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'Cynghanedd' deserves UNESCO status

Archdderwydd Myrddin ap Dafydd, Original photo: Eisteddfod Genedlaethol.

MOST of us are familiar with UNESCO’s register of significant places, known as World Heritage Sites. Indeed, Cymru boasts three of these legally protected locations, including Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, some of the castles and walls built by Edward I in Gwynedd, and Blaenafon’s industrial landscape.

But perhaps less familiar is the organisation’s corresponding list of the world’s immaterial cultural treasures, which represent a small sample of humanity’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’. Unlike World Heritage Sites— which comprise buildings, historic places, monuments, and artefacts— intangible heritage encompasses folklore, customs, beliefs, traditions, knowledge, language, and so on. Spanish flamenco, couscous, Georgian polyphonic singing, reggae, and Finnish sauna culture are just some of the hundreds of intangible cultural ‘elements’ that have been inscribed on the UNESCO list since it was established in 2008.

The United Kingdom has no entries on the list. In fact, it's one of the few nation states on earth that has not signed up to the ‘safeguarding intangible heritage’ convention. Read into that what you will.

And yet Cymru has more than its fair share of cultural treasures that are worthy of international recognition and promotion. It's high time therefore that the Welsh Government lobbied Westminster— or acted on its own behalf— to seek membership of the UNESCO programme.

The Eisteddfod, cerdd dant, male voice choirs, and lovespoons all leap out as possible candidates for inclusion in UNESCO's eclectic collection. Along with the other items on the list, they are all time-honoured traditions that are emblematic of their culture. They are alive and well, but could nevertheless benefit from some protection against creeping cultural homogenisation. These traditions also provide their creators with a sense of identity and continuity, and are constantly evolving in order to remain relevant, while nevertheless retaining their essential character.

But if I had to choose just one Welsh tradition to add to this global catalogue, then it would undoubtedly be cynghanedd (literally, ‘harmony’)— a complicated poetic system of alliteration and internal rhyme that has been refined over the centuries, of which there are four fundamental types: groes, draws, sain, and lusg.

To give an indication of the complexity of cynghanedd, consider the following example, whereby the consonants in the first half of the line (ll, b, r and, g) are repeated, in the same sequence in the second half, to create a pleasing consonance:

Y llwybrau gynt : lle bu'r gân
ll br g ll b r g

There is arguably nothing more uniquely and inextricably Welsh than cynghanedd. In fact, cynghanedd would never have arisen were it not for certain characteristics of the Welsh language. This is especially true when it comes to the sound changes known as treigladau (‘mutations’). Without these treigladau, Welsh would have shed its cynghanedd long ago, because the number of consonant permutations available to poets would be too small. To get an idea of how reliant cynghanedd is on this feature of the Welsh language, consider the following line of poetry that contains not one or two, but four consonant ‘mutations’. Remove just one of them— and like Jenga— the whole tower comes tumbling down:

1 2 3 4
A chroes goch ar y wisg wen

But while the complexity of cynghanedd might strike the uninitiated as 'restrictive'— shackling poetic expression— the inverse is actually true. Once mastered, according to poet Mererid Hopwood— who won the Cadair ('Chair') at the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol— it's a discipline that liberates the creative spirit and gives it 'wings'. For Alan Llwyd, (another Cadair-winner), cynghanedd, when executed masterfully, attains a level of timeless 'perfection'. For Llwyd, the entire purpose of cynghanedd is to create perfection. Cynghanedd is itself an innately perfect system, and it is the task of the poet not to 'undo' or 'destroy' this perfection.

The sophistication of cynghanedd, its uniqueness, and its significance to Welsh culture makes it a strong contender for UNESCO recognition. It is fully worthy of being considered as a representative example of humanity's cultural heritage.

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