What is it about welsh?
Warning: do not read any further unless you are interested in deeply geeky stuff.
Words. I’ve always been fascinated by them. It’s not just the meanings they convey, but the sound of words, and the way they look written down.
Certain languages have an added appeal for me because they sound amazing when spoken, they look mysterious and exciting when written down, and they are bafflingly unlike my own mother tongue – the language you, the reader, presumably knows also, if you’re able to decipher this post.
Such a language is Welsh. It’s “a Celtic language of the Brittonic subgroup that is native to the Welsh people,” says Wikipedia. “Welsh evolved from Common Brittonic, the Celtic language spoken by the ancient Celtic Britons.”
Up till now, the only languages I’ve been familiar with (aside from Pig Latin, Elvish and Klingon) are English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and a smattering of Russian.
Google says there are 48 language families, and they are are at the root of all human languages.
Those I’ve mentioned above all descend from the ancient and widespread Indo-European language family.
The Indo-European family is divided into several branches, of which there are eight with languages still alive today and another nine that are now extinct.
English and German are descended from the Germanic branch, Russian from the Balto-Slavic, French, Italian and Spanish are from the Italic (they have another sub-group, called “Romance“) and Welsh from the Celtic.
The Celtic branch is very distinct. It’s divided into two sub-groups: the Goidelic (or Gaelic) languages and the Brythonic (or Brittonic) languages. I’m intrigued by both of these sub-groups but decided to focus on Welsh due to time constraints. (Oh and Wales has dragons, too, which is a bonus.)
J R R Tolkien and the Welsh language
It was listening to a Welsh song that inspired me to start learning the language. That, and the fact that my literary hero J R R Tolkien was also inspired by Welsh. As a boy, he used to see Welsh place-names painted on coal trucks from South Wales that clattered along on a railway line adjoining his childhood garden in King’s Heath, Birmingham.
I should have said Welsh has always attracted me. By its style and sound more than any other, ever though I first only saw it on coal trucks, I always wanted to know what it was about.~ J R R Tolkien
The mystery and beauty of the Welsh written language inspired him to create his own languages. He, too, was spellbound by it. On an early train journey into Wales, he spotted the name “Ebbw” and ‘just couldn’t get over it. Not long after I started inventing my own languages.’”
The spell cast by the song
Back to that song, “Yma O Hyd” (translating as “Still Here”). It’s a nationalist song, filled with passion, opening with the drumming of an acoustic guitar and the molten silver notes of a harp. Then in comes the mellow voice of the song’s composer, Dafydd Iwan. I make it a rule to avoid commenting on politics, and it was not the meaning of the song that entranced me (I had no idea what it meant) but the beauty of the language and the melody. As far as I was concerned, the song could have been about anything or nothing. To me it was magical.
For a start, right there in the third line is the word “flynyddoedd”. Gob-smacking. What a word! Completely unpronounceable, obviously, though Dafydd was somehow managing to sing it with no problems. I was tempted never to translate this beauty into English, in case it lost its magic by meaning something mundane like “beige” or “carpet-slippers”, but eventually I did. To its credit, it means “years”. This is a concept that’s majestic enough to suit such a word.
Anyway, what’s with all the “d”s and “y”s in “flynyddoedd”? Not to mention all the “w”s that inundate the rest of the Welsh language? I wonder if it’s something to do with ancient writing systems, and rune-derived characters we’ve lost over the last few thousand flynyddoedd?
The missing letters of the alphabet
The wonderful Youtuber Rob Words published a video called LOST LETTERS OF THE ALPHABET: 9 letters we stopped using. If English hadn’t dropped all those letters, we could be using them to write Welsh.
“dd” for example is just a pale replacement for “eth”. Eth (uppercase: Ð, lowercase: ð) was a letter used in Old English. The sound is the “th” sound in “those”, “these” and “they”. If we brought eth back we could write “flynyddoedd” as “flynyðoeð”. That would make it look even more Elvish and magical.
The “Barred U” ʉ isn’t a missing rune, but it’s a symbol used in the International Phonetic Alphabet to indicate the sound “oo” as in “goose”. This would be very useful in writing Welsh, because currently the letter “w” is used to represent that sound.
On the other hand, using “w” for “oo” does increase the mystery and allure of the language. Take, for example, a word like “cwrw”. Written down, it looks impenetrable, esoteric, marvellous. It also sounds glorious, “cooroo”… the sound of the wind blowing through the boughs of pine trees at the edge of the ocean . . . cʉrʉ . . .
In fact the word simply means “beer”, which is nice, but a bit prosaic.
I vote we bring back the Old English runes wynn, Ƿ ƿ, thorn þ (the softer “th” sound in “thorn”) and eth ð.
Welsh vowels – some of the other mysteries
Youtuber Gwyneth Angharad teaches us about Welsh vowels. As well as pronouncing “w” as “oo”, you pronounce “u” as “i”.
“Y” is mostly pronounced like schwa, the a vowel sound denoted by the IPA symbol ⟨ə⟩. Gwyneth describes this as “the lazy sound you have at the beginning of ‘alive’ or ‘about’.” Depending on where it is in a word, “y” can also sound like “i”. . .
It’s not easy learning Welsh!
Some of my favourite Welsh words
If Tolkien wasn’t inspired by the Welsh word for “The Netherlands” I’d be very surprised. It sounds as if it comes straight from Middle-Earth: “yr Iseldiroedd” (or Iseldiroeð if you use “eth”). So much more attractive than the English version!
Another magnificently Tolkienesque Welsh word is “hiraeth”. This is one of those special words whose meaning actually matches the haunting melodiousness of its sound.
“Hiraeth,” says Wikipedia, “is a Welsh word that has no direct English translation. The University of Wales, Lampeter, likens it to a homesickness tinged with grief and sadness over the lost or departed, especially in the context of Wales and Welsh culture. It is a mixture of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness or an earnest desire for the Wales of the past.”
It sounds exactly like the “langothe” from the BITTERBYNDE trilogy.
Are there any languages that you particularly love for their sound and style?