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.



I had a pleasant surprise at a gig I was playing at last night, as it turned out that one of my favourite Welsh singers was also on the programme.

The gig in question was a charity event down in Criccieth and I was there to play trombone with the Menai Bridge Intermediate Brass Band during the interval. The main programme included a couple of choirs, a most excellent piano/harp duo (I particularly enjoyed their renditions of Summertime and a couple of Scott Joplin rags), two fine opera singers (established tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, who looked disconcertingly like my old friend Richard Burton (not the famous explorer or the famous actor), and up-and-coming soprano Alys Roberts) and the aforementioned singer (and also poet) Gwyneth Glyn, who is apparently a resident of Criccieth.

Gwyneth only did a couple of short sets in the concert, but one of them included her song Adra, which is one of my favourite songs. Here’s a link to a youtube video of the song, complete with a handy translation of the lyrics in case you don’t happen to speak Welsh (don’t be fooled by the first verse, which is mostly quotations of English-language songs, although I love the way there’s a Welsh one – Dwi’n mynd yn ôl i Blaenau Ffestiniog (I’m going home to Blaenau Ffestiniog) by the band Y Tebot Piws (The Purple Teapot) – thrown in).

I almost got a chance to speak to her in the interval (after we’d finished playing) but I was overcome by a bout of shyness and didn’t quite manage to pluck up the courage. After the gig (and having made the mistake of mentioning my earlier failure to Hannah, the conductor of my band, who then more or less frog-marched me over to her before standing by to watch me squirm) I made another attempt but that time was thwarted by my own politeness, as she was busy talking to other people and I didn’t want to butt in and didn’t get any natural openings to start talking to her before my lift was ready to depart.

This paragraph is addressed to Gwyneth Glyn on the unlikely event that she should ever stumble across my blog (and is more or less what I was planning say to her at the gig though, apart from the final sentence, not in Welsh as I had been intending): The bloke with the big beard who was loitering near you after the gig last night (that is, 9th December 2016 in Criccieth) would like to thank you for your delightful music and especially the beautiful song “Adra” which has been a favourite ever since he first heard it several years ago. He hopes that if the two of you should happen to cross paths again he may actually manage to talk to you. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 🙂

This post is dedicated both to Gwyneth Glyn and to my dear friend and conductor Hannah Retallick (who, after commiserating with me on my failure to talk to Gwyneth suggested I should blog about my near-encounter with her instead).

Addendum: A short while after posting the original version of this and reading Hannah’s encouraging feedback on Facebook (I forgot to mention that she’s also an aspiring writer as well as a fine musician), I was inspired to write a short poem to commemorate the events of last night. Somehow it seems appropriate, since Gwyneth Glyn is herself (as I said) a poet as well as a musician. This one’s a bit rough and ready, but I kind of like it as it stands (including the deliberate lack of punctuation and variable line length). So here it is, my “Memoir of meeting but not quite talking to Gwyneth Glyn in Criccieth, 9th December 2016”:

All I want to do
Is to talk to you
To say hello
To let you know
That I really like your song
But the words might come out wrong
So I stand and wait
Until it’s too late
Then home I go
And you’ll never know

I actually started off thinking of that (or at least a bit of it) as a potential song lyric and I may yet turn it into a song, but I’d probably have to regularise the meter a bit to do that, so maybe I won’t. Also, it occurs to me (after the fact – it certainly wasn’t a conscious thought when I wrote it) that the penultimate line is quite appropriate since my favourite Gwyneth Glyn song (and hence the one I allude to earlier in my poem) is “Adra”, which is the Welsh word for home.

A gift from Wales to the World

One of several blogs I keep an eye on is the aptly-named Math With Bad Drawings (though, actually, I think the drawings do have a certain charm and they are in any case done with pedagogical rather than aesthetic intent).  This blog is by an American mathematician (hence the mis-spelling of maths 🙂 ) and consists of illustrated essays on a variety of mathematical topics.

I was recently flicking back through the archives of this blog and came across an interesting post that I didn’t notice when it first appeared, last December, even though I was following the blog by then (I guess it was pretty close to Christmas, which is generally a pretty busy time when it’s easy to skip over blog posts). It is a post that describes itself as a brief biography of the equals sign (=).

You may be thinking that this isn’t the most enthralling of subjects and, although a mathematician myself (with a fairly keen interest in mathematical notation and history to boot), I’d be inclined to agree with you.  However, here’s the exciting thing I learned from the post: the equals sign was invented in Wales (*).

The article doesn’t actually contain all that much information about the early history of the sign, though it has some fascinating stuff about its meaning and usage, as well as related symbols like > and <.  There was just enough detail to enable me to hit Wikipedia and do a quick Google search for other sites to cross-check the facts (not very extensive research, I know, but probably sufficient to establish that Ben, the author of the MWBD blog, wasn’t just making it up).

Apparently the first recorded use of the equals sign was in a book called The Whetstone of Witte, by Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde, published in 1557.  It is believed that Recorde invented this sign; before this, people used to just write “is equal to” (or words to that effect) when they wanted to indicate equality, so the sign was definitely a very convenient shorthand.

The same book is also credited with introducing the plus (+) and minus (-) signs to the English speaking world, though they (unlike =) were already known in other parts of the world so presumably Recorde became acquainted with them through perusing literature in other languages, or perhaps corresponding with other mathematicians, rather than re-inventing them independently.  In any case, the book definitely had a significant impact on the development of mathematical notation – and the importance of having good notation for being able to develop mathematical ideas should not be underestimated.

(*) Actually, my statement that “the equals sign was invented in Wales” is probably not quite accurate (the original article phrases it as “the equals sign was born in Wales”, which is little better).  Robert Recorde was indeed Welsh (born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire) but he seems to have spent most of his adult life in Oxford, Cambridge and London (where he was a physician as well as a mathematician) so it’s more likely that the equals sign was born/invented in one of those places.  Still, I think it’s fair to credit it as a Welsh invention.


Seeing red (part 2)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about having seen (or at least thinking I’d seen) a red squirrel.

Although I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d been correct in my identification, having only seen it fleetingly and more-or-less out of the corner of my eye, comments from a few other people who live in the area confirmed at least the possibility of it having been a red squirrel.

Today I saw another one and this time I saw it clearly enough to be sure.

I had a dentist’s appointment this afternoon in Menai Bridge, just after 3pm. As it happens, it was a bit snowy this morning so I walked into work instead of cycling. In order to get to the dentist on time, I went straight there after finishing work (having already arranged to take the afternoon off for it) and when I’d finished (actually a few minutes before the appointment was due, as I’d arrived a bit early and they had a gap) I called in at Waitrose to pick up a bottle of milk and a cup of coffee, then walked back through the woods as I usually do when I’ve been shopping there.

As I walked through the woods, enjoying the many birds that were relatively visible due to the absence of leaves on most of the trees (it being essentially a deciduous woodland), I spotted a squirrel climbing up the trunk of a tree a few yards in front of me. It was unmistakeably red, although not quite as much smaller than a typical grey squirrel as I’d expected.

The initial view was the clearest but only lasted for about 10 seconds before it had climbed the trunk and disappeared into the branches at the top. However, I waited patiently for a minute or two before catching sight of it again and then was able to watch it (intermittently) for several minutes.

For most of the time, the squirrel remained quite high in the trees, and in fairly deep shade, so it was only the first sight of it that enabled me to clearly identify it as a red.

As well as the excitement of seeing a red squirrel in the wild, I had a short conversation with a random stranger as a lady walking through the woods spotted me staring intently into the trees and wanted to know what I’d seen. Apparently she’s a fairly regular visitor to these woods and she said that she’s seen red squirrels here before, but not for several months.

I’ve been vaguely keeping a watch for red squirrels whenever I’ve walked in these particular woods over the last several years. Now that I know for definite that there’s at least one there, I hope I’ll get to see it (and perhaps more) again before too long.

Seeing red

It’s finally happened…

No, not that! (Whatever you thought it might be.)

I’ve seen a red squirrel in the wild,or at least, I’m fairly sure I have.

This morning I was cycling through the little town of Menai Bridge on my way to work, as I usually do on a weekday morning. As I was passing some trees on the road above the football pitch, I noticed a small foxy-red shape moving in one of the trees. I didn’t have time to stop for a closer look but the glance I was able to spare as I cycled past indicated that it was definitely squirrel-shaped, definitely red and probably a bit smaller than your average grey squirrel. Hence, I’m fairly certain it was a red squirrel.

The island of Anglesey is, I understand, one of the few places in Britain which has remained a natural habitat (or at least retained areas which are) for red squirrels while they died out elsewhere, although they have been reintroduced in several other places with varying degrees of success. Amongst other places which are supposed to be the home of the elusive red squirrels is the patch of woodland in Menai Bridge between Waitrose and the shore, down by church island. However, despite having walked many times in those woods, often with my eyes peeled for interesting wildlife and sometimes waiting quietly for fairly long times (if there’s nobody else around to disturb the peace), I’ve never succeeded in seeing one there.

The place I saw the squirrel was just over the road from there, although it is a fairly busy road and close to quite a few houses, so I was fairly surprised to see it where I did and not in the depths of the woods. Hopefully it won’t be the last time I see one.

Although this was my first red squirrel in the wild, it wasn’t the first time I’ve ever seen a live red squirrel. That, as far as I can recall, was at a wildlife reserve somewhere in Scotland back in about 1986. Ever since moving to North Wales around the turn of the millennium, I’ve been quite excited at the prospect of having them on my doorstep (since I think they are much nicer creatures than grey squirrels, though I don’t have anything particularly against those either and I do quite enjoy watching them run around in the trees). It’s even more exciting to have actually seen one with my own eyes.

No pain, no gain…

This year hasn’t been a particularly mountainous one for me, in the literal sense.  As in, I haven’t been out walking and climbing in the mountains much.

In fact, I think my trip to the Glyderau range last Saturday was probably the first one of the year.

The Glyderau, part of Snowdonia, are about the second closest group of mountains to where I live (the Carneddau are closer, and the Snowdon Massif itself is just a little bit further away) and are the ones closest to my heart.  Largely that’s because my first trip into Snowdonia after I moved to Wales (fourteen years ago last week) was to these very mountains.  Also, I find the rugged, rocky, windswept landscape up there particularly beautiful.  I’m fairly sure I’ve been up there on at least five previous occasions, so it’s almost certainly my single most-visited bit of the mountains.

On this trip, we ascended via Bristly Ridge, a scrambling route up from the foot of Tryfan, to the north.  This is classified as a grade 1 scramble (i.e. the easiest grade) although it’s apparently towards the top end of the grading and the particular route we took, up the appropriately named “Sinister Gully”, is one of the more difficult ones.  The scrambling itself is not too bad but the fact that a lot of it is quite exposed and even on a dry, sunny day some of the rocks are quite wet and greasy adds to the fun.

This was my first ascent of Bristly Ridge itself, although on one previous occasion I went up the scree slope just to the left of it (on my way “down” from my first ascent of Tryfan).  After that trip, I wrote a couple of tunes in honour of a friend’s wedding (my friend Phil, with whom I made the trip).  One of them I named “Bristly Ridge” (I think in the mistaken belief that I’d actually been up the ridge itself) and the other was called “I don’t Adam and Eve it” (a reference to the two stones at the top of Tryfan).  I haven’t played either tune for several years, but I have managed to find the manuscript book in which I wrote them down and I hope soon to make a recording of them that I can put online (not that they are particularly great tunes).

Once we got to the top of Bristly Ridge, we checked out the Cantilever (a popular photo spot – though I forgot to take my camera with me on this trip) and the summit of Glyder Fach before scrambling up Castell y Gwynt on our way up to Glyder Fawr.  The clouds came in briefly several times while we were up on the top, although for the most part it was a lovely clear day.

We went back down y Gribin, the next descending ridge along from Bristly Ridge.  This was at least the third time I’ve descended from the Glyderau via this route, although I don’t recall ever having gone up this way.

Interestingly, when I first went to the top of Glyder Fawr its height was listed on the map as 999 meters.  It was resurveyed in 2010, using more accurate (GPS-based) techniques and the height was established as 1001 meters.

It was a lovely day out in one of the most beautiful places I know, with some good friends.  It was also quite a physically (and at times psychologically) demanding walk/climb and I’m still feeling a little stiff and sore almost a week later.  Looking on the bright side, every time I feel an ache in my limbs it reminds me of my exciting mountain adventure.

TV Stars!

Tomorrow morning I will be getting up at an unpleasantly early hour (sometime before 6am) in order to travel to the National Eisteddfod, where I will be competing with the Menai Bridge Brass Band.  The Eisteddfod this year is taking place in Denbigh.

I gather we’re due to be playing fairly early (probably around 10am) and the event will be getting filmed and broadcast, presumably on S4C (the Welsh TV channel).  I’m not sure whether it’s a live broadcast, but I expect it might be.

Having had a quick look at the S4C website, it doesn’t look like their programs are available to view online so, since I don’t have a TV and would in any case be out at the Eisteddfod at the time (assuming it’s a live broadcast), I’m unlikely to get to see myself on TV this time round.  That’s probably a good thing.  Still, if you happen to have access to S4C and have nothing better to do on Saturday morning you might like to tune in.

This will be, if I remember correctly, my third visit to the National Eisteddfod.  I first went to it when it came to Bangor in 2005 and my next visit was to Bala in 2009.  The Eisteddfod (which is an annual event) alternates between North and South Wales so, if I keep with the current pattern, I should next be due to visit it when it returns to North Wales the time after next, in 2017.