Friday, 19 July 2019

STRIFEHAGGLES AND SNAKE FLOWERS


Did you know that strifehaggle is an obsolete word for struggle?

No, neither did I.  But last week I was at the Welsh learners’ summer school in Pwllheli.  Our tutor, Rhiannon, said that the Welsh word for the verb to struggle is stryffaglio and that it comes directly from strifehaggle.  And I was definitely stryffaglio – strifehaggling with passives and subjunctives and shorter verb forms.

But it was not all strifehaggle.  There was a magic moment when the tutor answered a student’s question, ‘Is ‘h’ in Welsh a consonant or a vowel?’  ‘Neither,’ Rhiannon said, ‘in Welsh ‘h’ is officially a breath’.

One afternoon, after the classes had finished, another tutor, Martyn, took us for a short walk to the top of Pen y Garn, a rocky outcrop near the college.  It was an opportunity to learn the Welsh names of some common plants.  Red campion is surprisingly sinister, blodyn neidr – snake flower.  Buttercups are predictably butter flowers – blodau menyn.  Similarly predictable are daisies – llygaid y dydd (eyes of the day) and dandelions – dant y llew (lion’s tooth – think of that long white fang of a root).  But my favourite is foxgloves which in Welsh are bysedd cŵn – dogs’ fingers!

That evening I turned to *Matthew Francis’ version of the Mabinogi, a collection of ancient Welsh stories.  In one of the stories Francis describes Gwydion conjuring a bride out of flowers for Llew, who has been cursed that no woman born on earth would be his bride:

Meadowsweet for sweetness, with its smell of stale candy,
shrivelled cream flowers they strew between bedsheets,
broom flowers for silken gaudiness;
oak catkins for their gentle
tickling of the wind.
….
The air was golden with pollen
as I heaped her on the bed
in frilly armfuls,
till a million petals fused
into a woman.

Her name is Blodeuedd, from blodau – flowers, and gwedd – face or appearance.

* Matthew Francis The Mabinogi (Faber and Faber 2017)

2 comments:

  1. A breath - interesting. I wonder what other languages count as parts of a word that we haven't bothered with in English. Just consonants and vowels seems so limiting.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, indeed. Like only having tones and semi-tones in music.

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