Friday, January 25, 2008

Thoughts on Learning Welsh

Fionnchú left some interesting questions on yesterday's post. I answered him there, but I thought I'd put some of that commentary on top, too, and expand a bit on it.

Practice essays: He comments: "Since I try similar practice essays in my bumbling Irish, I wonder how you find such exercises? It's hard to 'make' myself attempt to compose as if thinking for a phrase or two (at best) in broken Irish rather than writing the English down and translating backwards, but it's the only way to wrap one's mind into the other language's 'tracks.'"

My comments: I am currently trying to do more of these pieces. I think it's valuable as an additional step beyond starting to think in the language, in that writing it down lets you try to get all the details (mutations etc) right in what you were just thinking. Writing in English first somewhat defeats the purpose. The trick, I think, is to write about something your active vocabulary almost covers, so you can manage that first coherent thinking step. I mostly mentally "wrote" this one on my way to work that morning (fortunately the traffic was light!) then wrote it down and improved it. The difficulty of course is getting your vocabulary up to that level in the first place; particularly for someone living in North America, this requires continual work and revision to reach and stay at that level.

On learning Welsh for the Gaelic speaker, he comments: "I wonder if you could recommend for a learner of Irish which dialect of Welsh might be easier to grasp. I have not found any advice for what may be admittedly a very limited demographic of students! My hunch based on history leans southward."

My comments: That's an interesting question. I think it partly depends on what you plan to do with the Welsh. For reading purposes there are not a lot of differences between North and South Wales other than the varied forms of the verb "to be", the affirmative marker mi/fe, masculine third person (f)o/(f)e, and a few matters of vocabulary. So if you want to read the news on BBC Cymru, for example, the Hugo book or equivalent should cover the ground for you. Once you start talking, of course, it's more complicated. That's when you find out the North and South are broad generalizations, with local variations in each.

On a broader note, I was interested to find both how similar and how different Welsh and Gaelic are. The "bones" of the languages - the way they deal with a variety of constructions - clearly show their close relationship, but the basic vocabulary is more different than I expected, even for very simple things like "mother" and "father", or numbers from one to ten. A fascinating comparison.

If you want a taste of Welsh, and a chance to ask language questions of some excellent teachers, a good resource is the Cymdeithas Madog one-week intensive course, held every summer in July somewhere in North America. This year's course is in Indianola, Iowa, just south of Des Moines, on July 13-20. I highly recommend it!


  1. Thanks for the thoughts! I'm not interested in talking so much as reading Celtic languages. It's not that practical, given my isolation from the homelands, to need to know how to chat up girls and ask for clean pillows from the hotel clerk or order drinks at the bar, much as I may fantasize!

    I read (and reviewed a few months ago on Amazon; Tre Gwernin's links to your own Listmanias were great, by the way, and I cast a few 'yes' votes) Guy Deutscher's "The Evolution of Language." Not a linguist myself, I always wondered why languages start off so complicated before simplifying. Buried in his book, he suggests that irregular verbs do not shift over time since they are used so much, there's no real chance for them to evolve as much as words used less often. Perhaps this relates to Welsh vs. Irish regarding basic terms such as counting and parents? These might be rooted in pre-Celtic languages, similar to the different words in each language for water-- so elemental that few invaders can eradicate them.

    Another question I tried finding a coherent answer to: how did the earliest Welsh warp so quickly from Brythonic? My shelf's not as well stocked as yours, but Joy Chant's "The High Kings" suggested that this reflected a psychological collapse: "British, a language comparable to Latin, lost its syntax and structure, even changed its sound, to become Welsh, in barely three generations. Men and women who had learned British at their mother's knee might have heard their grandchildren speaking a different tongue. It was as if the language of Dickens and Mark Twain were to be unintelligible to us." (8-9)

    Deutscher made a related point, using the word "wicked" and how two old ladies today even employ it doubtless differently than teenagers. He shows that this evolution is never a conscious decision of one person, but attempts to chart the gradual unmoorings of the language that inevitably erode and distort words, often over a very short duration. What Chant leaves me wondering is how the entire language could have been so twisted in a century.

  2. Hi fionnchu - to hit a few of your points lightly:

    Listomanias & reviews - glad you liked the lists. The Deutscher book sounds interesting. I may have to look for a copy. Certainly the seriuosly irregular verbs in Welsh are the same five as in Gaelic (be,go,come,get, make/do).

    Re: the rapid evolution of early Welsh: this is an interesting question, and I'm no linguest. More on this in my next post.