A Welshman’s Shed is his Castle?

Over the past few months I’ve slowly been working my way through the Scottish Gaelic lessons on Duolingo. The one I did this morning contained two sentences that gave me a blast of nostalgia for my Welsh classes nearly 20 years ago.

The sentences in question were Is toil leam seadaichean gu mòr (“I really like sheds”) and Latha sgoinneil ann an seada beag (“A brilliant day in a small shed”). While perhaps not quite as intrinsically exciting as Òbh òbh, tha leòmhann anns an taigh agad a-rithhist (“Oh dear, there is a lion in your house again”; a phrase that cropped up in a lesson I did a couple of weeks ago) — although admittedly the brilliant day one leaves quite a bit of room for interpretation — these reminded me of my first Welsh tutor, Siân.

As well as having bright red hair and a very vivacious personality, not to mention a lovely Llanelli accent (slightly at odds with the North Wales variety of Welsh she was teaching us), Siân had a slightly wicked sense of humour. For instance, during group oral exercises she would take great delight in asking somebody (usually me) to translate phrases such as “her party” into Welsh, where it becomes ei pharti. Suffice it to say that the ‘ph’ in Welsh is the same sound that it generally is in English — think pheasant or pharmacy — and the word as a whole rhymes with the English version. (Incidentally, modern Welsh also uses ‘ff’ for the same sound as ‘ph’, albeit not interchangeably, but uses a single ‘f’ to represent the sound that we’d write in English with a ‘v’; this also crops up with an ‘f’ in the English word “of” and as I recall that sound / letter combo used to be much more common in Old English).

She also had a fixation for garden sheds and would regularly mention them in pretty much every lesson, usually with an observation along the lines that every married man needed one as his special domain, while the wife ruled the rest of the house. I don’t think I ever had the pleasure of meeting Siân’s husband.

Mind you, I too had a bit of a fixation in those Welsh lessons, as I’d mention ironing almost as often as Siân mentioned sheds. Not that I was ever a fan of ironing itself, but the Welsh word for it (smwddio, pronounced a bit like “smoothie” with an ‘o’ on the end) is so delightfully onomatopoeic that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it (the word, not the activity). As a result, any time we were assembling a list of words with which to practice whatever grammatical constructions we were working on at the time, you could pretty much guarantee that both sied (that’s how you write “shed” in Welsh; it’s pronounced the same as in English) and smwddio would appear — at least until I was banned from using the latter. I always thought that was a bit unfair, since Siân still got to talk about sheds regularly. Perk of being the teacher, I suppose.

Anyway, while I only had Siân as my Welsh tutor (or rather one of them, as we had her on Mondays, Jim on Tuesdays and Rhiannon on Thursdays) for one year, and then had two further years of Welsh lessons (with tutors Angela and Nia) before gaining my A-level and stopping my formal Welsh education, I have recently been working my way through the Duolingo Welsh course by way of revision of the basics (and extending my grasp of South Wales Welsh, to which the course is slightly biased). And today’s Gaelic lesson wasn’t the only one to provide noteworthy sentences. The Welsh one contained this little gem, which I’ve never before needed to utter and probably never will, although I think I can totally get behind the sentiment: Noson carioci? Basai’n well gyda fi fwyta malwod byw! (“Karaoke night? I’d rather eat live snails!”, though up here in the North we’d actually say Basai’n well gen i fwyta…, which means exactly the same thing).

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.

Cutting the cheese

A number of years ago, I made a very minor linguistic discovery concerning the geographical distribution of a certain idiom.

The phrase in question is “to cut the cheese”, a somewhat colourful description of flatulence that was quite common in the parlance of the young people of North West Kent in the mid 1990s (of whom I was one).

My discovery was that this same phrase was also current in Sussex about 10 years later, but evidently not (or at least not very widely known) in either North or South Wales. Admittedly my research was confined to the group of three friends with whom I was having lunch on one occasion when there was an opportunity to make a joke about cutting the cheese, which only one of them understood.

The reason I mention this now is that I was watching an episode of Bones a few days ago and a couple of the characters in that amused themselves with a reference to cutting the cheese, clearly in the same context. The episode was from around 2008 or so, and was set in Washington DC. I assume that the scriptwriters were from somewhere in the USA, not necessarily the DC area, so it doesn’t allow for the particularly precise location of another time and place (other than Kent c. 1993 and Sussex c. 2003) where the phrase had currency. Still, it was interesting to discover that its not a purely British idiom. I wonder whether it travelled from South East England to the eastern seaboard of the United States or vice versa, somehow bypassing Wales on the way, or if it reached both places via other paths.

While I’m on the subject of cheese, I should perhaps mention a surprisingly nice taste combination I stumbled upon a year or two back and still enjoy as a snack from time to time mdash; cheddar cheese and wasabi paste.

Patience

Yesterday (shortly after I’d decided to write about my bike) I came across a wonderful quote, used as the title for a photo (which you can see at Flickr if you want to — I haven’t included it here since it belongs to somebody else and I haven’t sought permission to reproduce it).

The quote (which happens to be in Spanish) is:

La paciencia es un árbol de raiz amarga, pero de frutos muy dulces

A translation (by me, without recourse to dictionaries, Google Translate etc., so I hope it’s reasonably accurate) is:

Patience is a tree with bitter roots but very sweet fruit

Actually, after I came up with the translation I looked back at the picture from which I borrowed it and discovered that a translation was given there, which was the same as mine but with a comma (as in the Spanish version) that I deemed unnecessary in the English rendering. I wasn’t aware of it before providing my own translation, but it’s possible that I’d subconsciously glimpsed it.

Also, since I first mentioned this quote on Facebook (very shortly after stumbling across it), it has been drawn to my attention that this is pretty much the same as a quote that’s variously attributed to Aristotle and Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet

I couldn’t find any references to a specific source for the attribution to Aristotle (such as, for example, any of his writings) but I did find evidence that it didn’t originate with Rousseau. It appears (in French, as La patience est amère, mais son fruit est doux) on page 175 of the book Voyages en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient by John Chardin, published in 1711, the year before Rousseau was born (a copy of the page can be seen here, courtesy of Google Books; I got to this information via Wikiquote). That’s not to say that Rousseau didn’t use it (perhaps having read it in Chardin’s book), or that Chardin didn’t get it ultimately from Aristotle, or even that Aristotle (if he did say / write it) didn’t get it from someone else.

I think it’s highly likely that the quote as used in the picture title came from this one that may or may not have been from Aristotle or Chardin, whether or not the artist who made and titled the picture was aware of the source, or whether she herself altered it to include the reference to the tree or came across it in that form (perhaps introduced more or less by accident when it was translated from Greek or French into Spanish, or perhaps done deliberately for extra poetic effect). In any case, I particularly like the version I first came across (not to mention the picture that went with it).

Definitely one to think about (and to take your time doing so!).

Welsh Cellar Doors

Here is a post that I wrote over a year ago but never got round to publishing. I’m not sure why as it was almost complete, with only minor editing required (though some may debate that point). I offer it now as a Christmas present to the wider world. Nadolig llawen!

Quite a long time ago, I mentioned in one of my blog posts the subject of cellar doors.

There is a branch of linguistics called phonaesthetics, which considers the aesthetic properties of sound. Within this is the idea that certain words or phrases are particularly euphonious (i.e. nice sounding). This can be because the sound seems particularly fit-for-purpose in conveying the meaning or the word or can be entirely independent of the meaning. It’s obviously a highly subjective concept, since beauty is in the eye (or, in this case, the ear) of the beholder. In other words, whereas it’s generally possible to classify a given word as, say, a noun or a verb (although sometimes there are words that defy easy categorisation), or to agree on how many letters or syllables a word has (again, there are potential cans of worms to be opened there), it’s almost certain that there will be some words I consider to sound beautiful that you will think are rather plain, if not downright ugly, and vice versa.

One particular word / phrase (depending on whether you hyphenate it, and if so whether you consider that to bind it tightly enough to be a single word, though I don’t want to get too sidetracked into semantics at this point) that many people, including both me and J. R. R. Tolkien, take to be especially beautiful in the English language is “cellar-door” and, because it has often been cited by Tolkien and others as a good example of euphony (in Tolkien’s opinion, at least, this is best appreciated when the sound is dissociated from the meaning and perhaps even the spelling of the word), “cellar-door” is often used as a shorthand way to refer to the general concept of euphonious words.

Another point on which I totally agree with the good Professor is that Welsh is a language that is particularly rich in “cellar-door” words. Here are a few of my own personal favourites, in alphabetical order (rather than any attempt at ordering according to preference):

Ailwampio

To revamp. “Ail” means “second” (the ordinal number, not the unit of time) and is quite often used as a prefix equivalent to “re-” in English. “Wampio” is clearly either borrowed from “vamp” or they both come from the same root (I’ve no idea of the etymology there).

Panad

A cup of tea. Possibly the first Welsh word I learned on moving to Wales (though I’d previously tried to learn a bit of the language), and certainly one of the most useful in everyday life. It comes from cwpanaid, which literally means “a cupful”. Some people would say that a panad specifically means tea, though many others (myself included) would include coffee and other hot beverages in the definition; you can narrow it down by referring to a “panad o de” (tea), “panad o goffi” (coffee), etc. Interestingly, in South Wales they tend to use the word dishgled instead, which means “a basinful”, although I don’t think they drink their tea from basins down there. It may be just familiarity, but I personally think panad is a much nicer word (even though the idea of a whole basin full of tea is quite appealing).

Pobty Ping

Microwave [oven]. The official Welsh word for “microwave” is the rather more boring meicrodon, which like its equivalents in just about every other language I can think of (e.g. Mikrowelle in German, Micro-ondes in French or Microondas in Spanish, and for that matter, Microwave in English), consists of the Greek-originated prefix Micro- (or some spelling variation to take account of local phonetics), meaning “small”, and the native word for “wave”. Pobty ping, by contrast, literally means “the oven which goes ‘ping'”. This is apparently quite localised slang, as I learned it from a native Welsh speaker from Anglesey (where it has wide currency) and shortly afterwards used it when talking to a native Welsh speaker from Conwy (not all that far down the road), who had never heard of it. I think it’s probably become more widespread over the last couple of decades.

Sboncen

Squash (as in the game). This one sounds nicely onomatopoeic, evoking a small rubber ball bouncing round an enclosed court at high velocity in a way that the English term doesn’t quite manage.

Smaragdus

Emerald. This is a fairly obscure word, that I came across in the William Morgan translation of the Bible (which dates back to 1588, although my copy is a later edition). The more standard word for emerald in contemporary Welsh is Emrallt, which is much more closely related to the English but doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Apparently, the Ancient Greek word for emerald is σμάραγδος (smaragdos, “green gem”), which passed into Classical Latin as smaragdus and then into Vulgar Latin as esmaraldus or esmaralda, from which it’s a short hop to the English, while William Morgan (if not the Welsh language at large) stuck much more closely to the Greek roots.

Smwddio

Ironing. I know I said this list wasn’t in order of preference but I’ve still somehow managed to save the best till last. I’ve always loved this word since the moment I first met it, largely because it seems so fit for purpose in describing the intended and usual (though not always, when I’m trying to do it) result of ironing. In fact, I once got banned from using the word in my Welsh lessons as it was always the first one I’d suggest when we were looking for verbs to try out with a new pattern we were learning (my Welsh teacher seemed to have just as much of an obsession with garden sheds, but seemed happy for them to turn up in every exercise!). It should be noted that I don’t particularly enjoy ironing, though I do like to talk about it in Welsh.

Take me out to the ball game

For the first time in a long time, I find myself eagerly anticipating a football game. Well, having some interest in it, at least…

Of course, the fact that it’s Gaelic football (and I’m still buzzing from a recent trip to the Emerald Isle) may have something to do with it.

This afternoon is the final of the 2016 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, which is being contested by Dublin and Mayo. I’m not sure whether to support the Dubs (because I’ve been to Dublin a few times and have at least one fairly good friend from there) or Mayo (because they have nice red and green uniforms which remind me slightly of the Welsh flag). Ultimately I’m not too bothered who wins it but I hope I’ll get a chance to catch some highlights of the game later on, though I’m unlikely to see the whole match.

Gaelic football seems to me to lie somewhere between rugby (a game I love, though I don’t generally follow it all that closely) and association football, aka soccer (a game that doesn’t particularly interest me at all) in terms of its rules and playing style – it uses a round ball (like soccer) and seems to have a bit more kicking than rugby but also allows carrying the ball and is a bit more of a contact sport than soccer, though less than rugby. One interesting feature is that not only are there several different ways to score (like in rugby, though in this case it’s scoring goals by kicking the ball into a fairly small goal area defined by two upright posts and a crossbar or scoring points by kicking or fisting it over the crossbar) but the goals and points scores are recorded separately, e.g. 1-7 would mean a single goal and 7 points; a goal is worth 3 points so that particular score would equal 10 points (a score of 1-7 would beat 0-9 but not 0-11; I think, though I’m not entirely sure, that 1-7 and 0-10 would count as a tie, in which case I think the game would usually be replayed). I’ve only watched a very small amount of Gaelic football so far but I found it quite exciting to watch.

There are several other Gaelic games but the other big one is hurling. I’d say this interests me even more than Gaelic football. The two games are actually quite similar in many respects (e.g. they are played on the same size pitch, both with teams of 15 players, and use the same scoring distinction between goals and points) but hurling is played with sticks and a smaller ball. I have heard hurling described as “a cross between hockey and murder”.

The final of this year’s All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship took place a couple of weeks ago between Tipperary (who won) and Kilkenny (the previous victors; apparently these two teams and Cork dominate hurling, while there’s a much broader spread in the football world). I watched and enjoyed highlights of that match. I also watched the whole of the All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship last week; this time Kilkenny beat Cork (the winners for the past two years). In case you were wondering, camogie is the women’s equivalent of hurling (a game played only by men) and is essentially the same apart from a few minor rules differences.

Also in case you were wondering, there is also an All-Ireland Senior Women’s Football Championship, which is due to be taking place next Sunday (I can’t remember the teams involved) and, as with hurling and camogie, there are a few minor differences in rules (though, in this case not in name) between men’s and women’s football.

Lest you think this is turning into a sports blog, I should finish with a couple of linguistic observations.

Firstly, as you will have observed, the titles of the Gaelic football championships don’t actually mention the word Gaelic. I gather that in Ireland, the word “football” on its own is usually taken to mean Gaelic football, just as the bare term is used to mean soccer in the UK (and other parts of the world where it is the dominant football code) or American football in the USA and either Australian-rules football or rugby league in Australia (I gather there are some areas where one is significantly more popular than the other), etc. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples in non-sporting contexts of words where the same generic term is used in different parts of the world to refer to different specific cases (presumably usually the most dominant one in that place), although I can’t immediately think of any clear examples other than football. A non-geographical example would be the use of the word “bass” to refer to tubas in the brass band world, whereas it would refer to double basses in an orchestra or (most likely) a bass guitar in a rock group. The moral of the story is that context is king.

The other observation is the etymology of the word “camogie”, which seems to bear no relation to the word “hurling” despite the two sports having much the same relationship to each other as (men’s) and women’s (or ladies’, as it seems to be officially called) Gaelic football (and as far as I know, camogie is never – at least officially – referred to as “ladies’ hurling”). I gather that, although the modern games only date back to the late 19th or early 20th centuries, their roots, and especially that of hurling, are quite ancient. The stick used for hurling is known in English as a hurley (hence the name of the sport) and in Irish as a camán; as in English, the Irish name for the sport was related to that of the stick and it was called camánaíocht (I think that -aíocht is roughly the equivalent of “-ing”), although this has mutated to iománaíocht in modern Irish. One of the differences between the men’s and women’s games is that the latter is played with slightly smaller sticks (and balls) and, in Irish, the women’s stick is called a camóg (the -óg bit being a fairly common diminutive suffix in Irish; i.e. it’s a “small hurley”) and hence the game was called camógaíocht. Whereas the men’s game (presumably due to its much older roots) developed a completely separate name in English, the women’s game just borrowed the Irish name and anglicised it to “camogie” (and, unlike the men’s version, has also kept its original form in Irish).

I’ve no idea of the etymology of either “hurley” or camán, but you have to stop somewhere. And so I shall.

Doing Saturday

Since my visit to Catalonia last August, I have been working quite a bit, if not entirely steadily, on my Spanish, and also having a go at learning some Catalan.

I will shortly be going out there again for another visit, so it will be a good opportunity to assess how much I’ve learned in the past 14 months.  My feeling is that it will turn out to be quite a lot, though there’s still much more to learn of both languages.

When I first started trying to learn Spanish, just over 20 years ago, it was from a book entitled (rather optimistically) Spanish in Three Months.  Suffice it to say that it took me somewhat more than 3 months to get through the book – in fact, I didn’t get round to systematically working through all the chapters until some time after my last visit to Spain.  I don’t suppose many people would buy a book called Spanish in Twenty Years and, to be fair, I don’t think the author or publishers can be blamed for the amount of time it took me to finish the book.  In fact, I’ve used quite a few different resources in my quest to learn Spanish and in many respects this book is probably one of my favourites (though I think that any study of something as complex as a language really needs to make use of multiple sources of information).

After getting back from Catalonia last year, I initially decided that I would concentrate on improving my Spanish for several months, if not years, before taking more than a cursory look at Catalan, but I quickly acquired several Catalan books so that I’d be prepared when the time came.  One of these was Catalan in Three Months, a sister to my first Spanish book.  Several times over the last year I have dipped into this book but about a month ago I decided to systematically work through it (tackling the exercises and writing down vocabulary, etc.) and this time I was able to reach the end within about a fortnight.  Admittedly, it’s a slightly shorter book than the other one (or at least breaks its material into fewer chapters) and I was going at a slightly too fast pace in order to get a broad overview of the language, so I haven’t fully assimilated a lot of the grammar or vocabulary (though the same can be said of Spanish, which I’ve been working at for a lot longer).

The fact that I already knew a reasonable amount of Spanish also helped me to work through the Catalan book much more quickly as, while there are many significant differences between the two languages, there is also a lot of overlap so I had a big headstart in terms of getting to grips with the basic nuts and bolts of the language.  Having a reasonable, if rather rusty, command of French helped quite a bit too, since Catalan falls somewhere between French and Spanish linguistically as well as geographically.

As I was approaching the end of Catalan in Three Months, I had a look round to see what other Catalan resources were available and I came across one in the Dummies series of books that I’ve previously found useful for getting a handle on things ranging from knitting to quantum mechanics.  The twist here was that the book was written in Spanish, and there doesn’t seem to be an English version available.  Still, I reasoned that this might be quite a good way of consolidating my grasp on Spanish as well as learning a bit more Catalan (and, significantly, some more about the culture, which was rather lacking in the other book), so I purchased myself an e-book version of Catalán Para Dummies and have gradually been working my way through it.

Amongst the things I’ve learned from studying this book are the following two gems that I wanted to make a note of:

Firstly, the Catalan word for a pestle (as in pestle & mortar) is, apparently, la mà de morter, which means “the hand of the mortar”.  Apart from being quite poetic, I find this useful because I’ve always had trouble remembering which one is the pestle and which one is the mortar.  Somehow I find the idea of thinking of the pestle as the hand of the mortar seems to make it easier to remember that it is the one shaped roughly like a small club (or perhaps an arm with a fist on the end of it), while the mortar is the bowl shaped bit.  Incidentally, I gather that the Spanish is similar (el mortero for mortar and la mano for pestle, although both Spanish and Catalan seem to have at least one other word – el pilón / el piló respectively – for the latter).

Secondly, there is a lovely Catalan idiom – fer dissabte (literally, “to make/do Saturday”) – which essentially refers to pottering round the house, doing cleaning and such other tasks as are often done on Saturdays but may equally be done at other times when you’re at home rather than out at work.  Another source I found (also in Spanish – I’ve not yet managed to track down any in English) to explain this phrase seems to suggest that it’s more about an intensive cleaning session rather than pottering around.  In either case, it’s based around the home and not necessarily confined to Saturday.  A literal translation into Spanish would be hacer sábado but this would, apparently, make as much sense as “to do Saturday” in English, so it is a Catalan-only idiom (but it joins the likes of the German word ausschlafen – literally “to sleep out” but meaning to sleep until you wake up naturally, rather than using an alarm – on my list of words or phrases that we really ought to adopt into English).