Monday, 21 May 2012

The Beauty of a Language


S’mae!  Ben dw i.  Dwi’n dysgu cymraeg.

That is, ‘hello, my name is Ben and I’m learning Welsh’.  I’ve been learning Welsh now for almost nine months.  It’s not a new language to me – I learnt it at school.  I got an E in my GCSE.  I’ve lived in Wales for almost thirty years.  I’ve heard Welsh all my life.  So, nothing new.  I was just never able to speak it or understand it very well before.  What is new is the way in which I’m learning this language and the enjoyment I’m getting from learning. 

Welsh is a beautiful language.  It might not sound it to outside ears, what with all those guttural sounds, the double L’s, the rows of consonants, the seemingly impenetrable nature of it all overwhelming the outsider.  But once you start getting a grip on it, can begin to wrap your tongue around the word structures that are alien to English, it starts to become fun to speak.  Welsh is a language where words actually carry hidden treasure, where words can be deconstructed to find original meanings.  It’s a layered language, Welsh.

Take Gorffennaf, the word for the month of July, which literally means ‘the end of summer’, or rather ‘the finish of summer’ – for gorffen is finish and haf is the Welsh word for summer, put together you have Gorffenaf.  I know the English word, July, comes from the Latin Jūlius, and is in honour of Julius Caesar; that it too has etymological fascination, but it lacks the poetry of the Welsh.

You can look at Welsh places names too and find whole histories hidden in them.  The Welsh name Holyhead is Caergybi, which tells us it’s ‘St. Cybi’s fort’ (for caer is fort/castle (as in Caernarfon) so it’s Cybi’s castle (not Gybi as in Welsh the C mutates to a G when it can).  History, hidden in a name.  I know again that this is true in English, but learning a new language makes one sensitive to these undercurrents.  And becoming sensitive to such matters makes me consider other words in new lights.  English words. Learning a new language has slowed me down to a point where I can consider and take stock of what it is I know.  And that, that luxury, is critical to a writer.  Every day we use words: how often do we take to consider what they truly mean?

Welsh, then, is a highly poetical, beautiful language.  No wonder Welsh is renowned for song and poetry: it is in the very bloodstream of the nation.  Every sentence shimmers with hidden depths.  We should all take time to learn a new language, because it can make us appreciate our own a little more. 

So hwyl pawb, wela I chi yfory.

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