Dinogad’s Smock: a 6th-century Cumbrian lullaby

About 1400 years ago, a Cumbrian mother sang a song to her new baby, a boy called Dinogad.

Page from the Book of Aneirin

Page from the Book of Aneirin

Dinogad’s smock is pied, pied –

Made it out of marten hide…1

So our baby boy is wrapped in pine marten furs; perhaps he was born on a cold, wintry day like today. The poem goes on to describe how Dinogad’s daddy went out with his dogs, Giff and Gaff, to catch fish, deer, boar and grouse, presumably to provide a very rich dinner for a very large household.

The poem, known as Dinogad’s Smock, could easily have been lost to history. It’s found scribbled in the middle of a rather serious and dramatic work known as Y Gododdin, which is a series of elegies mourning a whole generation of eastern Scottish* warriors lost in a battle some time between c.570 and 600CE. Scholars can tell by the way it’s written that it’s not meant to be part of the Gododdin story. It seems that Dinogad’s Smock was a popular rhyme probably scrawled in the margin of a very old manuscript of Y Gododdin, and it found its way into the body text by accident when the whole thing was copied years later.

There’s a lot of debate about the exact date of Y Gododdin, and hence Dinogad’s Smock, but the general opinion is that Y Gododdin was composed by the bard, Aneirin, at about the time of the disastrous battle in c. 570-600CE. They were probably originally sung rather than read, because few people could read, and the music helped people commit it to memory. As literacy spread in the following centuries, these old songs were written down and the popular ones were updated each time someone made a copy. But some old-fashioned phrases and words were kept as they were part of the character of the piece – think about the Temptations’ My Girl and The Drifters’ Sweets for my Sweet. Now, if any modern girl was called any of those things they’d laugh their way into next week, but they date the composition of these songs firmly to the 1960s. In a similar way, scholars have decided that Dinogad’s Smock probably really is 1400 years old2.

Castle Crag, Cumbria copyright Stephen Horncastle

Castle Crag, Cumbria copyright Stephen Horncastle

Locating Dinogad’s Smock to Cumbria took a long time. The earliest Book Of Aneirin is kept in Cardiff Library, which is hardly surprising given that it’s written in Old/Middle Welsh. But, of course, Welsh wasn’t a language restricted to one corner of Britain 1400 years ago: we all spoke our own variant of it. The link to Cumbria is the mention of the Rhaeadr Derwennydd, or Derwent waterfall. There are about ten river names in Britain derived from the same root (it just means water flowing through an oak wood) – including four that are actually called ‘Derwent’ – in Cumbria, Derbyshire, Northumberland and Yorkshire. The give-away in the end was a survey completed by a resourceful academic3 who established by the simple expedient of writing to all the country’s water authorities that the only Derwent that has a waterfall is the Cumbrian one.

The Derwent’s waterfall is now famous to tourists worldwide as the Lodore Falls, which still crash picturesquely through woodland just south of the lake of Derwentwater, at the head of Borrowdale. Up the slope from the Lodore Falls is a wooded area known as Hogs’ Earth – is this the place that Dinogad’s daddy went hunting for boar? – and above that, a hill called Castle Crag.

This part of the central Lake District is thinly populated now with barely a tea room or country pub to interrupt the view, but it has always been inhabited. The Lodore Falls are at the foot of Ashness Fell, which is next door to Castlerigg fell, site of a very famous and very beautiful neolithic stone circle. Castle Crag’s name isn’t just a romantic fancy, either – there is archaeological evidence of settlement from the iron age and post Roman period. That’s Dinogad’s time, and it’s not entirely bonkers to suggest that this is where Dinogad, his singing mother and his hunting father, looked after a significant part of the centre of Rheged.

The final irony of Dinogad’s lullaby ending up in Y Gododdin is that recent opinion4 suggests that the Scottish* Gododdin people were fighting not the north-eastern Angles, as was thought for years, but an alliance of their fellow ‘Welsh’-speaking Britons led by Urien of Rheged. That would mean that Dinogad’s daddy was, in fact, one of the warriors on the winning side of the slaughter of the Gododdin in that dreadful 6th century battle.

©Diane McIlmoyle 03.01.12

Special note: My thanks to Tim Clarkson, author of The Men of the North, a book on this period and area, for drawing my attention to Dinogad’s Smock. Tim is kind enough to take an interest in this blog and thought my Cumbrian readers would like to hear about baby Dinogad; he provided many of the sources for background and analysis. Tim remains undecided as to whether Rheged really is Cumbria, but supports the identification of the Derwent waterfall with the Lodore in Cumbria. He points out that, given the ongoing uncertainty about the identification of Rheged as Cumbria (and hence of Taliesin’s work with Cumbria), Dinogad’s Smock is the earliest certain Cumbrian poem. That’s quite grand for that 6th century baby, isn’t it?

Further note: Professor Andrew Breeze, who recently lectured on The Names of Rheged for the Dumfries & Galloway Natural History & Antiquarian Society, is a key proponent of the Lodore Falls theory. I am thankful to Tim and his band of commenters – including the professor – for drawing this to my attention.

*Further note: Jonathan (below) points out, rightly, that my use of the word, ‘Scottish’ is anachronistic. The Gododdin people spoke a variety of Welsh, as we did here, too, and we would have had rather more in common than perhaps my use of the word, ‘Scottish’ implied. It simply refers to modern geography. There was no Scotland at this time.

Notes

  1. See p117 of A. Conran’s Welsh Verse (1986). As copyright applies to translation, I’m struggling to find a version that I can produce in full for you. Tony Conran’s is the most obviously poetic, but a more scholarly translation can be found in AOH Jarman’s Aneirin: Y Gododdin (Llandysul: Gomer Press), pp68-9.
  2. See discussions in John Koch, The Gododdin on Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark Age North Britain (1997). Kenneth Jackson, Language and history in early Britain (1953), AOH Jarman, Aneirin: Y Gododdin (1988).
  3. R. Geraint Gruffydd (1990), ‘Where was Rhaeadr Derwennydd (Canu Aneirin, Line 1114)?‘, pp 261-6 in ATE Matonis and Daniel F Melia (eds), Celtic Language, Celtic Culture: a Festschrift for Eric P Hamp (Van Nuys, Californita: Ford & Bailie).
  4. John Koch, The Gododdin on Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark Age North Britain (1997).
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30 thoughts on “Dinogad’s Smock: a 6th-century Cumbrian lullaby

    • Hi Alan – I agree. It’s a little gem, especially with it being so informal. I have read Tony Conran’s translation online, but it is still in copyright and therefore I shouldn’t be able to! We should all learn old Welsh immediately… I should think the original’s out of copyright after 1400 years… 😉

  1. Great post about a great poem; and there’s just something incredibly special about the fact that we can locate its setting so precisely. I’m intrigued by your mention of the Castle Crags hillfort – do you know anything more about the post-Roman link? I ask as I’ve been trying to find out about it recently, but haven’t been able to turn anything up. It would be wonderful, though, to think that it might have been inhabited by Dinogad’s contemporaries!

    • Hello Beth – I haven’t got a lot of info on Castle Crag yet – it’s on my list, too. I think I shall go look on the LDNPA’s archaeology link, and if all else fails, just ask them. I’ve spoken to them in the past and they are quite happy to spread information.

      It seemed weird and wonderful to me, too – no one, to my knowledge, has drawn the link to Castle Crag before – but when I got the map out, there it is, clear as anything. It’s so close, surely it can’t be accidental? There couldn’t have been something else of stature thereabouts. It’s too near to the Lodore.

      Good to see you here and I’d love to hear if you beat me to the info on Castle Crag! 🙂

      • How cool to spot something like that! 😀 If I find anything about its post-Roman connection, I’ll certainly let you know.
        Incidentally, there’s a ‘loose translation’ of Pais Dinogad here:

        http://www.cs.ox.ac.uk/people/geraint.jones/rhydychen.org/about.welsh/pais-dinogad.html

        Out of interest, although Mr Jones here translates ‘llwyuein’ as ‘foxes’ I’ve seen John Koch translate it as the name of a district, as in Argoed Llwyfein, the site of one of Rheged’s battles. I don’t know enough about Old Welsh to comment, but perhaps it’s food for thought as far as the Cumbria/Rheged connection goes.

        • Hello again! Yes, that is interesting – and you have no idea how many times I wished I spoke Welsh, of any variety! I wonder if Tim knows anything about the Argoed Llwyfein connection?

          Are you writing a book on this subject, Beth? Or indeed, have you written? 🙂

          • Hi again! I don’t recall seeing anything about Argoed Llwyfein in ‘Men of the North’, but I’m not sure; I’ll have to go and look. 🙂 I suppose I should qualify my suggestion, by saying that I’m not *necessarily* trying to connect the Llwyfein of Argoed Llwyfein with the possible one in Pais Dinogad, as ‘llwyfein’ is a descpriptive term connected with elm trees that could apply to numerous districts – but, if it *was* a district name in Pais Dinogad, as opposed to meaning ‘foxes’, then it would be at the least be an interesting potential link, because of the elm-centred names (Llwyfein, Llwyfenydd) associated with Rheged.
            I’ve not written any books, but I am doing research for a novel or two set in the post-Roman North, which I’ve had an interest in for a few years now – although my interest in Welsh is older. I wish I spoke it, too, but all I have is smatterings of modern Welsh. Enough to ask for some cheese and onion crisps, but alas, not enough to translate old poems!

          • Lol! About the cheese and onion crisps, that is 😉

            Excellent about the novel(s). You might have seen in the comments that Trifolium Books, who are based up here in Wigton, are to re-print Kathleen Herbert’s trilogy on the same era/place. Looks like early medieval Cumbria is in for some heavy and long overdue promotion in the near future!

            *hops up and down excitedly*

  2. Thanks for this fascinating post Diane, which explains where Kathleen got the name for Owain’s love child in Bride of the Spear. His mother Heulwen sings a version of the song to him. My guess is that this is Kathleen’s own translation, as I know she read the Gododdin in the original.

    ‘My Dinogat’s got a speckled smock,
    Marten’s fur to trim his frock,
    Whist, whist, whistle along
    While your mother sings the song:
    Bye, bye, baby bunting
    Daddy’s gone away a-hunting,
    All to fetch a marten’s skin
    To wrap my baby Dinogat in.’

    • Connie, that’s a really lovely translation – I think I prefer it to Tony Conran’s! Thank you so much for that.

      For passers by, Connie’s company, Trifolium Books, is to re-publish Kathleen Herbert’s Cumbrian trilogy. Good work 🙂

  3. You say: ‘But, of course, Welsh wasn’t a language restricted to one corner of Britain 1400 years ago: we all spoke our own variant of it.’ I’m on a bit of a crusade to avoid anachronistic or misleading terms such as ‘Welsh’ when refering to the languages spoken in 7th cent Britain. Maybe we can agree to call the language in instances such as these as ‘British’ or ‘Brytthonic’ and the geographical area as ‘modern day Wales’ to avoid falling into unconsciously contemporary categories?

    • Thanks for coming over, Elizabeth! I would agree with you if this was a blog mainly read by academics or keen amateurs, but it’s not – I know from experience that if I say, ‘Brythonic’ (I wouldn’t use British) in reference to language, people think I mean the English language and am being painfully politically correct, or obtuse. I purposely want people to realise that the Welsh language is the last remaining widely-spoken version of the language we all spoke, and my readers remain astonished that this is the case; I use the phrase, ‘own version of it’ so they don’t think it would be simple for early medieval Cumbrians to converse fluently with modern-day Welsh speakers. If they get interested in the topic – and I hope they do – they will soon realise that historians prefer ‘Brythonic’ (which is the word for the ancestor version of Welsh, for those reading), in its various spellings.

  4. Wonderful review as you’ve already accustomed us to…
    I have just shared it on Celtic Sprite.
    I love the work of Aneirin who was a contemporary of Taliesin and Myrddin, and certainly this custom to script down on the margin of manuscripts was usual, let’s just recall the famous “Pangur Ban” poem written down on a page of the Book of Kells!… During the ‘Heroic Age’, much of the treasure of Welsh poetry was written in Cumbria and Strathclyde for sure…and curiously “Pais Dinogad (Dinogad’s Smock)” is the title of an interesting CD album by the welsh band “FFynnon”
    Keep up the good work kind Esmeralda ☼

    • Glad you liked it! I have noticed that several Welsh folk bands have put Dinogad’s Smock to music. Quite rightly, they wish to keep this ancient piece written in Old Welsh alive. Hopefully they won’t mind if the experts have decided that it actually came from this piece of England, rather than modern Wales! 🙂

  5. Interesting comment from Beth on ‘llwyuein’ and its possible connection with Taliesin’s poem on the battle of Argoed Llwyfein. As Beth points out, John Koch in his analysis of ‘Dinogad’s Smock’ interprets llwyuein as a place-name. The original manuscript definitely has ‘llwyuein’ (‘elm’) rather than ‘llwynain’ (‘fox’). Koch thinks it is probably the same as the place mentioned by Taliesin and suggests that ‘Urien’s kingdom lay nearby or, more probably, contained the Lake District’ (p.234 of the book cited by Diane).

    This idea has recently been endorsed by Andrew Breeze, a leading authority on Brittonic place names, in a lecture on the location of Rheged. Breeze believes that the Lake District was not only part of Rheged but its core or heartland. When the lecture is published (probably this year) it is likely to be seen as providing significant support for the conventional identification of Rheged as Cumbria.

    Beth is right about not finding much about Argoed Llwyfein in my book. The place gets one throwaway mention (on p.74) but my main reason for ignoring it is neatly summed up by Beth herself when she writes: ‘llwyfein is a descriptive term connected with elm trees that could apply to numerous districts’. For me, ‘llwyfein’ is simply too general to be tagged onto one of the many ‘Lyne’, ‘Lyme’ or ‘Leven’ place names on modern maps, unless we have other geographical evidence pointing to a specific area. I apply the same scepticism to Taliesin’s ‘Llwyfenydd’ which has a similar meaning. In fact, the only ‘llwyfein’ I think we can pin down with confidence is the one mentioned in Dinogad’s Smock, presumably an ancient elmwood near the southern end of Derwentwater. The vegetation history of the area might even pinpoint a precise location.

    Btw, Beth, your research on the post-Roman North sounds very interesting.

    • Hello Tim – how many, many times it turns out that old place names are so descriptive that they could be just about anywhere in the country.

      There are half a dozen woods in modern-day Borrowdale, all of which are Sites of Special Scientific Interest. My understanding is that they are ‘only’ regarded as semi-natural, so perhaps we can conclude that there may not be much botanical ‘archaeology’ there. Certainly, people usually mention only oaks, ferns, and mosses in connection to them, not elms.

      Thanks for coming over and I’m looking forward to reading your new blog!

    • Ah, I couldn’t remember what Koch said about the possible ‘llwyfein’ link (it’s been a while since I read the book) so thanks for the quote, Tim. Professor Breeze’s lecture sounds interesting (I’ve been wondering what the conclusions would be since you mentioned it on your blog!); I’ll definitely be reading that when it’s published. I came to my interest in all this through language and literature, so I tend to have a soft spot for etymology and the like, but it does mean I need to do a lot of reading up on the archaeological etc side of things. Your book and blog, Tim, have been really helpful where that’s concerned, and Diane’s blog has alerted me to all sorts of interesting snippets; so thanks to both of you for that. 🙂
      Diane, as regards Borrowdale, I did come across a mention of wych elms in the area (in particular at Seathwaite)…so maybe that’s a start… 😀

      • Hi Beth – yes, I’ll be looking for that from Professor Breeze, too! Thank goodness Tim drew it to our attention 🙂

        I guess with woods, they’ve had a long time to change…

    • It would be wonderful if it was the first woman’s poem in England (the Lodore Falls are actually in the Lake District, in Cumbria, in England), but I wonder how we’d ever prove it? Surely a definite possibility, though 🙂

      Thanks for coming over.

  6. I think this is the possible site related to Castle Crag. It’s not the clearest description, but there are two OS references very close together on the same hilltop. Two comments that it is of the iron age hill fort type, but may be post Roman.

    http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=9786&sort=2&rational=m&recordsperpage=10&maplat=54.55770000&maplong=-3.10450000&mapisa=2000&mapist=ll&mapilo=-3.1045&mapila=54.5577&mapiloe=w&mapilan=n&mapios=NY285186&mapigrn=518626&mapigre=328580&mapipc=

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  8. Good piece, but really must stress a huge misunderstanding and politely suggest one amendment as old good publications do. This has no links with any type of ‘Scot’ or ‘pre-scottish’ culture, these are widely recognised as the ‘Old Welsh Kingdoms’ of the North [‘yr hen ogledd’] and the Warriors and poets were ancient Welsh speaking [Celtic-P] and Aneurin & Taliesin the earliest recorded Welsh poets.
    For clarity and simplicity you could arguably say: –

    Brython’s – Welsh [Celtic P, early Welsh language]
    Scotti/ Gaels – Scottish [Early Goidelic, Irish Scottish]
    Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Franks, Frisians – English

    It’s a crude tool, but makes it clear if you want to give them recognisable names. These poems and many like them were written firmly in the Welsh tradition and language – as a result We are still taught them as part of an ongoing tradition in Welsh language school. They are quite understandable with modern Welsh, we would compare the original with modern Welsh and identify the developments sometimes just a single letter ‘mad’ to ‘cad’ the Welsh for ‘Battle’ [Little more than Shakespearean English is to modern English, different but clearly of the same culture]

    As you say we really must try to ignore where modern borders lay and remember neither English nor Scottish Kingdoms existed in mainland Briton much before this time. From Cornwall to Ystrad Clyd [Strath-clyd – the distrcit of Clyd] were Brythonic-Welsh in language, names, allegiances and literary tradition. This and a clutch of similar works regarded the fall of these kingdoms falling [the likely inspiration for Camelot] to the incoming Irish tribes such as the Scotti in the North and soon to be Anglo-Saxons in the East. It was tumultuous time, but if we need to give recognisable labels then please don’t use Scottish, it makes a mockery of their history and culture. Early Welsh or Brythonic-Welsh poets in what is now modern day Scotland and England? Had these been early Scottish poems they would have been written in Goidelic and vaguely understood by native Scot’s and Irish speakers, but they aren’t.

    It’s a little like discussing someone as an eleventh century New-Yorker, the incoming culture had very little to do with the prior occupants and brushes past the indigenous culture as though it were the same thing.

    Who the Romans called ‘Britons’ were exactly the same people as the Anglo Saxons called ‘Welesche’ [Welsh] germanic for ‘foreigner’ on their arrival, so by definition were the same people are the same. The most important fact however is how these people referred to themselves earlier ‘cymbhrogi’ or ‘Cymru’ which gives you modern ‘Cumbria’, it’s meaning is compatriot or brother. In true Welsh tradition they were almost happier fighting each other than fighting invaders, but importantly identified themselves as ‘Cymru’ no matter how disperate and isolated the kingdoms became [See Corn-walles, Britony & [Y]stradClyde.

    For earliest confirmed writing in the same Welsh tradition by a woman see ‘Canu Heledd’ laments the defeat of the 7th century king Cynddylan and the fall of Powys, although this would predate it if as is likely it could be confirmed as obviously from a mother’s perspective.

    All meant in good faith & great to see this piece all the same.
    Jonathan

    • Thank you, Jonathan – I can see that red rags and bulls were present! As I wrote this a year ago I was wondering what on earth I’d got so wrong… you mean me using ‘Scottish’ to describe the Gododdin warriors? You are quite right, of course – I used it in a completely anachronistic context – it refers to a modern geography alone. I did know it wasn’t written in Q and said, ‘Old/Middle Welsh’ but perhaps failed to point out clearly how the peoples linked together.

      I better hadn’t amend the post or people won’t know what you were talking about! I’ve asterisked the offending words and referred to your amendment. Thanks for taking the time.

  9. Much appreciated Esmerelda, it’s hard when you hold such pride in your cultures earliest endeavours and see them attributed to other peoples, as so often happens with the Brythonic-Welsh culture I suppose it would be like seeing an article that refers to the venerable Bede as Irish, it would raise a few heckles. For what it’s worth, your blog seems very interesting and now have a new follower in Glamorgan!
    Thanks.

    • Fwiw, Jonathan, we are on the same side although I’m not talking (generally) to an audience that knows much about Cumbria’s early history. The correct terms frequently mean nothing at best, and are confusing at worse, to a general reader and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve tripped myself up trying to walk that particular tightrope.

      Cumbrians generally know that we had vikings and romans but there’s little idea of who was here in between and before, so a large chunk of this blog is about that. I try to be clear but it remains a source of astonishment to many people that Welsh/Brythonic was our ‘original’ (eek! Early, at any rate) language. The term, ‘celtic’ has added to that particular confusion (eg. people know the shepherd counting system – yan, tan tethera – has a ‘celtic’ link but no more). To further complicate, people often assume that we must have a lot in common with (q-gaelic) Scotland, being a border (! which one…) territory and all that, and Ireland, because it’s just over the pond, whereas I find it’s unusual to find old references that go back to Q culture, and then they’re often surprisingly late additions. I’m fighting for our status as ‘men of the north’… 🙂

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  11. As a Welsh and Welsh speaking reader from Anglesey i have been heartened by the interest taken in this subject by non Welsh -as it were- readers here. I’ve just been reading the Gododdin in the original and in Kenneth Jackson’s translation which includes the famous interpolation of Dinogad’s smock. It was Jackson , a Celtic scholar at Edinburgh who chose to call his translation ‘the earliest Scottish Poem’. Jackson was an Englishman, by the way. I would like to use this opportunity to suggest that more of your readers take the bull by the horns and learn some Welsh and thereby give our and your culture once upon a time a boost.. As a modern Welsh speaker it’s truly fascinating how much of the lullaby is understandable to a modern speaker without much technical guidance after 1400 years. As someone interested in place names particularly those surviving Welsh names beyond the borders of modern Wales I’d like to look into the associations with Derwent water and the famous battle of Argoed LLwyfain.. As for the suggestion that the Gododdin battle was internicine warfare between fellow Welsh speaking kingdoms, that is inconsistent with the Gododdin poem which refers to the English by name and by the ancient kigdoms of Bernicia and Deira as the enemy.Although it is quite right to point out that inter-tribal strife was a common practice at this period.

    • Thanks for coming over, Dafydd! I’m sure it is great to read Dinogad’s Smock in the original. I’m fascinated by the assurances that Welsh/Brythonic readers offer that it sounds like a lullaby, with a distinctive, swinging, sing-song rhythm that we still find right for children’s poems/songs.

      To be honest, I still shock people daily (well, almost) with the assertion that an ancestor of Welsh was once the language of the whole of this island and Cumbria was one of the later places to lose it. It’s funny how that knowledge seems to have been lost from general knowledge, despite the fact that every B&B can tell a guest that the yan, tan, tethera business is ‘celtic’ *stuffs fist in mouth*.

      I’ve been using Prof. Diana Whaley’s book on Lake District place names of late – it’s quite recently published and lists all the proper historical references for names. As a result, quite a few ideas touted about by the hopeful have been knocked down. Now I need to knock some up, so to speak, to balance things out… Dunmallard, for example. Anyone going to posit a gaelic interpretation of that?

  12. I see that I have come back to this post and realise that there is another point I need to emphasise related to the concept of Britishness which has occupied many people’s interest in recent years. It is remarkable that no English person would ever have called himself British and didn’t do so until after the middle of the eighteenth century !. There was a simple explanation for this because in English up to this period the word British was synonymous with Welsh, In other words the Welsh language was as often called the British language in English up to this period as often as the Welsh were referred to as the Britons .. It would have been inconsistent for the English to refer to themselves as British therefore and certainly nonsensical to call the English British. I can only conclude that matters changed as a result of the dealings between Scotland and England in the 18C.
    The frequent use in the Dinogad lullaby of the phrase ” dy dad di” or ‘your father – thy father’ is surely the origin of the English word ‘daddy’ which etymologists are often reluctant to accept.
    I remember meeting an elderly relative who surprised me by calling my grandfather by the expression “D’ewyrth Edwart” or ‘your uncle Edward’. I realised that this was the way her parents identified the person’s uncle, my grandfather to her..

    Dafydd G. W. Gates

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