by Jane Aaron
This is the twenty-eighth contribution to our Welsh Keywords series – inspired by Raymond Williams’ Keywords – which offers contemporary perspectives on contested meanings of words in Welsh and how these shifting meanings continue to shape our society.
The Celtic origins of the Welsh word teulu (‘family’) lie in pre-history; it came into Welsh from the pre-Roman conquest Brythonic language, and had its original significance within the context of the feudal clan system. Like its Gaelic equivalent teaghlach it was derived from the Celtic root words tego + slougo, i.e., the Welsh tŷ (a house) + llu (a numerous host). Originally, then, teulu signified a large household, a numerous host of people residing together, not necessarily of the same blood line but bonded by their allegiance to the same penteulu or household head. At times in the medieval Welsh texts, teulu appears to refer specifically to the clan leader’s personal bodyguard, his retinue or war band, but other usages, such as for example the terms bardd teulu (household bard) and offeiriad teulu (household priest) make it clear that all the members of the clan chief’s household and not just his warriors or his blood relatives constituted his teulu. Accordingly William Owen Pughe in his 1803 Dictionary of the Welsh Language defines teulu as ‘a family, or household; a clan, or tribe’, while Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (the University of Wales’ historical Welsh-language dictionary), gives its various modern and ancient meanings as ‘(nuclear or extended) family; tribe, nation; household’. Teulu would thus appear conceptually to match the Latin term familia meaning ‘household’ (derived from the root word famulus meaning ‘servant’), from which the English term ‘family’ was eventually borrowed, comparatively recently in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. At that date, then, both teulu and ‘family’ signified the same concept, but that concept was not ‘family’ in its modern sense but ‘household’.Sign in to read more
Emeritus Professor at the University of South Wales, Jane Aaron’s publications include Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing in Wales (2007) and Welsh Gothic (2013). She co-edited the essay collections Our Sisters' Land: The Changing Identities of Women in Wales (1994) and Postcolonial Wales (2005), and is also series editor of Welsh Women’s Classics, published by Honno Press.