‘Bratwaith’: the beauty of loanwords

07 Sep 2020

A fabric art and beadwork project for the lockdown days.

The languages we speak, and the way we speak them, are deeply involved in our sense of self. Our personal way of using language (our ‘idiolect’) is a treasury, storing keepsakes from our family, our relationships, our geographic origins, our social status, our ethnicity, gender, education, jobs, special interests, and so much more. It should be no surprise that people are emotional about language, particularly when they feel that it is somehow under threat. It’s not really the language that’s worrying them; it’s the parts of their identity which, whether they know it or not, are encoded in the language.

To get a feel for the threats that really bother British English speakers, it’s useful to look for a Twitter thread about linguistic ‘pet hates’, like this one. Regional pronunciations, non-standard grammar, and features of informal speech are all enough to make some people extremely cross. Reactions range from superior disdain for the ‘idiots’ who use language in this way, to annoyance at educators for failing to teach a specific form of English, to anger at Americans for — well, for speaking like Americans. ‘Aluminum’, ‘airplane’, ‘gotten’, ‘burglarize’, ‘store’, ‘math’... there’s a seemingly endless list of U.S. linguistic transgressions. A number of the ‘Americanisms’ causing such fury aren’t even originally American. ‘Fall’ (for British ‘Autumn’), for example, is a Britishism, taken over to America by early colonial invaders. There’s nothing wrong with the words themselves; they’re arbitrary strings of letters or sounds, like most other words. So what’s the real concern here? When we look at how people on Twitter< characterize the presence of Americanisms in British English, there’s a lot of ideology just barely below the surface. I’m not attributing these, because I’m not aiming to shame any particular Tweeter. You could search for them if you wanted to verify that they’re real. Or you could just trust me; I have one of those faces.

I think it’s [sc. using ‘gotten’] a very lazy way of speaking. Many English people have picked it up via American TV though, along with “So”.

The dumbing down of English in favour of Americanisms is rife .

Never use Americanisms in formal communication e.g. something/anything-wise, 24/7, ize instead of ise.

The worst Americanisms are their spelling ‘simplifications’, that remove the etymology and history of our English words. IMO.

American English (is there such a thing?) taking over...or maybe it’s just illiteracy.

Feeling dismayed at the amount of americanisms invading my vocabulary.

This country has had far to much American influence,our language destroyed for a start.

Well technically it’s American language and culture that is ruining everything. Young ppl don’t even know certain British words anymore due to too much American influence.

Why do Good British folks copy our friends from across the pond and use words that don’t exist in the English language like ‘gotten’ ? It worries me. Lazy copying of US trash TV is my hypothesis.

American English is imagined as destructive and invasive, replacing British English with something shoddy and unsuited to formal discourse. There’s particular fear of the influence of American English on children, who are susceptible to the ‘coolness’ of U.S. media. This is the language of pop music and TV (not the good old BBC, of course, but all that other TV; the stuff that’s ruining our morals and our ability to read a good book, as well as our language). It’s not hard to sense the undercurrents here: fear of losing British cultural identity, resentment at the overwhelming global power of the U.S., and exasperation that ‘our’ language is no longer just ours. There’s nothing linguistically wrong with the words these Tweeters hate so much; they’re proxies for America, its influence, its power, its political aggression.

Welsh doesn’t have the American problemOf course, I have the American problem, but I prefer to call him ‘my husband’, and I’m secretly rather fond of him.; we don’t see hordes of barbarous Yankees, their mouths foaming with mispronounced Welsh words. Not yet, at any rate. Instead, we have loanwords. The presence of English words in Welsh is contentious, in many of the same ways as ‘Americanisms’ are contentious in British English. Let’s eavesdrop on some tweets about the issue:

Rhaid cyfadde er bod cymysgu iaith yn beth naturiol, mae’r ffordd odd yr actorion ifanc yn ei wneud yn ddiog ag yn fratiaith pur

Have to admit, although mixing language is natural, the way the young actors were doing it is lazy and pure ‘bratiaith’.

Dylid wastad ymwrthod rhag diogi a bratiaith fel idiomau Susnag anghyffredin lle mae myrdd o ffyrd deraill [sic] i eirio yn Gymraeg.

One should always resist laziness and ‘bratiaith’ like unfamiliar English idioms where there’s a variety of other ways to word things in Welsh.

Again, we see talk of resistance against the degradation and laziness of these foreign influences on the Welsh language. ‘Bratiaith’ is a common term for Welsh containing a supposedly unacceptable proportion of English loanwords. It comes from ‘brat’, meaning rags or tatters, and ‘iaith’, the Welsh for language. The language of rags; a symbol of abasement, poverty, disgrace.

I really hate the word ‘bratiaith’. I could write several books about how commonplace it is for bilinguals to mix languages, especially in informal speech, and how harmful it is to castigate them for it.I’m writing a PhD thesis about it instead. Don’t ask how it’s going. 2020 has been weird. Mixing languages is largely not a sign of laziness, or of lacking linguistic skill; in fact, bilinguals with balanced skill in both languages are the most likely to switch extensively between them. The fear of losing the Welsh language is understandable. But making bilinguals terrified of speaking in the most comfortable way for them is quite likely to drive them away from Welsh altogether. Language changes; contact with other languages is a powerful driver of change. Trying to hold on to some purist ideal (an ideal that never actually existed) is no more helpful for modern Welsh than it is for modern English.

Besides all the serious linguistic stuff above, I’m truly in love with English loanwords in Welsh. They’re fascinating, giving us glimpses into the history of Welsh-English language contact, and showing Welsh speakers’ creativity in adopting and adapting English words to make them comfortable in the Welsh linguistic system. This post is getting long, so I’ll say more about the linguistic aspects of loanwords in later posts in this series. For now, I want to introduce my 2020 creative project, which I’m titling ‘Bratwaith’. As you might guess, the name is a pun on ‘bratiaith’. The second element is from Welsh ‘gwaith’ (work), and commonly appears in words for fabric arts such as ‘brodwaith’ (embroidery) and ‘clytwaith’ (patchwork).

An embroidery hoop containing a representation of the sea washing over a sandy beach. The sand is composed of hundreds of glass and pearl beads. The sea is a piece of blue-green silk, upon which English loanwords into Welsh are embroidered.

Pictured here is ‘Bratwaith I’, made from silk and velvet fabric, beads, felted Welsh wool, seashells from Swansea Bay, and embroidery thread. A tide of shimmering loanwords (all related to the sea and marine life, and all found in Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru) washes over a shoreline of glass and pearl beads. All of the loanwords represented in this tide (or ‘teid’, as it appears on the final line of embroidered words) have changed their spelling from the original English form, becoming distinctively Welsh. The beauty of the sand is complemented by the deep blue-green of the water, whose ebb and flow may rearrange the sand but can never wash it away.

These embroideries will be a way for me to engage creatively with my PhD research, to keep myself occupied while we’re still in the Plague Years, and to improve my manual dexterity after The Lurgy messed with my peripheral nerves. I hope they’ll also help me to bring the strange charm of Welsh loanwords to a wider audience.