Professor E Wyn James, of Cardiff University, has traced the history of Welsh settlers in Patagonia, South America, find an enclave of native speakers still existing.
In Chubut Valley in Patagonia, people sing Welsh hymns, drink a Welsh tea, watch Welsh folk dancing, and partake in traditional Welsh festivals. Only 150 people settled in Chubut Valley 150 years ago, and today, there exist at least 5000 Welsh speakers rather than the main community language of Spanish.
The Welsh settled there because of economic push factors leading to emigration, familiar to all geography students, but they also sought political and religious freedom they couldn’t find in their original home of Wales and later, Liverpool.
These settlers were headed by Michael D Jones, who sought to realise an objective of Welsh-speaking, self-governing, nonconformist communities – something he found in Patagonia.
History students will note the unusual decision to move to Patagonia is not actually surprising considering the political freedom offered for emigrants from the British isles during this time period, while linguistics students should note the impressive spread of Welsh from an isolated enclave of settlers, and how the spread of language can relate to the relative power of people within a given community.
Key to this story is Michael D Jones’s reason for emigration not being primarily financial, but on the grounds of nationalism. Nationalism can be distinguished from patriotism by its political implications; patriotism is the non-politicised form of nationalism which involves pride in and love of the nation, with an emphasis on beliefs and values, while nationalism indicates a unity through shared language, history, and culture. In such a way, the settlers intended to preserve their language and culture and markers of nation in a new territory.
Language as a defining facet of a nation is evident in projects such as Enduring Voices which aims to preserve endangered languages. Language as tied to nationhood and the connotations of belonging that come with it have been supported by projects such as these, but also challenged by the language of Esperanto. Linguistics and modern languages students should note the difference between naturally emerging languages and constructed auxiliary languages like Esperanto, which aims to be a politically neutral, easily learned language to transcend national boundaries which native languages often reinforce.
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