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Background on Welsh Dictionaries

“Dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true,” said Dr Johnson. And Welsh–English dictionaries have very much come at the ‘better than nothing’ end of the scale. There just has never been a really good Welsh–English dictionary for learners [until recently at least] – perhaps partly because it’s only comparatively recently that significant numbers of people have taken to learning Welsh. Mainstream British publishers, the ones with proper lexicographical know-how, have yet to wake up this fact, with the result that Welsh has not kept pace with the up-to-date, well-designed dictionaries now available to those learning mainstream European languages.

The following information is designed to help you make an informed judgment of the merits of Welsh dictionaries, and to understand the reviews of the dictionaries on this site, if they are not self-evident.


Most people expect dictionaries to be completely self-evident, and of course a good dictionary does try to be as user-friendly as possible. But things are not entirely straightforward. To be fully effective, a bilingual dictionary of any language needs certain basic design features. Why not check out how your dictionary (or prospective purchase) measures up to these criteria?

    Not much to ask, you might think. But you might be surprised how rarely it has occurred to the makers of Welsh dictionaries to make any effort to include words or expressions that have entered the language in the last few years or even decades. You wouldn’t necessarily expect to find GM-free or search engine or WAP phone, but you shouldn’t get the feeling that your dictionary is stuck in the 1950s. Likewise, your dictionary shouldn’t ignore less formal words and expressions: how often do we ever call it a bicycle, as opposed to a bike, or (in Britain at least) a brassière rather than a bra? After all, you will probably want to use your Welsh in all sort of different contexts, not just formal ones. As for extraneous clutter like vowel affection and wayfaring tree (Collins Spurrell), a basic learner’s dictionary is better off without it.
    • try looking up: CD, software, video, even motorway; user-friendly, laid-back; dad, telly, can’t.

    As well as up-to-date words, you need to be sure that your dictionary contains up-to-date meanings of existing words, and dictionaries often ignore or forget to add these. For example, what’s a vacuum? The first sense that comes to mind, in everyday life, is a machine you use to clean the carpet – just as the word microwave more often refers to the oven than one of the super-high-frequency radio waves it generates. What does celibate mean? Nowadays it means ‘not having sex’; the sense of ‘unmarried’ is a rather specialist use referring to monks and so on. And these days the prey of a stalker is more often a celebrity than a red deer. Sad to say, I don’t know of any Welsh dictionary that explicitly includes the modern senses of any of these common words [though the new Oxford does show microwave (oven) as a headword] – and nor do they include anything to warn you that they’re only dealing with the older sense.
    • try looking up: celibate, microwave, stalker and vacuum, to name but four.

    Language is not just a matter of single words strung together in a line. Often it comes in larger chunks (compound nouns, phrasal verbs, grammatical patterns, idioms etc), and these represent a good deal of, if not most of the vocabulary you need when learning a language. Also, it’s not always possible to translate a word properly out of context. For example, while there do exist one-word Welsh equivalents of adjectives like thirsty and tired, the proper, natural, idiomatic translations involve constructions like ‘there is thirst upon me’ and ‘I am after tiring’. Meanwhile weekend is sometimes best translated using Sul (‘Sunday’) or the phrase dros y Sul, rather than penwythnos (‘weekend’).
    • try looking up: car park, bus stop, no thanks, you’re welcome; both, got, thirsty, tired, weekend.

    There will always be some argument about where to show phrases in a dictionary, for example whether Christmas cake should be at the entry for Christmas or the entry for cake, or perhaps given as a headword in its own right. However, to enter S4C (Sianel Pedwar Cymru) at channel as WLD does as if it was an English word, or today at day as Spurrell does, is just silly. Terms that are usually used in their abbreviated form should of course be given as such, where you would expect to find them, e.g. BC rather than before Christ – but many Welsh dictionaries have a curious aversion to abbreviations, as if they didn’t quite count as proper language somehow. Welsh dictionaries are also prone to confusing the English–Welsh and Welsh–English sides of the dictionary by showing things as source-language items that are really translations. For example, it’s reasonable to show the term Cyfraith Hywel on Welsh–English, since ‘the law of Hywel’ would not mean much to someone unfamiliar with Welsh history. But it’s not very likely that you would look in an English–Welsh dictionary for the phrase Welsh law when Wales hasn’t had its own laws for centuries – but WLD does this, seemingly as an excuse to show the ‘interesting’, but misleadingly over-specific, translation Cyfraith Hywel.
    • try looking up: MP, USA, PS.

    As far as humanly possible, the translation should mean the same as the source language item. This might seem obvious. Unfortunately, the creators of Welsh dictionaries have not put much thought into matching either the meaning or the tone of their translations to the source language. For give way (as on roadsigns) GYA suggests arhoswch (‘wait’), which is of course a different action – a quick drive around the block confirms that it should be ildiwch. Elsewhere teepee is rendered simply as pabell (‘tent’), which is so vague as to be almost pointless. WLD translates sboncen as badminton when in fact it means squash, and the translation offered at weekdays actually means ‘days of the week’, which is not at all the same thing. Meanwhile piso (‘to pee, to piss’) is bowdlerised into to urinate.

    Again, something we ought to be able to take for granted. But all too often the translations offered don’t actually work in context, when you try them out. Sometimes they’re not so much a proper translation as a definition in the target language. This might be OK going from Welsh to English, so that you know what the word means even when there isn’t an English translation, but from the learner’s point of view (and basic Welsh dictionaries aren’t likely to be bought by native Welsh speakers wanting to decode unfamiliar English words) a definition in Welsh of an English word is no use. For example, at calorie, Collins Spurrell gives both calori and uned gwres (‘unit of heat’). Guess which is the translation and which the pointless mini-definition, useful only to a hypothetical Welsh speaker who doesn’t know what a calorie is in either language. Meanwhile at amanuensis, really just a grand word for secretary, we get ysgrifenydd dros arall, ‘a secretary for another’, which is not so much a translation as a gloss, an explanation aimed at someone who comes across a foreign word and wants to understand its meaning. Apart from its redundancy (can you be a secretary for yourself?) it’s no use to an English speaker translating into Welsh: Watson oedd ysgrifenydd dros arall Holmes (‘Watson was Holmes’s secretary for another’) doesn’t exactly cut the mustard. Same technique at reinstate: adfer i safle neu fraint, i.e. ‘to restore to a position or privilege’. Nobody, but nobody, is going to come across an English word such as reinstate and attempt to find out the meaning by looking it up in a pocket-sized English–Welsh dictionary. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that entries like this are just a waste of space. Finally, as well as rendering the meaning, the translation must match the grammar of the source language – it’s no good translating a preposition with a verb (as WLD does at ar), or adding the plural form of a noun when the source language only occurs in the singular. At arms (MILITARY), WLD gives arf/–au – but of course we always refer to the military sort of arms in the plural, so to give a singular translation is absurd.

    Sense discriminators, disambiguators, meaning indicators, call them what you will, these are the little signposts (often a synonym or a short phrase in brackets) that tell you which sense of the word is being translated. These are a basic feature of any halfway serious dictionary, but almost no English–Welsh dictionaries have them. When you come across a word with a long string of translations, which one are you supposed to use? If you try looking them up in the other side of the dictionary (‘back-translating’) you often find out they mean totally different things, and even if they mean much the same thing you still have a problem, as with the long strings of near-synonyms that GYA gives as translations, sometimes more than a dozen of them. They can’t all be exactly the same, so which is the best for my purposes?
    • try looking up: charge, set, train, case, or any word with several important meanings.

    Something you might take for granted, perhaps. But it can make a tremendous difference to how easy the dictionary is to use. Even the quality of the printing is a serious obstacle in some dictionaries: it’s not much good if you can’t tell the difference between an ‘i’ and an ‘l’. And all but the simplest entries can be made more comprehensible (as well as more attractive and readable) using a variety of typefaces and symbols. Just compare the appearance of any Welsh learner’s dictionary with the far snappier-looking ones now available to learners of more widely-spoken languages. Why shouldn’t Welsh have dictionaries just as good?

So far so obvious. Welsh is a fascinating language, with many features not found in other, more widely-known languages, and some of these features have consequences for the design of Welsh dictionaries. Here are some of the issues involved.

    The Welsh alphabet regards certain combinations of letters (digraphs) as a single letter for the purposes of alphabetisation. For example, all words beginning RH are alphabetised separately after R, so Rwsia (‘Russia’) comes before rhad (‘cheap’) [unless of course you’re using the incompetently-edited Spurrell!]. Some dictionaries try to make this clearer by printing the alphabet along the top or edge of every page. The principle applies even within words, so that ymadael (‘to leave’) comes after ynghylch (‘about’), since NG is a separate letter from N, alphabetised after G not after N – which is more difficult to make clear to the user. See below for some advice from other sources.

    The famous mutations inevitably complicate things for the writers and users of dictionaries. When a language rings the changes at the beginnings of its words as well as at the end, you have to develop the skill of ‘back-forming’ a mutated word, found in context, to the so-called ‘dictionary’ form. Recent dictionaries have tried including in the wordlist the mutated forms of all the nouns they show, so that you can find nghar (as in fy nghar, ‘my car’) and be cross-referred to the citation form car, which you might otherwise not have thought to look for. Likewise for gar (ei gar, ‘his car’) and char (ei char, ‘her car’) – and so on. Of course, you soon learn to do this for yourself, and go straight to the right entry, but in the meanwhile it’s reassuring to get this help. However, with three types of mutation in Welsh affecting up to nine initial consonants, you can imagine how much extra space this takes up – especially when G mutates by simply disappearing, so that a word mutated from g- could begin with a wide range of possible letters. (see below for more on mutations)
    • try looking up: any mutated form, such as nhad (from tad), eni (from geni).

    Welsh has a fair number of different ways of forming the plural, and they don’t all involve just tacking something onto the end of the singular – some affect the whole look and sound of the word. Suppose you come across the word deillion; you couldn’t be blamed for not knowing it was the plural of dall (‘blind’), unless your dictionary supplies a cross-reference to the singular. Likewise, irregular comparatives, superlatives and verb-forms can be hard to track down to the form listed in dictionaries. To borrow an excellent example from Mark Nodine, whose online ‘metadictionary’ is unusual among dictionaries in taking this problem into account: Say you happened upon the word trewaist in your reading. You could look in an ordinary dictionary and find that trew means ‘sneeze’, but that’s a noun rather than a verb. You might be tempted to postulate that there is a verb trewi for which the word you are seeking is a conjugated form, but you’d be wrong. In fact it comes from taro (‘to strike’), and trewaist means ‘thou smotest’, or in modern English, ‘you struck’.
    • try looking up: ceir, cw^n, plurals of car (‘car’) and ci (‘dog’); hy^n, hynaf, from hen (‘old’); cei, cefais, ces, forms of the all-important verb cael (‘to have/get/etc’).

    There’s another important kind of mutation information your dictionary can usefully give you: it can tell you which mutation, if any, is triggered by which word. For example, of four words with very much the same meaning (‘with’), gan causes a soft mutation in the word it precedes, while â and gyda are followed by an aspirate mutation, though hefo involves no mutation at all. There’s no guessing this stuff, you just have to know it. Why shouldn’t the information be shown at the relevant entry, where it’s convenient, rather than sending the poor user off to hunt through a separate list or even another book altogether?
    • try looking up: â, gyda, gan, hefo, etc etc etc.

Where do the existing dictionaries stand according to these criteria? You can judge for yourself if you have one to hand. There has certainly been an outpouring of new dictionary titles in the last few years, but they’ve tended to be not much more innovative or better designed than the previous ones. It’s still easy to find common words and expressions that aren’t in any Welsh dictionary, and none of the existing Welsh dictionaries is very reliable in terms of the accuracy and adequacy of its translations. Welsh has yet to receive the attention of ‘proper’, professional lexicographers using the modern methods applied in dictionaries of the mainstream European languages. By far the best of a bad bunch, at least for now, is the new(ish) Welsh Learner’s Dictionary, which has various useful features you won’t find in any other title. Strangely, it hasn’t been very widely publicised; many courses and websites don’t seem to have heard of WLD and continue to recommend the antiquated and unfriendly Spurrell or Mawr. However, WLD still falls down badly in various important areas (see review for details). The twentieth century has failed to produce a fully adequate Welsh learner’s dictionary, up-to-date, reliable and helpful. This is something the Welsh language needs badly, and we should not put up with second best.

UPDATE: Did I speak too soon? It all depends on when you think the twentieth century ended! A new Welsh dictionary from Oxford University Press (May 2000) has broken the mould. Click here for more.


Here you can find some good advice on how to get the best out of a Welsh dictionary:

© 1999–2001 Harry Campbell
Last updated: March 2003