A tattoo in Celtic

I am intrigued by this little item from Saturday’s Guardian. There are lots of reasons to be a little amused by it, but I’m more puzzled, specifically by the tattoo she has on her left arm. Apparently it’s in Celtic. This is odd, as there’s not really any such language as Celtic. There kind of was once — the common ancestor of Irish, Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Breton and Cornish is normally called Proto-Celtic (the Proto- bit means that we don’t have and real examples of it, and it’s just been reconstructed from the modern Celtic languages). And the Romans and Greeks called certain European barbarians Celtic, and many of them probably spoke Celtic languages (although it seems Classical writers and generals weren’t always very good at distinguishing one barbarian language from another), like Gaulish and Galatian. But very little has remained of these languages too. I’m pretty certain no one knows how the Gauls or Galatians would have said “Like the grains of sand”.

A closer look at the tattoo, which is visible in the paper edition, reveals that it’s in Welsh. Sort of. The second word is dywod and the first word (the script is a little florid) appears to be cana’r. Dywod should really be tywod, as it’s masculine, and there doesn’t seem to be any cause to mutate it here. But it means “sand” sure enough. But if the first bit is indeed cana’r, then the sentence appears to mean “The sand sings” (a translation that gave the flavour of the odd mutation might be something like “The sande sings”). Now, I admit I may be wrong about what the first word is, but whatever it is, it most certainly isn’t fel gronynnau’r or megis gronynnau’r, which would be the normal Welsh way of saying “like the grains of”. Still, a tattoo that says “the sand sings” is nice enough, admittedly.

So, fair enough. A slightly pretentious girl gets a tattoo in a language she doesn’t really understand, or even know the name of. That’s nothing new. But then she says she’s Welsh. So how come she doesn’t know the difference between Welsh and Celtic? And if she doesn’t speak Welsh (in fact, she obviously doesn’t), where did she get the sentence from? Is the tattoo really in Welsh anyway? Or is it some weird mix of Celtic languages, which I suppose you would call ‘Celtic’?

I know that this post seems to be mainly about mocking a girl in the Guardian. It is a bit. But only a bit. I am genuinely puzzled and curious, and therefore I’ll end with a question: do you recognise the sentence she has tattooed on her body, and do you know where it comes from?



Filed under Language

2 responses to “A tattoo in Celtic

  1. “Slightly pretentious” is charitable. People who get stuff written on their bodies in languages they don’t even understand, usually written by people who don’t understand either, are not likely to get it right. And surely there are better ways to express one’s vague feelings of (or desire for) national roots. The word “Celtic” is usually a giveaway. To such people it just means “mystical”, much like choosing an olde-worlde typeface. It probably wouldn’t occur to them how stupid they look to someone who speaks a Celtic language, if only because “Celtic” is from centuries ago, innit? (You may be familiar with http://www.hanzismatter.com)

  2. I wasn't familiar with that particular site, but I'd read about similar things in various blogs. People are stoopid.On a slight related note: http://www.flickr.com/groups/scymraeg/

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