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Hiraeth: an Elegy for Forgotten Words

Photo by Mia Jones

Language, written, verbal, through signs, and expressions; we are constrained by it. Language affects the way we feel, the way we breathe, the blood that flows through our veins. Language enters the body through our fingertips, through nerve endings, through open wounds.


Ferdinand de Saussure brings forward the hypothesis that a word requires a signifier (a physical appearance, a word, image, or sound) and a signified (a concept) to create meaning. Therefore if the signifier and signified are codependent to create meaning, meaning cannot exist without one or the other. A question was brought up in a seminar I attended in my first year on Saussure and it has been on my mind since: if a language does not have a word for feelings such as love and friendship (that is: love and friendship as concepts do not have a signifier), would people who only spoke that language be able to feel those emotions? Will a person that is multilingual be able to effectively articulate their own thoughts in the language they are speaking? Would the outcome of a conversation be different if a different language was used, even if the topics discussed stayed the same?


Would socially constructed concepts such as capitalism exist within a society with no word describing it? The ancient Greeks did not have an exact word for homosexuality or heterosexuality, and although queer people certainly existed, the ancient Greeks’ view of sexuality was more fluid than ours in the modern day— they were not limited by single nouns and their definitions.


When I spiral into this topic, there is one point in particular that stands out to me: if the concept of a condition or emotion needs a signifier in order to generate meaning, and a concept has to be thought to be given a signifier— a word describing an emotion cannot just come out of nowhere; it has to have been experienced, sometimes by the speakers of only one language. Can certain emotions therefore be considered cultural?


Language is clearly a ubiquitous part of cultural identity. This was reflected greatly in Cornwall in the 2021 census, in which the areas with the highest number of people identifying as Cornish rather than English or British aligned with the highest density of Cornish speakers. When a language dies, so do its people, but languages and cultural identities can be revived.


Languages reflect the conditions of their speakers. Latin, a language built upon unrest, has over 30 words meaning to kill. Finland, whose northern part gets snow for around 7 months a year, has over 40 terms for it. There are no English words for the natural disasters we barely see: tsunami comes from Japanese, from a region firmly sat in the Circum-Pacific ring of fire. The word hurricane is believed to originally come from the Taíno ‘god of the storm’ (hurakán), before being appropriated by Spanish colonists to become huracán, hurricane in English. Each word holds a cultural significance. A word’s etymology tells us the condition of its speakers, the climate they lived in, and a glimpse into their history. It seems inevitable then, that certain languages may hold words that seem cultural, words that simply do not have the same impact when translated into English. Tagalog has kilig, Portuguese has saudade, Serbian has merak, and Welsh has hiraeth.


The word hiraeth is famous. But the attempts to concisely translate it are awkward. Almost there, but not quite. Possible translations fall flat, but that is to be expected. If there is no equivalent already, there is no signifier; a translator cannot grasp his hand around it and feed it to a monolingual English speaker. The meaning refuses to be swallowed, like a tablet without water.


I’ve seen people, in my hours of scrolling at night, introduce the word as if it’s newly discovered. A Celtic inspired baby name to give your daughter who will be born in North Carolina to American parents. A word to describe some fictional universe. A tattoo on your shoulder, next to an infinity sign stick and poke you got at Leeds in 2009.


Hiraeth has never meant that.


I’ve always associated hiraeth with melancholy. I saw hiraeth in Taid’s eyes when he’d tell me stories of the family farm. It was the land he still lived on, but it wasn’t the same as it was in the 1920s. Different sheep, different farm boys, before anyone had gone off to war. His stories were covered in the glossy filter of childhood, undoubtedly seeming better than the reality. His memories, 80 years later, were probably closer to fiction.


I tasted hiraeth in recreations of Nain’s tatws popty (literally oven potatoes). They’d tell me that it wasn’t quite the same as Nain’s. They’d tell me that they could never quite perfect it. I can’t remember what Nain’s tatws popty tasted like. I can’t even remember the last time I had tatws popty.


I feel hiraeth when I walk into the sea, just up to my knees. Hiraeth brushes past me and kisses the sand. I close my eyes and smell it in the salt air. It’s in the sand, in the sea, in the wind. It’s always there.


To me, language has always been at the core of the Welsh identity. It colours our emotions, our way of speaking, our relationships with one another. It runs through us like the blood in our veins. Without the signifier, the physical appearance of language, the culture is inevitably lost.


Hiraeth is watching the stars from the back door. It's the feeling that when you go home, it’s never quite the same as it was the last time. It’s watching your grandmother’s garden turn overgrown. It’s stopping to tie your shoelaces in the cemetery, recognising the farm names on headstones as your own. It’s wiping the mud off your shoes. It’s running away to a different city, a different country, but constantly looking back.


Language leaves and enters the body like ragged breaths, and a part of me gets left behind with every word I forget.


Edited by Natalie Cheung, Essay Editor.


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