Planet excerpts

Mair Rees provides writes the sixteenth contribution to our Welsh Keywords series – inspired by Raymond Williams’ Keywords – which offers contemporary perspectives on contested meanings of words in Welsh and how these shifting meanings continue to shape our society.

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‘But that’s just stupid... you must know who your father was!’ These words, fired from my indignant ten–year-old tongue exposed my mam-gu’s cywilydd mercilessly. To further advertise the depth of her discomfort, a crimson glow, like a Swansea Bay sunrise, crawled up her neck and across her face. Replaying the scene to myself now, I am tortured by that same writhing cywilydd as I reproach my youthful naïvety and crassness.

Cywilydd means shame and the word made its first appearance in written form as gewilid in the book of Aneirin in the 13th century. However, the sentiment, as the book of Genesis would have us believe, has been with us since the dawn of humanity. Curiously, from the somewhat schizoid perspective of my bilingual brain, the word cywilydd seems far more shameful than its English counterpart. It would appear that this is not necessarily a bizarre personal quirk. Research has shown that people who speak more than one language can find emotionally charged words and ideas more difficult or even painful to express in one language than another. Some authors have chosen to write in their second (acquired) language rather than their first ‘mother’ tongue, as it gives them a certain emotional distance over the subject. When Samuel Beckett chose to begin writing in French he explained that he had turned away from his native English because he knew it too well, suggesting a striving to unknow, or to unburden himself. Language of course does not merely provide a vehicle for expression, it frames our perception of the world and the frames shift slightly as we weave and bob between languages. In my experience there are words and topics which can feel rather more burdensome in Welsh than English and vice versa. Cywilydd is one such word; it is charged right up to the hilt and it is as heavy as hell...