Last week, the world had its eyes on Britain, as the London Olympics continued to provide high sporting drama, but little did they know that in Wales another competitive event of great national importance was taking place. An event, which for many in Wales, eclipsed the Olympics for that week.
That event was the National Eisteddfod of Wales, one of Wales’ main cultural festivals. In fact it claims to be Europe's largest cultural festival. Over 130,000 people passed through the gates of this moveable festival, which this year was held in Llandw, South Wales. The festival centres mainly on poetry, song and literature competitions, but also encompasses pop music, performance, dance, science, and art.
What makes this festival unique is that it is one of the only festivals in which the Welsh language is the primary language of every aspect of activity. Many other cultural events in Wales have Welsh speaking participants or may even be held primarily in Welsh, but the Eisteddfod has a rule which states that no public activity on the maes, the Eisteddfod field, may take place in any language other than Welsh.
Some may see this as a closed, illiberal attitude towards language use. After all languages usually coexist messily, but for the speakers of Welsh many see it as a linguistically liberating experience. For one week of the year Welsh is used in every context.
People have no qualms about conducting their business in Welsh. There is none of the usual coyness about greeting a stranger in Welsh first before in English in case they may not speak the language. It is almost as if it is a collective psychological boost, a sociolinguistic battery charging point if you will, for the speakers of this minority language, for whom English is an unavoidable part of their daily lives.
This YouTube video shows a day at the Eisteddfod by two young reporters for Welsh youth magazine Clic Online / Wicid.tv:
Hacking Welsh language culture
This year, for the first time, one of the components of this celebration of Welsh culture was an experiment in bringing civic digital media to the maes and in promoting the use of Welsh language web technologies.
Hacio'r Iaith, a loose collective of web enthusiasts, digital content producers, hackers and geeks, organised a week of sessions which aimed to bring the Welsh language web to the middle of the festival.
These sessions ranged from one on one social media tutorials, to use of Welsh language Wikipedia, to coding workshops. As a thread through the weeks events was a pop-up ‘local’ online news site Blogwyr Bro, which acted as a space for bloggers to write, or post videos and images.
Welsh media and government talk digital at the Eisteddfod
It seemed as if this experiment chimed with the times as the Welsh government Minster for Education and Culture, Leighton Andrews, announced that he was looking to give additonal funding to the Eisteddfod if it was willing to modernise through the use of new technologies. However, it was unclear to many who came into the Hacio'r Iaith tent, as to whether his ‘modernisation’ also meant bringing more use of English into the Eisteddfod in order to increase visitor numbers.
Rhodri Talfan Davies, controller of BBC Cymru Wales, also gave a speech which noted that they as an institution are facing a “challenge” to reach Welsh speakers in an age of diverse digital platforms, but that they were aiming to reach 50,000 Welsh speakers by 2015.
Some online commenters have raised doubts about this commitment however, as it comes at a time when the BBC have cut back on Welsh language online services and staff, such as their online sports coverage.
The Welsh language broadcaster S4C also pitched in to this Welsh digital zeitgeist, with the launch of a new digital fund which would fund new interactive services and products such as apps and web based video series. At least in this case there is funding behind the words which offers a path, in the short term at least, for improving the the Welsh language's use online through investing in content.
Tradition and technology in perfect harmony?
So was the experiment in bringing online civic media to Wales’ most venerated festival successful? On the whole, yes. Despite difficulties with connectivity and location, many people turned up to have practical advice about how to use Twitter for their societies or clubs, how to create Wikipedia articles or to learn more about the Welsh language software that is available. It is certainly an aspect that could be developed further for future festivals, and which could have a direct impact on how Welsh speakers use their language online.
The Hacio'r Iaith collective also put together concrete ideas for action to ensure that Welsh culture at the Eisteddfod can be shared much more widely with the world through the use of online media and technologies. On the whole these did depend upon having good access to the Internet at the festival which is not available at present and which is essential if they are to make the most of the possibilities of online communication and media.
Digital media and the web are often spoken of by institutions in broad catchphrases which can sound impressive but all too often lack the detail of how we use digital media to our benefit, and the problems that we face in doing that for small languages.
Small languages have to know how to use every tool in the box in order to survive but time and energy are rare resources, and decisions about the priorities for the use of those tools is probably the most important ones that their speakers make.
Next year's Eisteddfod will be a test as to whether the priorities, both linguistic and technological, are in the right place.