If you’ve ever googled just about any question about languages, the chances are you’ll have hit on Omniglot.com, the “Online Encyclopedia of Writing Systems & Lanugages”. Like me, though, you might not have immediately known who the self-effacing, yet immensely talented, language expert behind the site actually is. I finally met Simon Ager at the first Polyglot Gathering back in 2014. At the second Gathering, we presented a workshop on Welsh together.
Simon Ager can tell us about learningn the Celtic languages with the authority of somebody who’s spent time learning all six. This year, the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages, I want to give more attention to minority and lesser used languages here on the site. I’ve already posted on Scottish Gaelic signage and reviewed the recent Edinburgh language meetup (where Gaelic, Scots and Welsh were among the topics) and I was delighted that Simon agreed to an interview about going the whole, Celtic, hog.
Let’s get straight down to it – i fwrdd â ni!
Dr P: What level you are in each language and how long have you been learning each?
Simon Ager: Welsh is my strongest Celtic language. I feel confident speaking and writing it, although I still make mistakes. I can understand almost everything I hear in Welsh, except for very formal and very informal language, and can read it comfortably, understanding almost everything.
I can speak and understand Irish well, and can read and write it fairly well, although not perfectly.
I can have conversations in Scottish Gaelic and Manx, and understand, read and write them fairly well, although I have to look up lots of words.
My knowledge of Cornish and Breton is minimal – I can understand and read Cornish to some extent, but find Breton harder to follow.
Dr P: What was your first Celtic language and why did you start learning?
SA: The first Celtic language I learnt was Welsh. I’ve always been interested in it due to having Welsh roots on my mother’s side of the family. Nobody in the family has spoken it for several generations, as far as I know though.
Dr P: The six languages are relatively similar in structure are there any surprises along the way?
SA: The three Gaelic languages are very similar in vocabulary and grammar and I’ve been collecting cognates that appear in all or most of them. However, they differ in spelling and pronunciation – especially Manx. Manx has a past tense structure like the North Walian past tense with the verb to do – something that the other Gaelic languages don’t have. The Gaelic languages, Breton and Cornish use conjugated prepositions more than Welsh. Cornish and Breton are closer to each other in terms of grammar and vocabulary than Welsh. There are plenty of similarities between Welsh and Cornish in terms of vocabulary, but the structure of Cornish is more like Middle Welsh than modern Welsh.
Dr P: Would you single out any of the languages as particularly difficult to pronounce for an English native-speaker?
SA: Many Welsh learners do seem to find the “ll” sound quite tricky, as also rh, ngh and mh.
The pronunciation of Cornish and Breton isn’t too difficult. Breton has nasalized vowels though, like French and Portuguese, so if you’re not used to them, they might be a bit of a challange.
There are a few sounds in the Gaelic language that learners might find tricky, such as gh (a voiced version of ch), and the distinction between l sounds in Scottish Gaelic. There is also a lot of dialect variation, especially in the pronunciation of vowels. Another challenge when learning these languages is knowing which letters are pronounced and which aren’t, and spelling them.
Dr P: In your experience do regional and dialect differences create extra challenges with any of the languages?
SA: I first learnt Welsh from south Wales, as my mum’s family come from that area. When I went to Nant Gwrtheyrn, the Welsh language and Heritage Centre, to do a course in Welsh, I soon found that the Welsh of the north of Wales differed in quite a few ways from south Wales Welsh. Not just in pronunciation and vocabulary, but also in grammar – one past tense is formed with an auxilary verb in the north, but by conjugating the main verb in the south, for example. After moving to Bangor in 2008 I soon got used to north Wales Welsh, and picked up a north Wales accent.
Another challenge for Welsh learners are the many differences between formal written Welsh, and informal spoken and written Welsh.
Dialect differences in Irish and Scottish Gaelic can also present learners with challanges. These differences are mainly in pronunciation, and to a lesser extent in vocabulary and grammar.
There are apparently many differences between different dialects of Breton, but I don’t know enough about them to be able to say whether they create extra challenges for learners.
There are quite a few different versions of revived Cornish, which differ mainly in spelling and pronunciation. I learnt one version of Cornish, for example, then found other courses in other versions, which was a bit confusing.
There are no dialect or regional differences in Manx, as far as I know.
Dr P: Was the bilingual nature of society where the languages spoken a help or frustration to you as a learner?
SA: As almost everybody who speaks a Celtic language also speaks English, or French in the case of Breton speakers, it can be difficult for learners to convince native speakers to stick the Celtic languages, rather than switching to English or French. I have found this sometimes when speaking Welsh to people in shops, and having them reply in English. Maybe they thought they were helping me. Now that I speak Welsh more fluently, this rarely happens.
Dr P: Do you find that you mix up the languages?
SA: When speaking Welsh I don’t usually get interference from other languages, unless I have been using them a lot. Sometimes Welsh words and phrases pop up when I’m speaking other Celtic languages, and it takes me a bit longer to get into Irish, Scottish Gaelic or Manx mode.
Dr P: While Irish has the most number of speakers on paper and Welsh is the strongest as a living language, Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Breton are under an ever-present threat from language shift to English or French. Do you see any cause for optimism?
SA: There are some causes for optimism. The numbers of Manx and Cornish speakers are increasing, and they tend to be enthusiastic about the languages as they have chosen to learn them, rather than being obliged to do so. In some areas, such as Belfast, there are more and more Irish speakers who are keen to learn and use the language. However, in the gaeltachtaí – areas where Irish is supposedly the main language – the numbers of speakers are falling as people move away to study and work. A community of Scottish Gaelic speakers is growing up around the Gaelic-medium school in Glasgow, and I think similar things are happening in other Scottish cities where there are Gaelic schools.
Dr P: How do you develop and maintain your Celtic languages?
SA: I speak Welsh whenever I can, and go to Ireland every summer for a week or two to learn more Irish language and songs. I go to Scotland fairly regularly to learn Scottish Gaelic songs and to practise speaking Gaelic. Somestimes I go to music and culture festivals is Cornwall and the Isle of Man, and get to practise my Manx, Cornish, and other Celtic languages. I listen to the radio regularly, mainly in Welsh, and sometimes in the other languages. I read books in Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. I listen to audio books and podcasts, and read books, news, blogs and other material. I regularly write posts on Facebook, Instagram and other social media in Welsh, and sometimes in the other languages.
Dr P: When I learn a new language, I always feel it’s like a whole new world opening up. Are there any discoveries that have given you special joy as you’ve learned these languages?
SA: Being able to understand and speak these languages gives me a lot of joy. I enjoy finding connections between the Celtic languages, especially between the Brythonic and Gaelic languages. I have been collecting cognates that appear in all or most of them
Dr P: Diolch yn fawr am y sgwrs! Thanks for the conversation!
Ten reasons to learn Welsh ; Ten ways to support Welsh, even if you don’t speak the language ; How to remember the gender of Welsh nouns and when it matters ; Dr Popkins Method? Getting fluent in Welsh ; The visibility of Scottish Gaelic: a signage safari ;