Fighting the cause of lost words is a familiar effort in Wales where language itself is endangered. While both Welsh and English by today have equal status in the eyes of the law, over the past 150 years, we have seen the number of Welsh speakers decline from 90% of the population to only 19%. During the past sixty years or so, there have been many campaigns for the survival of Welsh, or Cymraeg as it is known in her own language. As well as official status, these campaigns have led to the restoration of original Welsh place names (and marking them with bilingual road signs), the right to be educated in Welsh and to have Welsh television and radio programmes. And things are certainly looking up, with the Welsh government recently setting itself the ambitious goal to double the number of Welsh speakers from half a million to a million by the year 2050.
This matters. Saving words and languages matters. It matters because they are more than just sounds. They are windows that enable us to see and understand the world about us. A bluebell and a dandelion may both be flowers, but without being called by their own names, they become somehow less visible, less important, more prone to be ignored ... and eventually, more likely to vanish.
This is one of the reasons why I was so delighted to be asked to try to recast Rob Macfarlane’s spells into Welsh and project them against Jackie Morris’ extraordinarily beautiful artwork. Inspired by the original ideas, I took a deep breath and imagined my pencil into a magic wand. Together we were facing a task of great responsibility - to conjure the words of the world about us back from the brink of unbeing and place them in central sight!
Some of the challenges were obvious. If the way the three letters in the English ‘ivy’ grow to five in the Welsh ‘iorwg’ cause a conundrum, then what about how the four in ‘newt’ expand to ten over three words in ‘madfall y dŵr’?! Beyond their length, the names also sometimes focus on different characteristics. While the Welsh ‘clychau’r gog’ and the English ‘bluebell’ reveal the same ‘bell’/’cloch’ component, ‘blue’ is not reflected in the Welsh, but instead it recalls the ‘cuckoo’ that shares its May landscape. And if the regal status of ‘kingfisher’ is not evident in Welsh, here the colour blue, that’s missing from the bell flowers, is clear for, literally translated, this royal English fisherman is known in Welsh as ‘the blue of the water’s edge’.
As is the case in other languages such as French or German, in Welsh we have two ways of expressing knowing, enabling us to ‘know’ facts on the one hand, and places and people on the other in different ways. In our language we recognise that to know facts is somehow a more superficial undertaking than to know places and people; the former an act of mind and memory, the latter more an act of the heart and soul.
In working on these spell-songs, I have been allowed to meet the twenty words they conjure up and get to know what they represent beyond the mind and memory. They have become more than facts. They have become friends that need to be known by the heart and soul.
With the help of the craftsmanship and artistry of the design team at Graffeg, and the generous encouragement of Jackie and Rob, it has been a great joy to work on Geiriau Diflanedig. I can only hope that the readers will share some of this pleasure and that the Welsh version will play its part, along with its counterparts in the other languages, in calling back onto our tongues some endangered species of wondrous words.
To help ensure a copy of Geiriau Diflanedig reaches every primary school in Wales please visit: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/geiriau-diflanedig-for-primary-schools-in-wales
Geiriau Diflanedig published on 10 October 2019
Grateful thanks to Mererid Hopwood for writing this guest blog.