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Dreaming in Welsh

September 18, 2012 | by

Hiraeth.

It’s pronounced “here-eyeth” (roll the “r”) and it’s a Welsh word. It has no exact cognate in English. The best we can do is “homesickness,” but that’s like the difference between hardwood and laminate. Homesickness is hiraeth-lite. A quick history lesson is a good idea before a definition: in 1282 Wales became the first colony of the English empire. Because England eventually ruled half the globe, we all know its first colony by the name the colonizers gave it: Wales, which means “Place of the Others,” or “Place of the Romanized Foreigners.”

So that’s how the Welsh—the original Britons—became “foreigners” on their own island. Talk about a semantic insult. To Welsh speakers Wales is Cymru (pronounced Kum-ree): home of the Cymry, or fellow countrymen. But not too many schoolkids outside Llandysul know that. Arthur—the once-breathing chieftain, not Merlin’ s once-and-future pal—lived around the time the name “Wales” stuck, in the sixth century. He tried to hold back the English (really the Saxons) and failed. Then in 1282 Llywelyn failed too. He was the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales, aptly named The Last, and he was killed in battle by soldiers of Edward I. After that Wales became a subject state. Since then time’s centrifuge has spun it to the margins of history. Wales is a poor, rural place of mountains and ribboning hills with empty underground pockets where its coal used to be, but which, miraculously, has clung to its birthright language. Twenty years ago Welsh was spoken by eighteen percent of the population, mainly elderly folk in isolated areas. Today twenty-two percent speak it, including a burgeoning segment of young professionals who’ve helped create things like Gweplyfr (Facebook) and Twitr (Twitter).

That’s the history, but now you need to look at the legends, too, to understand hiraeth. Arthur and Llywelyn never really died. They’re only napping until fate calls them back to set things right for Cymru. The same goes for Owain Glyndwr, a fourteenth century Welsh knight who escalated a property dispute into a revolt and briefly united his countrymen under a short-lived parliament in West Wales. After his last battle Owain’s body was never found. He’s another one: not dead, but merely biding his time.

So hiraeth is a protest. If it must be called homesickness, it’s a sickness come on—in Welsh ailments come onto you, as if hopping aboard ship—because home isn’t the place it should have been. It’s an unattainable longing for a place, a person, a figure, even a national history that may never have actually existed. To feel hiraeth is to feel a deep incompleteness and recognize it as familiar.

Mae hiraeth arna amdanot ti. There’s a homesickness on me for you. Or, if we’re mincing words, I miss you. That’s fair, too. But the deeper, national hiraeth is something you don’t have to go away to experience. You can feel it at home in Wales. In fact, that’s where you feel it most.

I’m American, but I have a hiraeth on me for Wales. I went there first as a grad student in the 1980s. I learned to drink whiskey and do sheep impressions (I can differentiate between lambs and ewes). I learned what coal smoke smells like (nocturnal and oily). And I fell in love with the earth. It happened one late afternoon when I went for a walk in the Brecon Beacons. (The dictionary defines beacons as “conspicuous hills,” which is about as apt as you can get.) When I set off from sea level the air was already growing damp as the sun faded. Ahead of me the Beacons’ bald, grey-brown flanks were furrowed like elephant skin in ashes-of-roses light. It soon became chilly but the ground held onto its warmth, so that the hills began to smoke with eddying bands of mist. That dusk was unspeakably beautiful and not a little illicit. It seemed, for a millisecond, as if I were witnessing the earth drop its guard and exhale its love for the sky, for the pungent cattle, the rabbits whose bones lay underfoot, and for me, too. I felt as if my bodily fluids, my wet, physiological self, were being summoned to high tide. The hills tugged on my blood and it responded with a storm surge that made me ache—a simple sensation more urgent and less complicated than thought, like the love of one animal for another. Or the love of an animal for its home.

After that walk I became attuned to the Welsh countryside. Growing up atop the suburbanscape of New Jersey, so dense that it obscured the lay of the land and erased evidence of almost all occupation prior to 1900, meant that the farmland of West Wales was the first visibly multi-dimensional landscape I witnessed. The Ice Age that pared out its valleys and deposited its hills accounted for the differential between as-the-crow-flies time and the time it took me to drive anywhere. The Stone Age was present, too, in great behemoths like Pentre Ifan, a tomb that’s balanced a 40-ton capstone the size and shape of a sailboat hull atop three standing stones for the past 6000 years. And then there were the Middle Ages, when ancestors of the ladies who served Welsh cakes at Ralph’s Bakery razed Wales’ forests, leaving the land bald and exposed: their handiwork was present, too, in my everyday world.

Treelessness makes for a shockingly lucid landscape. The clarity of its components before a distant horizon, and the way each feature—the rivers and hills, the valleys and headlands—fit together, virtually became the legend of my life. I felt I’d found the key to a map I’d never before been able to read, but without which I had no sense of my or my species place on the planet. That this bit of turf clung to the periphery of Europe and the margins of history was fine by me. In 1997 I wrote a bo about using Welsh as an international language on a fifteen-country tour. In the chapter on Thailand I noted that Welsh speakers, wherever they wind up, use language to assert their particularity. For them, speaking Welsh is like pulling out an atlas, aggressively tapping a finger on the bulge next to England and saying, “See? Here.” By contrast, I wrote, “To be American, I sometimes feel, is to be blank, without a nationality or a language. Is this because America is such a polyglot culture that it contains pieces of everywhere else, or because American culture … is so monolithic and transcending that it is everywhere else?

I want to be particular, too. I want to join the unbroken cycle of life and death and recycled renewal that’ s the hallmark of an ancient landscape. And because I don’t write poetry but still like to view the world “slant,” as Emily Dickinson put it, I want to be from Wales. The view from its minority rung on the geo-political hierarchy—alternative, radically egalitarian, green—suits me well.

I’ve thought about this. Maybe I’m uncomfortable with the global responsibility that comes with being American; or maybe my formative years, against a backdrop of Vietnam and Watergate, led me to be wary of the center and tend naturally to the edge. Or, hell, maybe I just enjoy being different. And in this I’m not alone. In his 1862 travelogue, Wild Wales, George Borrow stood atop Mount Snowdon and recited a praise-poem in Welsh. (Borrow was not a retiring man).) A group of Englishmen sneered, but a Welshman came to shake his hand. When asked his origins, Borrow answered, “I am … one of a nation amongst whom any knowledge save what relates to money-making and over-reaching is looked upon as a disgrace. I am ashamed to say that I am an Englishman.”

Borrow was a lifelong sympathizer with oppressed peoples—his first book was about the gypsies—and, like me, he was seduced into selective marginality by the Welsh landscape. It was fashionable at the time for English intellectuals like Borrow to consider the Welsh mountains, which they believed sheltered Arthur, Llywelyn, and other Welsh “freedom fighters,” as a symbol of self-determination. By hiking up into the view and publically declaiming away in Welsh, Borrow was very clearly choosing Wales as his intellectual and moral home.

But alas for Borrow and me! We may have chosen Wales but we’re not Welsh. Eventually we both had to go home, he to England and I to the States. Do the accidents of our births mean we can’t feel hiraeth—only homesickness? In Istanbul Orhan Pamuk writes about the Turkish expression “hüzün,” which he says “rises out of the pain [the Turks] feel for everything that has been lost, but it is also what compels them to invent new defeats and new ways to express their impoverishment.” Pamuk’s Istanbul is a city weighted by memories of Ottoman glory—crumbling neighborhoods, rotting wooden mansions along the Bosphorus—but he believes the city clings to its melancholy by choice, as a means of dignifying personal and national defeats of the present and future. For Pamuk, hüzün is almost a kind of miasma that Istanbullers inhale. “It seems to me,” he writes of the defeated heroes of Turkish B-movies, “that hüzün does not come from the hero’s broken, painful story … rather, it is almost as if the hüzün that infuses the city … has seeped into the hero’s heart to break his will.”

The Portuguese have a word, “saudade,” which is the only true cognate for hirath. It also means “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist,” or “the love that stays” after someone, or something—the Portuguese empire?—has gone away. Like hüzün and hiraeth, saudade is firmly rooted in place. To read Pamuk on hüzün and Jan Morris, the celebrated Welsh travel writer, on hiraeth, these emotions are to the inhabitants of their nations as soil and climate are to fine wines: an integral part of the terroir that makes them who and what they are. An affliction or a gift of home.

Fair enough. But Morris is Welsh and Pamuk is Turkish. Why can’t hiraeth and its soul-mates speak to my predicament too: the love of a foreigner for a home that is not, and can never really be, her own? Like the people whose national experience invented it, hiraeth is a deeply generous word. It must have room for the likes of Borrow and me. Not once-and-future desires, but impossible yearnings of the spirit and home-seeking imagination.

It is hiraeth itself that makes me Welsh.

Pamela Petro is the author of Travels in an Old Tongue: Touring the World in Welsh. She is still struggling to master the language.

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16 COMMENTS

16 Comments

  1. Gwyn Lewis | September 18, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    An interesting take on Welshness. However, ‘hiraeth’ translates to ‘longing’ (literally so – ‘hir’ is the Welsh word for ‘long’), which isn’t particular to ideas of Welshness and I think could be found in many nationalisms.

  2. Brian Thomas | September 18, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    Diddorol iawn.. mae arna i hiraeth am bobol garedig a doeth hirben; ‘does na lawer ohonynt ar ol yn y byd cyfoes.

    Nice take on an ancient culture and language that despite years and years of occupation and oppresiion still survives in many many positive ways ways e.g The Urdd hold an annual Eisteddfod and is one of the largest youth festivals in the whole of Europe and is conducted totally through the medium of its mother tongue.

    Brrrrilliant…

  3. Brian Tschiegg | September 19, 2012 at 9:16 am

    “It soon became chilly but the ground held onto its warmth, so that the hills began to smoke with eddying bands of mist. That dusk was unspeakably beautiful and not a little illicit. It seemed, for a millisecond, as if I were witnessing the earth drop its guard and exhale its love for the sky…”

    Beautiful.

  4. Tim Underhill | September 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    As a 30yr emigre living in the States who roamed the Brecon Beacons all my childhood, I say ‘Pamela, you’re in! Honorary Welsh!’ more Welsh than a lot of Welsh people!

  5. Miranda Field | September 22, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Utterly beautiful writing.
    Perhaps America doesn’t have word that means “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist,” because it’s never accepted that everything we want can’t necessarily be made to materialize. A culture of wishful thinking replacing longing?

  6. Katie Linton | September 27, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Thanks for writing. You remind me that it’s my task as an artist to express a common theme in a new way. I want to write about things that everyone knows– nostalgia and home and belonging– from a new angle.

  7. Carolyn | October 1, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    Nice article. As a Welsh emigrée hiraeth is a constant in my life, and while some may disagree, I think your identity is about where you feel you belong, where your heart is, so if Ms. Petro feels Welsh, then a part of her is Welsh. Have to disagree with Gwyn’s etymology of the word: hir does indeed mean long, but as an adjective, not a verb. It’s more likely to refer to length in the sense of distance or time away from the object of the hiraeth. But yes, ‘longing’ or perhaps ‘yearning’ are probably as close as you can get for an English translation.

  8. Francois Le Grand | October 2, 2012 at 9:45 am

    The Brecon Beacons is an absolutely beautiful place and the author has done it justice with this beautiful piece of writing. I travelled through the south of wales with two friends the week after finishing university. With one day’s previous notice off we went camping in the hills, fighting off the mites- terribly unprepared, with several cans but no opener, peanuts as a daily staple- with a 150 kilometre trek to complete in four days. Still today, the greatest voyage of my life and I think about places like the summit of Pen Y Fan quite often and those two friends.

  9. elizabethm | March 22, 2013 at 10:06 am

    I am lucky enough to live in Wales and have written about the attachment one feels to place. I feel neither English nor Welsh, perhaps both. For me “hiraeth” is the longing for home, and yes, you can feel that longing without leaving home. It is a much more complicated and many layered thing than homesickness, with more nostalgia and yearning for what has been lost. Lovely writing, thank you.

  10. Dave Garner | March 22, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Thank-you,Pamela, that’s lovely. As an Englishman, could I add that there does seem to be a bullying streak in the English nature: ignorant Anglos may hate Germans and French for historical and cultural reasons, but they tend just to sneer at smaller countries such as Belgium and Wales. But, visiting friends in Wales, I’ve always found the natives warm and welcoming despite all the history. Dave Garner

  11. Dave Griffin | May 12, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    Today had to explain “Hiraeth” to a Maltese friend resident in the UK. It was about a motorcycle trip to Italy we’re contemplating and he said maybe he could visits Malta. I said he had to, it’s “Hiraeth” So I found your explanation, it’s the best I’ve read, sublime. I gave him my very short explanation “a longing to be where you’re spirit lives”.

  12. Alison Hill | August 21, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    “Wales is a poor, rural place of mountains and ribboning hills with empty underground pockets where its coal used to be, but which, miraculously, has clung to its birthright language. Twenty years ago Welsh was spoken by eighteen percent of the population, mainly elderly folk in isolated areas.”

    I hope this was tongue in cheek. As it is, I could read no further. Wales is far from a ‘poor rural place’ – have you never heard of the capital city Cardiff – Caerdydd? A vibrant and diverse city, the birth place of Shirley Bassey? I grew up in a small village in the mountains of North Wales and it was far from poor, in fact we were rich in many ways, mostly in culture. And your claim that 20 years ago Welsh was spoken by mainly elderly folk in isolated areas? Where did you get this information? I’m in my forties and speak fluent Welsh, I grew up speaking Welsh as did most of my peers, some of them only spoke English if they absolutely had to. My mother came to Wales during World War 2 and nobody in her class spoke English – Welsh was the mother tongue. I worked as a journalist on a Welsh language current affairs series in the 90’s and still do contract work here from the USA for BBC Radio Wales, in Welsh. What you say is rather insulting. And furthermore coal mines were in South Wales, not mid or North Wales. North Wales is well known for its slate, not coal. And have you never heard of the Eisteddfod? It is a cultural Olympics, with competitions in song, dance, music, writing, poetry, art, crafts, etc. it is unique to Wales, conducted purely in the Welsh language and established sometime in the 12th Century.

  13. Ricardo Brenelli | September 12, 2013 at 12:14 am

    Beautiful writing. I am living in England for the year and I already dread the time to leave. I’ve made great friendships with people from Cymru and they are some of the people I will miss the most. Being from Brazil I already knew the word ‘saudade’ and I was trying to find a simple way of explaining it to my mates once I am gone. Funny that in the end Welsh is the only language with an appropriate word for it. Maybe that is in part why I felt so welcome and at home both with my welsh friends and when in Cymru. I just wanted to congratulate you for such a beautiful text and say that it has been very helpful as I gather inspiration to write my goodbye letters to my friends from Cymru.

  14. Becca | April 20, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    There is also the term “morriña” in Gallego, which means melancholy/nostalgia for/longing for one’s home-place. Usually it is specific to longing for Galicia in Northerwestern Spain.

  15. Shayna | May 11, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    I think many Americans feel a sense of hiraeth; I know I do in the sense of longing for an (ethnic/national/cultural) identity and memory which no longer exists, or which you never knew, especially for us second and third generation children of immigrants.

  16. Harry | October 14, 2014 at 9:36 am

    This was very beautifully written – and very perceptive, too. I think you really got to the sense of tragedy at the heart of Welsh history, culture and identity.
    Still, it’s not all bad. We’re still here. And, like you say, the language struggles on and is even growing in some areas. My mother is English and she’s taking lessons in it – she’s Welsh via adoption!
    I’m going to get lessons at some point – though I don’t think knowing the language is a prerequisite for being a true Welshman, I feel that there’s a duty on us not to see the old language die.
    That and the opportunity to annoy the English by speaking it in front of them. Just a bit, mind.

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