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.

Japandroid (Part 1)

Amongst the many languages I’ve dabbled with over the years is Japanese.  I’ve always (or at least for quite a long time) had  an interest in the language and culture of Japan, partly because they are very different to what I’m used to.  My previous attempts to learn more than a few basic phrases of Japanese have, however, been hampered by the difficulty of learning the writing system.

Having recently acquired a new Android phone, I decided to have a look at the facilities that had to offer for learning Japanese, especially how to read it.  I was pleasantly surprised.  So far I have only explored some of the free apps that are available, but there are plenty of these and some of them are extremely useful.  All of these apps are (or at least were) available on the official Android Marketplace.

I won’t go into great detail about the Japanese writing system here, since there are plenty of good sources of information available, such as this Wikipedia article.  However, learning to read the two kana syllabaries (especially hiragana) is a high priority for learning the language, as is beginning to get a grip on the basics of kanji.  Learning to write them too is not a bad idea.  Repeated exposure is essentially the only way to achieve these goals.

The main app I have been using to learn the kana is one called TenguGo Kana, which provides a series of quizzes on both hiragana and katakana,  with diagrams and animations to show how the characters are written (stroke order is quite important for correct writing of Japanese; the same is true for kanji), as well as examples of words using them.  I’ve just finished working through all the quizzes, but they will still be useful for revision purposes later on.  The app also includes handy kana charts for reference.

For learning to write (or draw) the kana, I have found an appropriately named app called Kana Draw, which has been quite useful.  This puts up outlines of the various kana and gets you to trace them using the appropriate stroke order, which helps to get the shapes better established in your mind so that you can more easily write them as well as recognise them.  I’ve found it quite helpful to name each kana out loud as I trace it, as a means of consolidating my knowledge of the sounds represented as well as the way of writing them.   Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a straightforward way of selecting just a subset of each syllabary to test, which means that while I’m still learning the katakana I’m getting faced with a few symbols I don’t yet know (I had already become familiar with all the hiragana before I found this app).

I have also installed an app called Kanji Flashcards.  You can probably guess from the title what that one does :-).  I haven’t made much use of it yet, as I’m still concentrating mostly on learning the kana, but when I get on to learning kanji this promises to be a handy study tool.

Another useful app I found is an interactive textbook called HJ Lite.  This is actually a free, limited preview of a payware app called HumanJapanese, which is essentially a complete basic Japanese course with about 40 chapters.  The free version is limited to the first 8 chapters, which introduce the hiragana and a few basic phrases.  There’s quite a lot of discussion surrounding the basic information that’s presented, including useful observations such as several observations about how perceived difficulties in the Japanese writing system are in fact similar to features of our own system, e.g. the addition of a single stroke can completely change the meaning of a word, just like there’s only a subtle difference between “interior and inferior” if you actually stop to think about how the letters are written. It also has some advice for things to look out for when writing the characters. I was impressed enough with this course that I am seriously considering getting the full version, although I’m inclined to give some of my existing Japanese learning materials another try first, now that I’ve got my phone to help me learn to read and write.

As this post is getting quite long and I still have several other apps to mention, I’m going to split it into (at least) two parts.  The rest will follow shortly…