Welsh Key Words: Tangnefedd

From Planet 218

This is the fourteenth 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.

In the first week of 2015 Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité emerged again as key words in our political discourse. But in the hours and days after the Paris attacks, it soon became clear that the French motto was much less than the sum of its parts. The heavyweight was the first word in the trio. Liberté. This cry could be heard loud and often; Égalité was only occasionally muttered; by the time it was Fraternité’s turn nobody seemed to have any breath left. The problem was and is that the freedom of the placards does not chime well with equality and fraternity. In our Western democracies, while we may have placed freedom on the pedestal of supreme values, we have overlooked the fact that this freedom is not everybody’s. Under our democratic system, you’re free if you’re one of the majority: you get to make up the rules and agree the rights. Having snuggled up, freedom and democracy have left equality a squashed little bedfellow, with fraternity finding it difficult to get into the boudoir at all. But as for fraternity, well, let’s not forget that it was a late-ish appendage to the liberté-égalité pair from the very beginning. The problem with fraternity is that it demands a shift in perspective. While freedom can concentrate entirely on the ‘self’ without particular reference to ‘another’, and equality, though it needs ‘another’ as a measuring stick, can still focus quite jealously on the ‘self’, fraternity brings ‘self’ and ‘another’ together. Indeed it has no meaning without this communion. We can test this theory with the use of prepositions and pronouns. Listen to how freedom and equality can sit with ‘for’ and the first person singular, but fraternity must attach itself to ‘between’, or at least if it does hitch up with ‘for’ then the first person singular must change to the plural. Freedom ‘for me’, equality ‘for me’ – these work ? but fraternity can’t be just ‘for me’, it has to be ‘between me and you’ or ‘for us’. … And it is this positioning of the self vis-à-vis the other that characterises the Welsh keyword tangnefedd. One of the earliest recorded instances of this enigmatic noun appears in its shorter form tanc in the thirteenth-century Black Book of Carmarthen. Here, in the seventh fragment, we find the phrase: tanc y rom ne, (may tanc be between us). Translating tanc proves problematic. (It has of course nothing to do with heavy-armoured vehicles, though the irony hasn’t been lost on more recent generations of Welsh-speakers.) ‘Peace’ is the most readily available suggestion, but it’s not quite peace, or rather, not just peace.

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