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Linguistic and Other Distortions in Ballads on Welsh Themes

by Gerald Morgan

Aberystwyth University, 2019

Shinkin, EBBA 33646

Welsh migrants to England, especially London, formed an increasing element in the English population, particularly after the Tudors took possession of the Crown of in 1485. The Welsh language was the mother-tongue of the great majority in Wales, so when they migrated to England and perforce learnt to speak English, their usage of that language marked them out as different, and provided a ready source of mockery. This is famously evident in Shakespeare’s Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor, where the dramatist makes fun of the speech of the soldier Fluellyn and the schoolmaster Sir Hugh Evans. In both plays other ethnic characters are similarly parodied. In Henry IV Part One, however, Shakespeare has the rebel Welsh prince, Owen Glendower, speaking normal English, and in Henry V his sympathy, like that of the king himself, is clearly with Fluellyn.

Making fun of the Welsh and their language was an element in English ballad culture well into the 19th century. The language is distinctive in several ways. To an English-speaker’s ear Welsh consonants are distinctively plosive, so that d, b, g, and v sound like t, p, c, and v. The Welsh alphabet does not include j except in words borrowed from English, and is often heard by an English ear as sh. There is no z in Welsh either, so that the hard s of plurals and genetives is pronounced like English ss.

Thus the parodist who composed "Shinkin’s Misfortune" (EBBA 33646; the image above is from this ballad) renders Jenkin as Shinkin, great as creet, Border as Porder. The oath God’s blood and nails is rendered as Cots plutter-a-nails. The common Welsh given name Dafydd presented a challenging cluster of sounds. The D is as in English, the first syllable is short, the f is sounded like English v and the dd like the hard th in English this. As Irish Patrick became Paddy, so Dafydd was rendered as Taffy, which is still a standard English nickname for any Welshman. But the balladeer oversteps the mark in the penultimate stanza by referred to the Welsh patron saint, David, as St Taffy. This is a nonsense, since St David is never known as St Dafydd but as Dewi, which is an earlier form of the Biblical David, reflecting the saint’s origins in 6th century southwest Wales. The e in Dewi is short, as in English bell.

There’s more to the parody than simply pronunciation. Welsh users of English were mocked for their supposed ignorance of English grammar. Welsh is a Celtic language, English a Germanic. Thus in the first line of "Shinkin’s Misfortune" the phrase was rob is obviously to be understood as robbed. The corruption reflects literal translation from correct Welsh usage, where periphrastic verb-forms are usual and make perfect sense.

Pronominal forms were also open to parody. Welsh has no neuter; as with many European language there are two genders, masculine and feminine. The parodists invented a catch-all neologism hur or her to render his, her, their, and its. This usage can be seen in all three ballads discussed in this essay.

Another target for the parodist was nomenclature. Well before the 16th century English had adopted the form given-name plus inherited family name. Welsh, like Irish and Scots Gaelic, had largely retained a system based on patronymics. So a man’s name would be represented - for example - as Dafydd ap Rhys, where ap means "son of." But the father’s name was not passed down to Dafydd’s son Deiniol: he would be Deiniol ap Dafydd (a daughter would be known, for example, as Gwen ach Dafydd). Welsh men attached particular importance to their genealogy; there was an English saying As long as a Welsh pedigree.

So the parodist has great fun with Shinkin ap Shone, so alien to English practice. Shone is for Siôn, the Welsh form of John. Later in the ballad the writer called him Shinkin ap Shones. This shows recognition that the Welsh were starting to use surnames on the English pattern, because Shones is of course Jones, where English usage provided a genetive 's to show that the name is a patronymic. But ap Shones is a nonsense, a double patronymic, as if a Scot were to call himself Macdonaldson, which would mean "son of Donald’s son."

The balladeer was not content with mocking Shinkin’s accent, grammar and name. The Welsh attachment to pedigree was linked to social status: a man who could recite his pedigree to four or more degrees claimed free or gentry status, however poor he might be. Gentry status could involve a claim to a heraldic coat of arms with a crest. So Shinkin is made to boast of his heraldic crest, a bunch of leeks and his heraldic shield showing a louse rampant. Thus the writer jests at the leeks, always associated with Welshness, and at Shinkin’s poverty in the form of the louse. A gentleman’s coat of arms might have a hound as his crest and a lion or boar on the shield – never a louse!

We may now turn to the balladeer’s mockery of Welsh national symbolism. Shinkin, as a poor Welshman, rides a goat not a horse, though a goat could hardly bear the weight of a man even if the creature was willing. But the goat was well-established as a Welsh symbol: in Henry V, the braggadocio Pistol swears "by Cadwallader and all his goats" that he won’t eat the leek which Fluellyn eventually forces down his throat. Leek-badges were royal gifts at the court of Henry VIII.

Shinkin is characterised as not merely a thief, but an unrepentant one. There was a pervasive English belief that the Welsh were thieves. This was later summarised in the 18th century nursery rhyme (with many variants):

Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief;
Taffy came to my house and stole a piece of beef.
I went to Taffy’s house, Taffy was in bed,
I took a marrow bone and beat him on the head.

There is more to "Shinkin’s Misfortune" even than this. Fundamental to the English was their superiority to all other nationalities, especially their closest neighbours (the Welsh) who spoke a language nothing like their own, which one wag described as "the barbarous gibberish of Taffydom." Thus in "The Coy Cook-Maid" (EBBA 33388), Joan refuses to marry a Scot, a Frenchman, an Irishman, a Dutchman, a Spaniard and a Welshman, as each is mocked in turn. She will only marry an Englishman, superior to all others. But with his chauvinism the balladeer combines dire sexism, denouncing Joan as a "greazy frigat" despite her Englishness.

The ballad "The Jolly Welsh-Woman" (EBBA 34969) is much more straightforward linguistically, apart from the use of her for all feminine pronominal forms (but note the inconsistency in the final stanza, hur Cap up she flung). The underlying theme is of course the Englishman’s patriotic belief that since England is the world’s greatest country, any foreigner would wish to live there and never return home. This is at least more generous than the current assumption by many that outsiders should all go home regardless.

Three final points can be made. First, ballads parodying Welsh language and customs continued to be composed into the 18th and 19th centuries. Second, that when a genuine Welshman, Morgan Llewellyn, of whom we know nothing, wrote two ballads (EBBA 20111 and 20100, one of them on a Welsh subject), their English is standard. Thirdly, that unlike the savage racism of "Shenkin’s Misfortune," Shakespeare’s fun is actually funny!