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16 October 2014
BBC Wales - Society & CultureWales at a glance

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Welsh culture

The Welsh language unravelled, culture in Wales exposed, and just what was Cool Cymru?

What's with the strange names on the road signs?

Wales is a country with two languages: Welsh and English. Welsh is spoken by around 20% of the population. Although the north west has the highest ratio of Welsh to English speakers, a greater number of Welsh speakers live in the more populous south. Most areas are far from completely Anglicised, and the language is strong across Wales.

There are several dialects of Welsh, most audibly north and south. The road signs are bilingual, giving both the Welsh and English versions of the text and placenames.

The Welsh language (Cymraeg) continues to flourish within Wales thanks to Welsh-medium education, a lively media industry and the enthusiasm of people living in Wales. The rights of the language have also been helped by bilingual and language policies made law by the Government.

What about the Welsh stereotypes? Isn't it all daffodils and leeks?

The daffodil and the leek are national flowers of Wales. One species of daffodil, narcissus obvallaris, is found only in a small area around Tenby.

According to legend, Saint David ordered his Welsh soldiers to identify themselves by wearing leeks on their helmets in an ancient battle against the Saxons that took place in a leek field. This may be a myth, but the vegetable certainly has enjoyed a lengthy association with the country. In Henry V, Shakespeare refers to wearing one as an "ancient tradition", and in the same play Henry tells Fluellen he is wearing a leek, "for I am Welsh, you know, good countryman".

And what about male voice choirs?

Wales is sometimes known as the land of song, and is famed for its singers. In the words of Tom Jones, "Singing in South Wales is part of life. When I was growing up I don't think I ever remembered life in South Wales without singing. There was singing in school, there was singing in chapel, and singing around the house.

"Singing is a part of life in South Wales. Throughout Great Britain, people know that the Welsh can sing. And the male voice choirs, you know there are many male voice choirs, as opposed to the brass bands and silver bands in the north of England. We have those in Wales as well, but it is mostly choirs. The music that we made was always vocal, as opposed to instrumental."

Are there any other notable aspects of Welsh life?

Plenty. Rugby is the sport most avidly followed, particularly in South Wales. Dylan Thomas is Wales' best-known writer, though for notoriety as much as for his literary achievements. The Welsh-language programme Pobol Y Cwm is the UK's longest running BBC television soap.

There are also several traditional types of food. Laverbread is a traditional delicacy made from seaweed. Welsh cakes are sweet scone-like snacks made from flour, butter, eggs, sugar and currants. And bara brith is a traditional Welsh fruitcake.

LovespoonsIf you're feeling particularly daring, you could try eating with a Welsh lovespoon. These have their roots in the 17th century, when men were unable to read or write, and instead carved intricate spoons as tokens of love and affection. They're still given and cherished today.

Find out more about Welsh customs.

What's cultural life in Wales like?

Wales' culture is diverse to say the least. All branches of the arts are well represented in Wales in both languages. There are galleries, theatres, museums, concert halls and libraries throughout Wales, to host and support the many cultural activities taking place.

From the traditional to the modern; from the deep-seated to the cutting-edge; from an inward-looking search for national identity and art-forms to the increasing influence and presence of multi-ethnic ideas and practices.

What was Cool Cymru all about?

CatatoniaCool Cymru was the name given to the explosion of Welsh talent which took Wales into the international cultural scene. Coined in the late stages of the 1990s, the term was applied to the new and exciting talent making a name for itself internationally.

Initially sparked by the popularity of bands like Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia and Stereophonics, it lead to the idea that Wales was an untapped vein of new and exciting talent.

Other talents in other cultural fields soon emerged, such as film maker Justin Kerrigan (Human Traffic) and fashion designer Julien Macdonald. It was a reaction to the staid and dated old guard of Welsh culture, as well as an expression of the growing confidence in Wales.

This confidence was engendered by the forming of the National Assembly and a growing sense of Welsh identity. During Wales' cultural resurgence, Newport in South Wales was briefly held to be the 'new Seattle' (a reference to that city's grunge boom in the 90s), and bands such as Super Furry Animals, 60ft Dolls and Big Leaves were expected to do great things.

In reality, however, the Cool Cymru period was short lived, and only a handful of bands from that time achieved anything of lasting impact. These days the term is considered to be a bit of a joke; a media creation following the similarly media-led mid-90s Cool Britannia period that encompassed the Britpop musical years.

For more sounds from Wales, visit our music website. Or check out our sites for arts and entertainment in Wales.
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