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Full review of PMWD

This is my review of PMWD for the International Journal of Lexicography, © Oxford University Press.

King, Gareth. The Pocket Modern Welsh Dictionary: A guide to the living language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2000. xxviii + 529 pages, ISBN 0-19-894531-7. £9.99. (Supplements on: how to use the dictionary, grammatical terms used, pronunciation, mutations, grammar, names of places and languages.)

1. Introduction

It always seemed strange that Britain’s oldest university press had never published a dictionary of any of Britain’s older languages. This in spite of a fine tradition of Celtic studies in the University and the distinguished lexicographical history of the Press. (The nearest thing would be O. H. Fynes-Clinton’s famous Welsh Vocabulary of the Bangor District (1913), recently reprinted in facsimile, although that is hardly a dictionary in the normal sense.)

The man responsible for filling this gap is Gareth King, who like Heini Gruffudd, author of the Welsh Learner’s Dictionary (WLD), is by profession a teacher and author of textbooks. He is, we might say, the champion of the new type of Welsh learner: one whose goal is not so much the academic study of the language for the purposes of reading folk-tales, singing hymns or understanding quaint place-names, but the ability to communicate effectively in everyday situations using the unaffected colloquial Welsh they hear around them at work or in the pub. Such people hardly existed in the 1950s when the best-known (and regrettably still popular) Welsh dictionaries were compiled. He is known, and has been attacked by purists, for his severely pragmatic attitudes to language-learning: learners should study ‘real Welsh’, the modern, colloquial language that nowadays is what most people need the language for, rather than the allegedly self-conscious language of the traditional text-books and dictionaries.

Himself once a learner, and now a teacher, of Welsh, King is clearly well aware of the problems learners face when using the dictionary, and the Pocket Modern Welsh Dictionary (PMWD) is very much the dictionary you would expect him to produce. It is a determinedly practical tool designed to meet the needs of the basic-to-intermediate learner of the modern colloquial language (although it has plenty to say to advanced learners too). As such it could not be more different from dinosaurs like the Geiriadur Newydd and Collins Spurrell, which simply aim to cram in as many words as possible, rendering them by simplistic and inaccurate one-word translations which are of little help to the user, particularly the encoding user. King’s approach is to use all means available to give the learner as much help as possible in using and understanding Welsh. His is really the first dictionary to do this properly; even though WLD too is specifically designed for learners, the entries themselves often lose sight of that goal.

2. First impressions

The appearance of the book bodes well. In an age where many dictionaries are not much more durable than phone directories, with crumbling yellow pages temporarily glued into a fragile spine, it is good to see that PMWD is printed on good, opaque white paper bound in signatures. The visual presentation of the text is arguably a little unimaginative, not to say clunky — but this is a matter of personal taste, as well as house style. Although personally I find the typefaces, and the cover too, ugly — and what’s this? no ff ligature?! — the pages are at least well-printed and legible, whereas the standard of printing in many Welsh dictionaries leaves a great deal to be desired.

Of course this lavish use of white space has consequences for the physical size of the book, and its price. PMWD is around twice the thickness and weight of WLD, a very similar item in terms of headword count and target market, and it costs nearly twice as much.

3. Coverage

But what an improvement! While other Welsh dictionaries still have not got as far as skateboard, video, motorway and even airport (all in PMWD), this one has ozone layer, Internet, World Wide Web, mobile phone and satellite television. Even abbreviations, so completely neglected by most Welsh dictionaries, get some coverage, though there is still a long way to go (not in: AD, BC, etc, IT, PC, PS, US, VAT, and their Welsh equivalents). No doubt any critic will be able to compile their own pet list of alleged omissions from any dictionary; I for one would like to have seen still more technological vocabulary (disk, laptop, virus), as well as colloquial language (bloke, loo, no way) and general assorted items from everyday life (assembly, Boxing Day, devolution). The word website and its Welsh equivalents safle gwe and gwefan are surprising omissions. On Welsh–English, so often the weaker side, it is a disappointment not to find such useful items as penblwydd ‘birthday’, hogyn/hogan ‘lad/lass’, (Northern form), AS ‘MP’, digidol ‘digital’, Gwyl D(d)ewi ‘St David’s Day’, Siôn Corn ‘Father Christmas’ and Wlpan (a kind of intensive language course). Strangely, nothing beginning eco-, euro- or genetic is included on English–Welsh, and, yet again, yes please, no thanks and helô/hylô ‘hello/hullo’ have escaped notice. As ever, more comparison with other dictionaries would have been useful.

PMWD is unusual in making any particular attempt to include the more commonly-used dialectal variants. While dialect is not as major a problem as Welsh learners often fear, the North–South linguistic divide does need to be taken account of in dictionaries, especially nowadays when the tendency is to teach the forms that people use locally, and to offer learning materials such as cassette courses in a choice of Northern or Southern versions, rather than impose some artificial amalgam of North and South.

I would like see still more attention to this area, and also more thorough coverage of the colloquial anglicisms that are so basic to the everyday language, and indeed have been a feature of Welsh for centuries, all too often ignored by dictionaries too little concerned with everyday reality. There is still plenty of work to be done here: reit ‘right, very’, lot ‘a lot’ and neis ‘nice’, comparative neisiach are given but not grêt ‘great, wonderful’, cweit ‘quite’, jest ‘just’, ocê ‘okay’ and sori ‘sorry’. Ffeindio ‘to find’ (otherwise, more ‘properly’, darganfod) and leicio ‘to like’ (otherwise hoffi) are in, but other common welshifications of English verbs such as enjoio ‘to enjoy’ (otherwise mwynhau) and iwsio ‘to use’ (otherwise defnyddio) are not. Even where, regrettably, an informal variant does not appear in its own right on Welsh–English, a nod is sometimes made in its direction on English–Welsh, e.g., at music, ‘The loanword miwsig is common in speech and more infomal writing styles’; at please, ‘The loanword plîs is very common in speech, though reported by some as substandard’. Well, it may or may not be ‘substandard’, but it’s widely used, even by the most educated people, and no learner’s dictionary should ignore it.

This tendency to show information in slightly unexpected places, perhaps where the compiler thinks of them rather than where the user seems likely to look for them, does make the book slightly less user-friendly. Occasionally an English abbreviation is given only at the entry for its full form, which almost destroys the point of showing the abbreviation at all. This is a common fault in Welsh dictionaries, and PMWD is as nothing compared to its predecessors in this respect. The above quibbles notwithstanding, and within the stringent limitations of space, this is a basically sound and well-chosen headword list, and much more relevant to learners than that of any of its rivals.

4. Headword policy

PMWD adopts a characteristically radical approach to headword policy. Function phrases such as i ffwrdd ‘off, away’, o hyd ‘still’, i fyny ‘up’, etc etc, are shown as headwords. It is difficult to know where to stop with such an approach, and the mutation often caused by the preposition often complicates things further: even ar werth ‘for sale’ is a headword, though perhaps one might equally have expected to find it under gwerth ‘worth’.

Welsh has, like English, an abundance of irregular forms, as well as a large number of plural endings. PMWD makes ample use of cross-referencing, more than any of its competitors. Consistency is not 100%, but by and large, irregular noun plurals (nentydd < nant, ‘stream(s)’) and feminine forms of adjectives (gwerdd < gwyrdd, ‘green’) are all cross-referred to the citation form, as are comparative forms not treated in their own right (uwch < uchel, ‘tall(er)’, hyna < hen, ‘old(est)’). However, this is not true of even the most unlikely-looking inflected verb-forms (trewaist < taro ‘you struck < to strike’), which is disappointing. Welsh is not short of such things, but even those which function as auxiliary verbs or affirmative particles in answering questions are absent from the headword list (e.g.: from gwneud, ‘to do’: nei di? gwna ‘will you? yes (I will)’; from cael, ‘to get’: ga i? cewch ‘may I? yes (you may)’).

Lovers of the cross-reference certainly get their moneysworth from PMWD, which for good measure also cross-refers simply by way of interesting comparison, e.g. from hoffi ‘to like’ to leicio also ‘to like’ and caru ‘to love’, or from mwy ‘more, bigger’ to mawr ‘big’, llawer ‘much, many’, and rhagor ‘more’.

Another famous hurdle for the learner is the Celtic trait of inflecting the beginning as well as the ending of words. Initial c-, for example, can become g-, ch- or ngh-, while g- can turn into ng- or even disappear altogether, by the process known as mutation. Recent dictionaries have tended to enter mutated forms in their own right and cross-refer them to their citation forms. But this takes up vast amounts of space, and would probably double the extent or halve the effective size of the text. PMWD does not do this, but its treatment of mutations is fuller than any other dictionary. Not only does it feature an excellent guide to mutation the front matter, it uses special symbols, the author’s own invention and already familiar to readers of his earlier books, to show which words trigger, or are the result of, which mutations. A superscript ring denotes soft mutation, the commonest sort, showing that at moro ‘so’, mawr has mutated to fawr in mae’r stafell ’ma mor ofawr ‘this room is so big’. Meanwhile, while aspirate and nasal mutations are signalled by a superscript h and n respectively. This technique is used much as traditional dictionaries use homonym numbers, to break up the longer entries; for example, ei (possessive adj., 3rd-person sing.) causes a soft mutation when it denotes possession by a masculine noun but an aspirate mutation in the case of a feminine noun, and eio ‘his, its’ and eih ‘her, its’ are separate headwords in PMWD. The Welsh word a, which might be described as suffering from semantic overload, is split both by part of speech and mutation-type into four headwords: ah (conjunction, ‘and’), (a)o (particle, ‘who, which, that’), (a)o (interrogative particle) and (a)o (conjunction, ‘whether’). Glossing over the unconventional not to say solecistic practice of bracketing the entire headword (ao, like English that, is often dropped, leaving only a mutation), this technique seems to me a helpful way of presenting a page’s worth of vital but confusing lexis.

5. Within the entry

This is a book specifically designed for English natives learning Welsh, and, unlike others, it carries that principle through rigorously. Thus, no mention is made of formality or informality on English–Welsh, since the user does not need to be informed of such things with regard to his/her own language, and naturally all metalanguage is in English rather than Welsh.

Phraseology, so notoriously lacking in all but the most recent English–Welsh dictionaries, is positively lavish in PMWD. A first for Welsh dictionaries: the examples are apparently from real contexts, unlike the artificial ones we find in dictionaries written ‘off the top of the head’. Indeed sometimes they seem almost too authentic: at the uncomplicated word pysgodyn ‘fish’ we have

mae pysgodyn diddorol arall yn dod
i’r cyffiniau hyn obob haf
= another
interesting fish comes to these parts
every summer

Without wishing to cry stinking fish, I detect a faint odour of red herring about that one. While it would be hard to say that too much exemplification could ever be unwelcome in a learner’s dictionary, the price to be paid in terms of reduced headword count is high, and likely to put off the more statistically-minded buyer. But who would have thought a reviewer would ever be in the position of wondering whether a Welsh dictionary might actually have too many sub-entered phrases!

6. Boxing clever

Anyone with experience of the complexities of language learning will be impressed by the wealth of supplementary information presented in the form of boxed notes. Written in a connected prose style, they acknowledge that, contrary to the popular conception of a dictionary as some kind of code-book, some things cannot be conveniently expressed in the traditional telegraphic style of the entry itself. Possibly, given the ‘ab initio’ tone of the entries themselves, the style of these notes is slightly technical (‘with feminine singular nouns, the noun itself undergoes soft mutation, as does the ordinal after the article’) but then not everything can be explained in words of one syllable, and there is a glossary of grammatical terms.

For example, at eisiau, a fundamental item of core vocabulary, grammatically a noun but used idiomatically as if a verb to express concepts like ‘want’, ‘need’ and ‘miss’. PMWD’s entry runs to 38 lines and includes much vital information about grammar, usage and pronunciation:

eisiau noun, masculine, functioning as

! This word is variously pronounced
isie, isio, ise, but never as spelt.
! Though usually functioning as a
verbnoun, this word is a noun and
does not use a linking
yn with the
bod so dw i eisiau = I want
(not *dw i’n eisiau). Not being a
verbnoun, it has no stem, and
therefore cannot take endings of any
kind. Past reference is done with the
o’n i eisiau = I wanted,
roedd y ferch eisiau. . . = the girl
wanted. . .

(functioning as verbnoun) = want
dych chi eisiau dod? = do you want to
pwy sy eisiau rhagor o ogoffi? = who
wants some more coffee?
o’n i eisiau cael gair â chi = I wanted to
have a word with you
’swn i oddim eisiau’ch rhwystro chi = I
wouldn’t want to disturb you
=>moyn, =>amo
(functioning as noun) = want; need
mae eisiau cynnal cyfarfod = a
meeting needs to be held
mae eisiau dweud wrthyn nhw be’ ydy
be’, on’d oes?
= they need telling
what’s what, don’t they?
oes eisiau dweud wrthi? = does she
need to be told?
oes eisiau bwyd arnat ti? = are you
byddwn ni’n gweld eich eisiau = we’ll
miss you
=>angen, =>rhaid

By contrast, Collins Spurrell dismisses this vital item of vocabulary in a mere three words:

eisiau n want, need

There is even more information at the really major long entries, such as bod ‘to be’, where we find the better part of two pages of guidance on basic grammar and usage. Spurrell’s treatment of the existential verb? You’ve guessed it: ‘bod be, exist’ and ‘be bod’ (the latter surely a good contender for the shortest dictionary entry in the world, a sort of lexicographical version of ‘Jesus wept’). The result of all this is that PMWD is actually readable: you find yourself browsing through it, as opposed to just consulting it when you need to know something specific. Proof at last that a Welsh dictionary can be much more than just a list of words!

7. The price to pay

The consequence of all this extra help (luxurious layout, lavish exemplification, plentiful supplementary information in handy boxes) is, simply, fewer headwords: restriction to the essential, which in this dictionary even goes as far as omitting the (supposedly) guessable. This philosophy extends to the coverage of compounds, another blind spot for traditional Welsh dictionaries: where judged to be decodable from their constituent parts, they are not shown. Railway station, bunk bed, first aid and prime minister are shown on English–Welsh, but their Welsh equivalents are not given as source-language items. Unfortunately the same is true of rather less guessable items like cegin osod ‘fitted kitchen’ (literally something like ‘set’ or ‘placed’ kitchen), shown only on English–Welsh as a translation.

It is still often stated that there is no letter J in Welsh. If J is not totally absent from the Welsh alphabet as laid out in Lesson One of Welsh courses, it is sometimes enclosed in embarrassed parentheses. This is clearly nonsense, on a par with claiming that English has no letter K simply because only comparatively recent imports to the language include that letter. There are in fact many Welsh words beginning with J (nearly 250 are listed in GPC, the big University of Wales dictionary), as well as occurrences of the letter J within a word. Many are obscure proper nouns or biblical terms, but some would certainly seem to be candidates for inclusion in a learner’s dictionary. It is a surprise, then, in such an unsnobbish dictionary, to find no section for letter J on Welsh–English, though many Welsh words shown include that letter medially or finally. The author explains (King, 2000, p.c.) that while he fully recognises the existence of the letter J in Welsh, there were as it happened no suitable candidates, since such obvious English borrowings as the common J words tend to be — jam ‘jam’, jeli ‘jelly’ and so on — are easily guessed by the Welsh learner, who will not need or bother to look them up. In the interests of saving space, they are not given.

The trouble with this approach is of course that guessing what is obvious to someone else is a risky process. The words jam and jeli, when encountered in a culinary context, will very likely not cause the English native speaker too much trouble — but how far can we extend this? What about jîns, jiwdo, joben, jôc, jocan and jyngl? To what extent these words are so transparent to the English-native Welsh learner as to be not worth looking up, I leave to the judgment of the reader. (Translations: jeans, judo, job, joke, to joke, jungle.) Even jwg (IPA [jwg], plural jygiau [jygiau]) is left out, though it would seem a long enough way from English ‘jug’. Yet the rule does not seem to be applied so rigorously to other parts of the alphabet, where many arguably obvious English borrowings appear: byji ‘budgie’, garej ‘garage’, radio ‘radio’, ffôn ‘phone’. Of course, words are not always encountered in guessable contexts, and there is also the issue of genders, irregular plurals and so on. If the reader wishing to check whether jwg is masculine or feminine is forced to look under jug on the English–Welsh side instead, are we not beginning to repeat the mistakes of the bad old days, where gender was only shown on Welsh–English?

As so often with authored dictionaries, PMWD is not innocent of flaws in consistency. If the Southern imperative dere ‘come!’ is a headword, cross-referred to dod ‘to come’, then the same should be true of the Northern equivalent, tyrd. If gwerdd ‘green’ (fem. form) is referred to the citation form gwyrdd, why not gwen, the feminine of gwyn ‘white’? And so on. Boring, pedantic, but necessary!

However, the hand of a mainstream dictionary publisher is evident in the high standard of production, very different to the ramshackle appearance of some Welsh language textbooks. Errata are few and far between, and, another first for Welsh learner’s dictionaries, American variants are scrupulously accorded headword status — reasonably enough, given the interest in the Welsh language in the USA.

8. Conclusion

PMWD is a practical guide to the core language, intelligently tailored to the needs of today’s Welsh learners and luxuriously presented in a uniquely user-friendly and browsable way. The price is paid in terms of space: a sound but restricted headword list which advanced learners would find insufficient if relying on this as their only dictionary. But I would still commend it to learners of all levels for the sheer thoroughness of its coverage of the basics, especially those nitty-gritty issues of style and register scarcely touched on in other dictionaries.

The great achievement of this book is in having covered the ground so thoroughly in the vital area of core vocabulary and usage; it would provide an excellent base for future publications. A slimmed-down ‘mini’ version of the existing text, shorn of some of its purely illustrative phraseology and re-set in a more intensive page layout so that it did literally fit into a pocket, would be very useful. Equally, an expanded text involving at least twice the existing number of headwords, aimed at covering the wider vocabulary needs of the advanced learner, might provide a much-needed alternative to the geriatric Geiriadur Mawr.

More than half a decade in the making, is this the ‘quantum leap in Welsh dictionary-making’ that the publishers claim? Three years ago it certainly would have been. It would not be quite true to say that that PMWD was the world’s first ‘proper’ modern dictionary of Welsh and English for learners: the Welsh Learner’s Dictionary (1998, £6.95) has certainly stolen its thunder in that respect, starting from the same principles if not rising to the same heights. WLD is probably the only other book that Welsh-learners looking for their first dictionary should consider buying, and comparisons are inevitable. Well, there is no getting away from it: PMWD is by far the better of the two. It is better designed, better produced and far more rigorous. It scores above all for the wealth of extra information in the form of usage notes and sub-entered material. The fact that it requires a slightly deeper pocket, both to pay for it and to carry it around, should not put learners off buying what amounts to the best Welsh–English–Welsh dictionary there has yet been.

Collins Spurrell Pocket Welsh Dictionary. 1991. (First edition 1960.) London: HarperCollins.
Evans, H. Meurig and Thomas, W. O. 1953. Y Geiriadur Newydd: The New Welsh Dictionary. Swansea: Christopher Davies.
—. 1958. Y Geiriadur Mawr: The Complete Welsh Dictionary. Swansea: Christopher Davies.
Fynes-Clinton, O. H. 1913. The Welsh Vocabulary of the Bangor District. London: Oxford University Press (re-issued 1995 in facsimile with additional material, Llanerch Publishers, Lampeter).
Gruffudd, Heini. 1998. The Welsh Learner’s Dictionary. Talybont, Ceredigion: Y Lolfa. (WLD)
Thomas, R. J., Bevan, Gareth E. et al. (eds.) 1950–. Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru: A Dictionary of the Welsh Language [‘The University of Wales Dictionary’]. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. (GPC)

Harry Campbell
Freelance Lexicographer

© 2001 Oxford University Press

International Journal of Lexicography, ISSN 0950-3846, Vol. 14, No. 3, Sept 2001.


© 1999–2001 Harry Campbell (except review)
Page added: November 2001