I’ve always been inspired by, and drawn to, the sound of different languages. Ditto for music, especially folk and rock. Hearing people speak certain languages, or even hearing their accent when speaking my native tongue, can have a physical effect on me, generating tingles up my spine and a strong sense of pleasure. Music can do the same; think of standing in a cathedral whose pipe organ suddenly produces a loud, prolonged chord in some minor key. The effect thrills and saturates you from your toes to the roots of your hair.
Some of my favourite accents include Finnish, Spanish, Irish, Scottish and Welsh. I also love the English regional accents.
The look of the written words of various languages also appeals to me. The Cyrillic alphabet looks amazing on the page. Japanese and Chinese pictograms look gorgeous, and of course we all love Egyptian hieroglyphs.
In the Roman alphabet, the written languages that strike straight to my heart include Irish and Welsh. I read somewhere that as a boy, JRR Tolkien lived in a house with a railway line at the bottom of the back garden, He used to love reading the Welsh names on the freight trucks as they rolled by. I can see why!
Why eat nothing but toast for every meal when you can enjoy a feast of diverse foods for free?
Like so many people, (such as Kate Burridge and Giles Brandreth ) I love words. We love their sound, the nuances of their meanings, their etymology, their power, and even the way they look written down. As a youngster I used to read the dictionary and thesaurus for fun. I love learning new words (in all languages) and increasing my vocabulary.
How is it helpful to learn more words?
Having a wide vocabulary is essential to effective communication, and it can have a lot of benefits both in personal and professional contexts. Here are some of the most important benefits of a wide vocabulary:
Clear and effective communication: A wide vocabulary can help you express your thoughts and ideas more clearly and accurately. When you have a good command of words, you can choose the right words to convey your message with precision and avoid ambiguity. This is particularly important in professions that require clear communication such as teaching, public speaking, and writing.
Improved comprehension: A wide vocabulary also makes it easier to understand what others are saying or writing. You can pick up on subtle nuances in language and understand complex concepts more easily. This can be particularly beneficial when reading academic texts or when participating in intellectual conversations.
Enhanced creativity: A wide vocabulary can also help to enhance your creativity. When you have a large pool of words to draw from, you can express your ideas in unique and innovative ways. This can be particularly useful when writing creatively or when trying to come up with new ideas at work.
Improved cognitive abilities: Studies have shown that having a wide vocabulary can also improve cognitive abilities, such as memory and critical thinking. Learning new words requires active engagement with the language and can help to stimulate the brain and keep it agile.
Better job prospects: A wide vocabulary can be an asset in the workplace. It can make you a more effective communicator, improve your writing skills, and enhance your ability to understand complex texts. These skills are highly valued by employers, and can give you an edge in the job market.
It’s worth investing time and effort into learning new words and expanding your vocabulary. Reading, playing word games, and using new words in your writing and speech are all great ways to build your vocabulary and reap the benefits that come with it.
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?
“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.”
Zat Rana wrote, in an article for QUARTZ, published on 18 October, 2017:
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY: You “become” what you read.
“. . . I don’t think most of us internalize quite how much, and sometimes how subtly, what we read determines who we become.
“Input shapes your output.
“Language is our primary tool of communication. It’s how we build and organize our knowledge, and it’s what allows us to interact with each other.
“Outside of direct experience, it’s also largely how we create our perception of reality. The information your senses absorb through your surroundings combine to create linguistic (and subconscious) models in your mind about how the world works and the best way to interact with it.
“One part of this occurs through verbal conversation, or listening to something in general, but for most knowledge workers and for the average person in developed countries a larger part of it is directly a result of what we consume [via reading].
You are what you read. The information that you input into your mind informs your thinking patterns, and it influences your output in the form of the decisions you make, the work you produce, and the interactions you have.
“That’s a huge incentive to prioritize a block of time to think about what and how you consume [read], and whether or not you read adequately relative to the progress you want to make. It’s a reason to maybe pause and consider if you can do anything to purposefully shape the direction of your mind.
“Naturally, input doesn’t necessarily mean quantity. The correlation between how much you read or consume and what you can do or who you become begins to even off after a certain point, and more isn’t always better.
“This is entirely about what the quality of your predominant sources of input [books] are, and the importance of those can’t be overstated.”
Professor JRR Tolkien
Which authors have influenced my own writing over my lifetime?
Primarily, Professor JRR Tolkien and Tanith Lee, but also (in no particular order) –
Nicholas Stuart Gray, George MacDonald, John Keats,
William Shakespeare, Isaac Asimov, Eleanor Farjeon,
C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clarke, E. Nesbit,
Andre Norton, Ann McCaffrey, Charles Dickens,
George Eliot, Terry Pratchett, Jane Austen,
Ray Bradbury, Susannah Clark, Thomas Hardy,
Simon Winchester, Dianna Wynne-Jones, Douglas Adams,
Alan Garner, CS Lewis, Andrew Lang,
William Allingham, Hilda Lewis, Charles Kingsley,
Emily Brontë, Juliet Marillier, William Morris,
Ursula LeGuin, Jackie French, Walter de la Mare, and more.
All these writers and poets have strongly influenced my inner worlds and contributed, in their own way. to the creation of the Bitterbynde Trilogy. In addition to giving me inspiration, they have also given me joy, peace, excitement, wonderment and delight. They have increased my vocabulary and helped me to look at the world in new ways.
Another WRITING TIP. ✨✨✨
Let your hands do the learning.
When you write down another person’s words, by hand (not on a keyboard), you catch a glimpse of the way they think. It can be awakening and inspiring.
“While typing may be faster and more convenient, research shows that handwriting has its own unique advantages.
Effective Memory Recall “Though a little more time consuming, there are many benefits of handwriting your notes. Longhand notes allow for better short- and long-term memory recall because they contain your own words and handwriting. These can serve as effective memory cues by recreating the context and content from the original lecture or meeting.
“When you write things out, you create spatial relations between each bit of information you’re recording. Handwriting activates parts of your brain involved in thinking and working memory, and allows you to store and manage information. The movement associated with the pen and your hand can help you encode and retain information long-term.
Sharpened Critical Thinking
“Comparing handwriting vs. typing, you’re more exposed to critical thinking when you write by hand than when you type. Handwriting allows you to think more thoroughly about the information you’re recording. It encourages you to expand upon your thoughts and form connections between them.
Stronger Conceptual Understanding
“When you write your notes by hand, you develop a stronger conceptual understanding than by typing. Since handwriting is slower and more tedious, it makes it harder to take notes verbatim. Therefore you have to actually process the information and summarize it in a way that makes sense for you.
“This illustrates one of the other benefits of handwriting vs. typing. Handwriting forces your brain to mentally engage with the information, improving both literacy and reading comprehension. On the other hand, typing encourages verbatim notes without giving much thought to the information. This mindless transcription can lead to a lack of meaningful understanding and application of the information, although you may be able to type more words quickly.”
Copying the work of others for the purpose of study
Write by hand
Copying master drawings is something many visual artists, for hundreds of years, have incorporated into their studies. Why? Because it is an excellent way to closely evaluate and learn about the best artwork. It was a widespread method used during the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s not plagiarism, as long as you don;t claim the work as your own.
Just as visual artists can benefit from copying the masters, so can writers. Choose your favourite writers and copy out (by hand) a few paragraphs from their work. It will make you think differently, and it’s a valuable tool for aspiring writers.
When I was a child, the walls of our home were lined with shelves of books. Most of them were chosen by our mother. Our beloved father was too busy earning a living to support his family, to have time to visit the local library. (He made up for it by reading to us every evening at bedtime.)
Our household was not affluent. Books were a luxury that had to be borrowed or saved up for. As a special treat, at birthdays or Christmas time, our parents would buy us a book as a present.
We were fortunate that Mum had carefully kept the books she herself had loved as a child. We were allowed to read them whenever we liked. There was no TV in the house, so my sisters and I used to immerse ourselves in books whenever we weren’t playing out in the garden. Mum loved fantasy. Her childhood books included Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies series, the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, and a book of children’s poems by Water de la Mare. It was called Down–Adown–Derry. I still remember being enthralled by the poems in this book, and the exquisite illustrations by Dorothy P. Lathrop. Fortunately for children of the 21st century, you can find the text and illustrations online at Project Gutenberg.
The Romantic Poets
When I reached my teens I discovered other poets, including Tennyson (The Lady of Shallott), Wordsworth, Shelley (Ozymandias), Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and Keats (La Belle Dame sans Merci). Of these, Keats was my favourite. His The Eve of St Agnes and To Autumn remain my most beloved poems.
The classic children’s poets (including Christina Rossetti) and the Romantic Poets influenced my inner world, and my later writing. My focus is very narrow; there is almost no other poetry I enjoy. (That said, I do love Shakespeare’s sonnets.)
But I really do love the words of these poets. The images they evoke, their metre, their rhyme and rhythm, all combine to produce a wondrous reading experience. On the other hand, I actively avoid most other “poetry” (particularly blank verse or free verse), finding it boring, pretentious, unintelligible or all of the above.
The Least Popular Genre
When I was touring bookshops, giving talks and signing copies of The Bitterbynde, I used to ask the bookshop staff, “What are the most popular genres?”
“Self-help” they’d invariably reply, “followed by biographies and autobiographies”.
“What’s the least popular?”
And I can understand this! For me, pretty much all poetry that isn’t written by the poets I’ve mentioned, is a turn-off. I know people who actively loathe all poetry – perhaps they have never read the work of the Romantics . . .
Poetry may be the least popular genre, but that doesn’t alter my passion for it. I include short verses in my books, usually at chapter openings. This can set the scene for the chapter. Writing verse is invigorating and inspiring, like a mental work-out. You have to choose your words very, very carefully when writing formally structured poetry with rhyming and metre. The structure forces you to think differently. In most cases it improves the quality of your writing.
The Fairies by William Allingham
Here’s a poem that my sisters and I used to sing together, as children. The opening sounds cute and fluffy, but when you read the subsequent verses you realise how dark and dangerous “real” fairies can be.
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!
WHEN I STUMBLED across some quotes from my work on the website AZ quotes, I felt surprised and deeply honoured.
I won’t say I felt “humbled”, because in the 21st century that word is often skewed to mean the exact opposite of its original definition. Correctly, when someone is “humbled” they are made to feel less important or less proud. Seeing my quotes online did not make me feel less important or less proud. Quite the reverse!
There’s a current fad for using “humbled” in the sense that a person feels they really don’t live up to a compliment. Of course, language is always in a state of flux, and “humbled” has just fluxed big-time. But I don’t have to go along with it! Using a term to mean its opposite is anathema to my pedantic word-nerd instincts.
Pedantic word-nerd instincts
I have no problem with typos. I make plenty of them myself. Typos are generally made by busy people getting things done.
Spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors, on the other hand, I find annoying, particularly when they’re made by professional scribes such as journalists and authors. So many “trained” journalists are dangling their participles these days that it threatens to derail my sanity and that of my fellow pedants entirely. This keen awareness of the rules of language is part of my DNA. According to some, this means I’m probably an introvert. Who’d have guessed?
I’m not the only one afflicted by this issue – check out Weird Al’s song “Word Crimes” on YouTube. Love ya, Al.
Furthermore, the idea that one should always say “[insert name here] and I”, every single time, no matter what grammatical case one is employing, is a fallacy.
You don’t have to know what the cases are called, just use common sense.
“My friend and I went to the beach”. Correct! “The postman handed the parcels to my friend and me.” Correct! Simply imagine the sentence without the words “my friend and”. Then, if your English is good, you’ll instinctively know which form to use.
“I went to the beach”. “The postman handed the parcels to me.”
Quite the Irritant
Sweeping the English-speaking world, there seems to be another sudden fad for using the definite article (“the”) before the word “quite”, for example, “It’s quite the steep hill, isn’t it,” and “It’s quite the hot day today.” Noooo!
The Cambridge English Dictionary, bless its paper heart, explains that “Quite is a degree adverb. It has two meanings depending on the word that follows it: ‘a little, moderately but not very’ and ‘very, totally or completely’:
A little or a lot but not completely: “It was quite a difficult job.”
To a large degree: “School is quite different from what it once was.”
Completely: “I’ve not quite finished yet.”
Really or truly: “It was quite a remarkable speech.”
Here are two examples in which using “quite + the” is correct:
“He’s not inefficient; quite the contrary.”
Pairing “quite” with “the” was especially popular during the 1920s. In the perfectly grammatically correct and utterly delightful novels of PG Wodehouse, for example, a character could be described as “quite the cad”, (meaning a a man who behaves dishonourably). A trend could be described as “Quite the thing,” meaning “socially acceptable”. In this sense, something or someone is being compared to a stereotype; the stereotypical cad, or the stereotypical trend.
The steep hill and the hot day mentioned above are not stereotypical in that sense.
Why it matters
As David Shariatmadari writes in The Guardian, “I feel something akin to having a stone in my shoe when I see a mistake. It acts as an irritant.”
Me too. Does this mean that I am an introvert? That I have OCD? I don’t know. The way I see it, language is an exquisite, precise tool for conveying meaning, and when a precision tool is blunted, the result is usually pretty poor. Meaning can be confused or lost. And it need not be!
I don’t correct anyone’s use of language unless they ask me to, because, well, I like to show some respect. Also, I don’t judge people (except journalists and editors) on their use of language. Journalists and editors are trained in language, as the tool of their trade!
By the same token, I am happy to be corrected if I err. Like anyone else, I can make mistakes.
We “Grammardian Angels” have our role to play, as Roslyn Petelin, Associate Professor in Writing, at the University of Queensland points out in her article In Defence of Grammar Pedantry. Petelin includes a light-hearted quote from BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman;
“People who care about grammar are regularly characterised as pedants. I say that those who don’t care about it shouldn’t be surprised if we pay no attention to anything they say — if indeed they are aware of what they’re trying to say.”
I’ll conclude as I began, with a reference to some quotes from my books that are popular on the Internet.
If you are the lantern, I am the flame;
If you are the lake, then I am the rain;
If you are the desert, I am the sea;
If you are the blossom, I am the bee;
If you are the fruit, then I am the core;
If you are the rock, then I am the ore;
If you are the ballad, I am the word;
If you are the sheath, then I am the sword.
~ Cecilia Dart-Thornton: Most popular quote on A-Z Quotes.
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