Why bigger fools look on when it comes to Welsh

At 16 I took my obligatory Welsh GCSE like all the others in my year group. Lessons were often disrupted, few teenagers like to be told they have to do something, and we often questioned the validity and originality of Welsh as a modern language.

Helô – Hello
Dw’n hoffi siocled a coffi – I like chocolate and coffee
Dim parcio – No parking
Ble mae’r toiled? – Where’s the toilet?

It’s not difficult to see what many of us latched onto in our criticism as so many words seemed like a rehash of their English counterparts. You can see why we rolled our eyes when confronted with something that only supported our ill-informed idea that Welsh was a pointless language, not worthy of our time.

Sadly this idea is no longer limited to moody teenagers trying to score a free lesson. In recent years, especially in the last year, I have noticed an increasing amount of negativity around the adaptation of certain ‘English’ words into Welsh and not just from those living in Wales. When reputable media outlets and even the state broadcaster start calling the utility of Welsh into question, then we really have a problem.

The belief that Welsh is alone in copying, borrowing or using words from other languages shows just how ignorant society has become of the very words we all speak.

Let’s take English as an example. It should come as no surprise to anyone that English didn’t just fall from the sky. Most of us can recognise its French and German roots and anyone who has read any Chaucer and Shakespeare will have seen how English has evolved over the centuries. But English isn’t just the child of our Saxon settlements and the Norman invasion. Thanks to its maritime history, vast empire, and modern day ubiquity, English contains words from almost every corner of the world.

If you are au fait with your au pair having an aperitif and canapé in a local cafe before picking up your infant at the local crèche, then you have to accept English has been copying French nouns almost verbatim for centuries.

You (de) don’t (de) even (de) have (de) to (de) try (fr) so (de) hard (de) to (de) find (de) French (de – surprisingly) or other (de) languages (Latin) in English. Not all (de) of us can afford an au pair (fr), for example (Latin). In (de) this (de) paragraph (Greek) alone you (de) will (de) find (de) words (de) from (de) all (de) over (de) the (de) world (look this one up!). And that’s a fairly simplified etymology. Many of these words can be expanded to distinct groups of people and then further to what we are all essentially speaking in Europe, Proto-Indo-European (and if you’re really interested in that, go research Lithuanian!).

The point, I hope, is clear. To make fun of Welsh for copying words from its dominant compatriot, especially words that have only entered common vocabulary in the last 100 years, would be to poke fun at your own language, whatever that may be. We all share vocabulary and we (mostly) all share a common root. Languages, just as humans, are mongrels, a mix of everything beautiful that has come before.

Also published on Medium.

I would love to hear your thoughts…
  1. Paul Richards says:

    I think a lot of words in Cymraeg come from old Latin (or what ever Roman Soldiers used). If you take a word beginning with Gw in Welsh and replace it with ‘V’ you might be looking at a Layinate word..Gwin Vin or Gwariad Varaiad etc. Welsh has Bendigedig clearly Benedicio .. Good word. There are so many words in modern Welsh that have a really old Latin origen. One that does not is Betws Anglo Saxon Christians taking refuge in Wales gave us ‘bued hus’ Prayer house.. Betws.

    • rob says:

      You have to love etymology, Paul. We as a society love soundbites, so when people say “Welsh is older than Latin”, I always tell people to look at the Welsh word for window “ffenestr” and compare to modern day Romance languages. While it is probably true people have been speaking Pre-modern-day-Welsh longer than Roman-time-Latin, there are several cross overs and eventually they will likely share a common root.

  2. Rhodri Hampson-Jones says:

    The mistake is that the English is no more than a french dialect. After all is Eau de toilette English or French? The English language as a language has already died an has been replaced by mainly French such as Cafe, Reastaurant, Cul de sac. station etc. Modern languages are adopting modern terms such as the word computer. Welsh word for it is cyfrifiadur. But lazy Welsh speakers would still say computer. Having had comments you mentioned directed at me wheni lived in England my view we should try and speak more of the Welsh with less English words . Of course there will always be occasions when you have to revert to the English.

    • Martin Proctor says:

      Well it’s going a bit far to say English is a French dialect since (most) of the vocabulary for basic things comes from a Germanic root (to be, to go, to eat, to drink, to sleep, all our pronouns etc. etc.). That said about 40% of English Vocabulary is coming from French if I remember rightly. Rough & ready rule: If it’s something related to the nobility in the middle ages then usually French, if the poor then usually Germanic. Chair vs. Stool, Plate vs. Board, Sheep vs. Mutton, Cow vs. Beef etc. etc.
      It annoys me no end when someone says Welsh or any other language is useless because it has borrowed words from other languages because it inevitably shows a complete and utter ignorance for their own. Sadly I have encountered this attitude in every country I have been which has a mixture of languages with one or more being dominant compared to the others.

  3. Wyn ap Gwilym says:

    Y mae hi’n ddiddorol i edrych ar geiriau o’r ochr iaith Nostrataidd.
    It is fascinating to look at Welsh words in their context of nostratic origin- I.e. in relation to the root vocabulary used by early man following the original migration out if East Africa.
    To whet your appetite, certain words of fear or common use have similar vowels but a modified consonant:
    Snake (English)=neidr (Welsh)=naga(Hindi)=noki(Roviana, Pacific Island).=noga(Tswana)=neke(maori)

  4. Ben Davies says:

    This has been going on for decades. Transcoding is also a feature of countries with more than one language and causes no end of mirth amongst the monoglot majority. Ignorance is bliss. But it’s ignorance nonetheless. Educating proud ignoramuses is a challenge.

  5. Colin Williams says:

    I recently started speaking Welsh and my mate was taking the mickey and asked what “kebab” was in Welsh. I politely pointed out that kebab was a word English had borrowed from another language probably Turkish.

  6. Ian says:

    How come that Police is almost identical all over the world yet in Welsh Heddlu, where does that come from?

    • rob says:

      Hi Ian, Heddlu is a combination of two words: hedd (“peace”) +‎ llu (“force”). Basically a Keeper of the Peace in English. All Celtic languages I know of, aside from Breton, use this idea of Guardian/Keeper/Enforcer of the peace (see Gaelic Garda Síochána). Not sure where it comes from though!

  7. The power of English is that it has absorbed so many words, not just european ones but also from the Raj – Chutney, Bungalow, Shampoo etc. and it can be mangled but understood. You often find people use English as a lingua franca. Like a Norwegian in Japan. Neither speak grammatically correct English but they can grasp the meaning
    However there are concepts in other languages that can’t be expressed or comprehended in English. Near approximations but not exactly.
    I feel that that’s the value of Welsh and other languages. A different set of referents and base concepts.

    • rob says:

      Completely agree John, the value in all languages is the cultural code embedded within. That is why when we lose a language, we lose a part of our shared culture / history. I am actually writing a post on that right now 🙂


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