Casi Wyn: The Poet Keeping The Welsh Language Alive
“There’s a tendency, from the English gaze at least, to see Welsh communities as inaccessible or to perceive Welsh-speaking communities as uninviting because language is something so specific,” says Casi Wyn – singer, co-founder of Welsh zine Codi Pais, and the current Children and Youth Poet Laureate for Wales (Bardd Plant Cymru). However, Wyn and her work are proof that Welsh identity – and the language that defines it – is not confined to one nation but that “you can bring the world to Wales, and Wales to the world and they don’t necessarily have to be separate entities”.
Having been signed to Roc Nation as a songwriter, Wyn came to appreciate the power of lyricism and her own native language from a new perspective. “Communities are complex but more so if those communities intrinsically identify with traumatic events within a nation’s history, and a language that only a minority of the population speaks. I feel poetry and art can [be used to] resolve some of the ancestral pain that Wales carries.”
The ancestral pain dates back to the 13th century when the last Welsh king, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, was conquered by the English king Edward I and the term ‘Prince of Wales’ was created. In the centuries that followed, the Welsh language gradually became less dominant. During the Tudor dynasty, which ruled England and Wales from 1485 to 1603, Wales was absorbed into the English administrative system and lost its own traditions. From that time, there was a slow decline in the publication of Welsh literature (even though, apart from Latin and Greek, the Welsh language has the oldest literature in Europe). By the 19th century, all education in Wales was taught in the English language and, in some schools, children were made to wear a wooden plaque around their necks with the letters WN (Welsh Not) inscribed on it if they spoke Welsh.
Now, Welsh is a language spoken by about 899,500 people, roughly 29.7% of the country’s population. As Bardd Plant Cymru, Wyn’s work consists of travelling around the country introducing children to Welsh-language literature and the expressive power of creative writing, while simultaneously championing the cause of preserving a language that runs the risk of extinction.
This work is a larger lesson about minority languages. Every language is its own philosophy, a set of building blocks its speakers use to construct their understanding of themselves and communicate with the people around them. It is no surprise then that language has always been inextricable from the politics of its place; used in equal measure as a tool of both domination and defiance.
We see this in Wales, where the neighbouring presence of the world’s most linguistically dominant nation has, in Wyn’s words, “given it a fragility that drives Welsh poets and artists to use it as a vehicle of authentic power and defiance”. We see it in Turkey where it was illegal to speak Kurdish until 1991 and where there is still no right to mother-tongue education in schools. We see it in Tibet, where the Chinese government has instituted a number of methods to make Chinese the dominant language in Tibetan schools. The list goes on.
Wyn offers an inspiring example of the work being done within minority communities to ensure native languages not only survive but flourish. “As someone who identifies closely with my Welsh roots, I’ve learned to accept and embrace that I have a different understanding of the world through the lens of Welshness and the vocabulary that I’ve inherited,” says Wyn. “Trying to understand our differences by creating and designing things that are beautiful, that are valuable, that are inclusive, that are celebratory of life in all its complicated strands, is what inspires my work. It’s valuing the smaller things, things that perhaps from an outside perspective seem insignificant – and that at its core, for me at least, is the essence of poetry.”
Mary Cleary, a London-based New Yorker, is the beauty editor at design publication Wallpaper* Magazine