- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) a longing for home; a longing to return to somewhere that it is impossible to return to [Welsh]
English may have the biggest vocabulary of any language in the world, but it is by no means exhaustive. For that reason we sometimes have to turn to languages besides our own to describe some of our more niche emotions and experiences.
Hiraeth—essentially pronounced “hee-ryeth”—is one of these.
Although used on occasion in English, it has never been wholly adopted and naturalized into the language and so can still be considered a purely Welsh word. As such, bilingual dictionaries often gloss it as the Welsh equivalent of what an English speaker might call ‘nostalgia’, ‘homesickness’, or ‘longing’—but in truth hiraeth is essentially an amalgam of all three of these, plus a great deal more besides.
Hiraeth is a deep, nostalgic, bittersweet wistfulness, or an intense longing to return to something—or someone, somewhere, or sometime—that is now long gone, or perhaps never was. It is an ancient concept to the Welsh people, and a frequent subject of Welsh ballads and poetry that harken back to the long-lost Wales of their authors’ Celtic ancestors. (In fact, the Celtic roots of hiraeth are born out etymologically by near identical words in other Celtic-origin languages like Cornish, hyreth, and Breton, hiraezh.)
Hiraeth is an almost indescribable sensation, but at the same time a feeling that will be instantly familiar to many. If you have ever revisited your childhood home only to find it renovated or modernized beyond recognition, then you will doubtless have felt hiraeth. If you have ever returned to your hometown to find that all your old haunts have been razed or rebuilt, then you will have experienced hiraeth. And anyone who has travelled or worked abroad long enough to feel like an outsider when they return home will likewise have found themselves contending with hiraeth.
In the sense of a longing for something now gone, hiraeth is also entwined with feelings of grief, loss, and remorse. So if you find yourself harkening back to a relationship or friendship now irreparably broken, that is hiraeth. When someone dear to you dies, you can often find yourself mourning not just the loss of them but what they brought into your life, which will now never be the same again. That wistful longing for the life you could have had or continued to have with them in it, but now never can, also epitomizes hiraeth.
It is clearly a concept that has no single-word equivalent in English (indeed, it has taken nearly 400 to describe it here), but perhaps the best and most concise description of hiraeth is a sadly anonymous description often cited when trying to explain this concept: put simple, hiraeth is ‘a longing to be where your spirit lives.’