Creative responses to Planet magazine by students from the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University
by Greg Taylor
In the piece below, third-year undergraduate Greg Taylor responds to our series ‘Welsh Keywords’ which, inspired by Raymond Williams’ Keywords, offers contemporary perspectives on contested meanings of words in Welsh, and how these shifting meanings continue to shape our society. For more information about our Welsh Keywords series see our excerpts pages
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Reading the archive of the ‘Welsh Keywords’ series was very interesting for me, as I have little experience of the Welsh language itself. Learning more about its subtleties, and its similarities and differences to the English language in terms of how certain meanings and concepts are expressed made was an illuminating experience.
One thing I found interesting was how certain words take on different meanings depending on which part of Wales they are used in. Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan’s examination of the Welsh words for ‘woman’ is a good example of this – while in England ‘woman’ is almost universally accepted as a description for people of the female gender, in Wales finding a universal descriptor was a much greater challenge. While the word ‘merch’ means ‘daughter’ everywhere, in the north of Wales it also means ‘woman’, while in the south ‘menyw’ was the standard word for ‘woman’. However ‘menyw’ does not translate well into northern dialects, and it suggests ‘female’ rather than ‘woman’, so can seem a rather awkward and clinical description to northern ears. These differences are reflected in long-standing Welsh women’s organisations, in which there were conflicts when it came to deciding what to call themselves: ‘Merched y Wawr’ upholds the northern dialect word for ‘woman’ although some southern women found this terminology patronising. I felt this debate could be related to the English debates over the use of ‘girls’ in reference to women. Much like ‘merch’, ‘girls’ can be used to refer to young and adult women, some feminists object to the term, finding it infantilising and patronising. Although ‘merch’ and ‘girls’ have different meanings, I felt there was a similar debate about the usage of ‘merch’ between northern and southern women.
Then there are words which, although expressing similar concepts, have subtly different meanings when compared with the English language. A good example is Howard Williams’ exploration of the differences between ‘trefn’ and the closest English equivalent, ‘order’. Ultimately the English word ‘order’ really is just a loose synonym, for while the word ‘order’ conjures up visions of authoritarianism, law, and strict control; the word ‘trefn’ has a much milder meaning, often used to describe things such as a the neat arrangement of library books. Indeed, the words that derive from ‘trefn’ generally evoke neatness and tidiness rather than the harsher meanings of the term ‘order’. Another example is ‘hiraeth’ which expresses a meaning similar to, although not quite the same as nostalgia and homesickness. T Robin Chapman explains how this word has been adopted into many English contexts and writings in Wales, which demonstrates one of the benefits of studying the Welsh language; clearly, ‘hiraeth’ must be touching on a very particular feeling that is not easily expressed in the English language. Similarly, Huw Williams writes on the term ‘hunaniaeth’ and its closest equivalent ‘identity’. He argues it would not make sense to discuss a ‘hunaniaeth card’, while it would makes sense to discuss an ‘identity card’. This is because, again, ‘Hunaniaeth’ has a much stronger meaning, encompassing a person’s very nature and being. I think a good comparison to make would be using the term ‘personality card’, and how little sense that would make to English speakers: how could someone’s personality be condensed down to a tiny slip of information? Much like how the ‘personality’, ‘being’ or ‘nature’ of somebody has a much deeper meaning than the clinical term ‘identity’, so too do ‘hunaniaeth’ and ‘identity’ stand slightly opposed to one another.
Mair Rees also writes about how some words can be more heavily charged and with greater emotional resonance in one language than another: ‘cywilydd’, the Welsh word for ‘shame’ evokes a much stronger meaning in the Welsh language. While in English ‘shame’ could also mean mild embarrassment, in Welsh it reflects much greater anguish. Rees gives the example of the unmarried mother in some of the more religious societies in Wales post-WW2. While you could get over a sense of ‘shame’, ‘cywilydd’ is much deeper: ‘cywilydd is about loss – the loss of a viable and lovable self-image’.
There are also words that work well in English but do not translate very well into Welsh, a good example of this being ‘cymdeithasiaeth’, the Welsh equivalent of ‘socialism’, but in fact literally translates to ‘society-ism’, a rather awkward phrase. In fact, Martin Wright explains that many Welsh socialists had trouble expressing the concepts of socialism in the Welsh language, as it is lacking in the words to express these ideas. (Similarly, Angharad Closs Stephens writes that the Welsh word for ‘community’ (cymuned) was rather obscure until the late 1950’s when it began entering common language and became more widely used as a term to describe commonality.) With regard to ‘cymdeithasiaeth’, the press often resorted to hybrid phrases such as ‘Socialist Cymreig’ in order to express the concept with greater ease. Some socialists chose to abandon Welsh altogether, due to what they perceived at the time as the ‘narrow exclusivity of the Welsh language’, seeing English as a far more universal language for which to build solidarity among the working class. However, Wright goes on to argue that the use of ‘cymdeithasiaeth’ should be revived (although it never completely died out) after devolution to reflect an idea of ‘unity in diversity’ and ‘to harmonise allegiance to both humanity and nation’. This demonstrates how language can be politicised: for example, Simon Brooks and Richard Glyn Roberts note in their examination of ‘Cymry’ that some definitions of this word exclude those of a non-Welsh ethnicity living in Wales as not being ‘truly’ Welsh. They explain that this is in part the fault of too-literal translations of ‘Cymry’ into simply ‘Welsh people’ (in terms of ethnicity), when in fact they state that: '"Cymry" has been a more open word than "Welsh"’, as the Welsh language embraces multiple identities, ethnicities and backgrounds.
Studying these Welsh keywords helped a lot in looking at a word I chose to examine: the ‘Wenglish’ word ‘Bampi’, which is a word for ‘grandfather’ used in southern Wales. Other words which cross between English and Welsh (rather than only those which are exclusively used in a Welsh-language context) have also been discussed in the series: for example Tony Bianchi’s analysis of ‘cwtsh’/ ‘cwtch’. I found common trends which connected ‘Bampi’ to other keywords: there was an interesting north/south divide in how frequently this word was used, and, as an affectionate colloquialism it was found alongside formal Welsh-language variants for ‘Grandfather’, such as ‘Tad-cu’. In the north of Wales, ‘Taid’ is more commonplace. Parallels could be made between this and the meanings of Welsh words for ‘woman’ as discussed by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan and I wondered therefore if there was a similar north/south divide in the other such language used to describe family and people. I found the ‘Welsh Keywords’ series provided an illuminating insight into the uniqueness of the Welsh language. As an English student, I often come into contact with Welsh poetry and literature; although certain words and phrases, such as ‘shame/cywilydd’ share similar literal meanings, their usage is far more nuanced than direct translation would imply. Gaining a better appreciation of the subtleties of the Welsh language throughout the ‘Keywords’ series was certainly extremely helpful in developing my own approaches to Welsh poetry and prose throughout my university course.
Greg Taylor is a third-year student at Cardiff university. He is studying English Literature and Journalism.
Further articles from Planet Platform:
Retracing Wales: Barry
Flora and Fauna
Retracing Wales | Discover the Shape of a Nation