I write this in the week that the Welsh protest song Yma o hyd by Dafydd Iwan topped the iTunes chart in the United Kingdom off the back of his performance in the stadium before Wales beat Ukraine and qualified for the Fifa World Cup for the first time for sixty-four years.
Iwan appears to be as surprised as any at this unexpected turn of events. The song was written in 1983 to raise the spirits of Welsh patriots in the wake of the defeat (in 1979) of plans to grant Wales a very limited form of self-government and the social and economic strife that followed.
The song is an anthem to the stubborn survival “for 1600 years” of the Welsh and their language “despite everyone and everything”.
It was very popular from the get go in the Welsh-speaking world. Yet some 70+ per cent of Wales’ population don’t speak Welsh and now they too are singing and buying it too.
In the last few years, Yma o hyd has become an unofficial second national anthem, at least at matches. The is sung by the ranks of good-natured Welsh fans (the so-called “red wall”) who have been on a roll ever since Wales’ men’s soccer team enjoyed its first breakthrough for years, not only qualifying for the 2016 European championships but even reaching the semi-final.
Welsh football has become increasingly linked with a strong Welsh identity. In stark contrast to their staid, lickspittle rugby counterparts (always loyal first to the English crown and British Empire Labourism), the Football Association of Wales has enthusiastically embraced the Welsh language as part of its strategy to claim for football rugby’s position as national sport. They rebranded the team “Cymru” and make a point of using the language in public signage, ads and announcements at and around matches. Yes, it’s sad that using the language in the public sphere in Wales, is still “making a point”. What would an Icelander or an Estonian make of it?
What does “Yma o hyd” mean?
Only around a third of the men’s team speak the language, but they all know the words to the national anthem (Hen Wlad fy Nhadau) and to Yma o hyd.
The Yma o hyd in the title to Dafydd Iwan’s song means “Still here” and the full line of the chorus Ry’n ni’n yma o hyd means “We’re still here.”
Yma o hyd was one of the first songs I got to know when I started learning the Welsh language in the second half of the 1980s. I understood the song’s main message about the survival of Welshness pretty early on and picked up the pulse of an alternative tradition of protest.
Yet when you listen to the lyrics of a song in a language you’ve recently begun to learn, you won’t understand all the vocabulary or all the grammar.
Real understanding is not just about the language, is it?
It’s also about the culture that comes with it.
It’s the long journey through those stages of initiation into a new culture that enrich the serious language learner’s life so much.
You’ll experience the same yourself if you dive into songs, books, plays or films in any tongue you care to learn and return to them again and again on your journey to fluency.
Welsh vocabulary in Yma o hyd
It’s amazing how much we can understand with a vocabulary of a few hundred words in a language and when, as beginning learners, we first listen to Yma o hyd, common words that we already know will serve us well: amser (time), heddiw (today) yr iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh language), gwlad (country).
As beginner learners we can also increase our word power by working from the known to the unknown.
One way to do this is by cracking open “compound words” made from two or more relatively common ones. In Yma o hyd, for example, you might pick up gwangalon meaning faint of heart, a compound of gwan (weak) and calon (heart).
We can also be ever on the lookout for loan word words and how their spellings and pronunciation changes in our new language. In Yma o hyd, can you hear encôr (encore from French, via English).
Such ruses will only get us so far, though.
The thing is, there are other words in the song that you’ll either know, or you won’t. Examples from the song are taran (a clap of thunder, usually first met in the set phrase mellt a tharannau, literally: lightening bolds and claps of thunder, Welsh for “thunder and lightning) or taeog (serf).
Yes, each language has many new words that you just have to learn from scratch.
Don’t just learn these new words in isolation.
Collect examples of them embedded in short phrases, so-called chunks of prepacked language that you can then redeploy with confidence.
As a phrase, yma o hyd is itself is one such chunk. It’s a common usage but very idiomatic to Welsh.
O hyd means “still” but a literal translation would be “of length”. Related expressions are hyd yn hyn or hyd yma (both meaning “until now”).
As with the English “length”, Welsh hyd can refer to physical length as well as a span of time.
So ar hyd a lled means the length and breadth.
The Welsh for “to find” is the phrasal verb dod o hyd i (literally to “come of the length of”, come across).
Welsh grammar in Yma o hyd
As for grammar, beginning learners who really listen to a song in their new language will feel the same thrill of starting to understand something that I did when I first heard Yma o hyd.
We can soon pick out at least some of the simple patterns taught in any decent beginner conversation course. The “ry’n ni” of ry’n ni yma o hyd, for example, is one of the colloquial contractions for the full, literary yr ydym ni (we are), rather like how in English “I am not” is often contracted to “I’m not” or “I ain’t”.
Yma o hyd gives us a rich sampling of more advanced Welsh grammar as well.
In English we can compare adjectives (describing words) by using the “-er” ending ( as in “smaller”) or more (“more expensive”) and express the highest degree of comparison (the “superlative” degree) with “-est” or “the most”. The equivalent endings in Welsh are -ach (equivalent to English -er) and -af (-st)(or mwy and mwyaf for most and the most).
But Welsh also has an ending –ed that shows rather more neatly than English can that one thing is as black/small/expensive/old or whatever as something else (the “equative” degree). We see this in this lyric: Er dued y fagddu, as black as is the total darkness (i.e. that encompasses us in this time of adversity).
Another, unrelated use of the ending -ed is for commands given in the “third person”, that’s to say to “him”, “her” or “them” rather than to “you”. So, in English, Sing the song but Let him/her/them sing the song.
We see this -ed “imperative” in the song several times, for example in Chwythed y gwynt o’r dwyrain: Let the wind blow from the east! (In the sense that the wind can blow as much as it likes, we aren’t going anywhere.)
This imperative -ed, by the way, is the same form found in the last phrase of Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, the real Welsh national anthem: Bydded i’r hen iaith barhau! (Let the old language live on!).
Yes, songs are a great tool for learning a language. They contain catchy chunks of prepacked language. So long as these aren’t too poetic, we can then use them in our own conversations in our new language.
Words set to music also provide context and emotional connection, which both help sear things in our memories.
Never underestimate just how much language you can squeeze out of any short “text”, from the writing on the side of a cornflake packet to the lyrics of your favourite song.
Culture: the key to a richer understanding for language learners
Even after pulling apart the words to song for its vocab and grammar, you may still be left confused (What is it on about?) or – worse – think you’ve understood it despite much of the richer meaning going way over your head.
As we travel further into our new language, we can try to build up the cultural reference points we need to appreciate artistic creativity more fully.
We can all start by learning about things as basic as the historical and contemporary geography of the country and the wider world (though the language): the names of places, mountains, rivers and countries. What are the cultural associations of these names? In the song, to say the wind blows from “the East” really means “the threat comes from England”.
We have to become familiar with the history of a people and their culture, with the events, pantheon of heroes and villains and vocabulary that goes with it. It’s not all high-falutin’ stuff or blasts from the past. We also need to know about the hustle and bustle of today’s culture and the rhythms of everyday life. Let’s not be precious here, though. Reading Wikipedia articles is a as good a place as any to start.
Learning “the culture” of Wales is easier for me than, say, for a person from Japan because I share a common British/UK and European culture with people in Wales.
But the Welsh have a second culture that’s part of my family history, yes but that was not part of my own upbringing and is thus totally foreign to me.
In Yma o hyd, Iwan sings about Dydd y Farn and I pick up the reference to the Christian Day of Judgement.
But there’s more!
This is also a echo of the words of an old Welsh peasant who (according to the chronicler Gerald of Wales c. 1146-1223) told the English king Henry II to his face during one of his campaigns in Wales that the Welsh language would survive, whether His Majesty liked it or not:
Never will it be destroyed by the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God be added, nor do I think that any other nation than this of Wales, or any other tongue, whatever may hereafter come to pass, shall on the day of the great reckoning before the Most High Judge, answer for this corner of the EarthWelsh peasant addressing Henry II
As for our much more recent shared history: yr hen Fagi – old Maggie – is Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK between 1979 and 1990, who presided over the decimation of much of British heavy industry, including Welsh coal mining and who – as “everyone” in Wales but “nobody” in Anglo-America will know – also tried to renege on a promise to set up a Welsh-language television channel (the future S4C).
There’s a reference to Macsen, known in Latin as Magnum Maximus, the Roman general in Britannia who is considered the founder of several Welsh ruling dynasties.
Dic Siôn Dafydd, meanwhile, the “Welsh Uncle Tom” is a fictional figure in a poem by John Jones (from the year 1800). An embodiment of the Welsh “cultural cringe”, he goes off to England, learns English and feels so superior when he returns that he won’t speak Welsh to his mother, even though she knows no other language.
We can include Dafydd Iwan himself, among one of dozens and dozens of figures making quite a mark today that everybody who’s fluent in Welsh culture has heard of but who are (or, in Iwan’s case, were) are often totally unknown in our dominant Anglo-American culture.
Learning any language opens your world, not just your ears.
It’s a revelation made all the more impactful when you learn a minoritised language like Welsh; whose speakers have, over centuries, seen their culture pushed to the margins of public life in their own territory. It’s a culture that has been kept under the hatches by deliberate political decisions of an alien, dominant power, sometimes disdained, mostly ignored.
Amser a ddengys / Time will tell
Twenty years since the song first came out and sixteen hundred years since the time of Macsen, the seas still roar, harsh winds blow, thunder rumbles and many are weak of heart. There are many reasons not to get carried away. Maybe Dafydd’s Number One is just a freak example of one song that has “jumped cultures”. Maybe this is all a tân shafins (a fire of wood shavings, as the Welsh describe a flash in the pan). Maybe even the celebrations at the success of the song and Wales’ qualification for the World cup are just the pathetic gratitude of an insecure people, desperate for external validation.
But maybe things really are changing. A huge number of people in Wales who only speak English are, like me, only one or two generations on from the language. Maybe the song’s new-found popularity is a sign that Welsh really will be reclaimed en masse by those from whom it was taken away.
But maybe what’s happening is not just a reclamation but alo a new creation and synthesis, not reclamation is the order of the day.
Are the Welsh are building a new house together from all their materials?
Is a new, common bi-lingual culture being forged before our eyes and people in Wales will soon all be able to sing from the windows, in fullest voice bydd yr iaith Gymraeg yn fyw! (The Welsh language will live!)
Learn more about Welsh with the Dabbler’s Guide to Welsh
My fellow Welsh-learning, language expert Kerstin Cable for Fluent Language has put together a great little intro course to Welsh that’s just the thing for you if you want to find out more about the language and get a bit of a taster. Check out her info and enrolment page here: Kerstin’s “Dabbler’s Guide“.
Minority language resources: a guide (first post in a series of five)