crwth

At first this word may strike one as sort of like “This sentence no verb.” Missing a vowel, innit? Well, of course it’s not. Really, do you still think that letters and sounds are the same thing? How uncouth! Which, by the way, rhymes with crwth. That’s the truth!

What is a crwth? Oh, let’s play a little guessing game. Does it seem like it might be some geek slang, like cruft, perhaps based on a typo and/or an acronym, like zOMG? Is it perhaps the ordinal of some new number, crw? Is it an archaic third person singular present indicative conjugation of crew or crow? Or is it the sound of some bird in the woods, or some utterance by a person with gobstopper in mouth? Or a Welsh way of spelling the last name of Penélope Cruz? It does have the ring of an abstract noun (truth), or anyway a noun of quantity (width, wealth).

I could not say any of these is true; I am not a born liar. A crwth, in fact, is a bowed lyre. (Don’t confuse this with Bowes-Lyon, the maiden name of the old Queen Mum. This is a Welsh instrument!) It has six strings, two of which angle off and aren’t over the finger board. In appearance, well, say you were to get a big piece of wood shaped like a slice of canned meat and decided to make a violin with it, so you carved out holes so you could get your fingers in to finger the strings, but then you decided you were pretty much done. And how does it sound? Um, like a traditional bowed instrument. Search it on YouTube if you want to hear it. You will likely run across the name of Cass Meurig, who seems to be its leading modern exponent.

Now, you might wish that this instrument had a less bunched-up-looking name. If so, join the crowd. By crowd, in this case, I mean the same instrument, as it is named in other parts of the British Isles. Crwth and crowd (not the crowd everyone knows and loves or avoids, mind you) are cognate; they come from a Celtic root meaning “hump” or “hunch” (or “belly”), a reference to the shape of the instrument (not so much anymore, however). If you know someone named Crowder or Crowther, an ancestor of theirs played this instrument.

But crowd is just asking to be misunderstood. And it’s not so pleasant, really. Crwth, on the other hand, along with having those whispery tones, can really spice up a passage – give it a bit of Welsh flavour, and everyone knows that no one’s as “folk” as the Welsh. So, for instance, we see Dylan Thomas, in Under Milk Wood: “He intricately rhymes, to the music of crwth and pibgorn.”

Wait, pibgorn? Ah-ha-haa… one word at a time!

One response to “crwth

  1. Pingback: pibgorn « Sesquiotica

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