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.