He bought a Welsh learner’s book before leaving during his initial visit and began learning in earnest several years later after seeing credits that included Euros Lyn, which offered a clue into the shrouded origins of his own name. He works now as an actor and faithfully keeps up with Rownd a Rownd, Pobol y Cwm and many other S4C programmes featuring Welsh talent. He has legitimate aspirations of his own to act in Wales someday; just last year he won third place in storytelling at the Eisteddfod in Denbighshire.
Jeremy Schirmer came to Welsh by way of studying Irish. In Welsh he found greater access to both language materials and artists who perform modern styles of music, like the Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog, whose Americana style appeals to his tastes. Last December he began learning through audio courses from Say Something in Welsh, a popular resource to learners the world over, including nearly everyone I know learning Welsh this side of the Atlantic. Jeremy also listens to C2 on BBC Radio Cymru and picks a few Welsh tunes himself on the banjo, guitar and mandolin. Though he lives in eastern Texas, he shares strong ties to Louisiana and has French heritage. He naturally speaks a little Cajun French himself, and relates the efforts to increase the Welsh language to the state of Louisiana French, which is undergoing its own small revival. ‘To reclaim what we have lost, we have to learn to use the language, it has to be integral,’ he says, citing the growth of immersion schools, tourism in his home state and the growing number of musicians using the language outside of purely traditional music.
There are many more Welsh learners scattered across the South, from Central Texas to South Carolina. Many are learning because of their heritage, while others find the language itself compelling enough to study. Some were stirred by the signs they saw during their holiday in Wales. Others made replica castles in school and found the Welsh flag a most appropriate banner. Their stories encourage me, especially when I hear statements aimed at belittling the Welsh language as a relic of the past unworthy of the future. We recognize that the world would be a dimmer place without Welsh culture and the Welsh language. Without Welsh I would understand far less about the richness of the South – our literature, our food and our complicated identity. For my part, Wales has created a way to show that mutual respect empowers people and strengthens our communities.
original illustration by Dean Lewis