Dreaming in Welsh


On Language


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.