Language Imagined

‘Could you write a blog about your experience, a bit like the ones in these links?’ … came the request, directing me to a web page and the list of past Hay Festival International Fellows and their corresponding pieces. 

These were fascinating accounts of discovery, of window-seat flights and of crabs and condors, of magical bulls and mystery books, of programmed and impromptu conversations …

Only this time, it was going to be different. There would be no bag-packing. No rummaging in drawers for passports. No anxious queueing. No discarding of boots and belts and bangles. No departing and no arriving. The discovery would have to be different.

For this time, it was a case of opening the door to my little study in Carmarthen, West Wales, lighting up the computer, pressing ‘record’ and then ‘send’. And with this, I would be in Cartagena, Colombia, taking part in a festival of words and ideas in a city 5000 miles from home and in a settlement that is at least 6000 years old.

I had indulged in some reconnaissance of course, even though it had been pretty clear for weeks that the session would be virtual. I had tried to imagine the voices and the colours of the streets, the aromas at the Mercado de Bazurto, the white sand between my toes on the Playa Blanca, the taste of the ceviche on my tongue and the splendour of a timeless sun in Puerta del Reloj. Had I actually been there, I would have probably hesitated before taking the trip to the San Felipe de Barajas castle, just as I hesitate to show visitors to Wales some of the biggest conqueror castles we have here, but the walls around the city would have been unavoidable - and impressive no doubt,;and on contemplating them, I would have definitely caught myself remembering that the word used in Colombia for ‘wall’ - ‘muro’ or ‘muralla’- is the same as the Welsh ‘mur’.

However, none of that was within reach. The only thing left for me to grasp was some past-its-best-by-date-Spanish that I prayed was lurking somewhere in my head. I dug. And yes, there were some remnant strings of sentences lying around. Just about enough for me to get hold of their tails. I started refreshing them with as much vigour as possible, weaving them into sense. I had just about enough time to just about retrain my mouth to shape the sounds I would need for my twenty-five-minute slot. 

My aim was to convey something about Wales, the country within whose boundaries (just) the first Hay Festival had grown. I don’t think I remembered to say that the ‘Hay’ in Welsh is the ‘Gelli Gandryll’ (note to self: include this in future Spanish talks). But I did tell them about some of our most delicious words. Words like ‘tangnefedd’ and ‘Cymru’ itself, words that are kept in that special storeroom every language has, the one with ‘Cannot Be Translated With Just One Word’ on the door. ‘Tangnefedd’. Peace. Yes. But something more like ‘the peace made between any given two’. Perhaps you and somebody else. Perhaps you and the Great Being, ( ‘y Bod Mowr’ as my grandmother would refer in awe to whatever it was she imagined to be ‘out there’). Perhaps between your own mind and body.

And then ‘Cymru’. Look it up and find ‘Wales’. But look at it, into it, and you’ll find that it suggests that this patch of land is the ‘Together Land’, the piece of earth we share with all those who live here, while ‘Wales’ comes from a root that suggests ‘Land of the Others’.

I decided to focus my talk on this language question, as my quest with the 2021 Fellowship is to find out more about how others imagine language. Let me be clear what I mean by this. I’m not talking about how people may use language imaginatively, nor am I after insights into metaphoric language as such, but rather about the metaphors that have been used to try to catch the meaning of language itself. I’m wondering if, through combining these metaphors, we may get closer to understanding what this precious thing is. 

One Welsh poet, Waldo Williams, imagined language as the ‘daughter of danger’, another, Gerallt Lloyd Owen, conceived it as ‘the uneasy force on the mountain’. Miguel de Unamuno, the Basque born poet-philosopher, writing in Spanish called it the ‘vehicle of ideas’ and ‘the blood of the soul’. Have poets elsewhere imagined language as ‘an old-crooked woman’ like Tecwyn Ifan once did, or like a lover that ‘kisses’ your mouth - Waldo Williams again? Or imagined with T S Eliot its words as things that ‘after speech reach into the silence’?

It’s more of this I’m after. Because though we talk in language every day, we don’t seem to talk much about it, at least, not about what it is. 

We seem to have been persuaded by a monolingual mindset to see language as a set of labels, certainly to think about being bilingual as having two sets of labels for the same set of things. Yet anyone with more than language will know that this is absolutely not the case. Another language offers another window on the world.

Think about how in Welsh we cannot say ‘I have’, things can just be ‘with us’. (Being biased, I always feel that that’s a rather enlightened take on possessions.) Then think about ‘prince’, in Welsh ‘tywysog’. The former has clear evidence of ‘the principal’, ‘the prime’, ‘the first’ idea, the latter has evidence of the verb ‘tywys’ which means ‘to guide’, and when you guide someone, you’re within touching distance. (Ah! Remember those days ?).

And so, I’m hoping that even if the visits will be virtual, my voyage this year will be one of discovery that will allow me to bring back a collection of images that will let us see with new eyes not places perhaps but language.

I’ll finish this first blog, with an attempt to share in English what it’s like to see the world through the Welsh language. 

What’s Wales in Welsh?

We’re not afraid of flies.

We say ‘Heloooo!’

Not ‘Hello’;

The jaw and the mouth go south 

And don’t close around the nose:

‘Heloooo!’

Not ‘Hello’.

And we have two words for ‘you’,

And my grass is blue,

And the word for blue is ‘glas’

Not glass;

And that matters

For it never shatters,

Because when I try really hard

I do my best blue,

And when I’m sad, 

The little shoe

Hurts

In a place where you

Don’t know,

Because the dirt’s mine

And that’s fine.

And I say ‘yes’ in as many ways 

As there are questions.

I listen on things,

I hear smells

Like the smell of smoke,

And though I know that

Smother and choke

Are brothers, 

Somehow

I don’t know you,

For I only know facts,

And you’re not a fact,

You’re an act of being

Beyond just living,

And     there’s    a    word   for   living 

That’s   the    same    as     dying;

And a poem is a song

And it’s the half of walking,

And I can’t be afraid - 

Only fear, 

Like a cough and a cold,

Can be upon me,

And things that are told

Are said against,

And we talk always with never to,

And a cwtsh is a hug

And loud is high,

And when I go to sleep

I don’t mind the bugs

Though I go to the field of night,

Where I wait to see a dream 

That will light 

The candle of my eye;

And I’m savvy enough

To have

Absolutely nothing,

Things are just ‘with me’,

For now,

Borrowed 

Perhaps

Like the trainers I call pumps or daps.

And when I see rain,

I see old women with sticks,

And if six is half a dozen

Then fifty’s half a hundred

And forty’s double twenty

And nineteen’s four on fifteen;

And if you want to be the boss

You’ve got to be the bridge,

Because ...

A prince is not a primo but a guide

And pride means strong. 

So friend, as my song 

Comes to an end

Let me say

That when you call us foreign,

We’ll open a hand

And invite you to join us,

For we’re the People 

Of the Together Land.

I look forward to my next trip, wondering how I’ll get there and hoping that I’ll bring back some new souvenir images - in words if not in pictures.

Mererid Hopwood is Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2021/22, travelling to each Hay Festival edition. Hopwood is one of Wales’ most celebrated poets with published works including Singing in Chains (2004), O Ran (2009), Poets' Graves/Beddau'r Beirdd(2014) and Nes Draw (2016); her books for children Ar Bwys (2007), Straeon o’r Mabinogi (2012) and Cyfres Dosbarth Miss Prydderch (2016–19); and her translations Seren Lowri (2005) and Geiriau Diflanedig (2019). She is a three-time Eisteddfod prize winner, has been Children's Laureate Wales, and was awarded the Glyndwr Prize for her contribution to literature. Her collection Nes Draw won the poetry section of the Welsh language Book of the Year Awards 2016 and won the Tir na n-Og prize for children’s writing in 2018.