o bydded i'r hen iaith barhau: lessons in losing a language

This is what language is:
a habitable grief. A turn of speech
for the everyday and ordinary abrasion
of losses such as this

which hurts
just enough to be a scar.

And heals just enough to be a nation.
- Eavan Boland, from 'A Habitable Grief'

I'm in London, living alone. For the first time, I feel what I immediately recognise as hiraeth. That untranslatable feeling-state belonging to the Welsh. The yearning for the Wales of history and myth, for the Wales that never will be and maybe never was. A feeling that belongs to the body and belongs to the hills, as if they're the same.

**
I'm in year eight Welsh class. The teacher is hawkish and terrifying. She belongs to the time before Welsh-medium education crossed from nationalist dream to widespread reality. I laugh too loud at a friend's joke and she asks me to explain it. Between giggles, I translate (English was forbidden, so of course it was all we spoke). I accidentally say "chickens" instead of "ieir." I genuinely have nightmares about her fury for years.

**
Through the winter in an English city, a word beats through me; it says: adref, adref, adref


**
In primary school, we are taught about the Welsh Not, a sort of plaque which was used to discourage children from speaking Welsh (which for many was the only language they knew). The child wearing the Not at the end of the day was beaten. I appreciate the weight of this language, the investment our teachers have in us speaking a language they were never permitted to. But I'm also fed up of getting detention for speaking English.

**
I have a thought I want to express; I look up the word I want in the dictionary (the perfect word, the exact word I mean). In Welsh, it doesn't exist. This happens every day, every piece of homework.

The only lesson I enjoy is English. This is the only time I can speak freely without coming up against a language that feels archaic and unsuited to the modern world. I read and write endlessly in English: stories about strange worlds and dystopian technologies. The books on the shelf in Welsh class are all about pirates and highwaymen. I read novels in English and pretend I've read the Welsh translations.

I purposely choose a school that doesn't teach Welsh to move to.

**
My maths teacher in my new school sees each student individually at the front of class. He talks me through a problem, something about geometry. I'm trying to answer him, but I don't know any of these words in English. I answer questions in Welsh without realising. I feel so stupid, so desperate to be rid of this language.

**
At night, when I can't sleep, I sing si hei lwli to myself. I used to be able to play this on the harp. Si hei lwli mabi, mae'r llong yn mynd i ffwrdd. Si hei lwli mabi, mae'r capten ar y bwrdd. Si hei lwli lwli lws, cysga cysga mabi tlws...

**
Just before my exams, I go to a pub in Oxford where the Cymdeithas meets. I haven't spoken Welsh to another person in years. They ask me what I'm studying: "Hanes a...." I don't know the word for politics. "Gwleidyddiaeth," they supplement. I settle down with a pint, I carry a conversation. Adref, goes my heart. Rydych chi'n adref.

**
I think of Dafydd Iwan's "Cymraeg siarada'r Iesu am yr wyddwn i [Jesus spoke Welsh for all I knew]." For me too, Welsh was the language of capel, Sunday school, the early saints. Dewi and Dwynwen intertwined with the heroes and heroines of the Mabinogion: Branwen, in her Irish prison who spoke to starlings and launched a war; the shapeshifting Ceridwen who turned into a chicken and swallowed Gwion Bach (who had turned into a grain of corn, because of course he had) and gave birth to him again as Taliesin; Arianrhod and her tynged, Seithennyn the drunk gatekeeper of Cantre'r Gwaelod and the bells that still ring underneath the sea. This was my cultural ground, rich and full of dragons and giants. And they all spoke Welsh.

My copy of the Mabinogion is in English now, though I've never been able to bring myself to read it. My bible is the King James rather than the William Morgan. I open a pdf of the Llyfr Taliesin and don't understand a word.

**
That I am writing this in English instead of Welsh is itself a wound. That I can't write poetry in Welsh, the very thing it's made for, is a wound. That I'm studying Old Welsh battle poems and medieval law books and I can't read them in their original language is a wound that re-opens with every page.

But sometimes I dream in it, and my unconscious offers up to me words I never knew I knew. And when I'm drunk I do a really painful rendition of Sosban Fach. And when I'm alone in England where all the words feel spiky I have the language of my childhood to curl up in, always warm and always there. The softness of old words, old songs and stories, an old land with giants buried in it.

No comments