If the Llangollen International Eisteddfod motto is not racist, why should we act as if it is?
Those interested in Welsh culture can hardly have missed recent news stories about the decision of the committee of the Llangollen International Eisteddfod to change its motto due to fears it might be construed as racist.
The motto, as it stands is:
Byd gwyn fydd byd a gano,
Gwaraidd fydd ei gerddi fo.
The literal translation of this couplet into English would be something like
“A blessed word is that which sings;
It’s poetry civilised.”
The word ‘gwyn’ means ‘blessed’ in this context, and this use is extremely common in the Welsh Bible and elsewhere, for example in the name of the well known war poet Hedd Wyn).
However, more commonly, gwyn would be translated as ‘white’, leading, presumably, to the possible interpretation that the motto is advocating White Supremacy. Or perhaps a global Ice Age, or an end to the widespread use of Magnolia as a neutral wall colouring.
But the thing that all these misinterpretations have in common is exactly that – they’re not what the words actually mean.
The actual meaning of the words (conveyed in my banal translation above, which captures nothing of the original’s elegance) clearly have nothing whatsoever to do with race and are simply a nice sentiment about music.
The committee know this, but want it changed anyway: the apparent rationale is that there is a risk that they will be misinterpreted – and that change is needed to “reflect the world we live in now”.
The committee’s determination to press ahead with changing it despite acknowledging that there is no actual racist content, merely may be misinterpreted as racist – only makes their decision all the more depressing.
If it is not, in fact, racist, then why should act as if it is anyway?
Fudging the issue
The Eisteddfod’s ostensible purpose is to share Wales’ culture with the world, and the world’s with Wales; the idea that in order to do so we must remove or hide those elements of our culture which do not conform to ‘international’ (i.e. English language) expectations seems in direct opposition to that mission.
The suggestion this is not about conforming to English but instead because of the risk machine translation systems might translate the term is just fudging the issue, for these systems translate the word as ‘white’ precisely because the two meanings have two different words in English.
Surely if people do not understand our language then the role of institutions like the Llangollen Eisteddfod is to educate and inform them, not to hide our language away as if it is something of which we are embarrassed, or that is incompatible with modern values?
What this decision instead does is set the precedent that it is our duty as Welsh speakers to modify our culture and language to meet the (potential) interpretations of the Anglophone majority, and that if we fail to do so we risk not respecting diversity and inclusion.
This is baffling, because if we really want to be diverse and inclusive, then this is the precise opposite of what we should be doing.
Disappointing as the committee’s decision was, it should not have come as a surprise to any of us familiar with how such debates pan out in Wales these days.
It is merely the most recent in a series of misunderstandings where well-intentioned groups and individuals have – presumably without actually intending to – ended up in opposition to Welsh in the name of diversity and inclusion: whether it is the Black Lives Matter activists demanding street names in Barry be renamed, the diversity consultants who wanted our National Museum to drop the requirement for its staff to speak Welsh, or articles suggesting a lack of LGBTQ+ vocabulary makes the language itself somehow non-inclusive.
Just as there are many different ways to define identity, there are different ways of understanding inclusion, and of exclusion.
These conflicts are happening because our models of Diversity and Inclusion, and the legislation which they inform, are Anglophone ones.
They arose in the context of civil rights movements in the US and UK and designed to resist sexism, racism and homophobia: all noble goals and certainly nowhere near met.
Yet because they were formed in and designed to explain Anglophone contexts, where both oppressor and oppressed speak the same language, these models are thus inadequate to a bilingual, minority language context like Wales, where we have two languages, equal in their validity and centrality to individuals’ identity, yet fundamentally unequal when compared with one other in terms of power and privilege.
Take, for example, the I-walked-into-the-pub-and scenario so beloved of the anti-Welsh language brigade.
When the English-speaker walks into the pub and hears everyone else speaking Welsh, who is being excluded? Is it the English-speaker, who literally cannot participate or be included in the conversations going on around him, or is it the Welsh speakers, whom the newcomers expect to stop what they are doing and change to use the language of Power and prestige in order to accommodate him?
A model of Diversity and Inclusion which understands and legitimises ethnic identity only in terms of race and colour cannot help us here. We need new models, new ways of understanding where power and privilege really sits in these situations.
Until we have these, these conflicts will continue to happen, and the very people who style themselves as champions of the oppressed and resistors of cultural imperialism will carry on attacking Welsh, bit by bit eroding that which makes Wales genuinely different from the rest of the world. Hardly championing diversity, is it?
The author works in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.
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Excellent piece, though perhaps the writer is a little too kind in assuming that those who want to change the way we use our language are all “well-intentioned”. Even when people engage with them in good faith, “social justice” movements such as Black Rights Matter and trans rights activism are the epitome of cultural imperialism, seeking to impose American norms and attitudes everywhere. But they also offer a smokescreen from behind which the malicious and toxic can sow dissension within our society.
Couldn’t agree more with this or the original article – and I don’t usually subscribe to the “This is PC/wokenness gone mad brigade” nor invest in green-inked biros. I’m surprised too that none of the motto’s supporters have also pointed out that both lines are in cynghanedd, that unique medium of ‘consonantal chiming’ which pleased the ear of Gerald Manley Hopkins and has been party of our traddodiad barddol for centuries. Are we to sacrifice this on the altar of Angledom (yet again), thereby refuting the message of harmony, concord and goodwill to all nations via song, which was one… Read more »
Have a word with yourself won’t you?! What has ANY of this got to do with BLM or the demand that transpeople are treated with humanity?…and for that matter how have you managed to make the leap from BLM and the advocacy of trans rights as imported “Americanisms”? You know, given that there are black and transpeople in Cymru and have been for many hundreds of years?…. You’re an idiot and the collection of Top Gear-watching dweebs that are applauding you here are adding ever more credence to my point. You know nothing, you are a know-nothing. You are cringe.… Read more »
I’m sorry if my argument was too difficult for you to follow, but you really don’t strengthen your position by releasing a stream of vulgar abuse. I won’t respond in kind as it would be too easy.
If BLM is not an imported Americanism what on earth is it? What support can you offer for your assertion that there have been trans people in Wales for many hundreds of years? And what has Top Gear got to do with anything?
The running down of Welsh culture began long before the USA existed.
Conflagrating it with recent stuff you personally don’t like such as Black Rights Matter and trans rights activism makes it more difficult for those with different views on BLM and trans rights to agree with you that this particular issue is an example of cultural imperialism.
Out of interest what’s your view on the “imported Americanism” -of music eg Jazz, Country and Western, Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues Soul, I could go on.
I’m perfectly happy to culturally appropriate music (and other art forms) from around the world, though the historial appropriation of physical objects such as the Elgin Marbles or Benin bronzes raises some difficult issues. Others are of course welcome to their views on BLM and trans rights, but I would note the BLM movement arose as a response to US’s very specific history of chattel slavery and is of questionable relevance to black people in the UK; while the trans rights movement’s activities seem to be reducing rather than enhancing public acceptance of trans people – cf YouGov polling over… Read more »
It looks like you’re OK with “imported Americanism” when you like it and not OK with it when you don’t like it. That’s fine we all have opinions on what we like and don’t like. Blaming this particular situation on imported American Wokeism because you don’t like BLM or the trans rights movement let’s off the hook what’s really the cause – cultural imperialism. Regarding the history of Cymru, ask yourself which came first Wokeism or cultural imperialism. As to the Elgin marbles and Benin Bronzes (and Mold gold cape and Paviland bones)surely the “difficult issues” they raise are not… Read more »
It’s good to be able to pick what you like and reject what you don’t and there is no inconsistency there. The objectionable thing about cultural imperialism, of which Wokeism is the latest manifestation, is that you don’t get to choose – it’s thrust upon you whether you like it or not, and it’s about power, not politeness as some claim.
Here’s a definition of “cultural imperialism” that an internet search provides- the exercise of domination in cultural relationships in which the values, practices, and meanings of a powerful foreign culture are imposed upon one or more native cultures. This fits what’s happened in Cymru and fits what has been facilitated by many Cymry over centuries. For example a press story years before anyone had heard of Woke – “Welsh village’s plans to change name of Varteg [back] to Farteg are ditched after residents feared they would be ridiculed.” By the way do you think the Benin Bronzes and Mold Gold… Read more »
I’m in broad agreement with the views expressed by David Frum in this piece on the Benin bronzes: https://drive.google.com/file/d/12_nOAqlqUeqKDSQpexya8xEpBZzF7s2p/view
I wasn’t familiar with the case of the Mold Gold Cape but my instinctive reaction is that it should be held at Mold if satisfactory security and other arrangements can be made.
Thanks for the link to the 14 page opinion piece by David Frum that reflects your opinion on the Benin bronzes. If I’ve time I’ll read it
I notice that you haven’t contested what I wrote on cultural imperialism verus wokeism. I assume that one’s been put to bed.
I don’t see cultural imperialism and wokeism (your word, not mine) as two different things in tension with one another. The latter is just the latest variety of the former.
You did ask for my view on the Benin bronzes. If you’re seriously interested in these questions, the Frum piece is well worth your time. If you’re not, it isn’t.
Attempt at bridging time – The “woke” (ugh) stuff could be viewed as cultural imperialism given its censorious nature, its predominance among white uni-educated middle class kids (and man/lady-children), those holding positions of power in the tech/cultural/political sectors and the incessant focus on minority groups despite being an ideology that traces its roots to Frankfurt. This is how it butts up against Welsh culture, not knowing where it should fit (if at all) in the intersectional/grievance hierarchy. With regards to your counter examples – the return of artifacts stolen in the colonial era couldn’t apply as “woke” because that is… Read more »
The environment in which Wokism exists is one of cultural imperialism and it’s long established effect on us and how we view (and apologise for) Welsh culture and language. I’m pretty sure practically everyone commenting here has lost count of the number of times they’ve heard someone say “sorry” for using Welsh when speaking with those who do not. This has absolutely nothing to do with Wokeism. Wokeism is a bogeyman for those who don’t like it’s approach to lots of different issues. Assuming it’s the primary cause in this case provides an opportunity for them to make a case… Read more »
You can believe what you like I suppose…
Well yes I can – and indeed there is no power on earth that can stop anyone believing what they do, however wise, foolish, kind or vile. Do you have a substantive point to make?
What’s with all this hate? And the appeals to what younger people think? What’s with all the terminally online lingo? Once again, you prove yourself an exemplar of how we should avoid fuzzy thinking and all-or-nothing ideology. You write like a cyberbully, miss all the points then claim you’re being attacked, rinse and repeat.
So the tailoring to the ignorance of people who doesn’t understand the language. No, it shouldn’t be changed! But this is Wales, so it will no doubt be changed. We can’t even celebrate Owain Glyndwr because he’s White.
Please reply with all of the times people have been stopped from celebrating Owain Glyndwr due to his ethnicity:
Ah, ignorantly reacting to my post. Thanks for proving my point. The Welsh Government has advised that all Statues of historical White men be taken down. So….
“The Welsh Government has advised that all Statues of historical White men be taken down”
But not if the statues are dressed up in drag.
Drakeford has appointed a special advisor.
First to get the RuPaul treatment is the statue of Aneurin Bevan, located ironically in Queen Street in Cardiff.
Why are you going on about white, makes you seem a little odd.
Because that’s literally what’s being discussed, the confusion and ignorance of people surrounding the mis-understanding of Cymraeg…And how Welsh people will cater and often ruin elements of their own culture to appease a small minority of people. The people of the past who fought so hard to maintain it are no doubt rolling in their Graves.
I’m unaware of any denials in celebrating any figure from our history based on their race. Could you point to who and when this was said?
It’s been discussed as far away as Australia, says a lot about Wales and it’s people if the Aussies are discussing subjects about Wales, subjects that you aren’t even aware of.
Who in Australia? Please enlighten me. It’s tough when provision of evidence when making claims is absent, with only vague allusions to go on – seems bot-ish. Plus, the distance of the place where an idea is discussed is no longer an issue. Welcome to the internet age, Riki. If I am to take your commentary on this issue as a marker regarding the quality of the “subjects that (I’m not) even aware of”, then perhaps that’s OK. Read my other comments – do you think that I’m not ‘aware’ of social and political issues? Do you think I’m not… Read more »
Erthygl iawn, ond siwr i fod bo ti’n gwybod dydi “pobl woke” ddim yn chwilfydig yn cydraddoldeb. Maen nhw isio nerth. Heblaw, pobl ewropaidd ydy’r Cymru, felly y gelyn ydyn ni.
Mawr ddiolch, Adam: huge thanks for this eloquent, constructive, and so-accurate piece.
Regarding that first line, “Byd gwyn yw byd a gano…”, I now want to add (and I know this isn’t in cynghanedd…) “Gwaraidd fo ei drafod o!” – may the discussion of it be civilised !!.
Mae y cwpled,hefyd,yn cynnwys gair mwys (pun) ar yr enw WS Gwynn Williams,prif sylfaenydd yr Eisteddfod Ryngwladol.
Dwi’n mynd I weld y doctor fory, achos o “vibration white finger” siwr gen i
It’s worth standing up this time to challenge the mis-interpretation of the sentence. I understand and more often than not agree with the need to make language inclusive, to remove presumptions of what is normal or reinforcing ancient hierarchies which were never just, but this is nothing to do with that. We should also, respectively, challenge language campaigns where over-simplification removes diversity, understanding and respect. Not every challenge will be won, sometimes this will turn out to be the right thing regardless, but we can seek progress not perfection. There are people who have best intentions who fall foul, there… Read more »
This is getting ridiculous. There are many place names in Wales that have gwyn in its name , and when put into context means either blessed or white. What next, I ask? Is the name Afon Ddu to be changed because it means Black River in Cymraeg. The International Eisteddfod motto is no way racist We must not patronise our black & Asian brothers & sisters by tokenism when real racism occurs at the top of government. Just look at the updated Tory policy of sending fleeing wartorn migrants, some babies & children, to Rwanda. Most far-right loons wouldn’t know… Read more »
The unfortunate affair discussed in Adam Pearce’s excellent piece engaged my attention for two rather personal reasons when news of it broke last week. My secondary education was at Ysgol Dinas Brân, Llangollen and during my upbringing in the locality the excitement of the Llangollen International Eisteddfod featured prominently. (I graduated from first-form programme seller to proud sixth-form pavilion usher, and my late father was the stage steward who ushered the famous Obernkirchen Children’s Choir onto the Llangollen stage.) I note too that the renowned poet T. Gwynn Jones, author of the discarded motto Byd gwyn fydd byd a gano,/Gwaraidd fydd ei gerddi… Read more »
Whoever chose this person is a trouble maker…if you can’t do nuance or understand the complexity involved in a few words of Cymric poetry how can you be qualified for such a post…
Right wing, right hand, write a letter, correct.
It’s hardly* difficult to understand that one word can have various meanings.
*To be clear I mean ‘not’ difficult rather* than ‘firmly’ difficult….
To be clear* I mean as ‘apposed to’, not ‘prefer’.
To be clear I *mean ‘to make obvious’ rather than ‘*see through’.
*#Not the sea
#Not the average
Not a knot.
*To not two
I give up.
Byd gwyn fydd byd a gano,
Gwaraidd fydd ei gerddi fo.
The literal translation of this couplet into English would be something like
“A blessed word is that which sings;
It’s poetry civilised.”
You have a typo in the first English line. Byd is world not word!
The Welsh original should not be changed. Just use the familiar, traditional meanings of blessed or pure for ‘gwyn’. There was never a racist or supremacist comparison intended. As you say it’s in the Welsh Bible translated in 1588 from the Greek.
It was in the Irish Sea Scrolls…
What was in the Irish Sea Scrolls? A reference to gwyn?
My comment was a play on religious tracts printed/found in a cave and meant to be ‘purely’ comedic, or not…probably a bit too esoteric…
Frightfully clever and meant for a small number of people with specialised knowledge. My reference was meant to emphasise that the biblical (and poetical) meanings for gwyn have been around for centuries. K.I.S.S.
When a ‘people’ are not taught their own history in school it becomes ‘specialist’…
Imagine looking at all of the problems that Cymru and the world is facing and thing “Better change that Eisteddfod motto …just in case someone from twitter learns Cymraeg and then writes a nineteen-post tweet on why we are all racists”. Stupidity like this plays into the hands of the far-right that runs England and is growing in ascendence in Cymru….and so does The Nation: This article is full of dog whistles. How do I know? Just look at the comments: Every scumball in Cymru is on here talking about the evils of trans people having the same rights as… Read more »
Godwins law gets another airing, I see. It’s always disappointing when people show exactly how little they know about the single worst episode of identity-based hatred. Cathy, nobody here is railing against anything except the excesses of the critical lens currently being employed in culture. It’s not trans people or ethnic minorities but the awful reified Marxism that uses them as an idiot vanguard in their quest for hegemonic power. Thankfully, in my experience, the vast majority of Welsh LGBT people and those from ethnically diverse backgrounds have no time for this nonsense. They are people, not pawns in this… Read more »
Discussed this yesterday with two English students. They kept saying that Llangollen wasn’t “inclusive”. I told them that I’d been to Llangollen many times over the years and explained the history of the Eisteddfod. They have never been to Llangollen, or any other Eisteddfod. One said that it’s Llangollen’s “Welshness” that puts people off. I then began to get a grip of what is really driving this objection.
It was attending the Eisteddfod and giving up my bedroom to an Indian couple as a child in 1959 Dolgellau that taught me that it takes all kinds to make a world…
One of the most telling lines in that article was the last : The author works in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. They have to be his own because the norms embedded in our current E,D &I are of themselves exclusionary. They are intolerant of alternative views that do not conform to a narrow orthodoxy, hence the reluctance among people to accept much of that which is promulgated by self appointed “experts”.