How to self-isolate in Welsh

I realised with some shock the other day that it’s getting on for a year since I last wrote anything on my blog. I have no aspirations to be a daily blogger unlike, for example, my brother Wulf, but even by my standards it’s quite a long gap.

The world right now seems quite a different place from when I last wrote. I certainly had no idea at that point that we’d be in the grip of a pandemic at the moment and I’d be stuck at home almost full-time, with only occasional brief forays into town (roughly once per week) to do some shopping, while many people are fighting for their own or other people’s lives and nobody knows when it’s all going to end and we’ll return to normality (though many people, myself included, incline to the view that our definition of normality will have changed somewhat by the time we get there).

There are several words that, while perhaps not entirely new, are now pretty much on the tip of everyone’s tongue. The one I’m particularly thinking about at the moment is self-isolation, except that I’m thinking about it not in English but in Welsh and there’s not one word for it but at least three. More accurately, I’m thinking mostly in English (in so far as my thoughts clothe themselves in language – which tends to be pretty far most of the time) but about Welsh words.

Shortly before the UK lockdown started, I was talking (in Welsh) to a translator I know and, since the subject of self-isolation came up and I didn’t know how to say it in Welsh, I asked him. He told me that the official Welsh word for it is ymneilltuo. This makes sense, as neilltuol is an adjective meaning “separate”, ym- is a prefix that tends to give verbs a reflexive sense (for example diswyddo is “to dismiss” and ymddiswyddo is “to resign”, literally “to dismiss oneself”), and Welsh is a language that loves to build up words logically in this fashion.

Since then, I’ve been speaking (or more strictly accurately, writing) quite a lot of Welsh but haven’t actually had any need to refer to self-isolation. However, a couple of days of go a friend mentioned the word he’d heard for it, which is hunanynysu. This is another one that’s built up from a couple of simple building blocks; in this case, hunan (“self”, not too far removed in sense from ym-, though it also functions as a standalone word) and ynys (“island”). So literally it is “to self-island” or (slightly less poetically, but not much) “to make oneself into an island”. It was a new one on me, but I immediately fell in love with it.

I’m reminded of the John Donne quote in which he says that “no man is an island” (I can’t remember whereabouts it crops up in his writing but it’s in the same passage as the equally famous “ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee!”, or words to that effect). Donne’s point is that we are all fundamentally interconnected (eat your heart out, Dirk Gently!) and in a sense the self-islanding that has been forced on us in recent weeks perhaps serves to make that more, rather than less apparent. I’ll leave you to muse (if you so wish) on the philosophical implications of that statement while I return to the lexicographic theme of my discourse.

I was listening to the radio last night (more about that soon – possibly tomorrow!) and I heard someone use the word hunanynysu (at least three times). I was, incidentally, listening to Radio Cymru (the Welsh language BBC radio station) so it was less of a surprise to hear it there than it would have been on, say, Radio 4. Still, I was delighted to hear the word in the wild, so to speak, as it means I now feel I can legitimately add it to my own word-hoard.

I mentioned earlier that there were three Welsh words for self-isolation. The third, which admittedly I haven’t yet heard used in this context, is encilio, which literally means to retreat. It’s a nice enough sounding word, I suppose, but to me it doesn’t have quite the same vigour about it as hunanynysu.

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