Learning Welsh – how not to give up

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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.

Listening to an eloquent shaman – Martin Prechtel

 I’ve just read Secrets of the Talking Jaguar by Martin Prechtel.  Wow! I have been so thrilled by a book since Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary (about the   two sides of the brain and the worrying dominance of the left side). It’s the story of his time learning to be a shaman in a Mayan village in Guatemala. He was taught by the last of the great old shamans, a volcanic, wild and terrifyingly inventive man called Chiv.  But the difference between this book and some of the others I’ve read about shamanism is that that Prechtel’s mastery of language is such that he really can transmit and convey some of his extraordinary experiences. Not only that but he is a warm, boisterous person you really get to like. Certainly his evocation of the Mayan village he lived in in the 70s makes it sound like paradise and maybe it is a little over idealised. But that way of life was destroyed in a ferocious civil war backed by the United States.  Prechtel is angry but not bitter. Now he lives inAmerica and teaches. He is someone I would love to meet because a lot of what he says about the native traditions of Guatemala could be relevant to our project of regenerating the British native tradition. 

            Here’s a quote where he’s talking about negativity and the role of shamans in dealing with it:

There is an eloquence in negativity that quickly becomes evil. We see evil as a form of negative creativity with a vengeance. Its parents are simple, natural desires who, because they have gone unfed, become frustrated, unnatural hungers. These hungers begin to put together things that don’t go together, creating monsters, which are personified unnatural hungers that eat everything and never get full… we, the shamans, can be thought of as spirit dog catchers; the pets we catch are these composite hunger monsters. Unlike the dog pound people who kill what they catch, we shamans break the monsters back into their component parts, thus sweetening the earth by allowing each thing to flower back into its original shape again… True creativity doesn’t just make things; it feeds what feeds life.

 I think that’s all spot on.  I have ordered his two next books. Are there any other fans out there?  This is a voice we need to hear, neither preachy nor ranting, but beautifully articulating the joys of a lost world and investigating how we might re-infuse our world with that kind of magic.

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