From ‘The Libretto’ – July 2011
I was watching the telly the other night and scanning through the Freeview programme guide for a film on channel 4, which I pressed only to discover that Channel 4 is in fact on Channel 8 and what I actually turned on was ‘Pobl y Cwm’ on S4C. Brilliant, because although I dislike TV soaps, one of the things I love about the choir is singing in Welsh! Bearing in mind that my singing in English is questionable, at least singing in Welsh gives me an opportunity to practice miming. Maybe I look like one of my goldfish, but I hope I’m not like John Redwood singing the National Anthem! Remember?
Now this really is shameful since claiming to be Welsh myself and remembering that my Nan was a Welsh speaker I really ought to make an effort to learn the basics of the language. I used to be reasonable in French and German at school so how hard could it be?
So here we go. I have a mate who’s self taught but fluent in Welsh so I ask him for a few tips. First of all he says that Welsh is easy because it’s phonetic, there is no K, no J and no X except for jam, Jones and Xmas ( classier Welsh people say Nadolig) but there are a few more letters in the alphabet, like RH, LL and that W and Y are sort of vowels. I discovered that the order of words is totally different to English and that the verb comes first in most sentences and adjectives follow the noun, like in ty bach. Oh oh! This is going to be harder than I thought. So we start with Rwy’n hoffi coffi – I like coffee. Actually I don’t like coffee much but it sounds good so I’ll go along with it. Rwyt ti’n hoffi coffi – you like coffee, but only for close friends, relatives, children and pets do you use ti, otherwise use Rydych chi’n hoffi coffi. Oh my God! What if I use the wrong form to my Auntie Lil, will she be offended? Probably not, she’s been dead for 10 years. But what do I say to the cat? She doesn’t like coffee anyway, so I don’t suppose it matters. How close do friends have to become before you change from chi to ti? Before or after you’ve slept with them? Or just on shaking hands terms?
Anyway, I’m beginning to enjoy it, so I say to my friend “Why is it that Welsh for Wales is ‘Cymru’ but on the sign by the Severn Bridge it says ‘Croeso i Gymru’ with a G?” “Ah, that’s what we call mutation”. I immediately think of Mutant Ninja Turtles, but he says that nouns beginning with certain letters following a preposition like of, from, to, in etc., the beginning of the word changes, like C changes to G (cath to gath), P changes to B (pobl to bobl), G is dropped altogether (gardd to ardd), B to F (bwced to fwced) and so on, but only for feminine words, not masculine. What! Male and female words like in French and Italian? I can understand bachgen (boy) is masculine and merched (girl) is feminine but how the ‘ell do you tell the sex of a table? Bwrdd (table) is masculine but cadair (chair) is feminine. Wonder what goes on in our dining room after the lights go out? Do they breed and produce a sideboard?
But that’s only Soft Mutation, there are Aspirate and Nasal mutations as well (like fy Nhadau in the anthem which comes from Tad meaning father) where both masculine and feminine words change after pronouns. And the adjectives change to match as well! OK, I’m beginning to lose it now. I wish I’d never asked. But how hard can it be when there are 3 year olds west of Brecon who can speak fluent Welsh? And apparently sheep dogs respond to Welsh commands! So don’t shout ‘Stay’ to a collie in Llandovery if it’s got hold of your leg!
Anyway, with my new found knowledge, I go back to choir practice. Shirley Ann gets onto the podium, adjusts her glasses and when we don’t shut up on the first request, or even the second, she frowns, looks over the top of her glasses and gives a loud shout of “Nawr te! Hisht!” that reminds me of my Nan telling me off when I was a lot younger – no change there then. Know fear, lads. Know fear.
“Right, we’ll do ‘Yfory’ to start. Remember, tenors it’s Gweithio ”. Pause – “No we won’t, we’ll do ‘May You Always Have a Song’ instead” just as some of us have got our copies out. “And we’ll have a little stand”. LOVIN IT! Not only do you get to sing in this choir, but you get free aerobic classes as well! I really don’t understand why some of us groan. Perhaps we’d prefer a lie down. I’m glad we don’t have big stands!
We sing it while Shirley Ann helps us with the words and timing. “ Da iawn! That was really nice boys (have you taken a good look at us lately?) especially the tenors. No, really. But you still have to do that last part again, it wasn’t quite right”. Don’t we know it. I don’t think Shirley Ann’s got anything against the baritones and basses, I think she says it to encourage the tenors. Anyway, typical teacher – you’ll keep on doing it again and again until you get it right! “Some of you are still singing ‘song’ when you should be singing ‘love’! You have to watch me!” I do, I do, honest! If we can’t get English ones right, what chance do we have with Welsh?
“Let’s do ‘O Gymru’ now. Are you alright with the solo bit, Tommy? Ready, Steve. And we’ll have another little stand. ” OK, OK the first stand was fine but you’re beginning to wear us out now, not to mention the dizziness and vertigo.
We sing it with such passion, verve and gusto that for once Shirley Ann is stunned into silence. Eventually she says again “Da iawn! Bendigedig ! That was wonderful boys, really good. I love coming to this choir. You’re such a tonic, you really are. You don’t realise how good you are! Your diction is fabulous.” At this point some of us are beginning to blush. It’s not often we get a ’Bendigedig’ even if we don’t know what it means, but it must be good (I don’t think she literally means we’re adorable or blessed, though).
“Now let’s do ‘Tydi a Roddaist’ shall we? No, I meant ‘Ti y dy Ddoniau’. They might sound the same to you, but believe me, they’re totally different”. Well, that’s Shirley Ann for you, but what would we do without her? Ryn ni’n dy garu di. What’s this – verbs mutate as well – caru to garu? Then my mate says, “But Welsh is different in North Wales, it’s more literal and some words are different”. Oh well! Let’s get to grips with Myfanwy – is she a close friend or not? Makes a change from Delilah!
Lyn (Baritone, maybe)