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An introduction to the Welsh language

History

The most distinctive factor setting Cymru (Wales) and its people apart from the rest of the British Isles is the Welsh language (Cymraeg), although its use has been in decline since the 17th and 18th centuries. Today it is probably spoken by fewer than 20 % of the population, although this proportion can rise very steeply in the North-West and West of Wales. There are many more Welsh speakers in the Towy valley to the West of Kite Country than in the East. It is an ancient language, descended from a Celtic offshoot of the parent Indo-European group and introduced to Britain from the low countries during the Iron Age. The closest linguistic relatives are Cornish (spoken in the South-West of England) and the French Breton dialect. It was then further influenced by Latin during the Roman occupation and by French after the Norman conquest, although the language spoken today was largely developed by the 6th century.

Interest in the language was revived in the 1980s and an increased emphasis placed on education and the media. There are now Welsh language newspapers, radio and TV stations, such as S4C. Official pubications are nearly always bilingual, as are road signs. Discrimination against Welsh speakers in connection with employment or the provision of services is now also illegal.

The language is not particularly easy to learn and words often seem unpronounceable to the casual observer, although it is always nice if the visitor can manage one or two words or can pronounce place names fairly accurately. In particular, the place-name will often provide geographic clues if several basic words can be remembered. The following quick guide will help you a little, although if you wish to know more there are quite lot of resources on the Web. One of the best places to start is the Welsh dictionary offered by the University of Wales at Aberysthwyth. Also, you could take a look at some of the entries on my Links page.

Pronunciation

Vowels:

 

   

The Welsh vowels are a, e, i, o, u, w and y. All except y have short and long versions:

   

long a

as in "hard"

short a

as in "bad"

long e

as in "name"

short e

as in "bed"

long i

as in "feel"

short i

as in "bit"

long o

as in "more"

short o

as in "hot"

long w

as in "moon"

short w

as in "book"

 

 

The vowel y can be pronounced like "ee" in geese, like "i" in bit or like "u" in run.

 

 

Consonants:

 

 

 

c

as in cat

ch

as in loch

dd

th as in them

f

as in of

g

as in garden

h

as in hat

ll

the hardest to describe as it has no equivalent in English. Try mixing a double L sound with a "ch" as in loch. Failing that, ask a Welshman!

th

as in three

 

 

Some essential words and phrases

 

 

bore da

good morning

prynhawn da

good afternoon

nos da

good night

noswaith dda

good evening

hwyl

goodbye

croeso

welcome

diolch

thank you

dim diolch

no thank you

da

good

da iawn

very good

lechyd da

cheers / good health

merched

women

dynon

men

Cymru am byth

Wales for ever!

   

Place-names

You will find the following components in place-names everywhere. In fact, the usage is so widespread that there can be many villages with the same name, even in a relatively small area. This is why a bit of local knowledge, and especially a good map reference, can help.

 

 

bach

small

bryn

hill

bwylch

pass

cadair

stronghold, chair

caer

fort

capel

chapel

carreg

stone

cefn

ridge

clun

meadow

clydach

torrent

coch

red

coed

forest,wood

crib

crest, summit

cwm

valley

dinas

fort

du

black

fawr

big

ffordd

road

glas

blue

glyn

valley

gwyn

white

gwrydd

green

llyn

lake

mawr

great

mynydd

mountain

nant

valley, stream

newydd

new

ogof

cave

pen

headland

pistyll

waterfall

plas

hall, mansion

pont

bridge

rhiw

slope

rhos

moor, marsh

sarn

causeway, ancient road

tre

town

twr

tower

twyn

hillock

ty

house

ynys

island

 

 

Now you will find that the road sign at the top of the page makes much more sense! To try out your new-found knowledge, take a look at some of the maps in my Information section.

Click pictures to enlarge. Those with a red caption may take a long time to download.
Bwylch road sign
Name this place