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Croeso i Gymraeg!

October 21, 2010
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So, term is underway, and today I had my first seminar on Middle Welsh. Despite me not actually being Welsh in the slightest (okay, my maternal grandmother is Welsh, but my mother was raised in England and is monolingual; her claim to Welshness, let alone mine, is pretty tenuous) I have one of those Welsh names that is supremely incomprehensible to the non-Welsh, and so have for years been fielding variations on the theme of “Are you Welsh?” People always look so disappointed when I have to confess that my knowledge of Welsh is confined to road signs* and the first verse of “Land of my Fathers”. (All together now: My hen laid a haddock on top of a tree …)

Anyway, I’m now finally getting a chance to remedy that. While Middle Welsh – the language of the Mabinogion – is obviously a little out of date, it’s close enough to Modern Welsh that creative hand-gestures can make up the difference, apparently.

I love getting to grips with a new language. Of late, it’s seemed more and more amazing to me how fast language goes from ‘complete nonsense’ to ‘borderline comprehensible’ – even so little a thing as knowing that yn means ‘in’ and y means ‘the’ can cast valuable light on the shape of a text. Suddenly, hints of structure emerge from the morass. And before you know it, Pwyll prince of Dyfed is hunting up the wrong tree and bumps into the lord of the underworld and we’re on our way.

Prof F kindly provided us with a (massively condensed) family tree showing Welsh’s descent from Indo-European. I’ve seen a fair number of these before, but mostly pertaining to Germanic languages; they get brought out a lot when people are trying to explain the complicated relations between Old English, Old Norse, Old High German, Gothic, and modern Frisian, English, German and Dutch.

This one highlighted something that I didn’t know, and which at first seemed completely counterintuitive: the nearest relatives of the Celtic language branch are in the Italic branch – that is, Latin and its descendants. Now, I’d always conceptualised the Celtic languages as an odd little offshoot of the Indo-European tree, unrelated to anything else; but no, it turns out that way back when, Western European I-E split into Germanic and Celtic-Italic (both of which then fragmented further), and so Welsh is more closely related to Latin than English is.

Given how astoundingly different they are in orthography, in texture, in sound – Latin always seems very clear-cut to me, dominated by clear vowels, whereas Welsh is squishy – counter-intuitive doesn’t even cover it.

Yet, now I know this, similarities are starting to become visible where they weren’t before. Cant, MWelsh for a hundred = Latin centum. Vynet, MWelsh for ‘coming’** = Latin venio. Canu, MWelsh for ‘song’ = clearly related to Latin cantare, ‘to sing’ (which would come back into English via French as chant). MWelsh com, ‘with’ = Latin cum. MWelsh cyn, ‘dog’ = Latin canis. Doubtless there are more.

So that is my geeky discovery of the day.


*The title of this post is a play on one of them. Crossing into Wales, you’re greeted at the border by cheery dragon-topped signs bidding you “Croeso i Gymru” – “Welcome to Wales”. I’ve adapted this into “Croeso i Gymraeg” – “Welcome to Welsh”.

**Welsh – it wasn’t entirely clear from context whether Prof F meant Middle or Modern Welsh, or both – doesn’t have infinitives, and uses verbal nouns (gerunds; in English, they look like the present participle, e.g. The Shining) instead. This boggles me more than a little bit, but it seems to work.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2010 1:34 pm

    Living right on the Welsh Marches, my dad always likes pointing out Welsh words that can be guessed just by knowing French. There are a surprising number of them; the two that come immediately to mind are church – “eglwys” in Welsh and “église” in French – and bridge – “pont” in both languages (hence why Fireman Sam lives in Pontypandy).

  2. October 24, 2010 1:03 pm

    Ysgol as well; very similar to both école and school. Note that both Welsh and French stick on a prosthetic vowel there before the consonant cluster (seriously, this is what they’re called) whereas English didn’t for some reason …

    Indeed. Though it’s hard to tell which Romance-looking words date back to before Celtic split from Italic, and which came in via French and Latin after the Conquest. I tend to go with the assumption that more basic words are more likely to be older; I’m fairly sure eglwys is a late borrowing, because ‘church’ is a relatively late concept, but pont is quite likely very old indeed – we must have had bridges for nearly as long as we’ve had rivers.

    I love words that are demonstrably thousands of years old. Numbers are good for that – three is recognisably the same word in nearly every Indo-European language, from French to Welsh to Latin to Greek to Sanskrit. It’s mind-boggling.

  3. Seamus permalink
    October 24, 2010 10:10 pm

    Speaking a Germanic tongue, we English enjoy the challenge of a tough consonant cluster, but there are other languages that can’t do without those handy prosthetic vowels — español, for example, as one learns in escuela, literally never has an s+consonant not preceded by a vowel, even in really recent loan-words (“esnobismo” for “snobbery” springs to mind). And Japanese barely involves consonant clusters.

  4. October 25, 2010 2:35 pm

    Esnobismo is an amazing word.

    How does Spanish deal with internal consonant clusters? Is it like Welsh, and leaves them in, or like French and removes an s to get rid of them? Contrast ysbyty, ffenestr and hôpital, fenêtre . . .

  5. Seamus permalink
    October 25, 2010 5:46 pm

    Spanish leaves those esses right where they are, and pronounces them too, unless it’s on the end of a word and a particular hispanicohablante is being lazy: mucha’ gracia’ is common enough in usage but is unprestigious, like a dropped h or t in English.

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