The tradition for UK universities to have a motto goes back to the sixteenth century at least, when Oxford started using Dominus illuminatio mea, the Latin opening words of Psalm 27 (‘the Lord is my light’) as official motto. Cambridge followed suit and created the Latin phrase Hinc lucem et pocula clara (‘from here, light and sacred draughts’). In the eighteenth century, St Andrews looked towards Homer’s Iliad 6.208 for inspiration for its ancient Greek motto Aein aristeuein, ‘ever to excel’. Glasgow adopted as its motto a line from the Latin Gospel of John, Via veritas vita (‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’), while Aberdeen applied Initium sapientiae timor domini (‘the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord’), found in Psalm 111.
Pedagogy and politics
A quick glance at the five oldest universities in the UK reveals that mottos, rather than being just about pedagogy, were designed to present a clear message to the outside world regarding the values of individual institutions, particularly relating to religion and politics. Oxford, Glasgow, and Aberdeen explicitly connected learning with Christian belief, while St Andrews applied a Classical agonistic attitude to learning. Access to and control of the study of Classics and the Church of England were, however, largely monopolised by the upper class; these mottos therefore also reveal a political agenda. Cambridge, indeed, rebelled by inventing its motto, yet by retaining the use of Latin simultaneously acknowledged its place in the conventional tradition.
Whatever the origins of the mottos, what is clear is that Latin was considered the lingua franca – St Andrew’s choice to use Greek was the exception rather than the norm, yet also looked back at Classical antiquity. Indeed, both in the UK as abroad, Latin is still the predominant language used for university mottos. No explanation is given for this, but it clearly reflects the status of Latin as the language of learning in the Middle Ages when universities were first being founded, and the tradition has since flourished. In general, the Bible and Classical Latin literature are the most widespread sources; invented mottos with a focus on learning are also common.
Latin… or Welsh?
When University College Swansea was founded in 1920, the Welsh motto Gweddw crefft heb ei dawn, traditionally translated as ‘technical skill is bereft without culture’, was adopted. An article in the South Wales Daily Post of the 15th June 1921 by John Rees (secretary of the Education Board of South Wales Manufacturers), currently housed in the Richard Burton Archives, however, states that ‘it has been suggested, and it must be admitted with considerable force, that if Wales is to take her place in the comity of intellectual nations and their universities, the motto should be expressed in Latin, the common language of understanding of all scholars throughout the world’.
While Latin mottos may have been the norm in England, however, this comment ignored the fact that Swansea was following the norm set by other Welsh universities. Indeed, when the first Welsh university, St David’s College in Lampeter, was founded in 1822, Welsh was chosen as language of its motto: Gair Duw goreu dysg (‘the word of god is the best teacher’). Aberystwyth followed with Nid byd, byd heb wybodaeth (‘a world without wisdom is no world at all’) in 1872, Cardiff with Gwirionedd undod a chytgord (‘truth, unity, and harmony’) in 1883, and Bangor with Gorau dawn deall (‘the best gift is knowledge’) in 1884.
John Rees, in his article about the Swansea motto, goes on to argue that ‘the University College is a Welsh one, and if its motto in Welsh better inspires the highest Welsh spirit, surely let it be so’. This Welsh spirit is indeed clearly emphasized through the consistent use of Welsh rather than Latin by all Welsh higher education institutions. Swansea would have stood out if it had elected a Latin motto, and might have compromised its position among the Welsh universities. The Swansea motto indeed derives from the Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales, a collection of Medieval Welsh literature published in 1801-1807, placing Swansea firmly in the ‘native’ Welsh literary tradition, deliberately rejecting the Classical tradition of Greece and Rome. (Interestingly, the motto of the Vivians who owned Singleton Abbey before it was sold to the University was Latin – vive revicturus, ‘live so you may live again’ – and you can still see salve (‘hello!) when you enter the Abbey building, see my blog post on the subject. Wales was indeed constantly re-defining itself through engagement with ancient Greek and Roman cultural heritage, whether rejecting or emulating it.)
While, on the surface, the Welsh mottos referred to learning and religion similarly to those of other UK institutions, their varying emphasis reveals different values: while St David’s College Lampeter focused on the connection between religion and learning similar to Oxford, the focus of the other universities was on the necessity of learning for personal and global development. There are no biblical or Classical references, which represents a rather strong departure from the conservative norm established by English and indeed Scottish universities. Swansea’s motto thus served as a political and national identifier, acknowledging its place among the other Welsh universities in their native Welsh heritage, and indeed consolidating the unity of Welsh institutions as opposed to the rest of Great Britain.
United universities of Wales
This is similar to other minority groups within larger countries. In Spain, for example, all university mottos are in Latin apart from that of the Universidad del País Vasco, which is in Basque. In South Africa, Latin also still dominates mottos: the only one in Afrikaans belongs to the North-West University. In New Zealand, the only motto which is Maori instead of Latin is the motto of Waikato, which translates as ‘for the people’. It is thus clear that university mottos are marketing messages, delivering a political and often religious or moral code identifying a university in relation to the established tradition. The language of the motto is part and parcel of this message: the use of Latin or, increasingly, English as global lingua franca establishes a university within a traditional, sometimes Christian/Classical, and often conservative framework. The use of a minority language sets a university apart as ‘for the people’. As the examples above demonstrate, however, Wales is the only nation where this approach was – and is – taken in such a unified manner.
Swansea, however, did stand out from the other universities through its motto, not through the language, but through its message. The Swansea University website translates Gweddw crefft heb ei dawn as ‘technical skill/craft is bereft without culture’. The English translation of this motto was immediately contested, not only by the abovementioned John Rees, but also by a then student of the university, Llynfi Davies, who, in an article in the South Wales Daily Post of the 14th June 1921, argued that the translation ought to be ‘destitute is craft without her natural gift’.
In the official university translation, indeed, ‘culture’ seems an unlikely translation for dawn, which is traditionally translated as ‘gift’ (as in Bangor’s motto) or ‘talent’. According to Rees, dawn is ‘not translatable in words into any language, its own included, but it is into music, painting, the arts generally, and into the inspiration of all work, metallurgical, economic, or any other; and it is thus inspiration that tells on the highest levels’.
Swansea’s motto might thus be interpreted as ‘bereft is skill without inspiration’ (gweddw meaning ‘bereft’, which maintains the Welsh word order). Unlike the other Welsh universities, learning was not made a matter controlled by god (Lampeter), the world (Aberystwyth), or the university as charitably dispensing learning (Bangor), nor based on concepts of camaraderie (Cardiff). Swansea’s motto thus places responsibility for learning firmly in the learner’s hands and argues – whether that was the original intention or not – that intellectual capacity must be complemented by inspiration in order to be successful in learning. In this way, it is both firmly placed in the Welsh ideological tradition, yet unique in its focus on the learner’s muse.
Dr Evelien Bracke – Senior Lecturer in Classics