NAASWCH 2016 – event report

The 2016 biennial NAASWCH (North American Association for the Study of Welsh Culture and History) conference took place at Harvard University from July 20 – 22, 2016.

The conference was hosted by the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University and organised by NAASWCH secretary Melinda Gray and NAASWCH President for 2014 – 16, Professor Daniel G. Williams FLSW of Swansea University.

The conference was consitited of three full days of panels, three or four running at a time, and panelists from Wales and the UK in conversation with researchers from the US, Canada, Poland and Germany. Welsh studies was reflected in its diversity with papers on history, literature, media studies, linguistics, law, politics and the social sciences. A series of responses to the conference from participants can be found here.

The Learned Society of Wales sponsored the keynote address delivered by Professor Marc Shell of Harvard University. Daniel Williams’s report on Professor Shell’s lecture follows:

Marc Shell, Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature and Professor of English at Harvard University, was invited to deliver a keynote lecture at this year’s NAASWCH conference due, in particular, to his work on nationalism and language. A keynote lecture based on his seminal articles ‘Language Wars’ or ‘Babel in America’ would have more than sufficed, but Professor Shell took the conference theme and sponsorship by the Learned Society of Wales to heart. Confessing that he knew little specifically about Wales, his illustrated lecture drew consistently on Welsh sources and images, perhaps most strikingly the series of Welsh paper money from the nineteenth century.

Due to a combination of the early cultural nationalist tendency to equate Welshness with the Welsh language, the calamitous decline in the percentage of Welsh speakers in the twentieth century, and the desire to embrace a civic Wales that transcends cultural differences, the emphasis of Anglophone Welsh studies since the 1970s has often been to turn away from language to questions of class, gender, geography, sexuality and so on. Language difference rarely features in the Anglophone cultural studies practiced at English and American universities. Marc Shell reverses this trend. Writing in an United States in which ‘laudable concerns with free speech, dialect, bilingual education, ethnicity and cultural diversity serve effectively to mask substantive language issues’, Shell puts linguistic matters back at the centre. He entertained the notion that language may be ‘the essential component of culture’, and suggested that ‘it is often difficult to find a more fundamental and ubiquitous cause’ for military conflict than language difference.

It is difficult to summarize Shell’s remarkable lecture, “Language War; or ‘This New English’” delivered  at Harvard on July 21, 2016. He began by noting the ubiquity of idioms equating language and peoplehood or nationhood. The Welsh ‘cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon‘ (‘a nation without a language is a nation without a heart’) was placed in the context of similar statements in the other Celtic languages, other traditions, and Wittgenstein’s belief that “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt”  [The limits of my language are the limits of my universe]. It is therefore not surprising that any successful act of colonization involves linguicide. Throughout the globe and throughout the centuries, people have been killed as a consequence of being unable to to speak a particular language or even to pronounce such words as ‘shibboleth‘ or ‘cheese‘ without an accent.  Shell proceeded to explore this process in the British Isles, noting the Cornish reluctance to embrace a ‘new English‘ in the 16th century, and foregrounding images of throat cutting in the visual and literary record, from Mamorris’s observation that ‘there is throats to be cut’ in Shakespeare’s Henry V, to Henry Higgins’s belief that Eliza Doolittle should be ‘taken out and hung / For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue’ in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

Language difference could be, and in some parts of the world still is, a matter of life and death. The ability, therefore, to enunciate ‘shibboleth’ correctly becomes a matter of significance. The password or keyword allowing access to another culture, or proving that one belongs to another culture, can be extrapolated into considerations of other kinds of tokens and passes. Shell drew particular attention money (one of his particular areas of expertise), and to communion tokens (with several examples from Wales) that allowed the owner to partake in the communion ceremony. In an hour lecture the move from language to communion seemed somewhat stretched to me on first listening. It was only later in the summer that I was told that the French word for ‘jabberer’ or ‘speaker of gibberish’ is baragouiner, a word deriving form the ‘bara’  (bread) and ‘gwin’ (wine) of Breton (which shares these identical words with Welsh). Shell’s writings often function in this way, in my experience. It takes a while to follow his lines of thought and interconnections, and things that seemed implicit in his work return to inform and condition one’s future readings and real life experiences. His emphasis was on the ways in which language can condition behavior, and on the ways in which cultural transactions mediate the tensions deriving from the desires to maintain difference, on the one hand, and to assimilate on the other.

‘It is deceptively easy nowadays in the predominantly anglophone United States’ states Shell, to ‘celebrate linguistic diversity. In much the same way it is safe, in a territory where all tigers are believed to be extinct, to celebrate biological diversity. Indeed, the very disappearance of another group’s language often provides the dominant group with a sublime platform from which to enjoy it, as well as a  tragedian’s soapbox on which to bemoan the loss of language diversity’. We are not in that position in Wales, yet. The possibility of fostering the nation’s bilingualism as a basis for a broader multilingual citizenship remains a possibility. Some of the resources for understanding that the struggle for the Welsh language has international and global implications, and for navigating the inevitable cultural strains that derive from inhabiting a bilingual territory, are to be found in the writings of Marc Shell. He confessed that work on this lecture had resulted in the formulation of a new book on ‘New Englishes’, a volume that I look forward to with great anticipation.