"Welsh is of this soil, of this island, the senior language of the men of Britain; and Welsh is beautiful" - J.R.R. Tolkien
I’ve lived in Wales all my life and I’ve loved Wales all my life. But for many, many reasons I’ve never been able to speak Welsh. When I gave up paid work in December 2013 I knew I needed something to fill a gap in my head. It’s unsettling in the extreme to spend three years training for a specific job (in my case diagnostic radiography), many more years extending knowledge and skills, and then suddenly to have everything switched off in one day. All that ‘stuff’ is still inside your brain and you have to quietly but firmly ignore it – and begin to put something else in its place if you want to stay sensible. I took eighteen months to think about it; but once the initial thrill of not having to get out of bed before sunrise had worn off and we’d pulled the new house into some sort of shape, I’d decided: I would finally learn to speak the language of my country.
To any of my followers not from the UK – it may be that you didn’t realise that there was such a thing as Welsh. But there is, and it’s the oldest language in Europe which is still used on a daily basis. One in five of the population of Wales speak it at some level, many of them as a first language (mostly in North and West Wales). All government documents/proclamations/statements and road signs have to be issued in both languages, which I admit can be annoying and expensive. But it’s sad that some people (non-Welsh speakers both sides of Offa’s Dyke) are absolutely hostile, claiming that it’s a dead language and a waste of time. How can it be dead when so many of us speak it or are learning it? Nine hundred and fifty years after the Normans climbed out of their boats at Pevensey, over seven hundred years since the English conquest of Wales and almost five hundred years since Henry VIII proclaimed that England and Wales were one country, Welsh is still here. And surely that’s a good thing? All part of the rich tapestry of life?
So last September I started going to a Welsh class in Brecon, about half an hour’s drive away along the A40 – an old route that connected London with Fishguard in Pembrokeshire, following the tracks and pathways made by ancient Britons, Roman troops, and centuries of Welsh drovers. The road takes me along the Usk Valley and past Pen y Fan, the highest peak in South Wales. The three hour class is in an old Victorian building and has quickly become one of the highlights of my week. There are seven of us learning, all women of various ages, and our teacher is also a woman. So we talk – a lot!
This week we approached something that I’ve been putting off for a while: numbers. This may sound strange because in all the other languages I’ve dabbled with, learning to count has been one of the earliest tasks. It’s not too difficult, easily practiced in everyday situations, and usually very rewarding. Hah! Let me introduce you to the Welsh system of numerals, convoluted enough to have its own Wikipedia page.
For a start there are two different sets, not one: modern and traditional. From 1 to 10 both are the same, which is reassuring: un, dau/dwy, tri/tair, pedwar/pedair, pump, chwech, saith, wyth, naw, deg. The fact that 2, 3 and 4 have masculine and feminine forms, depending on the gender of the following word, and 5 and 6 also have shortened forms sometimes, is a mere hint of what’s to come once you venture past 10.
The modern system is reasonably straightforward. It takes the same route as many other European tongues, combining a digit with a suffix: so in English (once eleven and twelve are out of the way, as with the German elf, zwolf) we get thirteen, fourteen, fifteen etc and in Welsh modern we have un deg un, un deg dau/dwy, un deg tri/tair etc. After that it’s easy: 20 is dau ddeg (ignore the ‘dd’ for a moment, I’ll save that fun for a bit later); 30 is tri deg, 40 is pedwar deg and so on up to 100, which is cant (and I almost forgot, 50 is hanner cant, which is half a hundred).
So now just for the fun of it, let’s move on to the traditional forms from 11 on. This is how it looks:
100 is again cant. Before we reach that however, we have the delightful 99: pedwar ar bymtheg ar bedwar ugain. If you can decipher this you get (of course) ‘four on fifteen on four twenty. Good God. Mind you, the ancient Babylonians used a system that was based on the number 60 – the mind boggles!
Call me perverse but I think I prefer the traditional numbers – they sound more satisfying somehow and at least now I’m starting to see my way through the muddle…
The other thing you might have noticed (if you care at all, but if you are still here then I suppose you do?) is that the first letter of the word sometimes changes. For example we have deg and ddeg, pymtheg and bymtheg, ugain and hugain, trigain and thrigain, pedwar and phedwar – amongst others. These changes are because of a weird grammatical quirk called mutations, where the first letter of a word changes under certain conditions. There are three types of mutation (treiglad in Welsh) – soft, nasal and aspirate. Only some letters are affected, you’ll be glad to hear. c, p, t are always victims. Nasal mutation claims g, b, d as well, but the aspirate mutation doesn’t change anything else. There are over thirty rules for the imposition of soft mutation, two for nasal and three for aspirate. I think, anyhow. Oh, and if a word begins with a vowel it sometimes changes to begin with ‘h‘. Just as an example, I saw this on a sign in Cardiff after some changes had been made to the roads and bus stops:
Ble alla i ddal fy mws?
which means ‘Where can I catch my bus?’. Only three of those Welsh words appear in the dictionary. Ble – where; i – I (but could also be to, in order to, or for); fy – my. The rest of them have been mutated and you won’t find them. Fun, eh? My personal favourite is the nasal mutation – partly because there are only two rules but mostly because it leads to such apparently unpronounceable gems (until you know the rules!) as fy nghariad (my darling) or yng Nghaerdydd (in Cardiff).
I don’t pretend to be a linguist and so I don’t know if this happens anywhere else in the world but it makes things interesting. My favourite new book, a large Welsh-English dictionary, gives one of the meanings of ‘treiglad‘ as ‘wandering’ and it’s certainly appropriate.
It’s funny but most people who don’t speak any Cymraeg stumble over the pronounciation. In fact once the rules are explained that’s the easy bit: much more tricky are the concepts behind the words, phrases and sentence constructions. Take the word ‘have’; it can be used in various ways in English but in Welsh there are at least five separate constructions.
I have a cat…mae cath gyda fi…there is a cat with me
I have a cold…mae annwyd arna i…there is a cold on me
I have a cup of tea…dw i’n cael paned te…I have a cup of tea!
I have walked to town…dw i wedi cerdded i dre…I have walked to town
I have to walk to town…mae rhaid i fi gerdded i dre…there is a need for me to walk to town
So there we have it. Welsh is an arcane language, full of imagery and bizarre twists and turns, and of a bouncing, sing-song rhythm. It’s bonkers but it’s poetic. Interestingly this musicality sometimes transfers across the language barrier and can be heard in the intonation of Welshmen or women when they speak English, Richard Burton being a prime example; also Philip Madoc, Anthony Hopkins and Michael Sheen. Several years ago I read an interview with the lovely Rhys Ifans, who grew up with Welsh as his first language and told the reporter about the time he went to an English theatre (on a school trip, I think) to see a Shakespeare play. I won’t get the words absolutely right but he said something like: ‘For the first time I heard English spoken with a beauty I thought only the Welsh were capable of’.
@MrsB_inthehills is a long time Cardiff resident who has now relocated to Powys with her husband. She regularly blogs about life in the Welsh marches and about learning Welsh. The following article was originally published on April 7, 2016. You can read more on her website here.
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