Review: Y Diarhebion: Casgliad o Ddiarhebion Cyfoes/A Compendium of Contemporary Welsh Proverbs by D. Geraint Lewis
The dictionary defnition of a proverb describes it as ‘a short, popular saying, usually of unknown and ancient origin, that expresses effectively some commonplace truth or useful thought’ and that’s one on which we can probably all agree. But there’s a fascinating description on the back of this new compendium by D. Geraint Lewis in which Professor Bobi Jones suggests it is the briefest of all literary forms.
This perhaps reminds us that even if such sayings passed from person to person, family member to family member and then from generation to generation they ultimately had to be written down in order to be properly or permanently preserved. One can therefore imagine a small army of random scribes all over the country first putting these down on paper – short, pithy examples of simple insight or folk wisdom. Often as succinct as just three or four words – an appropriate one might be ‘dyn call: dyn distaw’/ a wise man doesn’t say much’ – they can carry a depth of meaning and have the memorability of an advertising slogan. For times such as these ‘trech gwen na thrais/a smile can disarm a person’ carries a particular resonance.
In Wales the proverb form has a very long history, stretching back to some of the earliest recorded texts dating back to 1,500 years ago. They have been gathered and used by poets, harvested by academics during the Enlightenment and are still being produced by writers and poets today.
Our interest in the weather is sufficient to merit an appendix of meterological proverbs which should delight the inner Derek Brockway in all of us. There’s ‘bwa’r arch brynhawn, tywydd braf a gawn/rainbow after noon, fine weather to follow’ and one for this month ‘Ebrill oer – sgubor lawn/cold April, full barns’ while the one for next month suggests ‘Mai glwyb – ydlan lawn/wet May, a full rickyard.’ The patterns of the seasons are here as are the rhythms of the countryside, not to mention glimpses of our industrial past. There’s ‘dim gobaith caneri,’ for example, which Lewis sums up as ‘not a hope in hell’ or not a canary’s hope, referring back to the days when the little bird was taken underground by colliers to warn of the presence of methane, the canary’s death a sure sign of the poisonous gas.
As you can imagine this latest book by the indefatigable D. Geraint Lewis – whose dictionaries and books collating Welsh place names, ideas, sayings, adjectives, verbs and prepositions add up to a not insubstantial reference library in themselves – is a bountiful treasure trove of words and ideas.
Each Welsh language proverb listed in the book is accompanied by, if not a translation then an impactful approximation of the original. So the forever enigmatic proverb which suggests it’s raining old women and sticks, ‘bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn’ is explained as ‘raining stair rods,’ which retains a little of the mystery. For proverbs are mysterious beasts as evidenced by a brilliant little appendix to the book which lists useless acts and things. So we have ‘bugeilio’r brain/shepherding crows,’ ‘blingo hwch â chyllell bren/shaving a sow with a wooden knife’ – or ‘cludo heli i’r môr, carrying salt to the sea,’ which is different to taking coals to Newcastle but equally pointless.
There are some personal favourites which are absent from its pages, such as ‘nid wrth ei big y mae prynu cyffylog,’ which suggests that one shouldn’t buy or judge a woodcock by its bill, which has disappeared from usage much as that camouflaged game bird has become a scarcer bird in our countryside. But Lewis’ collection is not a historical survey but a list of contemporary proverbs and there are so many to savour.
There is the lovely ‘Nid yw aderyn yn canu er mwyn dweud dim, ond oherwydd fod ganddo gân/ a bird doesn’t sing because it has something to say but because it has a song.’ Or the poetic lustre of ‘Aur dan y rhedyn, arian dan yr eithin, newyn dan y y grug/gold beneath bracken; silver gorse; famine heather.’ There is so much more. D. Geraint Lewis has once again produced a book to which one can return over and over again, producing both a work of reference and volume for a random lucky dip. Such as the succinct ‘A ddarlleno, ystyried’ which advises ‘Pay attention to what you read.’
Y Diarhebion: Casgliad o Ddiarhebion Cyfoes/A Compendium of Contemporary Welsh Proverbs by D.Geraint Lewis is published by Y Lolfa and is available from all good bookshops or your can buy a copy here…
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