Croeso i Gymraeg!
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 While Middle Welsh – the language of the Mabinogion – is obviously a little out of date, it’s close enough to Modern Welsh that creative hand-gestures can make up the difference, apparently.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.