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ANDERSON: A word the English language needs

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July 07, 2015 - 7:42 AM

"Hiraeth" (herrre-eyeth) is a Welsh word defined well by one internet meme as "homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, a grief for the lost places of our youth." Even this description doesn't convey the depth of emotion, the intense longing, the bittersweet of never-again.

Hiraeth describes at its root a sense of loss the Welsh have nourished from their beginnings as a people. After all, the Welsh have pretty much been on the losing side of history since before they became Welsh. During the Saxon invasions of the dark ages, the Romanized Celts and Romans (Britons) retreated to Wales and finally to Brittany in what is now France, leaving behind the die-hards who formed a culture and semi-legendary tradition that ultimately came to be called "Welsh" after Wales became England's first colony in 1282.  Indeed, the name "Wales" isn't even Welsh... it's the name the English gave them and it means “Place of the Others,” or “Place of the Romanized Foreigners.”

To Welsh speakers Wales is called "Cymru" (Kum-ree): Home of the Cymry, and it is this-and-then that the Welsh think of with hiraeth...the Cymru of Prince Llywelyn, of Glyndwr, of Arthur the King.  It's a national word, tied to a hazy golden past that maybe mostly never was, but a past that exists nonetheless in the legend-memory of the Welsh.

In the wider world the feeling of hiraeth has been evoked for both good and ill. For the most part it exists on the fringes of consciousness, a sort of longing on the part of even multi-generational immigrants for "home," in the way of the vague homesickness I feel for Scotland... a dreary wet land in which I wasn't born and have never lived and probably wouldn't want to, but which lives in my imagination as a golden homeland of magnificent women and kilted heroes. My blood stirs when I hear bagpipes, even though I'm about as likely to wear a kilt as I am a pink tutu.

Hiraeth occasionally slips into the phenomenal world in the form of more or less peaceful break-away movements like the movement for Scottish independence, in which the only violence involves an occasional drunk burning down an empty barn while shouting "Saor Alba" or a crowd of pasty Scottish football players headed to a match across the border in England brandishing dark ale and threatening their opponents with "Rrrrememberrr Bannockburrrrn" - a battle fought 800 years ago against the English, notable mainly because it was one of the very few the Scots actually won. Hiraeth forms too part of the roots of discontent by indigenous peoples across the globe... a yearning for a past of idealized sylvan harmony that never really existed.

But hiraeth has a darker side too. One strain of the German version - "sehnsucht" - is an important subtext in Hitler's Mein Kamph... a national longing for a Germany that existed only in fabricated legend, a time when it was peopled by imaginary Aryan supermen. The Spanish/Portuguese version of hiraeth - "saudade" - describes among other things an Islamic nostalgia for a lost Andalusia, which the Spanish took back during the Reconquista after a thousand years of Islamic occupation. Hiraeth is a much overlooked factor in the break up of Yugoslavia, in which regions sought to break back in time to a past of racial and religious solidarity. Hiraeth is a powerful motivator... facts may convince the intellect but if you want to start a war, emotion is a much more effective stimulant.

Removed from its national roots, hiraeth can also refer to long-gone golden moments in our personal past. The evening, so many years ago in India, Utter Pradesh I think it was, watching a bullock cart full of female field workers return to their village at dusk after a 16-hour day of back-breaking labour, singing and clapping their hearts out, when I learned that poverty was not synonymous with sorrow and wretchedness. The evening many years before that when I ate my spinach because my father told me I could lift one end of the couch like Popeye if I did... and it wasn't till years later that I figured out why he stood so close to the couch while I lifted it. The morning of January 3, 1996, when I stared with wonder into the grey-blue eyes of my youngest daughter for the very first time. 

Those moments, and so many others, are my hiraeth. They live in golden nostalgia within me and form the core of my being and yet my language doesn't have a term with adequate depth to describe them. Welsh does though, and since English is the polyglot dumping ground of linguistic terms, let's make room for one more word.

— Scott Anderson is a Vernon City Councillor, freelance writer, commissioned officer in the Canadian Forces Reserves and a bunch of other stuff. His academic background is in International Relations, Strategic Studies, Philosophy, and poking progressives with rhetorical sticks until they explode.

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