Welsh is a hard language. English is rhythmic, with plenty of stops and starts and pauses. Welsh flows — it bubbles on like a mountain stream, beautiful to listen to but hard to understand. But the hardest thing about it is the Mutations. These are the sea-monsters lurking under the silky surface of the language, rising up at the slightest excuse to bite the learner on the nose. When they show themselves in their full treacherous cantankerousness, my Welsh class sighs in unison and deflates with despair. Mutations are occasions when the first letter of a word changes. For instance the word ‘father’ ‘Tad’ becomes ‘nhad’ when it is ‘my father’ (‘fy nhad i’, very hard for the English-speaker to say), and ‘dad’ when it’s ‘your dad’ (‘dy dad di’). Were it not for the irresistible music of this ancient tongue, learners would give up in despair when they realise that the whole of the language is permeated by these shape-changing creatures. They are guardians at the gates of the Welsh psyche, and to pass them you have to be determined – or, you have to fall in love with the language.
Now, at this point I could tell you about my love (sincere) for Welsh poetry and myth, but, eighteen months into learning, the truth is that I satisfy my craving to hear Welsh mostly by listening compulsively to Radio Cymru in the car and watching the soap Pobol y Cwm on S4C, the Welsh language channel. This is the lazy woman’s way to learn, by turning a task into a pleasure. Pobol y Cwm is much better than English-language soaps, probably owing to the Welsh love of language, performance, and most of all their fascination with human emotion. All the Welsh language dramas have plenty of strong emotion in them – grief, anger, hatred are especially frequent – often expressed in long meaningful looks. But, whereas on Eastenders I find these emotions ludicrous, and don’t really believe in them, with Pobol y Cwm, I’m on the edge of my seat. The actress Donna Edwards who plays Britt Monk brings the depth of Greek tragedy to her portrayal of a woman whose brother has caused the death of her other brother. Richard Lynch, who plays the wicked brother, Gary, can cause a physical frisson of distress in me when I see him on the screen. He lives locally, and is by all accounts a nice chap, but his acting is so powerful I would find it hard to trust him if I met him in real life.
When we learn a language we enter the psyche of a nation whose language we are speaking. The Welsh psyche has scary depths, plenty of dingles and hidden valleys, and also many exalted heights (think Under Milk Wood) just like the landscape of the country. But I believe that much the essence of true Welshness is hidden from outsiders. You have to live here for a while to see it emerge and show itself its true quixotic delicacy. To find it, we monoglot English-speakers have to drop our arrogance, and drop also our addiction to the cut and dried clarity of our own (also glorious) tongue. Today on my hilltop, walking in the first snow, I watched dark clouds drift over from the north , casting the green Wye valley into darkness, while the snow-capped mountains in the south and east glittered in brilliant sunshine. The landscape flowed between light and dark, changing every second, refusing to settle into one gorgeous frame. Elusive, like the Welsh.
Watch S4C if you can, read Dafydd ap Gwylim and the Mabinogion, or even learn some Welsh (SaysomethinginWelsh.com is good)). This ancient nation is the guardian of treasures.