Differences Between Welsh and English

(The following essay was written for ADF's Indo-European Language module. It has been slightly edited for this site. - G. R. Grove)

My native language is English, but over the years I have studied a number of other Indo-European languages formally or informally, including Latin, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Welsh and Scots Gaelic; however, the only one of these in which I currently approach fluency is Welsh. For several years I have been one of three people teaching this language informally for the Colorado Welsh Society, and the experience has given me ample opportunity to observe the ways in which Welsh differs from English, and the effects of these differences on Welsh learners.

Although they share a considerable amount of vocabulary and grammar with the other Indo-European languages, the modern Celtic languages as a group differ from their nearest neighbors (the Latin and Germanic languages) in several ways. Aside from a number of phonological changes, more obvious to the professional linguist than to the amateur, the main differences are as follows:

1. No Celtic language has a finite verb signifying possession equivalent to English have (Russell 13). Instead, a construction is used such as Welsh Mae car gyda fi, literally “there is a car with me,” rather than “I have a car.”

2. The normal sentence order in Modern Welsh is VSO, verb –> subject – > object, as opposed to English’s SVO order (King 21-28; Brake and ap Myrddin 19, 25). This order is only inverted to SVO in special cases, such as emphasis (e.g, Siôn ydy’n dod – “John is coming [not Dafydd]”) or identity (Siôn ydw i – “John am I”) constructions.

3. The modern insular Celtic languages share a system of initial sound changes in words depending on their syntactical use, of which the Welsh system is possibly the most complex. These changes are called mutations (or sometimes, by learners, “mutilations”). As an example, the word plant (“children”) can also appear as phlant, blant or mhlant, depending on its position in the sentence and relationship to other words. This is as integral a part of Welsh as case endings are to German or Latin (King 14).

4. Unlike English, Welsh lacks the indefinite article (“a”, “an”) (King 29). In addition, it has two different words for “in”: mewn “in a/an” and yn “in [something definite]”.

5. Unlike English, but like many other European languages, Welsh nouns have grammatical gender (either male or female). The language has no natural or grammatical neutral gender (“it”), and inanimate objects have a more or less randomly assigned grammatical gender (King 40).

6. Unlike English, but like many other European languages, adjectives (with a few exceptions) follow the noun they modify. The exceptions have a different meaning depending on whether they precede or follow the modified noun (King 71). The classic example is given in the proverb unig fab yw mab unig – “an only son is a lonely son.”

7. In common with other Celtic languages, Welsh has a set of “inflected” prepositions which change their form when used with pronouns but not with nouns (King 268). Thus i Gymru “to Wales”, but iddat ti “to you”, iddi hi “to her”, iddyn nhw “to them”.

8. Welsh has no exact equivalent to English “yes” or “no” (King 324). In general, questions are answered using a verb form appropriate to the person (e.g., Wyt ti’n mynd yfory? “Are you going tomorrow?” – Ydw or Nag ydw – literally “I am” or “I am not”). The two exceptions are questions using the preterite tense (Est ti ddoe? “Did you go yesterday?”), which are answered with do “yes” or naddo “no” regardless of person, and focused questions (Chi sy ’di neud hon? “Did you do this?”), which are answered with ie “yes” or nage “no” in all cases.

Although this list is by no means exhaustive, it serves to highlight some of the more striking differences between English and Welsh which confront the learner. On the other hand, modern spoken Welsh contains an increasing number of borrowings from English, as well as other cognates derived from Latin and from its common Indo-European heritage. These borrowings and cognates help to smooth the learner’s path once the subtleties of the Welsh spelling system are understood. Thankfully, the spelling and pronunciation of the standard language, despite regional dialectical differences, is fairly straightforward, unlike the situation with English (and modern Irish).

In additional to those features listed above, however, there is also another complication. As well as a number of spoken dialects of Modern Welsh, there also exists a formal written version of the language called Literary Welsh. To quote King (3), Literary Welsh “is no one’s native language. All those who know how to read it [and write it], whether Welsh speakers or not, have been taught. In this sense it is an artificial language – consciously planned and designed to standardize the written language at the time of the translation of the Bible into Welsh (sixteenth century).” This is the formal Welsh of literature, about which more later.

Works Cited

Brake, Phylip and Mair ap Myrddin. Welsh in Three Months. London, Dorling Kindersley Ltd, 1999. Print.

King, Gareth. Modern Welsh[:] A Comprehensive Grammar. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Russell, Paul. An Introduction to the Celtic Languages. London and New York: Longman, 1995. Print.

All material copyright 2012 by G. R. Grove