Cwm? WTF? Ths wrd hs n vwl! What is it, an initialism for “come with me”?

Well, no, at least not in this case. And it does have a vowel. A double one, in fact: a double u, which is w. Which represents a vowel in Welsh. Remember: a vowel is a sound, not a letter. And when you say this word, /kum/, you undeniably say a vowel. The fact that w does not normally represent a vowel in English is quite immaterial. We stole this word from Welsh fair and square. (Well, OK, we didn’t steal it – Welsh still has it and uses it. We copied it. Without altering it.)

Actually, this word does have an apparent English cognate, coomb (also spelled combe and comb in place names – as in Branscombe, Eastcomb, etc.). I say apparent because while it refers to the same sort of thing as cwm, it has a homonym that is derived from Germanic roots and refers to a cup. And it just happens that what cwm names is rather cuplike.

Well, it can be rather cuplike. In the original sense, it’s a valley; more particularly, it’s a hollow at the head of a valley, shaped like half a cup, dug out by a glacier. We have another word for these in English, a word we stole (copied!) from French: cirque. A coomb, for its part, can be a small cuplike hanging valley, or a deep notch valley, or a valley inlet from the sea, depending on which part of England you’re in.

The word cwm itself has a certain roundness to it in the saying, the tongue making a hollow after touching at the back and the lips closing off the hollow; it’s a bit like how you hold your mouth if you have a hot piece of potato in it. The sense of closedness of the roundness gets an added boost from the spelling. As to the form, we can certainly see a cirque in the c, and perhaps a pair of valleys in the w and a hillside in the m. But, you know, it could just as easily be a lamp with a standing screen and some drapes, or what have you.

This cwm, though it names a glacier-made hollow, nonetheless has an inviting quality. Aside from looking like it says “come with me,” it sounds like a northern English pronunciation of come. But who’s saying “come” to whom? My first reaction is that the addressee is Rhonda. Of “Help Me Rhonda”? Well, yeah, no, I guess not. The person who is doing the guiding and inviting is God, and Cwm Rhondda is the name of a tune to which one of the grand old Protestant hymns is set. The usual text begins “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah.” A more direct translation of the original Welsh would be “Lord, lead me through the wilderness.” The first verse of the Welsh is as follows (just because I love looking at Welsh):

Arglwydd, arwain trwy’r anialwch,
Fi, bererin gwael ei wedd,
Nad oes ynof nerth na bywyd
Fel yn gorwedd yn y bedd:
Hollalluog, Hollalluog,
Ydyw’r Un a’m cwyd i’r lan.
Ydyw’r Un a’m cwyd i’r lan.

Not see cwm rhondda in there? No, there’s no valley of the shadow of Rhonda. Actually Cwm Rhondda is the place the tune is from, the Rhondda valley in Wales. The Rhondda valley, a former coal mining area in south Wales, is actually two valleys (w?), one large and one small, merging at the bottom. Rhondda, for its part, means something on the order of “babbling” as in the sound of a brook – or the Rhondda river. (By the way, the rh stands for a voiceless /r/ and the dd stands for the voiced dental fricative we use at the beginning of the.)

The Rhondda valley has quite an interesting social history, being heavily involved in the changing tides of fortune of industrialization (the coal working men), and passing from a strongly Welsh-speaking area to an English-speaking one just in the past century. Its history is not as short and elegant as cwm, nor as glacial as a cirque. I leave it to the interested to look it up further.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s