Tuesday 1 November 2022

Should Wales be called Cymru?


I love speaking foreign languages. In my house we speak, Polish, Belarussian, Russian and English and often all of them mixed together. I spoke Doric (Aberdeenshire Scots) at school and still automatically switch to it when I meet a fellow speaker in a shop or in the street. I would be delighted if I knew people who spoke Gaelic and likewise if I moved to Wales one of the first things, I would do would be to sign up for Welsh languages classes. The Celtic branch of the Indo-European language family is interesting and unusual and as worthy of study as any other language. But even so there is something illogical about trying to change the name of the Welsh football team to Cymru.

When there is a draw for the football world cup each country does not use its name in its own language. There is a good reason. What countries are these?






You have to be pretty good at languages to know that these are Japan, Ukraine, Qatar, Croatia and Greece.

If the world cup draw were to be conducted in everyone’s language no one in the world would know who was going to play whom. So, the draw is instead done in English. So too when people watch the games on TV the name of each country will be translated into their own language.

We will talk about the Croatian team from Croatia, even though that is not how the Croats refer to themselves. We will talk about Germany, not Deutschland, for the simple reason that we cannot speak every language.

But what is the word for Wales in English? It is not Cymru. It is Wales. There is nothing wrong with Wales as a name. It is the basis for most countries understand of the place.

For instance:

Walia (Polish)

Gales (Spanish)

It is probably the case many people in the world don’t know quite where Wales is even if the word for it in their own language is used. Many of us don’t know quite where Laos is or Kyrgyzstan, but we would have even less chance if we had to look for ສາທາລະນະລັດ ປະຊາທິປະໄຕ ປະຊາຊົນລາວ (Laos) or Кыргыз Республикасы (Kyrgystan). The rest of the world would be simply baffled if the world cup draw involved Cymru? If the Laotian commentator were lucky, he would be able to translate it into ເວນ (Wales) but he might not be able to translate it at all, for the simple reason that he didn’t speak Welsh.

We have English words for things and we have Welsh words for things, but there is something absurd about speaking or writing in English but insisting on using the Welsh word for Wales. When we talk about Japan we use the English word. The Japanese don’t make us say Nihon. Imagine if every football team insisted on being called the name of its country in its own language. But if it would be silly for Saudi Arabia (المملكة العربية السعودية) to insist on this, why is it sensible for Wales?

While people in Wales have a perfect right to call where they live Cymru in their own language. It is completely unreasonable to try to change the English language word for Wales. Why would you want to when 99% of the world’s population if they have heard of Wales at all know it by the English language word or a word derived from it? Scotland is known by the English word if it is known at all, if you changed the name to Alba people would mix it up with Albania.

There is a modern tendency for us to change the English word for places. Peking becomes Beijing, Bombay becomes Mumbai, Burma becomes Myanmar. It is hard to keep up. But let the Burmese call their country what they will, why should we change our word? After all we don’t say Hrvatska we say Croatia. It doesn’t matter to us one little bit what the Croats call their country.

Boudica Queen of the Iceni spoke a language from which Welsh descends. It is likely that the Picts spoke a similar language. The Welsh are the original ancient Britons. It is admirable that Welsh is by far the most spoken of the Celtic languages still extant. Welsh has some of the greatest songs. I particularly like Llef, Bryn Calfaria and Myfanwy and would love to understand the words without looking at a translation. But trying to call Wales Cymru on the international stage will not add one Welsh speaker to the numbers who already do. IIt will merely confuse everyone and leave them as baffled as to where Wales is as the Welsh would be baffled if they were drawn to play Magyarország.