There was a great deal of giggling in our classroom when, as fourteen-year-olds studying German for the first time, we learned the word for father was ‘vater’. Of course, it looks perfectly innocent written down but say it aloud in a non-German accent and you’ve got something that sounds like ‘farter’.
Miss Evans, our wonderfully tolerant German teacher, allowed us our giggles, knowing from experience that in a few weeks hence the joke would have worn thin and we’d be chatting freely about our mothers and ‘farters’.
So it is with language. Something which at first sounds alien, even amusing, to the monoglot ear quickly becomes perfectly normal as we hear it time and time again.
As my German example illustrates, it’s not unheard of for letters to be pronounced quite differently in diverse languages. In south east Wales, Non-Welsh speakers have long had a tendency to anglicize Welsh place names, both in pronunciation and spelling. If a Welsh speaker stopped someone in Newport and asked where Allt-yr-yn was, pronouncing it correctly, they’d more than likely elicit blank stares. While we’re proud of our Welsh heritage, we non-Welsh speakers do sometimes find it difficult to get our tongues around the place names.
Sadly, there remain some individuals who would prefer the Welsh language was never used or seen in public places and will fight to their last breath to stop Welsh place names being adopted.
The latest storm in a teacup centres on a little village in Torfaen called Varteg. For almost a year, this hitherto unknown Welsh village with a population of just 1,000 has been garnering international media coverage.
And the reason for Varteg’s infamy?
Welsh language campaigners wanted the village to be renamed Farteg because there is no ‘v’ in the Welsh language. They hoped, in vain it would now seem, that the two spellings could appear side by side on signposts welcoming people to the village. Yes, side by side; as far as I understand there was never any plan to remove the name Varteg from any signage.
If anyone’s wondering, the font of all knowledge (otherwise known as Harri) explains that Farteg is a contraction of Y Farchnad Deg which means a fair market place, however this wasn’t offered as an alternative, presumably because it’s a bit harder to pronounce!!
If the proposals had gone ahead very little would have changed; Varteg would have continued to be pronounced with a V by locals and visiting Welsh speakers would have welcomed the correct spelling.
Yet, something was keeping residents awake at night… a completely ungrounded fear that anyone visiting Varteg who didn’t speak Welsh might get its pronunciation wrong and, horror of horrors, call it Fart Egg. (Yes, really, this is completely true and has been very widely reported across the world),
Just to recap on the sequence of events which has brought Varteg international ridicule.
February 2013: Torfaen council launches a consultation on 22 place names. The aim is to encourage the use of the Welsh language and celebrate Wales’s heritage. Where place names have long been anglicized, the correct Welsh spelling would also appear on signs. The alternatives presented for Varteg are Farteg and Y Farteg.
Reaction: local people fear their village will become the butt of jokes, with visitors laughing at the name and perhaps wanting to be photographed next to the new signage.
After consultation, Torfaen council decides that name change to Farteg is ‘inappropriate’.
September 2013: the Welsh Language Commissioner proposes the alternative name ‘Y Farteg’. The unrest hits the news big-time and gains coverage from The Mail Online and The New York Daily Times. The Guardian gets in on the act with its own spoof interview. (Have any of these Varteg residents thought about going into public relations? I mean…do they realise how hard it is for a little Welsh council like Torfaen to get national, let alone international, media coverage?)
November 2013: consultation relaunched. Amidst repeated cries of ridicule, is a lone voice of reason. The Pontypool Free Press quotes the Mayor of Blaenavon, Councillor Gareth Davies, as saying, “I feel that the name change is a matter for the people of the Varteg, but also feel that any decision will come to be accepted quickly and will not greatly impact the day to day life of the residents.”
Reaction: Councillor Davies talks sense but no-one is listening. Unsurprisingly, given the strong of feeling towards the Welsh spelling of their village, the residents refuse to budge. From their point of view, a fart egg is a fart egg, with or without the definite article (‘y’ is Welsh for ‘the’).
December 2013: the second consultation ends and a petition of around 120 names is handed to the full council meeting just before Christmas. 64% of those who respond to the online consultation say they “disagreed” with the proposal to adopt the Welsh version, 32 per cent vote for Y Farteg and 5% are happy for Farteg to be used. Abersychan ward councillor Giles Davies chooses to ignore these figures and is quoted in the South Wales Argus as saying the opposition to using Y Farteg on road signs is ‘such that 99.9% of residents do not want this’.
January 2014: the villagers win round two and the proposals are finally dropped. Varteg is to remain Varteg.
Phew! As I said at the beginning, a real storm in a teacup!
By the way, the reason there are no images in this blog is because Varteg is not one of South Wales’s most picturesque places and Harri reliably informs me that we have never walked in the area and have no plans to do so.
Given that the majority of people visiting South Wales have probably never heard of Varteg and are unlikely to stumble upon it by accident, it seems like a simple ‘F’ could have put the village on the map, massively boosting tourism. With a bit of forward thinking and imagination Varteg might have become the new Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.
I can see it now… queues of tourists wanting to have their photographs taken alongside that hilarious Welsh signage. Fart Egg! What a hoot! Definitely one for Facebook.
But the people of Varteg spoke. And they are, it would seem, wary of change. Once Varteg’s notoriety has died down, their bleak hillside village will undoubtedly fall back into obscurity. There will be no English or overseas visitors to mock its road signs, no egg or farting jokes, no imagined international ridicule.
Of course, the irony is that Varteg is the location of Ysgol Bryn Onnen, only one of two Welsh language medium primary schools in Torfaen. My hope is that these schoolchildren might one day manage to talk some sense into their elders.