“A First For Welsh”

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Gareth King by Dewi Rhys-Jones for Cambria magazine.
Gary is the author of the new Oxford Pocket Modern Welsh Dictionary, published recently by OUP.

Gareth King: It’s a first twice over. A first for Welsh, which hasn’t had a major dictionary published for it by an international publisher before.[1] And a first for OUP, who have at last published a dictionary for an indigenous language of the British Isles other than English. And it’s quite right that that language should be Welsh. I’m pleased about that.
Dewi Rhys-Jones: So you weren’t surprised that they wanted to do a Welsh dictionary?
GK: Oh no. Actually what’s really surprising when you think about it is that it hasn’t been done sooner. Welsh is a really high-profile language these days.
DRJ: In Wales.
GK: But outside Wales as well. Welsh ranks number five in languages learnt as second languages in the UK overall. And bear in mind that one to four are the Big Four: French, German, Spanish and Italian, which are learnt by an awful lot of people. Welsh comes a close fifth, and way ahead of the rest.
DRJ: And there’s the Celtic connection, of course.
GK: Definitely. Celtic languages are very visible these days. Just look at the Worldwide Web. And right up at the top is Welsh.
DRJ: But look, to come back to the dictionary – why exactly do we need another dictionary of Welsh?
GK: You mean with all the others that are already around?
DRJ: Well, there’s no shortage of them in the shops these days, is there?
GK: No, not like in the old days. You’re right. But let’s have a look at these dictionaries for a moment. From where I’m standing they seem to fall into two very distinct categories: dictionaries aimed at native speakers of Welsh.
DRJ: Or very advanced learners.
GK: Yes – native or near-native users of Welsh, let’s say.
DRJ: Now there are quite a few big ones of this type, aren’t there?
GK: Oh yes. The most recent is the [Welsh] Academy’s English–Welsh one by Bruce Griffiths and Dafydd Glyn Jones.
DRJ: I’ve got that one.
GK: So have I – and it’s a marvel, isn’t it? Gigantic in scope, even though it’s a single volume.
DRJ: But a big single volume.
GK: Big! You couldn’t carry it around with you for long – not without frequent stops. But what I like about it is it’s so thorough. It’s got English words I’ve never heard of, never mind the Welsh.
DRJ: And then there are various two-way dictionaries.
GK: Like the Geiriadur Mawr and the Geiriadur Cymraeg Cyfoes, for example. They’re both good in their ways, but the first is rather dated.
DRJ: And it’s got lots of obsolete words.
GK: Yes, though to be fair it does indicate which ones are obsolete. Still, there are a lot of them, aren’t there? And then the Geiriadur Cymraeg Cyfoes, which is more up-to-date, but like the Geiriadur Mawr it doesn’t make many allowances for learners of the language.
DRJ: Well, does that really matter? Isn’t it you who’s always saying learners should learn real Welsh and not ‘learner Welsh’?
GK: Well I do say that. People learning a language obviously want to end up sounding as much like native speakers as possible. So I stick by that. But where learners and native speakers differ, in any language, is in what they need, and in particular what they need from a dictionary.
DRJ: You mean they need more information?
GK: The learners, yes. They need to be told things that native speakers don’t need to be told. Like grammatical things, for example. Conjugated prepositions.
DRJ: Well, you’d better explain a bit there. What about conjugated prepositions?
GK: What I mean is that, for example, native speakers don’t need to be told that you don’t say ‘am chi’, you say amdanoch chi.
DRJ: Oh, right – but you’re saying that of course learners do need to be told that.
GK: Exactly. And lots more besides. It’s part of mastering any language, isn’t it? You can’t do it if you haven’t got all the information. And that’s the job of a dictionary – to answer all these questions that arise while someone is in the process of learning a language.
DRJ: But to come back to the question of dictionaries already available – there are dictionaries on the market aimed at learners, aren’t there?
GK: There are, of course. But they’re very slight affairs, don’t you think? Essentially they’re wordlists, and not very long ones at that. And they don’t give much other information. And sometimes they give incorrect information.
DRJ: Like?
GK: One of them tells me that the word for ‘have’ is caf (which it isn’t!), and then moves hastily on to the next word. That’s not very user-friendly, is it?
DRJ: And user-friendliness is obviously a factor.
GK: Definitely. And I hope this has been achieved with the Pocket Modern Welsh Dictionary. So you see, taking that example, ‘have’ has a proper entry setting out all the different uses of the word in English – there are four or five common ones – with the different equivalents in Welsh and examples of use.
DRJ: So there are examples of words in use?
GK: It’s one of the most important innovations, and one that’ll make this new dictionary look very different from what’s gone before. We’ve included hundreds of illustrative sentences on the Welsh–English side, so that the user can see these words in context. A language is more than just isolated words, isn’t it?
DRJ: More than the sum of all its parts, you could say?
GK: Exactly.
DRJ: So – example sentences, grammatical information. . .  What else?
GK: Well, let’s see. Translation tips – there are plenty of those all the way through the dictionary. Any point that might present translation problems between Welsh and English has been explained with examples. And then we have little information boxes for words that have something odd or irregular about them, whether it’s pronunciation or usage. There are plenty of those, of course! And there’s a complete reference grammar included as well.
DRJ: Irregular verbs?
GK: All dealt with. All irregular forms shown, plus dialect variants. Of course, there are only five irregular verbs in Welsh, as you and I have been at pains to point out to our students for years now.
DRJ: Not that it makes them any happier!
GK: They don’t know how lucky they are, do they? But at least with this dictionary they’ll have all they need to know to cope with them. And the verb ‘to be’ gets its own special page, as do a good number of other words and usages that tend to pose particular difficulties.
DRJ: And of course I can’t leave this part of our talk without mentioning the mutations.
GK: I wondered when we’d get to them!
DRJ: So, are they in or out?
GK: I’m shocked that you should even ask! They are very definitely in. Not only in, but marked throughout. Now that’s an innovation for Welsh dictionaries, isn’t it? So every time a soft, aspirate or nasal mutation appears in the examples, it’s shown by its own little sign. [2]
DRJ: Some people think the mutations are more trouble than they’re worth, and that they should be quietly abandoned.
GK: But not me. They’re part of the language. And anyway, even if we could get rid of them, that would be like chopping off the top of Snowdon so that those who can’t manage to get to the summit don’t feel so bad.
DRJ: So you’re a friend of the mutations!
GK: I wouldn’t be without them. And I like them so much that they’ve got a special section all to themselves in the dictionary, showing what they are, how they work and where they’re used.
DRJ: So no excuses from now on.
GK: Live with them and love them.
DRJ: Place names?
GK: In!
DRJ: Pronunciation guide?
GK: In!
DRJ: And now to the crunch – what about the price?
GK: Well, I’m not sure exactly, but it’ll definitely be under £10, which I think will represent very good value for what I hope is a powerful tool for learning Welsh at all levels. [3]
DRJ: To conclude, then, what are your hopes for this new dictionary?
GK: Simple. If it brings more people to the Welsh language, and helps them attain fluency in everyday use, then for me it will have achieved its purpose.

interview by Dewi Rhys Jones

[1] HarperCollins, one of the world’s largest publishing firms, might dispute this. But it’s certainly debatable whether the insubstantial Collins Spurrell, though venerable, consitutes a “major dictionary”.
[2] Mutations are “in”: but what exactly does that mean? There are various sorts of information about mutations that a dictionary can usefully provide, discussed elsewhere in these pages. The author explains that in this dictionary each word triggering a mutation will carry a special mark showing which mutation it causes, e.g. neu° shows that a soft mutation is needed after neu. This also applies to mutations occurring in examples sentences within the entry. Mutated words are not shown as headwords in their own right (as they are in some basic dictionaries) unless they are an example of ‘fixed mutation’, e.g. gartref (adverb, ‘at home’) as well as cartref (noun, ‘home’). Of course there is also a section at the beginning of the book to explain the principles of mutation. (diolch Gary am yr eglurhad)
[3] The price is £9.99.

You can read what the publishers have to say about their new dictionary here.

© 1999–2001 Harry Campbell
Page added: March 2000