The Many Names of October 31

Autumn and the Halloween season always put me in the mood for horror movies. I love the way that the best of them – the really thoughtful, compelling ones – enable us to face our deepest fears, to sit with them and better understand them.

There are other kinds of horror circulating at this time of year, too, though, and they can be a lot less fun. For instance: The horrors of Celtic language misappropriation:

At least where Welsh is concerned, this meme is not correct.

I’ve seen that meme going around social media, and we need to get a few facts straight: Welsh is not a Gaelic language. “Samhain” is not a Welsh word. And if it were a Welsh word, it would not be pronounced “Sow-een”.

I can just imagine the well-meaning but sadly uninformed person who is this close to getting a jack-o-lantern tattoo with a Welsh dragon carved across it, and “Sow-een” written gleefully below, and as a co-author of the Welsh Tattoo Handbook, I’m breaking out in hives. So let’s unpack this a little more carefully, shall we?

The Celtic language family is generally described as having two branches. One branch – the Goidelic languages – is the home of languages that might be thought of as any sort of Gaelic. Those would be Irish (Gaeilge), Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig), and Manx (Gaelg). They’re closely related to each other, as you can probably tell from their names for themselves.

The other branch is the Brythonic languages, where we have Welsh (Cymraeg), Cornish (Kernewek), and Breton (Brezhoneg). These languages are not any sort of Gaelic. There is no such thing, for instance, as “Welsh Gaelic.”

Now, about that “mh” sound in “Samhain”. The meme creator appears to be keen for everyone to grasp that the “mh” in “Samhain” is different than English speakers would likely expect. I do not speak any Gaelic languages, but I do know that the “mh” digraph has the ability, in different contexts, to represent something similar to a “w” sound or to a “v” sound, and so for all I know it’s not unreasonable to say that “Samhain” would be pronounced “Sow-in” in Irish or “Sav-en” in Scottish Gaelic.

As it turns out, though, Welsh has its own “mh” sound, and there are definitely an “m” and an “h” in it that would be perfectly recognizable to English speakers!

We see this “mh” appear as a result of the nasal mutation of “p”. For example, pen is a Welsh word meaning “head”, and “my head” can be said as fy mhen. There’s an expression for being “by myself”, ar fy mhen fy hun: “On my own head”. In pronouncing fy mhen what happens is that the “m” sort of attaches itself to fy and is articulated there, leaving hen to be pronounced quite clearly on its own, as if the phrase were spelled fym hen. The point is, both the “m” and the “h” have a very clear value. In Welsh, “mh” doesn’t represent anything like a “w” or a “v” at all.

So, if “Samhain” were a Welsh word – and let’s be clear, it is not – it would be pronounced “Sam-hine” (rhymes with “fine”), which is actually rather similar to the common pronunciation of “Samhain” that inspired the meme creator in the first place! (Let me take this opportunity to urge you: Please, do not pronounce “Samhain” as if it were a Welsh word. It is not a Welsh word.)

Since “Samhain” is not a Welsh word, is there a Welsh word for a distinctly Welsh observance at this time of year? Yes, there is!

Calan Gaeaf is the traditional first day of winter, marked on November 1, and October 31 is known as Nos Galan Gaeaf. Like Samhain, it is not identical to Halloween, though their development over the centuries is certainly intertwined. Nos Galan Gaeaf is traditionally one of those times when the veil between this world and the supernatural realm (known as Annwn in Welsh mythology) is stretched thin, and spirits could be on the move. A few centuries back, you might have frightened unruly children with a warning to stay away from the ghostly woman known as Y Ladi Wen – or, following an old rhyme, you might have donned a scary costume and chased them home to bed dressed as the spectre of a slaughtered pig:

Adref, adref am y cyntaf,
Hwch Ddu Gwta a gipio’r olaf!

To home, to home for the first,
Tailless Black Sow snatches the last!

I think the overarching lesson here is not to be taken in by a blithe sense of pan-Celticism. The whole concept of “Celtic” culture can be notably convoluted and in some respects problematic anyway, though useful for grouping some things that have apparent connections to one another. In any case, “Gaelic” and “Celtic” are not the same. Each of the Celtic languages is tied to a particular culture, and you can have a much more fruitful experience – with a culture or a language or both – by engaging with it on its own terms, instead of grabbing bits and pieces and mashing them all up in a pot with other dribs and drabs from the Pan-Celtic Thrift Shop.

In fact, there’s an exciting new opportunity coming to enjoy Welsh culture in the spirit of the season: A Welsh-language horror film called Gwledd (official English title: “The Feast”). I for one am looking forward to it! It’s being released in the US on November 19 – a bit late for Nos Galan Gaeaf but on the other hand, with that title, watching it right before the US Thanksgiving holiday might be just the thing…

And with that, have a Happy Halloween and a festive Nos Galan Gaeaf!

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