Wales: nation of poets and blue butterflies -- perhaps

It came as a shock to me - but not to the Welsh - to discover that there are people who think Wales is just another English county. There were some Americans , for instance, who came to Dolgelley because, working for some multinational company in Europe, they had grown homesick for the sound of English.

A poor choice, Dolgelley. For instead of the English they hankered for, they got an earful of lilting Welsh. And a very mysterious earful it must have been, with words beginning with double f's and double l's and filled with strangely placed y's. At first they thought it was a carefully organized leg-pull, and it wasn't easy to convince them that Wales is a country of its own where every shepherd is a poet.

Take Gwynn, now. (No, of course I'm not using real names.) He lives on a farm on the mountainside. Some English visitors remarked one day that it must be terrible up there in the winter. Now you don't tell a Welshman that any part of Wales is ever terrible, so Gwynn commented mildly, ''It has its com-pen-sa-tions.'' (When you read my attempts to convey a Welsh accent, kindly read in your softest voice, giving the words an upward lilt and dragging out a syllable here and there.)

''Compensations? What compensations?'' they wanted to know,

''Well, after it has been snowing and when the sun is shining, mi-l-l-ions of blue butterflies pop up through the snow.''

Here Alun, who is telling the story, commented, ''Loovely fancy the man has. Loovely fancy for a shepherd.''

But the visitors weren't quite convinced. Could they really trust Gwynn? Was he perhaps an exaggerator? they asked Alun.

''Terrible exaggerator, Gwynn is,'' Alun replied. ''You can't believe him. . . . Not millions of blue butterflies, just hundreds.''

Now you might think that was the end of the story, just as Gwynn and Alun did. But no.

The next winter was indeed a terrible one, with no one coming up the mountain unless he had to. But one day there was a knock at the door of Alun's inn and there were the visitors, hung with cameras and photo equipment, ''come to make their fo-r-tunes on BBC television.''

Alun, playing for time, asked if they had seen Gywnn. They hadn't (being a sensible man, he was hiding in the barn).

''But what about the butterflies?''

''Well,'' said Alun - he'd had time to think by then - ''there's this ter-r-rible east wind blowing across the snow, you see, and it's formed a thick icy crust, so that the butterflies can't pop through. You won't be seeing them this year.''

That evening he asked Gwynn, ''Did they catch you, then, on the way back?'' They had. Gwynn had thought he was safe.

''So what did you tell them then?''

''Well I said to them, 'There's this terrible east wind, you see . . . .''

A good Welsh story, that. You couldn't be sure whether it's your leg, the visitors' legs, or even Gywnn's leg that was being pulled. Or perhaps there really are blue butterflies. Wouldn't that be lovely, now?

It isn't the English language that's a problem when it comes to talking to the Welsh - they speak it better than most of us. It's their sense of humor. They like to tease you, and they love to laugh at themselves. So how can you tell the difference? What, for instance, should I make of the Welsh anti-Welsh nationalist stories? Take the one that begins with the fact that, on Welsh insistence, most place-names have been changed from the Anglicized version back to the original Welsh.

''Every year now there's a farmers' show for all Wales held at Builth Wells, '' I was told. ''Last year, for a change, it was advertised to be held at Llanfair-ym-Muall, and hardly anyone came. Most farmers, see, didn't know where the new place was. Come to find out, Llanfair-ym-Muall is just the Welsh name for Builth Wells.'' And the storyteller collapsed with laughter.

And can I really believe the story of the old woman who, every year when the salmon make their way upstream, holds her open umbrella out over the mountain streams? The fish, intent on leaping the waterfalls, land in her umbrella instead.

''Ooh, no, the water bailiffs never bother her. She's old, you see, and never takes more than she needs.''

In fact, the Welsh are so eloquent in our language, one wonders why they need their own - that is, until you hear the lovely sounds of spoken Welsh. I wish I had a recording of the Welsh lady who recited the twenty-third Psalm for us. If you'd heard it, you would know why the language, once considered a useless anachronism, lives on. It's a very special language, too, since it contains no swear words. The nastiest thing you can call a person is ''a devil'' or ''a creature.'' It's not surprising to hear that such a polite language owes its survival to the fact that in the 16th century Bishop William Morgan translated the Bible into Welsh. Such a beautiful job he made of it that it has become part of the culture, its roots sunk deep into every Welshman's everyday speech.

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