Did my dog sit on my keyboard? No, but that’s often how the Welsh language is perceived. This 58-character, 18-syllable word is actually the name of a town in Wales, literally translating to English: “St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio near the red cave.”
Ever since I was little, I begged and pleaded for my Welsh dad to teach me how to say it. To my dismay, my eight-year-old American mouth couldn’t produce enough phlegm to form the necessary sounds. My half-Welsh identity was a mystery to others, who assumed that my family must be posh, English tea-drinkers. When people asked me if my dad was English, I’d say no.
It seemed like nobody had heard of Wales, or it was the last on their list of guesses. Maybe this is because Welsh culture is often assumed to be thoroughly uninteresting and is usually summed up in a few words—sheep, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and cliffs. Maybe it’s because London is viewed as the center of British life and foreigners lack knowledge about the cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity across the region. Either way, I learned to say I was English, not Welsh, when people asked.
It might seem that this horrendous-looking, unpronounceable, consonant-filled word should immediately be translated, but in the 1800s the town actually elongated its name from the original Llanfairpwllgwyngyll to attract tourists. I’m not sure if this tactic worked because I’ve never met anyone who’s been to or heard of llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, but it is, nonetheless, an ode to Wales’s history of resisting assimilation into English culture and language.
Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name?” Clearly, he never traveled to llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Unlike this town, my last name, Carr, was actually shortened and anglicized from Carrasco by my Chilean great-grandfather who wanted to assimilate into Welsh society when he migrated there during World War II. In 21st century America, when people hear my name, Isabel Carr, they probably assume I have mostly English heritage. Isabel Carys Carrasco would paint a more accurate picture. Each name tells a part of my story. My middle name, meaning “to love” in Welsh, and Carrasco, meaning Holm Oak, are an ode to my Welsh and Chilean heritage. I also have another name. Syvia Shira, my Hebrew name, encapsulates my Jewish heritage. Syvia was my grandmother’s Hebrew name, and Shira means poetry, singing, or music. I wasn’t given these names until I visited Israel for my brother’s bar mitzvah. My parents said they chose these names because I embody my grandmother’s feisty spirit and I love music, playing a variety of instruments from the violin to the saxophone to the piano.
I disagree with Shakespeare—I believe that words and names are important. Names allow us to describe others accurately. Spending time learning about other cultures through history and language expands our capacity for empathy. As someone who is passionate about historical analysis and social justice, I understand the importance of recognizing cultures on their own terms and embracing our multifaceted identities. I am Welsh, American, and Jewish, even if it might take time to explain where Wales is on a map. I’ve finally learned how to say llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.
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