I’m glad I’m Welsh!

Born in West Wales she is a fluent Welsh speaker who lives in Brecon, Mid Wales.  She is married with three children, all of whom work in the arts.  

Christine has written poetry most of her adult life and has read many times as an invited guest poet at various venues. 

She has been the featured poet at the monthly Writers’ Forum in Brecon and has been published in The Works, (editor Nigel Jenkins) and Sextet (the anthology of the Breconshire Stanza group).  

She was a highly commended winner in the Autumn Voices ‘Choices’ poetry competition in 2021. It was the first time she had ever entered a competition with one of her poems.

She is a fine-art painter using beeswax as her medium and sells her work as Melangell.

Born in my grandparents’ house in Cardigan in West Wales, I was surrounded by my mother’s family speaking Welsh to each other, with the casual familiarity of the monoglot. Then Dad came home from the war and our little nuclear family moved to their own house and the dominant language changed to English. Dad was from Cardiff and spoke no Welsh.

I am proud that my first language is Welsh. I love being able to switch from one language to another. It depends entirely on the language of the speaker addressing me as to which language I will use. I believe that young children exposed to two languages will absorb both very easily, without ever questioning the grammar or syntax of either. It probably enhances their brain power too, having to switch from one language to another.

My son was two years old when I began teaching Welsh to adults in evening classes. If one of the learners called by our house, as long as I addressed the individual firstly in Welsh my small son would speak to him in his toddler Welsh. If, however, the learner addressed my son in English first, the child would respond in English. He somehow understood the difference and never questioned why. (He is now in his thirties and is still fluent in Welsh, and, of course, English!).

Incidentally the Welsh spoken in North Wales is very different from the language spoken in the South and West. The vocabulary differs considerably. It is not just a question of accent; the words themselves are totally different.

A good example of some of the vocabulary differences is the word for boy. In South Wales the Welsh word for boy is bachgen and in North Wales the word would be hogyn. The word for key in the North is goriad, in the South it is alltwe.

Welsh and World History

Welsh is an ancient language – far older than most of us believe, perhaps. In a recent lecture on hieroglyphics, the lecturer told us that when scholars were attempting to understand the hieroglyphs and interpret what the symbols were actually saying, they failed. They had tried every language they could think of to find the key but were beaten. Eventually experts, in desperation, applied ancient Welsh to the hieroglyphs, and finally the mystery was solved.

I am an artist painting in pigmented beeswax and was once approached by a sculptor who told me that she had a book she wanted me to see. Some of my paintings are of Celtic patterns, knots and beautiful intricate curves. She showed me the book in question which was a book full of examples of Persian art. The symbols and patterns were identical! She had noticed my Celtic symbol paintings and wanted me to see the book of Persian art. I have no explanation for this. Why are these art forms identical but from very different parts of the world? I pointed it out to the same lecturer who told us about the hieroglyphics from Africa. He too was intrigued.

Welsh Prohibited!

One of the reasons perhaps for Welsh not having evolved from the rather old-fashioned and endearing courtly language it remains is because during the Victorian era Welsh was prohibited in schools. Some of you will have heard of the ‘Welsh Not’, an infamous practice that was a deterrent to children speaking Welsh in primary schools in Wales for many years.

The child still wearing the Welsh Not around their neck at the end of the school day would be punished with a cane.

If a child was heard speaking his or her own language Welsh in the classroom, they would be made to wear a lump of wood on string around their neck with the words ‘Welsh Not’ carved on the wood. They would wear this throughout the day until the next miscreant was heard speaking Welsh. The string and lump of wood would then be transferred onto the neck of the latest ‘offender’. The child still wearing the Welsh Not around their neck at the end of the school day would be punished with a cane.

I remember my mother-in-law reminiscing about the day she was rapped sharply on her hand with the pointed end of a pencil as she had been heard speaking a Welsh phrase to her friend.

Welsh, the colourful language

The Welsh language is colourful and wonderfully descriptive.

Where we might use ‘greenfly’ for the pesky nuisances who spoil so many of our roses, the Welsh phrase in my old dictionary is: buwch y morgryg (the cow of the ant). Gardeners amongst us will know that ants will ‘herd’ greenfly and use their sap as sustenance for their young.

The translation for ‘dragonfly’ in Welsh is gwas y neidr. Any suggestions as to why the dragonfly is perceived as ‘the servant of the snake’?!

In Welsh a seal is morlo (the calf of the sea) whereas the shark is morgi (the dog of the sea). The whale is Morfil – perhaps the great beast of the sea? Some of you may be surprised to learn that the Welsh word for carrots is moron!

Welsh, the courtly language

Welsh is a courtly language in many ways. Perhaps now with many more people striving to learn the language and Welsh schools flourishing, this may evolve, but not, I hope, quite yet.

If you want to make a polite request in English it would be softened with ‘please’, whereas in Welsh we say: Os gwelwch yn dda (if you see that it is good).

The Welsh phrase for an apology, rather than ‘sorry’ is Mae’n flin gen I (there is regret with me).

When saying goodbye, we prefer: Da bo chi (may good stay with you), but if you choose to be more familiar or your relationship is a close one you might prefer: Da bo ti.

In Welsh, as in French, we use the second person singular, to denote a closer relationship. There is a beautiful sentence in Welsh which says all it needs to say: Tic wyddost beth ddywed fy nghalon. (Thou knowest what sayest my heart). Doesn’t that sound more romantic than ‘I love you’?

As language speakers we are very fortunate that William Morgan, Bishop of Llandaff and St Asaph (born 1545), was commanded by Queen Elizabeth the first to translate the bible from Greek and Hebrew into Welsh for the country. His language translation is exquisite literature and still considered to be the definitive version of the bible in Welsh.

Why does it matter if we speak Welsh?

Language is such a vital element of any culture, and Welsh has fought for its continued existence, and is now succeeding in the effort. It remains the strongest of the six Celtic languages, and many of the other Celtic languages are now being saved from extinction. Hooray!

As it is still fairly near the New Year, I will end with a Haiku in Welsh:

Daw’r flwyddyn nesaf
heb gamgymeriad eto
tudalen newydd.

Unsullied new page
New Year, burgeoning hope again,
this time no mistakes.

Christine Williams

Christine, aged 80, featured on the Autumn Voices website at the end of 2021, with her Highly Commended poem from our poetry competition. We now know this to be very apt because she shares a birthday with Robert Burns! 

Christine is not just a poet and a fluent Welsh, but also an accomplished fine-art painter. You can see her works here, on her website, Art in Wax.

Our monthly flash theme for February was Love Languages

Our flash competition this month honours our ‘love languages’ theme. If you are aged 60 and over, and want to write a short piece about your own love of language, we’d love to hear from you! This could be a poem, flash fiction or flash memoir about any language at all (that might even include computer languages!). We’re especially keen to hear from you if you are an older person new to the UK, and have learned English or one of the UK’s other spoken languages for the first time. We’re also keen to hear from people who have discovered a love for learning languages for the first time as a person over 60.

Entries will be accepted until midnight on February 28th, and the winning entry, chosen by Autumn Voices, will receive a copy of Chuckies Fir The Cairn. This is a collection of poems in Scots and Gaelic, edited by Rab Wilson and kindly donated as a prize by Luath Press.

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