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Your Hawaiian is better than your Welsh

Pembrokeshire or Waimea? Wales and Hawai'i have more in common than beautiful beaches and mountain scenery...

Their languages have enjoyed a great resurgence in recent decades, bucking the trend of being bullied into irrelevance by the culturally dominant neighbouring language, which in both cases happens to be English.

Your knowledge of the Hawaiian language is probably more extensive than your Welsh.

How so? Because... Fact: There are more words in the English language that derive from Hawaiian than from Welsh.

Do you find it more surprising that there are so many of the former or so few of the latter?

A selection of English words of Hawaiian origin

Aloha - this has three meanings: hello, goodbye, and love (the latter is only used in Hawai’i)

Awa - a plant belonging to the pepper family. An intoxicating beverage is made from its roots.

Haole - outsider or foreigner

Honu - a green sea turtle

Hula - a Hawaiian dance which used to be performed only by men as a war dance and a symbol of masculinity

Kahuna - a priest, shaman, or wizard; also used to refer to a local or someone who has lived in Hawai’i a long time.

Luau - a feast, with singing and dancing

Mahalo - thank you

Ohana - family

Pele's hair - named after Pele, the fire goddess of volcanoes, it is the glass fibres from a volcano

Taboo* - from the Hawaiian word kapu, something unacceptable or forbidden

Ukulele** - a little guitar

There are fewer consonants in the Hawaiian language, in fact it is easier to list the consonants that do exist: H, K, L, M, N, P, W and the okina ` written like an apostrophe, which represents a glottal stop. Think of how a Cockney pronounces bottle.

Another word that could justifiably make the list is `a`a, which contains two okina, meaning that it is pronounced “ah-ah”, not “aah”. It is a type of volcanic rock, by the way. Remember it for the next time you play Scrabble.

The W sounds more like a soft V (think German). The word Hawai’i contains both of these lesser-known features, making it surely one of the most mispronounced place names in the world!

*Captain Cook realised what it meant to break a taboo. On his first voyage to the islands he was given a royal welcome, fortuitously arriving from the proper direction, at an acceptable time of year and month; even the large white sail on his ship was favourably evocative of godly legend. The second time however, he inadvertently broke taboo by landing at a location which was taboo, and was surprised to find the locals much less hospitable. Very much less, in fact, given that they used the excuse of a minor disagreement about supplies to kill him.

**Ukulele is possibly the best-known of all these words, but what is the literal translation of uku and lele? The Hawaiians were so mesmerised by how quickly the guitarists’ fingers moved around the fretboard, that they exclaimed it looked like “fleas jumping”, which is what the words literally mean.

A selection of English words of Welsh origin

Bard - Either from Welsh bardd (where the bard was highly respected) or Scottish bardis (where it was a term of contempt)

Cawl - a traditional Welsh soup/stew

Corgi - from cor, "dwarf" + gi "dog"

Crag - from Welsh craig, meaning a stony hill

Eisteddfod - This lovely name for a literary and arts festival actually means “to be sitting down”, which re-evokes the image of the audience respectfully listening to the bard. Two examples here of the Welsh double-d, which is pronounced as a soft ‘th’ sound

Flannel - the etymology is uncertain, but Welsh gwlanen = "flannel wool" is likely.

Flummery - from llymru. Flummery is/was a type of blancmange, which could be made to look like other, less bland, food, as a culinary joke. This gentle deception could be why ‘flummery’ took the second meaning of ‘complete nonsense’.

Penguin - literal meaning: white-head (pen = head and gwyn = white). We can overlook the fact that the head tends to be black in most species of penguin!

Wrasse - a kind of sea fish; gwrach is Welsh for hag or witch.

So, whilst the English language has borrowed most heavily from French, Latin and Greek, it also magpies words from any other where contact has been made. I am conscious that I have merely listed examples; on another occasion it might be interesting to attempt to explain why there are more words deriving from a language spoken on a small group of islands on the opposite site of the globe than one spoken by our friends and neighbours at the other end of the M4.

Neither Welsh nor Hawaiian are currently offered by SameSky Languages. As soon as there is demand, we will set about recruiting a teacher.

Andrew Wenger is the director and principal teacher at SameSky Languages. Please contact him for information on how to enrol in a language-learning course:

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