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Full review of WLD

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

Heini Gruffudd. The Welsh Learner’s Dictionary. Talybont, Ceredigion: Y Lolfa. 1998. 256 pages. ISBN 0 8624 363 0. £6.95. (20,000 words and phrases; 15 page grammar summary; lists of placenames and personal names.)

“Sir, there is no settling the point of precendency between a louse and a flea,” declared a certain famous lexicographer. He might almost have been talking of the dictionaries so far available to the learner of Welsh. The old warhorses amble on, long past retirement date, while others that have emerged in more recent years offer little improvement. They are archaic, obscure, ill-designed and shoddy, often little more than crude wordlists. One best-selling title includes words as far-fetched as bandbox, bedew, beestings, calcine, caudle, crupper and the wonderful zenana – all offered as encoding items, in a reference count totalling less than 40,000 words. But there is no sign of car park or bus stop, pub or bike, thank you or no thanks, and the English–Welsh text is almost entirely innocent of both phrasal verbs and adverbs. Thus it is with no great hope that one picks up the latest in the line. But Heini Gruffudd’s (1998) Welsh Learner’s Dictionary (hereinafter WLD) is a genuine surprise.

1. Layout

Even the appearance of the book is novel. Its pages are legible and reasonably attractive; but above all they do not remind one of a telephone directory. Of course, languages are not simple codes where every word matches precisely some other word, and this is, or should be, reflected in the appearance of the page. Certainly the layout and typography of WLD are a fraction unimaginative, making less use than they might of available symbols and typefaces, and the standard of consistency and proofreading leaves a good deal to be desired. But this book actually looks like a proper dictionary.

The design is minimalist, with simple structure, little metalanguage and no swung dashes; the absence of homonym splits on English–Welsh throws together the noun can (of beer, etc.) with can the modal verb, and even the dog’s lead [li:d] with lead [led] the heavy metal. Except for a few function words, the entries are not split into categories, so these target-language parts of speech are essential disambiguators.

Since Welsh has no adult monoglots, any Welsh learner’s bilingual is a single-market product, where the English–Welsh is always the encoding side and the Welsh–English side always for decoding. This consideration is crucial for its effective design. Other dictionaries expect the user to struggle with metalanguage in Welsh (eb = fem. noun, etc.), as if the book were aimed equally at Welsh natives; but WLD is more intelligent, with notes in English throughout and plurals, parts of speech and phonetics shown only for Welsh words. (Even this commonsense idea seems frighteningly radical to some: one recent layman’s review1 wondered whether it might not be ‘part of the job of a learner’s dictionary to teach lexicographical terminology’ – which is rather like saying that the ideal car would break down every few miles in order to train its owner in the skills of car maintenance.)

2. Coverage

‘With phrases’ says the cover, which as a selling-point is both cryptic and excessively modest. Even the very worst dictionary has one or two ‘phrases’, but it is truly novel to see a dictionary of Welsh with even a basic coverage of idiomatic expressions. Volumes of such material here make their first appearance in a learner’s dictionary, which is both to the shame of existing publications and to the great credit of WLD.

There are still some glaring omissions. On Welsh–English you will not find entries for fideo [‘video’], henffasiwn [‘old-fashioned’], Unol Daleithiau [‘United States’], plîs [informal ‘please’], gydag [‘with’, prevocalic form], and, unbelievably, ers [‘since’], bant [‘away’, Southern form] and shw [‘how’, Southern form]. Perhaps a few lacunae are to be expected in what is basically the first of its kind, at least at phrase level; after all, published sources of useful Welsh phraseology are practically non-existent. But there can be no excuse for leaving out, on English–Welsh, words such as hungry, certainly, beer, bored, girlfriend, Boxing Day, shorts, devolution, acceptable, motorway and (let us be charitable and assume some technical error) speak. To borrow another such missing word, this is bizarre. And embarrassing. And yet we do find suppleness, spinner (cricket), toll-gate, theorem, top-coat and Whitmonday. The ghost of the bad old days lingers yet.

Likewise, the occasional useless, improbable or even slightly surreal phrase finds its way in, including the black plague (i.e., presumably, the Black Death?). I wonder when an English speaker with a grasp of language would ever want to insert a brick into the wall or feel the need to ask “is there another goat?” (the compiler’s little musical joke no doubt – the words are from a children’s counting-song – but it should be on the Welsh–English side). Old-style artificial ‘dictionary-speak’ examples, sometimes hard to avoid, are frequent: the fifteenth cow, Daniel is a man, Is there bread here? Yes.

WLD has a strange aversion to abbreviations, opting instead to show only the full forms Member of Parliament, before Christ etc., or occasionally to subenter the abbreviation at the full form – not much use if decoding an unfamiliar Welsh item. One begins to wonder whether to start looking for bus at omnibus, or taxi at taximeter cab. Finally, it is a shame that the opportunity is missed to show the new internet terminology (rhyngrwyd for ‘internet’, Gwe for ‘(World Wide) Web’, e-bost for ‘e-mail’, etc.), most of which is still absent from dictionaries.

3. Core entries

Returning to essentials, the attention paid to the major core elements of both English and Welsh vocabulary is just woefully inadequate, and the book is seriously let down by this. It is simply not an option, in even a basic dictionary, to treat a word like be, do, get or go (including its many phrasal verbs) in just a few lines. Working purely off the top of his head, seemingly, the compiler gets only as far as to go (W: mynd), to go away, to go home, to go back, to go in, to go out and to go off (thus, in no particular order, and all but one translation derivable if necessary from go = mynd) before losing interest and moving on to goal and goalkeeper. And this on the production side of the dictionary! At mynd we must be content with the one-word translation go. By contrast, the treatment of go and its phrasals in Collins’ innovative Easy Learning French Dictionary (only half as big again as WLD) runs to over a page: 140 lines instead of eight.

4. Phrase policy

So assuming the item I want is in, where will I find it? In WLD, this vital question does not seem to have been given much thought, and utter arbitrary confusion reigns. We find Welsh Language Act at language, Welsh Development Agency at agency, and Welsh Language Board at both language and board – while the useful item Welsh Office is nowhere. There is no argument about where to put Free Wales Army or University of Wales, since, remarkably, the word Wales simply does not appear in the body of the dictionary. Like Cardiff and London, it is pointlessly relegated to one of those old-style separate lists of placenames, of the sort so infernally popular in traditional Welsh dictionaries (prefixes and suffixes, foreign terms, personal names, placenames, animals, birds, fishes, plants, fruits – each is accorded its own list in the well-known and widely-used Geiriadur Mawr). However, Italy, Rome, Hungary and even Iceland are considered important enough to be in both the placenames list and the dictionary itself.

The very concepts of headword and subentry, and of encoding and decoding, are poorly understood in WLD. The phrase fewer than turns up at few, even though there is a separate entry for fewer immediately after; and we find fluently only in a subentered phrase at fluent – perhaps under the influence of Welsh, which uses the same form both to qualify nouns and modify verbs. Strangest of all, to find S4C (the Welsh-language television channel) you must look under channel. But S4C is not an English term in the first place, and in the unlikely event of wanting to translate it into English you will not find either S4C or Sianel Pedwar Cymru on the Welsh–English side.

On the whole phrases give the impression of having been thrown in on impulse, for good measure, rather than being added in their own right. While compiling Cymro [‘Welshman’], the name of the Welsh-language newspaper Y Cymro [‘The Welshman’] might come into one’s mind, though it is hardly very useful in a bilingual dictionary. But somewhere the important expression Cymro Cymraeg [‘Welsh native speaker’] needs to appear in the dictionary (it is nowhere in WLD) and thought needs to be given to whether it is more relevant to Cymro or Cymraeg [‘Welsh-speaking’].

5. Translations

Another novelty: these are mostly very good. At thirsty, we are given the usual, not-very-useful direct translation sychedig, but also, more importantly, the relevant idiom for I am thirsty: mae syched arna i (literally ‘there is thirst upon me’). At fail (W: methu), WLD supplies the idiomatic (i.e., unpredictable) intensifier: in Welsh if you fail completely you ‘clean fail’ (W: methu’n lân). This is exactly what a dictionary is supposed to be for, and I know of no other English–Welsh dictionary that shows this useful idiom.

But sadly, while many of the genuine, idiomatic translations we have been needing are here, others are still missing. This often comes down to a failure to focus on how a certain word is actually used in real life – what the learner will need it for – and to test it out in context. For example, at guess we have just the simple word-for-word translation beloved of the dictionaries of the bad old days: dyfalu. This is perfectly correct; but how useful is it really? It fails us utterly in two of the most likely everyday uses of guess: ‘guess what I did today?’ (where the relevant idiom, at least in the North, would be camp ichi ddweud be wnes i heddiw – literally, something like ‘a feat for you to say what I did today’) and the use of guess to mean ‘suppose’, as in ‘I guess so’ (where one might suggest something like tebyg iawn, ‘very likely’). In fact, the phrase I guess so does not appear to be shown in any English–Welsh dictionary. Meanwhile at the nouns sort and type (W: math), the opportunity is missed to show the useful idiomatic construction sut. . . [‘what sort of. . .’], even though this does appear at kind – a measure of the ad hoc nature of the compilation. Often it just does not seem to have occurred to our compiler, a well-known author of ‘teach-yourself’ materials for Welsh learners, that a certain headword (e.g. seem) might present an interesting and challenging translation problem.

Disappointingly, the ghost of the bad old days lingers also in the formal or archaic flavour of some of the Welsh translations, such as cyhyd ag y gwn i instead of hyd y gwn i for as far as I know. In fact every type of translation error known to science is committed at some point in this book, from stylistic and syntactic mismatches to crass faux sens. Welsh piso [‘pee’] is not well rendered by urinate; rather worse is the direct ‘translation’ of the Welsh ar (a preposition) as owe (a verb), or of the English adjective able into the Welsh verb-noun gallu. At weekdays (s.v. week, unfortunately) we find dyddiau’r wythnos, which means ‘days of the week’; a better translation would have been dyddiau gwaith [‘working days’]. On Welsh–English, sboncen is not ‘badminton’ as claimed, but the rather different game known as ‘squash’. Finally, the translation of briefs as ‘short trousers’ (trowsus byr) has a certain comic potential.

6. Mutations

Celtic languages are famous for inflecting the beginning as well as the end of words – an inconvenient habit when it comes to using dictionaries. These ‘mutations’, as they are known in the case of Welsh, come in three varieties, ‘soft’, ‘nasal’ and ‘aspirate’. They are the bugbear of the learner, who, encountering a new word in context, needs to learn how to work back to the citation form. Recent learner’s dictionaries have tended to list separately the mutated form of every word they show. While this is no doubt a useful selling-point and reassuring for the absolute beginner, it takes up vast amounts of space with what is after all a fairly simple problem, and one which in any case the learner cannot avoid for long. In one recent dictionary of similar physical size, cross-referred mutated forms account for perhaps one half of the Welsh–English text.

By contrast, WLD’s approach is to include a note at the beginning of each letter, e.g. at CH: ‘mutated words beginning with CH derive from C (e.g. chadair from cadair), so look up C’. Somewhat puzzlingly, even letters which could not be the result of a mutation, such as C, carry the message ‘mutated words beginning with G, CH or NG can derive from C, so look them up here’.

As well as marking a range of grammatical functions, a mutation can be triggered lexically by, for example, certain prepositions, and the encoding user needs to know whether a given word causes a mutation, and if so which sort. Almost no dictionaries supply this information; but here WLD comes to our aid on both source and target, and the book is probably worth the money for this feature alone.

7. Phonetics

Welsh has advantages for the learner as well as drawbacks, and one of them is the extreme regularity of the orthography. Only in a few cases is one in doubt about how to pronounce an unfamiliar word, and on the whole it is difficult to imagine a system of phonetic transcription (other than IPA) that would be much clearer than the original Welsh. Nonetheless, WLD has phonetics – of a sort. Welsh bones is unhelpfully transcribed (in italics, for some reason) as [bones] and boddhaol as [boddhaol], while effeithiol, llieiniau and cyffyrddiad emerge as the somewhat grotesque [ephe-eethyol], [llee-e-eenyaee] and [kuhphuhrddyad]. Are these really any clearer than the Welsh orthography? Welsh ff (IPA [f]) becomes [ph] but the confusing digraphs dd and ch (IPA [ð] and [x], not [d] and [tsh] as in English), and even the infamous voiceless lateral fricative ll, stay as they are: [dd], [ch], [ll]. Vowel length, with the change in quality it entails, is ignored, even though ffôn [phon] [‘phone’], with its long vowel, is not in fact homophonous with short ffon [phon] [‘stick’]. Even the simplest and most useful function of a phonetic transcription – showing an unpredictable stress in Welsh – is rendered obscure by WLD, which points out that by default the accent falls on the penult, but neglects to distinguish syllables. Phonetic transcriptions may well be a good selling-point, but in this case the solution is more trouble than the problem.

8. Register and Regional Marking

WLD appears to be the first Welsh–English dictionary to feature any attempt at systematic register marking, although it certainly slips up in places. The marking of (and use of) regional forms is even more inconsistent, even in basic matters such as whether to favour the Northern gen i or the Southern da fi [‘with me’]. Given that such matters are another area of great concern to the poor learner, this is simply sloppiness. The point is, of course, that much of the worth of a dictionary lies not in the ad-hoc solutions applied at the level of each entry but in carefully-considered policy decisions running through the whole book.

9. Indicating material

Sense indicators, nearly always synonyms, are present throughout WLD. They are used sparingly, and not always to good effect; but before being too critical, we should remember that WLD is unusual among Welsh dictionaries in even having any indicating material. The following, from a certain well-known Welsh bilingual dictionary, must rank as an example of lexicography so completely unhelpful as to be almost useless:

tick vi tipian, ticio t n tipian, tic
tick vt marcio, ticio t n nod, marc, tic
tick n lliain gwely, tic

By contrast, WLD’s entry looks perhaps a little disorganised, but not impenetrable:

tick CLOCK tipian, MARK ticio (v); tic/–iau (m), CLOCK tipian (m)

At stone, I assume the two verbal senses to be what one does to, respectively, biblical adulterers and peaches:

stone carreg/cerrig (f), IN WEIGHT stôn (m);
HIT WITH STONE taro â charreg, TAKE
STONE OUT tynnu carreg (v)

But here the text seems to be as confusing for the compiler as for the user, particularly in not distinguishing transitive verbs from intransitive ones. You take the stone out of a peach (the Welsh still works), and if you stone someone you do not ‘hit them with a stone’ but throw stones at them (here the Welsh appears to be as wrong as the English). Of course these two senses are in any case rather beyond the scope of the basic learner’s dictionary.

The text could certainly be improved by a judicious use of collocates or other types of disambiguator to replace the ubiquitous synonyms in cases like exaggerate, where the proffered sense-split between OVERSTATE and OVERCOLOUR (is there such a word?) is unclear to say the least. Likewise at angry, the first translation, given without comment, is followed by a second one introduced by the synonym NASTY. So when does angry mean ‘nasty’? And what does it mean the rest of the time? To take another example, I feel fairly sure that weave does not mean ‘knit’:

weave gwehyddu, KNIT gwau (v)

but the following has me foxed:

via ALONG ar hyd, THROUGH trwy (prep) +S.M.

Equally, the occasional addition of a synonym to a monosemous item such as pebble (STONE) or humorous (FUNNY) is puzzling. It is hard to see what else anyone would assume the word to mean.

At good day! (s.v. day), we are offered a choice of translation according to whether the phrase applies to MORNING, AFTERNOON or EVENING. A good example of losing sight of the point: even if we assume this rather antique English phrase is worth showing, does it ever mean ‘good evening’? Surely not. And in any case the phrase dydd da exists in Welsh and would seem to match well.

‘Translating the indicator’ is a basic lexicographical sin; how much more reprehensible when it is simply a means of sidestepping the entire translation problem! For example:

stationery PAPER papur/–au (m)

Leaving aside the fact that stationery is uncountable and the mindlessly-added Welsh plural therefore irrelevant, the point is that if I had wanted to know the Welsh for paper I would of course have looked up paper and not stationery. As for the translation of stationery, I am still none the wiser.

10. Too few cooks?

WLD appears to be very much a one-man job; even the front cover photograph is by the author. But the fact is that very few people are 100% bilingual, and a bilingual dictionary should not be written solely by a native speaker of only one of the languages involved. Speakers of Standard English simply do not say to look at television or since a fortnight, nor do they give a vote for Plaid Cymru (all offered as translations on Welsh–English). At he mustn’t drink we are offered a choice between the senses THERE’S NO NEED FOR HIM TO DRINK and HE SHOULDN’T DRINK; but does the English phrase ever mean the former? The translation of stingy (which, in the absence of meaning indicators or English phonetics, I take to be pronounced with a ‘soft’ g and to mean ‘tight-fisted’) is puzzling – until one realises that it has been treated as the rather unusual adjective derived from sting, meaning ‘stinging’. Possibly this is the influence of South Walian English; certainly it is hopelessly misleading.

Perhaps it is pedantic to remark that compact disk is properly spelt with a c not a k (as indeed we find it on the Welsh–English side); or that it is a blackboard that you see in a classroom, not just any old black board; or that a Fin is found not in Finland, but on a fish; or that the name of the illness is flu, not – wait for it – ‘flue’ (which should not in any case be shown at the entry influenza, nor, come to that, at flu). Then again, perhaps it is not so very difficult to get these simple things right in the first place. Along with such dubious phrases as to retaliate on someone and a large height, and the frankly silly a car with a flat wheel, these embarrassing errors easily could, and should, have been weeded out, as should some of the many misspellings and literals (peolpe’s for people’s, in order to dome [come], etc.).

10. Conclusion

Much of the foregoing may have given a generally negative impression. But how to assess a Welsh learner’s dictionary? What are we to make of a book that has room for the wind is blowing into the sail but not do you speak Welsh?, or that features snatches from rugby songs and enough technical terms to understand an entire commentary from the Arms Park – but not the word rygbi [‘rugby’] itself? A book which, at the same time, is invaluable in showing so much of the important linguistic information a Welsh learner needs from a dictionary, and rarely gets? Truly, a game of two halves.

By the standards of the more scientifically-produced dictionaries of mainstream languages, this one is weak. But by the standards of what we have for Welsh, it is a small miracle. The text has many shortcomings but they do not alter the fact that this book represents the entry of Welsh into the lexicographical real world. It certainly can, and doubtless will, be improved on; but meanwhile its idiomatic translations, helpful target-language information and (generally) good coverage make WLD, quite simply, the world’s first even half-way decent Welsh bilingual dictionary for learners. Things are looking up. The louse and the flea had better watch out.

1. Vivienne Sayer in Books in Wales, Winter 1998.

Kopleck, H. et al. 1996. Collins Easy Learning French Dictionary. London: HarperCollins Publishers.
Meurig Evans, H., and Thomas, W. O. 1958. Y Geiriadur Mawr [The Complete Welsh Dictionary]. Swansea: Christopher Davies.

Harry Campbell
Freelance Lexicographer

© 2000 Oxford University Press

International Journal of Lexicography, ISSN 0950-3846, Vol. 13, No. 2, June 2000.


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