Aled Rhys Wiliam: Welsh scholar and broadcaster

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The Independent Online

Aled Rhys Wiliam, scholar, broadcaster and poet: born Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire 4 December 1926; married 1954 Meiriona Williams (one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved), 1980 Ann Owen (two stepdaughters); died Rhyl, Denbighshire 1 January 2008.

Aled Rhys Wiliam was the son of Stephen J. Williams, for many years Professor of Welsh at Swansea, an authority on medieval Welsh literature and a descriptive grammarian of the language. Like his brother Urien, who became a dramatist, and his sister Annest, who is a professional translator, Aled was brought up to revere the structure of Welsh and to speak it not only correctly but with due regard to its flexibility and mellifluous qualities.

As a translator and commentator he excelled by virtue of his grasp of the literary language and his ability to express the most complex concepts in clear, cadenced language. If there is a Welsh equivalent of Received Pronunciation the language of the public schools, though with different social connotations in Wales then Aled Rhys Wiliam had it and used it admirably.

He was born in Llandeilo, in rural Carmarthenshire, in 1926 but brought up in Swansea and educated at the Gwendraeth County School. At University College, Swansea, he read Welsh, Latin and French, and also studied at Basel in Switzerland and at Trinity College and University College, Dublin. After two years as a teacher with the Army Educational Corps between 1947 and 1949, Wiliam began research into the Welsh Laws under Professor Idris Foster at St Catherine's, Oxford. He learned German in order to read Celtic scholarship in that language, as well as Russian and Japanese.

His main interest was the "Venedotian Code" of the Laws now known as the Iorwerth texts. They form an important part of the Laws of Hywel Dda whose writ ran throughout most of Wales until the Edwardian Conquest of 1282 and even down to the Act of Union of 1536. They reveal the favourable legislative and social climate created in Gwynedd under the aegis of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the ruler known as Llywelyn Fawr ("the Great"), and offer a wealth of detail about how the Welsh language had developed as the medium for a legal system of great sophistication.

Wiliam's edition of Llyfr Iorwerth (The Book of Iorwerth) was published in 1960, earning him a doctorate and the prestigious Hywel Dda Prize from the University of Wales. He also published The Book of Cynog: a medieval welsh law digest (1990).

Aled Rhys Wiliam began his career in 1954 as an assistant editor with Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru / A Dictionary of the Welsh Language, the first standard dictionaryof Welsh to be based on historical principles, on which work began in 1921 and which is now available in four hefty volumes. Although the Welsh counterpart of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Geiriadur differs in that it serves both as a monolingual Welsh dictionary and as a bilingual Welsh-English dictionary. Housed at the National Library in Aberystwyth, it is an ongoing project which attempts, by means of regular supplements, to keep up with a changing world and its effects on the language. Aled Rhys Wiliam was one of the many scholars associated with its progress over the years.

After moving in 1956 to Cardiff, where he lectured at the Cardiff College of Education in Cyncoed, Wiliam his father gave the original Welsh surname to all his children made a new career as an announcer and presenter with BBC Cymru. Among his duties were reading links for the news and introducing the features programme Heddiw ("Today"), for many years the BBC's flagship production in the Welsh language.

From 1964 to 1994 Wiliam provided an English translation of the ceremonies of the National Eisteddfod in whose arcana he was expert. He was admitted to the White Robe of the Gorsedd of Bards in 1975.

From 1969 to 1982, he was Director of Audiovisual Media at Salford University, but then returned to Wales and settled in Rhyl, on the north Wales coast, where he began writing verse in the traditional metres. Soon mastering cynghanedd, the complex rules of prosody dating from early medieval times in which many Welsh poets still write today, he suddenly came into public view in 1984 as winner of the Chair, one of the premier prizes at the National Eisteddfod.

His winning poem, entitled "Y Pethau Bychein" ("The Small Things"), a reference to St David's injunction to his followers to "do the little things which you have heard from me and which I have shown you", was praised by the adjudicators for its intellectual rigour and classic mastery of the art. His wit and erudition were also put to good use as a member of the team of poets who competed on the popular radio programme Talwrn y Beirdd. It is regrettable that this highly accomplished poet, who began writing late in life, published only one book of verse, namely Cywain ("Garnering", 1995).

Meic Stephens