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Welsh language

Welsh (y Gymraeg), not to be confused with the Welsh dialect[?] of English, is a Brythonic branch of Celtic spoken natively in the part of Britain known as Wales (Cymru), and in the Chubut Valley, a Welsh immigrant colony in the Patagonia region of Argentina.

There are also some speakers of Welsh in England, the United States and Australia, and throughout the world.

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The 2001 census gives a figure of 20.5% of the population of Wales as Welsh speakers (up from 18.5% in 1991), out of a population of about 3 million, however it appears that about a third of the population of Wales has immigrated within the last 30 years.

Even among the Welsh-speakers, few, if any, residents of Wales are monolingual in Welsh.

Although Welsh is a minority language, and thus threatened by the dominance of English, support for the language grew during the second half of the twentieth century, along with the rise of nationalist political organisations such as the political party Plaid Cymru and Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg[?] (the Welsh Language Society).

Welsh as a first language is largely restricted to the less urban north and west of Wales, principally Gwynedd, Merioneth[?], Anglesey (Môn) and Ceredigion.

Welsh is very much a living language. It is used in conversation every day, and seen in Wales everywhere. Local government (including the Welsh Assembly) uses Welsh as its official language, public bodies issue official literature and publicity in Welsh versions (e.g. letters to parents from schools, library information, and council information) and all road signs in Wales are in English and Welsh, including the Welsh versions of place names (some of which are recent inventions based on the English names).

The language has greatly increased its prominence since the creation of the television channel S4C in November 1982, which broadcasts exclusively in Welsh in peak viewing hours. The main evening television news provided by the BBC can be found here http://www.bbc.co.uk/cymru/live/newyddion.ram (Real Media).

Given the British Government's current plans (December 2001) to ensure that all immigrants know English, it remains to be seen if Welsh will be considered a separate case. At present a knowledge of either Welsh, English or Scottish Gaelic is sufficient for naturalisation purposes and it is believed that this policy will be continued in any proposed changes to the law.

History and development

Like most languages, there are identifiable periods within the history of Welsh, although the boundaries between these are often indistinct.

The earliest extant sources of a language identifiable as Welsh go back to about the 6th century, and the language of this period is known as Early Welsh. Very little of this language remains. The next main period, somewhat better attested, is Old Welsh (9th to 11th centuries); this was the language of the laws of Hywel Dda, as well as some poetry from both Wales and Scotland.

Middle Welsh (or Cymraeg Canol) is the label attached to the Welsh of the 12th to 14th centuries, of which much more remains than for any earlier period. This is the language of nearly all surviving early manuscripts of the Mabinogion, although the tales themselves are certainly much older. Middle Welsh is reasonably intelligible, albeit with some work, to a modern-day Welsh speaker.

Modern Welsh can be divided into two periods. The first, Early Modern Welsh ran from the 14th century to roughly the end of the 16th century, and was the language used by Dafydd ap Gwilym. Late Modern Welsh began with the publication of William Morgan's translation of the Bible in 1588. Like its English counterpart, the King James Version, this proved to have a strong stabilising effect on the language, and indeed the language today still bears the same Late Modern label as Morgan's language. Of course, many minor changes have occurred since then.


As well as sharing many of the characteristics of other Indo-European languages (such as a masculine and feminine grammatical gender), Welsh has a number of distinctive grammatical features, shared by other Celtic languages. Here are a few:
  • Initial consonant mutation. The first letter of a word in Welsh may change depending on grammatical context. For example, the word for "stone" is "carreg", but "the stone" is "y garreg" (soft mutation), "my stone" is "fy ngharreg" (nasal mutation) and "her stone" is "ei charreg" (aspirate mutation). The examples show usage in the standard language[?]; usage of the nasal and aspirate mutations varies in spoken Welsh.
  • Inflected (or conjugated) prepositions. Most prepositions in Welsh change their form when followed by a pronoun. For example, "to Eleri" is "i Eleri", but "to him" is "iddo fe" and "to her" is "iddi hi".
  • No indefinite article[?]. So "cath" can mean "cat" or "a cat".
  • Genitive construction. The genitive in Welsh is formed by putting two noun phrases next to each other, the owner coming second. This is almost analogous to a silent English "of". So English "The cat's mother," or "mother of the cat," becomes Welsh "mam y gath" - literally, "mother the cat"; "the man's car's windows" is "ffenestri car y dyn" - literally, "windows car the man".
  • Possessives as object pronouns. The Welsh for "I like Rhodri" is "Dw i'n hoffi Rhodri" ("I am liking Rhodri"), but "I like him" is "dw i'n ei hoffi fe" - literally, "I am his liking him"; "I like you" is "dw i'n dy hoffi di" ("I am your liking you"), etc.
  • Significant use of auxiliary verbs. While English can either use verbs directly (e.g. I go) or with the aid of an auxiliary verb (I am going, here using to be as the auxiliary), Welsh inclines very strongly towards the latter use. In the present tense[?] all verbs are used with the auxiliary bod (to be), so dwi'n mynd is literally I am going, but also means simply I go. In the past[?] and future[?] tenses, there are inflected forms of all verbs, but it is more common in speech to use the verbnoun (berfenw, loosely equal to the infinitive in English) together with the inflected form of gwneud (to do), so I went can be mi es i or mi wnes i fynd and I will go can be mi á i or mi wna i fynd. There is also a future form using the auxiliary bod, giving fydda i'n mynd (perhaps best translated as I will be going) and an imperfect tense[?] (a continuous/habitual past tense) also using bod, with roeddwn i'n mynd meaning I used to go/I was going.

Pronunciation Guide

aAs in father
cAs in cat
chAs in German
ddAs th in that: ddogfen (document) DHOG-ven
fAs in of
ffAs in off
gAs in get, gone
llVoiceless l sound, found also in Navajo, where it is written as crossed l and in some (north-west) caucasian languages where it is spelled l followed by the hard sign (cyrillic alphabet).
mhm followed by aspiration
nhn followed by aspiration
nghng followed by aspiration
rhr followed by aspiration
sish when followed by a vowel (a,e,i,o,u,w,y), e.g. "Sipsiwn" (Gypsies) is pronounced sip-shoon
uSame as i (in southern dialects), or as an unrounded u (northern dialects)
wAs oo in soon. Also forms diphthongs: well, pwy, brown (which rhymes with English grown, not brown).
yAs either vowel in sunny, depending on position in the word

The letters j, k, q, v and z do not exist in Welsh other than in anglicised forms like the name "Jones" and the village "Trevor". See Welsh alphabet.


Like any natural language, Welsh has a number of different dialects.

These are very evident in the spoken, and to a lesser extent the written, language. A convenient, if slightly simplistic, classification is into North Walian and South Walian forms. The differences between dialects encompass vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar, although particularly in the last regard the differences are in fact relatively minor.

An example of the difference between North and South Walian usage would be the question "Do you want a cup of tea?". In the North this would typically be "Dach chi isio panad?", while in the South the question "Dych chi'n moyn dishgled?" would be more likely. An example of a pronunciation difference between Northern and Southern Welsh is the tendency of Southern dialects to "lisp" the letter "s", e.g. mis, a month, would tend to be pronounced mees in the north, and meesh in the south.

In fact the difference between dialects of modern spoken Welsh pale into insignificance compared to the difference between the spoken and literary languages. The latter is significantly more formal and is the language of Welsh translations of the Bible, amongst other things (although the Beibl Cymraeg Newydd -- New Welsh Bible -- is significantly less formal than the traditional 1588 Bible). Although the question "do you want a cup of coffee?" is not likely to occur in literary Welsh usage, if it did it would be along the lines of "a ydych eisiau paned?".

Amongst the characteristics of the literary, as against the spoken, language are a higher dependence on inflected verb forms, a shift in the usage of some of the tenses, a reduction in the explicit use of pronouns (since the information is usually conveyed in the verb/preposition inflections) and a greatly reduced tendency to substitute English loanwords for native Welsh words.

Although they are strictly speaking separate languages, the closely related Breton and Cornish tongues are similar enough to be reasonably intelligible to a Welsh speaker.

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