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Myths about Welsh

That’s myths in the sense of misconceptions and fallacies, not legends and stories. ‘Old chestnuts’ might be an alternative name. Welsh (and worse, the word ‘Celtic’) attracts a certain percentage of people whose grasp on reality is not all it might be. It also attracts the eternal scorn of the English. Thus, beware of what you hear said about the language, since some of it is, frankly, ignorant nonsense. Here are some myths you see frequently retailed, sometimes with the best of intentions.

Welsh is a dead language

Fewer people (in Britain at least) believe this than a few years ago. The language has a very high profile these days. But plenty of people who haven’t been to the Welsh-speaking heartlands in the North and West are sceptical about, or even scornful of, the way the language now commands such a high level of official acceptance, and hence, spending. It’s a thing of the past, they claim. Why can’t the Welsh just speak English?

Well, for better or worse, it’s taken for granted these days that people have a right to speak their own native language in their own country. Only a few decades ago this was far from accepted: official things happened in English and you were expected to conduct all your public affairs, from paying your gas bill to appearing in court, in what might be a totally foreign language you never choose to use and perhaps had never really learned to a high level. (For an account of the struggle to gain official acceptance of Welsh, see the National Library of Wales’ pages Ymgyrchu!, ‘Campaign!’, at http://www.llgc.org.uk/ymgyrchu/index-e.htm.)

There are currently about half a million people who say they can speak Welsh, and perhaps as many again who have some knowledge of the language. How many of these are first-language speakers, and how many actually use the language every day in preference to English, it’s hard to say, but there are certainly plenty who are and do. And therefore, since a knowledge of Welsh is increasingly desirable if not obligatory in the job market, there are plenty of people learning the language, whether at school or as adults – probably well over 100,000 at any one time. Whatever your views on the desirability of pro-Welsh policies or the long-term future of Welsh, it’s very far from a dead language.

Welsh is a dying language

In terms of numbers of speakers and areas where the language is spoken, Welsh has been in decline for centuries. After all, if you go far enough back into history, Welsh (or something like it) was spoken over large parts of what is now the United Kingdom, and of course there was a time when nearly all of Europe spoke some form of Celtic. But like Irish and Scots Gaelic, Welsh has shrunk away into the western fringes of the territory it once occupied, its geographical heartlands today being the north and west of Wales, though there are (or were until recently) a few rural communities just over the border into England that spoke Welsh, as well as some in South America. In terms of numbers of speakers, there was actually a rise during the early 19th century, with the rise in the Welsh population as a whole caused by the Industrial Revolution, and the highest figures are recorded around the turn of the 20th century (about a million); but the percentage of Welsh-speakers was already falling, and the Welsh-speaking area shrinking. (For detailed information on this see Aitchison and Carter’s Geography of the Welsh Language.) Meanwhile in Patagonia, the descendants of the Welsh colonists of 1865 have become hispanicised and Welsh speakers are now in a minority.

So if the graph is relentlessly downward, is it only a matter of time till Welsh becomes extinct? To answer that we need to look at the nature of the threat to the language. For many years Welsh-speaking Wales was a ‘diglossic’ society: the language was only used in certain areas of life (for example, the home or the chapel or the farm). But thanks to the efforts of the language campaigners of the 1960s and 70s (see above), people in Wales can now live every area of life in Welsh if they choose to. The language is welcomed and protected, rather than rejected, by the authorities. More people are learning Welsh than ever before, and the census figures are actually beginning to turn the corner, most strikingly among young (school-age) people in long-since-anglicised areas.

Nowadays, the threat is demographic: immigration from outside Wales, known as the mewnlifiad (‘influx’). Those who buy holiday cottages or retirement homes, typically in attractive but economically depressed and thinly populated rural areas, have the effect of driving up house prices so that locals can no longer afford to live there, and such people are unlikely to learn and use the language. In the case of young families, the children will be taught some Welsh at school, but may or may not choose to speak it elsewhere or bring up their own children in Welsh.

So, the language in its traditional role as the unselfconscious speech of age-old communities is indeed under threat. What sort of role Welsh will play in a hundred years’ time is an interesting question. But it is certainly not about to die out. In fact its survival seems more assured than ever, such is the accumulated weight of goodwill and official favour behind it.

Welsh is difficult

Many people believe, or assume, that Welsh is a difficult language to learn, full of harsh consonants, fiendishly hard to pronounce, divided into a range of mutually unintelligible regional dialects, and complicated by confusing ‘mutations’ that change the initial letters of words so you can’t recognise them.
Welsh has numerous dialects and subdialects which vary in phonetics [ . . . ] Welsh has probably the largest number of consonant mutations [ . . . ] Lenited and nasalized [i.e., mutated?] sounds are sometimes unique, as the Welsh ll which is extremely hard to idenitfy or to pronounce [in fact LL is unmistakeable and never the result of mutation].
<http://www.geocities.com/babaus/suggest.html>
Honestly, it isn’t that bad. Any language has its difficulties – enjoyable challenges, if you like learning languages, but just frustrating obstacles if not. For example, it’s true that the dreaded mutations are a new sort of difficulty you won’t have met if you haven’t studied a Celtic language before. Even advanced learners have trouble getting them right all the time. And of course, in affecting the beginning of the word, they make using a dictionary more complicated in the case of Welsh than with languages which add endings to words. But they don’t often affect your chances of simply being understood, as opposed to speaking 100% correct Welsh, and from the point of view of understanding what others say or write they are really not such a big problem.

As for pronunciation, some people have trouble pronouncing sounds like the rolled R, the fricative CH (though both these are found in many other languages), the aspirated RH and of course the (in)famous LL, an unusual sound known in the trade as a voiceless lateral fricative. But these problems are often mostly in the mind, and, again, the chances of your inauthentic pronunciation causing a genuine breakdown in communication are fairly small.

The extent to which regional variation causes learners real problems is an age-old subject for debate. The differences are often exaggerated. They might be compared to the differences between British and American English, or European and Latin American Spanish. Yes of course, you will occasionally come across someone who speaks an unfamiliar dialect or whose accent is so broad that you have real difficulty understanding them, but then that can happen in English, which has a huge range of widely differing accents. It’s the same when you meet someone who speaks so quietly or indistinctly that you can hardly make out what they’re saying. It’s not a reason to panic or feel stupid.

Welsh and Breton speakers can understand each other

For generations, onion-sellers from Brittany operated a seasonal door-to-door trade to many parts of Britain. Of course Breton and Welsh are related languages and from this grew the idea that the onion-sellers simply spoke Breton and were understood by their Welsh customers. It’s a good story but not to be taken literally: certainly there is much that a Welsh speaker can recognise in Breton, and no doubt the visiting Bretons would have developed some ability to communicate with their customers in Welsh, but the two languages are not as close as all that.

The Eisteddfod is run by druids

Apparently the druids of antiquity were not wiped out by the Romans: they have survived in Wales, and can be seen presiding over the annual Eisteddfod! In fact, almost nothing is known about the druids, and the association between the Eisteddfod and the ‘Gorsedd of Bards of the Island of Britain’ is just a nineteenth-century romantic invention.

The Eisteddfod is a nineteenth-century romantic invention

No, some of the trappings may be modern but the Eisteddfod goes back to the early Middle Ages at least. Again, see Gwybodiadur’s pages on the Eisteddfod.

America was discovered by a Welshman

There is certainly no shortage of contenders for the first European to set foot in America. The only thing everyone agrees on is that it was almost certainly not Christopher Columbus. One of them is Madog, a Welsh prince who really existed in the twelfth century, and supposedly made it across the Atlantic (and back). But no-one takes that idea very seriously. More on the Madog (Madoc) legend from the Madog Centre of the Rio Grande University, Ohio.

There is a tribe of American Indians who speak Welsh

Amazing, eh? You may think this is a bit too good to be true, and as they say, if something sounds too good to be true then it probably is. Anyway it’s a charming tale: Prince Madog, the discoverer of America (see above), travelled up the Mississippi River and met a tribe of Indians called the Mandan. He made friends with them and showed them how to build forts and make boats (presumably it had never occurred to them to stretch a piece of hide over some pieces of wood to make a thing that would float). The result is Native Americans who are tall and fair-haired and use boats a bit like coracles. And, depending on how amazing a tale you can believe, they speak a language which is just like Welsh, or at least contains a few words that resemble a few words of Welsh.

It’s a lovely story, but it’s just a story.

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll-
llantysiliogogogoch

Everyone who has heard of Wales has heard of a famously long and unpronounceable placename beginning, like so many Welsh placenames, Llanfair (‘the church of Saint Mary’). It’s variously ‘translated’ as ‘St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the rapid whirlpool of Llantysilio of the red cave’, or ‘St. Mary’s Church by the white aspen over the whirlpool, [and] St. Tysilio’s by the red cave’ – or something along those lines. Yes, there is such a place, a village on the coast of Anglesey, real name Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, often abbreviated to Llanfairpwll or Llanfair PG. But this 58-letter monstrosity is an invention of the nineteenth-century tourist industry. To be boringly realistic, it’s hardly likely such a huge name would be in regular use. The twentieth-century Welsh tourist industry has invented an even longer, and more nonsensical, one to beat it (Gorsafawddachaidraigodanheddogleddolonpenrhynareurdraethceredigion, 66 letters of very bad fake Welsh), so it’s no longer the longest placename in Wales, and anyway I believe even longer ones are claimed for New Zealand and Thailand (see http://yourdictionary.com/library/article009.html).

A comparable piece of hokum would be the story of Gelert the faithful hound after whom Beddgelert is often said to be named (the story is a genuine old folk legend, but unconnected with the place). All harmless fun I suppose, as long as no-one is taken in, but unfortunately people will believe any old nonsense about Wales.

Some links:

There is a very detailed 5-minute pronunciation tutorial (downloadable MP3) at http://wri.cymru.net/celtic/notes/notidx.htm. The ‘longest URL on the Web’, http://www.llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.com, has been registered by the domain name registration and hosting company Internetters.co.uk, though there's nothing much there; http://www.nwi.co.uk/llanfair/say.htm is defunct.

More about Welsh names here.

Welsh tartans

Er, no. Believe it or not you can now buy a ‘Welsh kilt’ (sorry ‘cilt’). Certain entrepreneurs would like you to believe that the Welsh, too, have tartans, and even that they correspond to Welsh family names, just as they are supposed to do in Scotland. Yes, tartan itself is a genuine Scottish tradition, but even there the connection with surnames or clans is a romantic invention, and there’s certainly no such thing in Wales. No kilts either. Sorry.

Check and striped patterns on skirts and blankets are traditional, as they must be in many countries, but that isn’t tartan. However, Wales does have some traditional geometric patterns used for woollen rugs and bedspreads. They are not as old as tartan or as well-known, but they are just as distinctive, and they are genuinely Welsh. We could certainly think of them as the Welsh equivalent of tartan. You can see one typical pattern down the left side of this page, and many others here.

More about Welsh costume here.

‘A elfyntodd dwyr sinddyn duw’ etc

The following strange concoction crops up from time to time, described as an ancient Welsh curse or mystic Celtic spell or whatever: A elfyntodd dwyr sinddyn duw cerrig yr fferllurig nwyn os syriaeth ech saffaer tu fewr echlyn mor necrombor llun. I’ve also seen it laid out thus:

A elfyntodd dwyr sinddyn duw
cerrig yr fferllurig nwyn;
os syriaeth ech saffaer tu
fewr echlyn mor, necrombor llun.

Whichever, it’s nonsense. I know not who invented it[1] or why but I sometimes wish they would get a life. Some of the words are in fact Welsh words; one desperate attempt to make sense of them ran as follows: ‘O elements of water which lead? the god of rocks that chainmail/some sort of mail hunger if knighthood your sapphire the great side of the axis as dark as the moon.’

Ah, how true that is.

[1] The fragment appears to come from the historically spurious ‘Book of Pheryllt’, claimed to be a medieval writing-down of druidic oral tradition. Fferyllt (or Fferyll or Pheryllt), first found in John Davies’ dictionary of 1632, is a Welsh translation of the name of Virgil, the Roman poet whose verses were traditionally used as a means of divination, and who hence gained a posthumous reputation as a wizard of some sort. The ‘Book of Pheryllt’ is apparently the work of Iolo Morgannwg, most famous for his invention of the ‘druidic’ element in the modern Eistedddfod. See What is the Book of Pheryllt? by Lisa L. Spangenberg, the ‘Digital Medievalist’, at http://www.digitalmedievalist.com/faqs/pheryllt.html. (Diolch i Andrew Hawke am hyn)


© 1999–2002 Harry Campbell
Last updated: November 2003

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