Review: Dychmygu Iaith by Mererid Hopwood
How do we imagine language? Often through the medium of language itself, in a curiously self-referential act.
From the outset we are both bound and free: to imagine language differently or originally, one has to confront the limits of the medium, but to succeed is to extend or even transcend them.
What appears a simple question at first soon becomes an existential concern. Dychmygu Iaith by Mererid Hopwood ventures into this field, which is surprisingly untrodden in Wales and in Welsh.
We begin at the very beginning: what is language? While marking out the philosophy of language, the author draws our attention to the paucity of specifically Welsh-language discussions in the discipline, which, given the long-standing concern for the language’s survival, is unexpected.
It is not entirely absent, however, and an overview is provided of some of the main ways in which Welsh-language writers and thinkers have conceived of language: how they have imagined it.
The author applies well-known theories of language (such as that encompassed by Wittgenstein’s famous aphorism, ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’) to the Welsh context and shows that many of them do have correspondences in the Welsh-language thought, both as explicit responses and implicit intuitions.
Moreover, she opens the matter of perception: ‘nid oes angen edrych ymhell i gael tystiolaeth ei bod hithau [y Gymraeg] yn creu y byd o’n cwmpas mewn ffyrdd gwahanol i’w chymdoges, y Saesneg’ [one does not have to look far to find evidence that it [the Welsh language] creates the world around us in different ways to its neighbour, the English language].
This moderate linguistic relativity sets the general tone for this attractively written and presented book.
The chapters that follow each revolve around a poem, which act as an opening for a discussion of the ways in which language has been imagined by a particular poet at a particular time in a particular place and culture; it is also an opportunity to compare them to those of the Welsh language, as, barring the first such chapter which has ‘Yr Heniaith’ by Waldo Williams as its focus, they have been translated by the author.
In this sense, we see the matter of language play out before us, giving us much more than a mere compilation of word-images.
By seeing the workings of translation in context with accompanying commentary, the insight gained is all the deeper. This is a creative work, and it also shows how comfortably one can travel through world literature in the Welsh language.
The linguistic awareness that comes from speaking a minority language is brought to the fore in this work and is a celebration of multilingualism.
We are taken on a journey through minority and dominant languages: Irish Gaelic, German, Galician, Spanish, Portuguese, Somali, Hindi, and Mapudungun (a native language spoken in Argentina and Chile.)
The differences and similarities encountered illustrate both common ground and also ways of seeing language unburdened by our own clichés.
Discussing the work of the Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and its reception in the English-speaking world, for example, a Welsh poet would recognise the oddness of ‘the language’ being listed as a ‘theme’ of their work:
‘mae rhywbeth yn ogleisiol-anesmwyth ynghylch hyn, rywsut, a rhywun yn methu ymatal rhag meddwl a fyddai ‘including language’ yn cael ei nodi fel thema ‘Saesneg’ wrth gynffon enw bardd o Sais? [there is something amusingly uncomfortable about this, somehow, and you can’t help wondering whether ‘including language’ would be noted as an ‘English [language]’ theme alongside an English poet’s name?’]
But rather than constituting a theme, the heightened significance of language to linguistic minorities certainly shapes the way it is imagined by them.
In this chapter’s poem about the Irish language, translated as ‘Mater yr Iaith’, hope itself is placed ‘ar wyneb y dŵr / yng nghwrwgl bach yr iaith… i gael gweld, tybed, a wnaiff y llif ei gymryd… a chael gweld, tybed… a gaiff ei achub’ [on the surface of the water / in the language’s little coracle … to see whether, maybe, the flow takes it… and to see whether… it is saved], drawing on the story of Moses and thus presenting writing in a minority language as an act of faith towards the future, sending the poem on its way, hoping it finds ‘[m]erch i Pharo’ [a Pharoah’s daughter] – survival.
Likewise, we learn of the finely wrought categories and distinctions of Somali poetry (not unsimilar to cynghanedd) and the esteemed, unselfconscious place it occupies in Somali society, and thus the possibility for further exploration between poetry-centric literary cultures in very different places.
The poem by Jaamac Kediye Cilmi translated in this chapter, ‘Llafar ein Hiaith’, has almost an echo of Waldo Williams: ‘Hi’r arweinydd, hi’r awenau, / Hi’r hanfod anhepgor, / Hi’r ffordd a’r cyfeiriad at bob dyhead’ [She, the leader, she, the reigns, / She, the indispensable essence, / She, the way and the path to every desire’].
What is language, and how is it imagined? We are left without an answer, as no answer is sought: the author reminds us that language is infinitely protean.
Having glimpsed the diversity of imaginings, the author ponders the value, as some might have it, of this ‘ymbalfalu ar ffiniau iaith’ [groping about on the boundaries of language]. A hypothesis is presented: what if machine translation reached perfection?
The resulting world would be ‘undonnog, a’r meddwl mor dlawd â gardd goncrit’ [tedious, and the mind as barren as a concrete garden].
It’s worth remembering that machine translation, such as Google Translate, is probability-based, with no ‘linguistic’ algorithm: it favours the well-trodden and safe path of the most common usage.
Literature strays off the safe path, and creativity and originality in language occur on those shady margins which become suddenly illuminated by fulminations of imagination.
The author also mentions, rightly, that a living language is an act, not a product, and that it will always change as people change: there is no language without its speakers, and therefore no language without a living imagination.
Dychmygu Iaith is published by Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru. It is available through all good bookshops or you can buy a copy here.
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A possibly risible question: will it be translated into English?