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Welsh Cymraeg or y Gymraeg is a member of the Brythonic branch of the Celtic languages spoken natively in Wales, and along the Welsh border in England.
Cymraeg evolved from the language spoken by the ancient Celtic Britons. Insular Celtic or P-Celtic arrived in Britain during the Iron Age and was in both Wales and the Hen Ogledd (Old North), the Brythonic-speaking areas of what is now northern England and southern Scotland, including Srathclyde in Scotland which is derived from its former Welsh name. Some shepherds in Cumbria were still counting their sheep in Welsh in the twentieth century.
Hen Gymraeg, 9th to 11th centuries AD
Welsh is usually noted to be the earliest written language within Britain. It is the period of Hen Gymraeg (Old Welsh) that seems to have cultivated a prolific written tradition. Some Old Welsh texts from this period have survived in the form of poetry from Wales and Scotland. However, Old Welsh is only intelligible to a modern-day Welsh speaker with the aid of extensive notes.
The oldest surviving text entirely within Old Welsh is that on a gravestone in Tywyn church that is thought to date from the early 8th century. A text in the Book of St. Chad called the Surexit Memorandum is thought to have been written in the late 8th or the 9th century, but may be a copy of a text from the 6th or 7th centuries. Moreover, the works of the renowned poets Taliesin and Aneririn would have been written in Old Welsh, though the books attributed to them - Canu Taliesin and Llyfer Aneirin - are thought to have been complied towards the end of the 13th century. While this period dates to Middle Welsh, both books contain examples of a more archaic form of Welsh and is theorised to be close to the original versions which would have been handed down orally within the bardic tradition. This is demonstrated within the Llyfr Aneirin as it contains a purpoetedly contemporary account of the battle of Catreath in which a force of warriors from Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) in the northern Brythonic kingdom of Gododdin were slaughtered by a combined army of Angles from the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia. The poem is written as a contemporary elegy for the warriors killed in a battler which is thought it have taken place about 600 AD, predating the fall of Dyn Eidyn in 638.
Cymraeg Canol, 12th-14th centuries AD
Middle Welsh or Cymraeg Canol is reasonably understandable to modern Welsh speakers, albeit with some work. Middle Welsh is notably represented by early legal manuscripts and by early medieaval texts containing the group of stories that came to be known as the Mabinogion. These stories are suffused with pre-Christian myth and legend, are divided into the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, and are found in either or both of the Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch (The White Book of Rhydderch) and Llyfr Coch Hergest (The Red Book of Hergest) that are believed to have been written between the middle of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century.
Dafydd ap Gwilym, a contemporary of these books, flourished in the middle decades of the 14th century. He brought Welsh poetry into the mainstream of European literature. He is recognised as one of the greatest Welsh poets, innovative both in his use of language and in his more personal and colloquial approach to his choice of subject matter.
The famous cleric Gerald of Wales tells a story of King Henry II of England. During one of the King's many raids in the 12th century, Henry asked an old man of Pencader, Carmarthenshire, whether he thought the Welsh language had any chance:
Never will it be destroyed by the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God be added, nor do I think that any other nation than this of Wales, or any other tongue, whatever may hereafter come to pass, shall on the day of the great reckoning before the Most High Judge, answer for this corner of the Earth.
The phonology of Middle Welsh is quite similar to modern Welsh:
- u, which today represents /ɨ/ in North Welsh dialects and /i/ in South Welsh dialects, represented the close central rounded vowel /ʉ/ in Middle Welsh.
- aw is found in unstressed final syllables in Middle Welsh, which today is has become o. For example, marchawc vs. marchog (horseman).
- Similarly,ei and eu have become today ai and au.For example, seith vs saith (seven) and heul vs. haul (sun).
The orthography of Middle Welsh was not standardised. Thus, there is great variation between manuscripts:
- The possessive pronouncs ei (his and her), eu (their) and the proposition i are commonly spelled y. This means that these are spelled the same as the definite article and indirect relative particle y. For example y cath is therefore ambiguous as it could mean 'the cat', 'his cat' and 'to a cat.'
- The voiced stops /d and g/ are represented by the letters t and c at the end of a word. For example, diffryt (protection, modern diffryd) and redec (running, modern rhedeg).
- The sound /k/ is very often spelled k before the vowels e, i and y. In Modern Welsh it is always spelled c for example, keivyn vs. ceifin (third cousins).
Early and Late Modern Welsh, 15th-17th century AD
The 16th century produced important developments for Welsh: in 1546 the first book printed in Welsh appeared, Yn Yr Llyvyr Hwnn (In This Book) by Sir John Price of Brecon; Gruffud Robert published an important Welsh grammar in 1567; and William Morgan, who later became Bishop of Llandaff and then of St Asaph, translated the whole bible from Greek and Hebrew into Welsh for the first time. This was published in 1588 and was a landmark event in the survival of the Welsh language.
In 1536 the passing of the 'Act of Union' of Henry VIII prohibited the use of Welsh in public adminstration and the legal system.
"Henceforth no Person or Persons that use the Welsh Speech or Language shall have or enjoy any manner Office or Fees within this Realm of England, Wales, or other the King's Dominion, upon Pain of forfeiting the same Offices or Fees, unless he or they use and exercise the English Speech or Language".
This act had a disastrous impact on the Welsh language.
Late Modern Welsh
Late Modern Welsh began with the publication of William Morgan's translation of the Bible in 1588. Like its English counterpart, the King James Version, this proved to have a strong stabilizing effect on the language, and indeed the language today still bears the same Late Modern label as Morgan's language. Of course, many changes have occurred since then.
Fortunately, Welsh is a language whose spelling is entirely regular and phonetic.
A, B ,C ,Ch, D, Dd, E, F, Ff, G, Ng, H, I, L, Ll, M, N, O, P, Ph, R, Rh, S, T, Th, U, W, Y
The Vowels, (A, E, I, U, O, W, Y)
- A as in man. Welsh words: am, ac Pronounced the same as in English
- E as in bet or echo. Welsh words: gest (guest); enaid (enide)
- I as in pin or queen. Welsh words: ni (nee); mi (me); lili (lily); min (meen)
- U as in pita: Welsh words: ganu (ganee); cu (key); Cymru (Kumree); tu (tee); un (een)
- O as in lot or moe. Welsh words: o'r (0re); don (don); dod (dode); bob (bobe)
- W as in Zoo or bus. Welsh words: cwm (koom), bws (bus); yw (you); galw (galoo)
- Y has two distinct sounds: the final sound in happy or the vowel sound in myrrh Welsh words: Y (uh); Yr (ur); yn (un); fry (vree); byd (beed)
All the vowels can be lengthened by the addition of a circumflex (ä), known in Welsh as "to bach" (little roof). Welsh words: Tän (taan), län (laan)
- Ae, Ai and Au are pronounced as English "eye": ninnau (nineye); mae (my); henaid (henide); main (mine); craig (crige)
- Eu and Ei are pronounced the same way as the English ay in pray. Welsh words: deisiau (dayshy), or in some dialects (deeshuh); deil (dale or dile); teulu (taylee or tyelee)
- Ew is more difficult to describe. It can be approximated as eh-oo or perhaps as in the word mount. The nearest English sound is found in English midland dialect words such as the Birmingham pronunciation of "you" (yew). Welsh words: mewn (meh-oon or moun); tew (teh-oo)
- I'w and Y'w sound almost identical to the English "Ee-you." or "Yew" or "You": Welsh words: clyw (clee-oo); byw (bee-you or b'you); menyw (menee-you or menyou)
- Oe is similar to the English Oy or Oi. Welsh words: croeso (croyso); troed (troid); oen (oin)
- Ow is pronounced as in the English tow, or low: Welsh word: Rhown (rhone); rho (hrow)
- Wy as in English wi in win or oo-ee: Welsh words: Wy (oo-ee); wyn (win); mwyn (mooin)
- Ywy is pronounced as in English Howie. Welsh words: bywyd (bowid); tywyll (towith)
- Aw as in the English cow. Welsh words: mawr (mour); prynhawn (prinhown); lawr (lour)
For the most part b, d, h, l, m, n, p, r, s, and t are pronounced the same as their English equivalents (h is always pronounced, never silent). Those that differ are as follows:
- C always as in cat; never as in since. Welsh words: canu (Kanee); cwm (come); cael (kile); and of course, Cymru (Kumree)
- Ch as in the Scottish loch or the German ach or noch. The sound is never as in church, but as in loch or Docherty. Welsh words: edrychwn (edrych oon); uwch (youch ), chwi (Chee)
- Dd is pronounced like the English th in the words seethe or them. Welsh words: bydd (beethe); sydd (seethe); ddofon (thovon); ffyddlon (futh lon)
- Th is like the English th in words such as think, forth, thank. Welsh words: gwaith (gwithe); byth (beeth)
- F as in the English V. Welsh words: afon (avon); fi (vee); fydd (veethe); hyfryd (huvrid); fawr (vowr), fach (vach)
- Ff as in the English f. Welsh words: ffynnon (funon); ffyrdd (furth); ffaith (fithe)
- G always as in English goat, gore. Welsh words: ganu (ganee); ganaf (ganav); angau (angeye); gem (game)
- Ng as in English finger or Long Island. Ng usually occurs with an h following as a mutation of c. Welsh words Yng Nghaerdydd (in Cardiff: pronounced ung hire deethe) or Yng Nghymru (in Wales: pronounced ung Humree)
- Ll is an aspirated L. That means you form your lips and tongue to pronounce L, but then you blow air gently around the sides of the tongue instead of saying anything. Got it? The nearest you can get to this sound in English is to pronounce it as an l with a th in front of it. Welsh words: llan (thlan); llawr (thlour); llwyd (thlooid)
- Rh sounds as if the h come before the r. There is a slight blowing out of air before the r is pronounces. Welsh words: rhengau (hrengye); rhag (hrag); rhy (hree)
Welsh Online Resources
- Trinity of David's Dictionary - useful for single word translations
- Lexicon - words and partial words translations
- Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru - historical Welsh dictionary
- Something in Welsh! - Includes several beginner's courses and a Colloquial Welsh grammar guide)
- BBC's Learn Welsh Portal
- English and Welsh Vocabulary (Google Books)
- phrasebook - Travel phrases and pronunciation guide.
- Dialects and Accents of Wales - audio content
Useful Words and Phrases
- Cymru Wales, Cymry the Welsh people and Cymraeg the Welsh language
- Lloegr England, Sais and Englishman, Saeson the English people, Saesneg the English Language, Saesneg (adj.) the English-language, English speaking and Saesnig as in from England
- Bore da Good morning, Prynhawn da Good afternoon, Noswaith da good evening and nos da goodnight.
- Helô Hello
- Sut mae? (North) and Shw mae? (South) How are you?
- Croeso Welcome
- Hwyl Bye
- Hwyl am rwan/nawr Bye for now (North/South)
- Nadolig Llawen Merry Christmas
- Blwyddwyn Newydd Dda Happy New Year
- Penblywdd Hapus Happy Birthday
- Cyfarchion y Tymor Season's greetings
- Pob lwc Good Luck
- Dymuniadau da, Dymuniadau gorau, Pob dymuniad da Best Wishes
- Llongyfarchiadau Congratulations
- Cofion Cynnes Yours (at the end of a Letter)
- Cariad Love, Darling
- Dw i'n dy garu di I love you
- Huw ydw i My name is Huw