Welsh

The word Welsh can refer to the Celtic language of Wales, called Cymric in that language, or it can be an adjective referring to  items related to “Wales or its people, language or culture” (AHD s.v. Welsh. The etymology of Welsh is interesting. Etymologically, the word Welsh entered Modern English via the Middle English Walische, derived from Old English Wælisc, from Old English Wealh, “foreigner.” The plural form of wealh, wealas, gave us the Modern English word Wales.

There’s a certain irony that the Germanic-speaking invaders refer to the previous inhabitants of Britain, the Celtic speaking ancestors of modern Welsh, as “foreigners,” but to the English, the people “over there,” across the border in Wales, were “foreign,” if not “enemies,” and in some contexts, the word Wælisc does in fact seem to be a synonym for “enemies.”

Image courtesy Publicdomainpictures.net

As the note in the AHD entry for Wales mentions, Welsh derives from the I.E. root walh-, as does the OE word for walnut; walhhnutu. This word, is a surviving in a single c. 1050 ms. is a compound of wal + nut and refers to the nut of the common walnut tree Juglans regia Juglans regis – Plant Finder . Old English Walhhnutu became Middle English walnotte and Modern English walnut. At the literal level, wal + nut means “foreign nut,” an apropos name for a tree brought to Britain by the Romans, and native to Eastern Europe and Asian minor.

Penguin

Emperor penguins, Ross Sea, Antarctica
Image credit: Michael Van Woert, 1999, NOAA

There’s universal agreement today that a penguin is:

Any of various stout, flightless aquatic birds of the family Spheniscidae, of the Southern Hemisphere, having flipperlike wings and webbed feet adapted for swimming and diving, short scalelike feathers, and white underparts with a dark back (AHD).

It’s possible that penguin is of Welsh origin; it breaks down very neatly into pen + gwen/gwyn, with pen meaning “head,” and gwen meaning “white,” (and there are species of penguin with white heads).

However, the etymology isn’t at all certain. The OED offers two early quotations in context:

1577 F. FLETCHER Log of ‘Golden Hind’ 24 Aug. in N. M. Penzer World Encompassed (1971) 128 Infinite were the Numbers of the foule, wch the Welsh men name Pengwin & Maglanus tearmed them Geese.

1589 N. H. in R. Hakluyt Princ. Navigations (1589) III. 809 The Port of Desire… In this place we had gulles, puets, penguyns, and seales in aboundance.

The OED also expounds in a lengthy etymology note after first observing that penguin was first applied to the Great Auk, and that penguins resemble the Great Auk as a large flightless waterfowl, with black-and-white  as primary colorations:

The attribution of the name penguin to ‘the Welsh men’ . . . and its explanation as Welsh pen gwyn white head, appears also in Ingram’s Narrative, and later in Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels (in the edition of 1634 as a surmise, and in the edition of 1638 as an accepted fact). Since the bird was known in the far north of Europe under a different name (see GARE-FOWL n.), it is likely that the term penguin originated in North America. However, the Great Auk did not have a white head (though it had large white spots in front of the eyes).

The OED notes in closing that

An alternative derivation of the name < classical Latin pinguis fat (see pinguid adj.) or an early association with this word is therefore possible and may be supported by the relative frequency of forms in pin– in most languages from an early date. Compare German Fettgans fat goose, also penguin (18th cent.).

Nonetheless, a Welsh influence, if not a derivation, does seem to be a reasonable explanation for penguin.

Lady Charlotte Guest

Portrait of Lady Charlotte GuestThe Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s “Life of the Week” post this week is a biography of Lady Charlotte Guest, the translator of the Mabinogion, including the four mabinogi proper, as well as the three Welsh tales, and the four Arthurian romances, as well as several other tales, including the prose Taliesin fragment from the sixteenth century, edited by Patrick Ford as the Ystoria Taliesin in 1991.

Lady Guest’s translation, with the accompanying notes, is actually quite wonderful; it was the first translation I ever read, and it still remains well-worth reading. It has become fashionable to sneer at her—and imply that she wasn’t responsible for the work. She was; I’ve seen some of her handwritten notes, and while she has, quite understandably, Victorian sensibilities, she had a scholarly frame of mind. I wish that her notes from the first editions were still printed; they are well worth reading, and in fact her translations of the four romances, particularly Gereint (the Welsh version of the tale Chretien called Erec et Enide) inspired Tennyson’s take in Idylls of the King.

You can read more about Lady Charlotte Guest here and here. Angela V. John has written a solid biography: Lady Charlotte Guest. An Extraordinary Life

Welsh, Cyclists, and Bladder Disease

A temporary sign on the side of the road at Barons Court roundabout between Penarth and Cardiff correctly reads “cyclists dismount” in English, but the Welsh translation, “llid y bledren dymchwelyd,” isn’t, actually, a translation. In fact, strictly speaking, it isn’t even Welsh, since the syntax is all wrong. Llid y bledren means “bladder disease,” while dymchwelyd means “return.” So, ignoring the syntax problem, the sign reads something like “Bladder disease [has] returned.” You can read the story and see a picture of the sign here.

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JKW on Culwch ac Olwen

Jeffry Jerome Cohen, medievalist and blogger at In the Middle, is on vacation, so guest blogger JKW who usually blogs at Pistols in the Pulpit is filling in. JKW says of himself:

My dissertation, which I’m beginning this summer, is about political language, specifically the language of kingship, in England and Wales in the age of Chaucer.

Thus far he’s blogged about Culwch ac Olwen and the implications of the “oldest animals” here.

Taliesin

My review of John Matthews Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman is up at The Green Man Review. I’m not overly impressed with Matthews’ Taliesin as a scholarly work. I do think a case can be made for Celtic poets engaging in and writing about shamanic behaviors, and I’ve written about some of the standard scholarly sources regarding Taliesin here.