Thursday 29 April 2010

Wales and Bad English

Two points about Wales. First: it doesn't have a name. Wales comes from wealh and means foreign, in the same way that a walnut is a foreign nut because walnut trees were not native to England. Wales simply means foreign country. It is an exonym.

The Welsh word for Wales is Cymru, which comes from the Brythonic word combrogi meaning land of our compatriots. So the English call it "Their Country" and the Welsh call it "Our Country", which means that the floor is wide open for somebody to think up an actual name for Permanentlyrainingland.

Second: when I was young and easy and doing my GCSEs, I used have to write preposterous translations. No awkwardness of the other language (French, German or Latin) could be omitted. Frenchmen were forever "at the house of" other Frenchmen, Romans were always doing things "in order that they might" do something else in the subjunctive (which seemed unfair). I would carefully write out crimes against English prose like "The about to be killed legionaries saw the having been crossed river".

I can still (for some reason) recite some of my Latin set texts, which I, like everybody else, memorised in English:

At that time appeared in the palace a sign miraculous in both appearance and outcome. They say that while a boy slept, whose name was Servius Tullius, his head burnt with a divine fire; and they say that, a great shout having arisen, the king...

In today's Independent there is the story of an unfortunate potholer whose troglodyte corpse has finally been dragged to the light after thirty years in the underworld.

A spokeswoman for Dyfed Powys Police said: "Although he was located at that time in the caves, his body was never able to be recovered despite several attempts over the following weeks and as a result he has remained in the location he died."

There's something fantastic about "his body was never able to be recovered". It ascribes will and inability to a cadaver, but a will to be the subject of a passive verb. Located is fantastically ambiguous because you don't know whether it means "was there" or that his whereabouts were known. I stubbornly refuse to believe that anybody, even a policeman, could invent such a byzantine and grotesque sentence. The spokesman must have been speaking Welsh, or Latin.

All signs in Wales are bilingual, so English speakers who erect them have to e-mail a translator for a Welsh rendering. But translators go on holiday. The lower half of this sign reads “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated”.


  1. You have reached the pinnacle of perfection: Welsh and Latin in one post. Ecce Cymri! I salute you.

    The only cheering aspect to my study of Lat. was the prospect of translating Cupid & Psyche - until my O Level edition (hem, hem) revealed all the saucy bits had been excised ...

  2. Nil carborundum illegitimi and their cacky tarru (phonetic rendering).

  3. My father always told me that that meant 'Don't let the bastards get you down'. Was he kidding me?

    For that matter, are YOU kidding me?

  4. Nil carborundum illegitimi is a sort of joke Latin phrase. Literally it means nothing the grinding of the bastards, but I'm not sure Ovid would have understood it.
    Cacky tarru is Welsh for bullshit. I can't remember how it was spelled, but I once wrote a beautiful verse drama in which there was a Welsh character who rejoiced in that name.

  5. This is slightly off topic - but listening to Scandinavian pop has made me think that some things become clearer once they are translated back into the native language of the songwriter.

    The title of the Aha song "Take on me", for example, means very little in English (I used to think it meant that the singer was inviting the girl to take him on as a sort of project), but it is a direct translation of a Norwegian phrase meaning "touch me" - which makes a lot more sense, and makes me think that the song was originally written, or at least conceived, in Norwegian.

  6. I think the Welsh spelling is "cachu tarw" - cachu is "shit", tarw is "bull".

  7. I love Welsh and Wales :-)
    There, that's my learnèd comment for the day.

  8. I think that 'Our Country' is a suitable name for Wales, given that it ties in perfectly with the national anthem. I mean, Our National Anthem..
    How is it that no-one ever has anything flattering to say about the cymraeg?

  9. As a Devonian, I can tell you that "cacky" was my Dad's dialect (or archaic English?)word for poo. And of course "cack-handed" means left-handed, referring to basic hygiene precautions from the days before everyone had cutlery and toilet paper.

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