The Welsh Language and Colours

I am really enjoying my learning of the Welsh language, and one of the things that fascinates me is the array of words related to colour and hue. The early Celtic colour spectrum was different to the one we’re used to in the modern world, and the understanding of colour tended to be based on the quality of a hue rather than its wavelength. 

In Middle Welsh, many words denoting colour were highly influenced by what was seen in the natural world, and by culturally significant objects such as horses and weaponry. One central influence on the Welsh view of colour would have been water – particularly the sea, rivers, and rain. The presence and condition of water affects the overall quality of the light, the hue, and the shine of an object and how we perceive colour.

Horses, the most valuable domestic animals in medieval Wales, were often conceptualised as being like the sea in their power and movement, and there is a discernible association in Middle Welsh of horse colours and sea colours.

One fascinating article that explores in detail colour references in Middle Welsh text is “Pale horses and green dawns - elusive colour terms in early Welsh heroic poetry” by Jessica Hemming.  Early Welsh texts reveal how linked to the specific Welsh landscape and climate the colour vocabulary was: “For Welsh… with its distinctive vegetation, visible geology, weather patterns, and quality of light…. We can then take into account textures, translucency, reflectivity, succulence, moisture, and the shifting fluidity of the natural light in a rainy northern maritime climate.”

Here are some of my favourite Welsh colour words, past and present, and their meanings:

  • Aneirin - the name of an early Welsh poet, this name refers to "very golden"
  • Arianrhod - Translated as ‘silver disc’, this is the name of a Celtic goddess associated with the moon, beauty, poetry and inspiration.
  • Blawr - A difficult to define historical colour term, being closely associated with a grey, yellow or white hair colour, particularly on horses. In medieval poetry, the fine graduations of horse coats, and the white or grey tips of hairs (so that they appear ‘floured’ or ‘dusted’), are suggested by the term.
  • Can - This term was probably associated with brightness rather than hue – potentially denoting high reflectivity or luminosity, something like ‘brilliant white’. In Middle Welsh, it is overwhelmingly a horse colour term in the earliest period, and is then increasingly applied also to human skin and to bright white features of the environment like snow. It may also have an implied meaning of ‘bright and powerful’ – as demonstrated physically by a glossy healthy horse.
  • Coch (Red) Arguably the most significant colour for Wales. It dates back to Arthurian legend when Merlin had a vision of a red dragon (representing native Britons) fighting the white dragon (the Saxon invaders). Red shows up in Welsh flannel fabrics throughout history, becoming a staple in quilts and the national Welsh dress. One of my favourite red-related words is gochi, meaning ‘blushing’.
  • Enfys (Rainbow) – Pronounced EN-vis. The word amryliw means multicoloured, a combination of the words amrywiol ‘various’ and lliw ‘colour’
  • Glas One of the more complex and hardest to define colour terms – it is now usually used to describe blue, however glas is thought to have a wider meaning in early Welsh, a term highly associated with the landscape - describing both the fresh grass, the shimmering sea, and the azure sky. In this respect it has been used to describe a range of colours including green, turquoise, green-blue, navy, and shades of grey. It has also been used to describe a more general quality of ‘shine’, and ‘shimmer’ – for instance the translucency and sparkle when viewing something through water; e.g. the shimmer of a salmon, or the crystal grey of frost. The term also has connotations of freshness – like fresh green grass, verdant foliage or 'freshers' (first year college students).
  • Gwinau– Means chestnut brown, or 'bay' as in a bay horse.
  • Gwyn (White) A very significant colour name in Welsh. Many welsh names end in ‘gwyn’, ‘wyn’ or ‘wen’, which refers to ‘white’ or ‘fair’, often with religious undertones of sacredness. Examples include Gwen, Aelwen, Arianwen, Blodwen, Caronwen, Deilwen (‘white leaf’). There is a story that the name ‘Penguin’ derives from Welsh (PEN: head, GUIN: (gwyn) white), but this is legend only and is definitely not verified!
  • Gwyrdd (Green)Routinely translated as green, or the green-blue colour of the sea, which permeates the Welsh cultural consciousness. However, historically it may have been synonymous with glas.
  • Lasgoch (Violet) Literally a combination of glas ‘blue’ and coch ‘red’, or we just cheat and say ‘fioled’.
  • Llachar (Bright) - To shine and glisten.
  • Llwyd-felyn(Beige or khaki) – literally means grey yellow.  
  • Melyngoch(Orange) - An older word for 'orange' and also for 'auburn'- it literally combines yellow ‘melyn’ with red ‘coch’.  
  • Melyn(yellow), but can be used for a cream or very pale brown colour, 
  • Symudliw (Iridescence) – Literally means ‘moving colours’, a combination of symud ‘move’ and lliw ‘colour’
  • Taliesin – A traditional boys name meaning "shining brow", derived from Welsh tal "brow" and iesin "shining".
  • Tywyll - Dark, e.g. Tynal Tywyll, or dark tunnel