Reinventing the weal

One of the many fascinating things unearthed by Jonn Elledge in this great article is the etymology of “Wales”. I did not know it came from “wealh” or “wealas”, which meant “foreign” or “foreigners”.

It made me reconsider the etymology of “commonwealth”. I’d assumed it came from “commonweal”, which I in turn assumed meant “welfare of all”, but perhaps the association with wealth/welfare is a happy coincidence, and what it actually denotes is an international community of foreigners. When the British Commonwealth was established in the 1940s, foreigners included Indians, Nigerians etc.; but back when “commonweal” was first being bandied around, in a national rather than international context, anyone from up north or western England would’ve been foreign.

You might think this notion of weal (and therefore commonweal) far-fetched, but the connotations of the word make sense in this context: as early as the 7th Century, “wealh” and its variants meant not just foreigners, but inferior foreigners. Some Old English translations of the Old Testament go so far as to translate “servus”, i.e. slave, as “walha”. This chimes with the Anglo-Saxons’ ruthless, violent expulsion of the “wealas” to lands further west. (Even back then, as with elsewhere more recently, natives were treated as somehow foreign, quickly othered, then expunged. Plus ça change!) It would also be echoed in the imperial legacy structure of the British Commonwealth, though as far as the federation’s architects are concerned, this is a coincidence – the Commonwealth was established in 1949, long after “weal” had shed its overt link to foreignness.

anglo-saxon-and-jute-invasion-map

Nonetheless, perhaps the underlying idea – that weal and commonweal have as much to do with foreignness as wealth, etymologically – isn’t a coincidence at all. A successful ruler, which for many centuries meant a successfully expansionist state-builder, would have brought both weal (wealth) and weal (foreigners – foreign labour, foreign resources) under his wing. Perhaps the words didn’t evolve convergently; perhaps they were semantically inextricable in the first place. Dictionary.com actually lists “the body politic; the state” as a(n obsolete) definition of “weal”.

Or am I reading far too much into this? Is “wealh” as the Old English for “foreigner” definitely distinct from “weal” as the Old English for “wealth/well-being”? Are we even able to disambiguate them, especially given the oral nature of communication back in the day (they had no standardised spelling)?

I am seduced by the semantic confluence of wealth, state-building and exploitation of the other, but I wouldn’t blame you for taking Occam’s side and believing the two weals did evolve convergently. Whatever you believe, here’s a funny fact we can all agree on: German Swiss people still use “welsch” pejoratively to refer to Italian- and French-speaking Swiss people.

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