Everything you ever wanted to know about Welsh

So, all those questions you’ve been dying to ask about the Welsh language. Why so tongue-twisting? Why no vowels? And were you really speaking Welsh in the pub before we walked in? Charles Williams has the answers to all these questions, and more…

Why don’t you have any vowels?

Whoah! Straight in with the big one! It’s a myth, actually. We have more vowels than English, thanks for asking. English has a, e, i, o, u. We’ve got a, e, i, o, u, w, y. English also uses ‘y’ as a vowel. Why? (No, that’s an example: ‘why’.) Also the word, ‘myth’, appropriately.

Okay, the double-L thing. What’s that all about?

Llangollen sign, North Wales

Llangollen sign, North Wales

The double-L sound – as in Llan – doesn’t appear in English, but does crop up a lot in Welsh (and in dozens of other languages, including Navajo, Greenlandic and Zulu). Technically, it’s called a ‘voiceless alveolar lateral fricative’. It’s not that hard to pronounce: go to say the letter L, then move your tongue fractionally back and up, and blow. Easy.

Are there really no Welsh swearwords?

Another myth! People think that Welsh relies on religious curse-words (Duw meaning God; Diawl meaning devil, etc). In fact, modern Welsh has a vastly inventive lexicon of sexual swearing, which we’re much too polite to list here.

Is it true that you were speaking English before we walked into the pub?

No. We were actually speaking Xhosa, the Bantu language of Southern Africa. We switched to Welsh when you walked in, just to mess with your head.

Really?

No. We were speaking Welsh, probably. But maybe English, too. Or both, at the same time. It’s common to mix the two up in the same sentence. Half rice, half chips, depending on context – what we’re talking about, who we’re talking to, and how much beer we’ve had.

What’s the Welsh for microwave?

It’s not really popty-ping, if that’s what you’re getting at. [Popty means ‘oven’, so it’s an oven that goes ping. It’s a joke.] The proper name is microdon  - the don bit means ‘wave’.

So basically, you just nick English words…

[Patient sigh] Micro is from the Greek word mikros, meaning small. We got it from the same place as English did – the Greek. Languages evolve. English takes words from everywhere – it’s what makes it such a brilliantly successful language. Modern Welsh does the same. No big deal.

Any Welsh words in English?

Humboldt penguins at Welsh Mountain Zoo, Colwyn Bay

Humboldt penguins at Welsh Mountain Zoo, Colwyn Bay

Lots of British place names and geographical features have Welsh roots, but surprisingly few Welsh words have made it into everyday English vocabulary, actually. They include ‘bard’, ‘corgi’, ‘flannel’ – and maybe ‘penguin’, oddly. The most common is ‘dad’, from the Welsh tad.

Why so few?

Probably because for most of the last 500 years, there were determined efforts to stop people speaking Welsh. It’s a pity, really, because some things sound soooo much better in Welsh – here’s a great list.

So, how many people actually speak Welsh now?

Road signs near Llandovery, Carmarthenshire

Road signs near Llandovery, Carmarthenshire

Depends what you mean. Everyone uses Welsh words, every day, if you include things like place names.  But according to the latest statistics, around 562,000 people speak Welsh - that’s around a fifth of the population. Actual usage varies a good deal by region, and also by age. For instance, around 90% of children in Gwynedd speak Welsh, but less than 23% in Merthyr. And while most pensioners speak Welsh in Caernarfon, hardly any do in Newport. All children learn Welsh in school now, so the stats should rise in future.

So it’s being kept alive artificially, then?

Ha! Well, you could argue that any intervention, whether it’s support or persecution, is ‘artificial’ in some sense. Welsh has been suppressed (the ‘Welsh not’, used to discourage 19th century schoolchildren from speaking Welsh, is an infamous example). But other things, like the huge population shifts of the Industrial Revolution, knocked the language, too. It’s only really in the last 50 years that there’s been active support. And that’s a good thing, surely. 

What’s the point, though? You can all speak English…

True, and good job too. Makes it easier to order a beer in, say, Los Angeles or Amsterdam. It’s great knowing how to speak a global language like English, but that doesn’t mean that you abandon all other languages. That’d be boring. Also, our history and culture is totally entwined with the Welsh language. We’re a bilingual country, always have been, and we like it that way.

Oh, fair enough. Hey, can you say that really long town name, the one that ends ‘…gogogoch’?

Llanfair PG station sign, Anglesey

Llanfair PG station sign, Anglesey

Yes. But only if you buy me a drink.