This is for you if you’re thinking of learning Cymraeg – the Welsh language – yourself or just interested in finding out more about it. Even if the language you’re eying up isn’t Welsh, this post my well help you get clear on your underlying “whys”. It’s an important step when you’re thinking of taking on a new lingo. Clarity of purpose will help keep you going along the way.
Welsh is spoken by 500,000+ people in Wales, a country which along with England, Scotland and Northern Ireland forms the United Kingdom. Welsh is a language in the Celtic group only a very distant relative of English (a Germanic language).
For me, Welsh is personal. My name and surname are both Welsh and this was my paternal grandfather’s first language. It’s part of my family heritage. After my native English, it was the first language that I got fluent in. I began learning it as a young adult. I’ve been a fluent Welsh-speaker and participant in Welsh culture for over half of my life and it’s an important part of my identity. I’ve also trained to teach Welsh to adults and taught a little. It’s high time I started writing more about it here on the site.
Let’s look Welsh-ward!
1. You’re Welsh or of Welsh descent and want your language back.
If you were born in Wales, moved there as a child or later on, it’s odds on you’re one of the 80% of the population who don’t speak the language.
Still, if you have family links with Wales, then probably somewhere in your family tree you’ll find someone who spoke the language.
Your roots really don’t even have to be particularly deep. After all, Welsh has been the only language of most of the Welsh population for almost all the nation’s 1500 year history. Even in 1891, 51% of people in Wales spoke the language, including many assimilated incomers of differing ethnic backgrounds.
If you do feel the pull of the language for reasons of identity and feel you’re missing out, well, then, you are.
If you’re an English monoglot, you only have one culture, instead of two. It’s not your fault, but “you was robbed”, disinherited by state structures which marginalised (and marginalise) the language quite deliberately and by ancestors who, faced with this, didn’t pass the language on.
The good news though is that as an adult – with commitment, practice and time – you too can learn the language. You can regain a lost inheritance, finding new community and a new perspective along the way.
That’s what happened to me.
Even if you don’t learn the language yourself, there are many things you can still do to support the growth of the Welsh community (look out for a post on that soon here on Howtogetfluent).
If you do take the plunge, though, you may well find that learning Welsh is a life-changing and life-affirming step.
It’s an experience one charged with emotion for many new speakers from a Welsh background who often experience a feeling of joyous homecoming.
2. You are British….no, you’re REALLY British or love the real Britain.
Well, “Prydeinwr” (Briton), Welsh is your culture too. The very word Britain (Prydain in Welsh) is of Welsh origin.
To be more accurate, it’s “Brythonic”. That’s the language from which Modern Welsh has evolved.
In Roman times, Brythonic was spoken right across the island of Britain, as far north as what’s now southern Scotland.
That’s why there are Welsh place-names in Scotland and in England.
“Glasgow” derives from the “Glas Cau”, “Green Hollow” in Brythonic, the parent of Welsh (“glas” is still a word for green in modern Welsh). London itself is probably a Brythonic name.
In the north west of England, in what is now the county of Cumbria, a variant of Welsh was spoken until maybe the twelfth century. The very name Cumbria is a related at root to “Cymru”, the Welsh word for Wales)
When I was a kid in Yorkshire, in the north of England, we lived for a while in a village called Barwick in Elmet. The name refers to the local Welsh kingdom of Elfed (which disappeared in the seventh century).
Welsh was spoken in the English counties which adjoin Wales for centuries after the current 1300-year-old border between Wales and England because established (into the mid-nineteenth century in Herefordshire, for example). There are still a few “indiginous” Welsh-speakers today in Oswestry (Croesoswallt in Welsh) in Shropshire, which even has a Welsh bookshop.
Sadly, English then “British” (sic) Imperial identity wanted to erase Welsh. In 1535 King Henry VIII of England passed an act which in effect attempted to abolish Wales and the Welsh language. It’s only since the 1990s, thanks mainly to the establishment of a devolved Welsh assembly and government, that the serious work of unpicking an anti-Welsh legacy has begun.
The institutions of the British state, however, still systematically marginalise the language. Norman French still has a role in Britain’s parliament , but Welsh remains banned. The language is ignored in schools in England. On Paddington Station, the main London train terminus for Wales, you can buy tickets in French, German or Polish, but not Welsh.
The Welsh as a group, and their language, are still routinely denigrated in the London media, print and broadcast.
The clincher is the Union Flag. Its crosses represent England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Wales is ignored because, ya’know, Henry VIII abolished Wales.
It could be so different.
For a start, how about adding the yellow Welsh cross of St David to the mix, or replacing the blue background from Scotland’s St Andrew’s flag with green?
Then we could have a real British identity which incorporated all the cultures of Britain, rather than just acting as a cover for imposing the values of the English upper class. Who knows, it might even help us find our place more comfortably in the post-Imperial world. The Welsh are the original British Europeans, after all.
And if you’re reading this from abroad (I’m based in London), do the Welsh and Scottish a favour, will you? Remember that not all Brits are English and modify your own language to reflect this. I’m sick of hearing about “the English government” and so on in the German, French and Russian media, when they’re really referring to the United Kingdom state.
Erm, back on track: on current, hardly blinding form, the UK could well cease to exist before it manages to reform itself, but you don’t have to wait. Learn Welsh! Become a real Briton for a better Britain!
3. Integrating into a Welsh-speaking community.
Maybe “being Welsh” is not the issue for you. Maybe you’ve simply moved into an area with a high percentage of Welsh speakers or you’re in a work-place where Welsh is the main language…..and want to know what’s going on.
In areas where there’s in-migration by large numbers of people who don’t integrate it undermines Welsh as a natural, community language. That’s what virtually killed it off for a while in the valleys of south east Wales (along with aforesaid state language policies). When the numbers of non-speakers of a subordinate language like Welsh reach maybe 20 to 30% in a community, the dominant language tends to take over in a domino effect.
The natives are generally far too polite for their own good, so the onus may well be on you. Don’t be the monoglot spanner, the cultural insensitive wreaking harm on something unique.4. You’re in a Welsh network or you want to join one
In many parts of Wales, linguistic shift took place a century or more ago and English has become the dominant community language (you’ll even find the odd blockhead telling you with all the confidence of the truly ignorant that “there’s never been Welsh spoken here”. They’re often local councillors from the British Labour party, the last refuge of the British Empire. Oh, don’t we just love it?).
Often there were still be many Welsh speakers about, it’s just that it won’t be immediately obvious.
It’s now all about networks.
When I was learning, building such networks from scratch was a key to my success. It could be for you too, unless you’re lucky enough to have had them thrust upon you.
Whether it’s Welsh-speaking colleagues or mates (including on-line acquaintances), a partner and their entourage, or kids in a Welsh-medium school, grab this great opportunity to connect in a new way and add a new dimension to your life.
I’ll be jealous of your ready supply of victims as you “mistayk you’re weigh flooent”….(yes, that’s the way to do it)!
5. You’ve heard about Welsh literature.
Apart from Latin and Greek, the Welsh language has the oldest literature in Europe (though you won’t learn that in schools in England and, until not long ago, you wouldn’t learn it in schools in Wales either!).
From those earliest poems from what is now southern Scotland and Northern England, the tradition continues unbroken to the present day.
In the early days Welsh (with Latin) was the language of the law, codified by King Hywel Dda (c. 880-950) though the extant books date from between 1230 and 1500). Then came that Henry VIII with his imperial designs. Even today, the London government runs the courts in Wales and won’t let go….sorry, I’ve done the politics in the previous section….where were we?
The Welsh translation of the Bible was completed in 1588, the earliest by far of any non-state language in Europe. It reinforced and developed the standard literary language used as the high register throughout the country.
The tales of the Mabinogi are the earliest prose literature in Britain (thirteenth century manuscripts, drawing on older tales) and a distinctive contribution to European literature.
There were humanist writers in the 16th and 17th centuries and a small Welsh Enlightenment in the eighteenth. In that century, Wales became the first country in the world to achieve mass literacy and it did so in Welsh. Older folk literature was written down and the poets kept on making poetry.
In the nineteenth century, Wales led the world in the Industrial Revolution and vibrant periodical and press culture developed as Welsh-speaking urban centres emerged….and the poets kept singing.
In the twentieth century modernism had to smash through a rather calcified non-conformist liberal tradition.
At the same time, census figures showed that the skids were under the language as the effect of compulsory education through English started to take their toll and waves of immigration to the booming industrial valleys of the south from England, Ireland and the wider world caused a shift to English in many communities. The percentage of Welsh who know their own tongue fell sharply during the twentieth century. The cultural crisis itself became a major theme of literature.
In the final decades of twentieth century, post modernism was in fashion. There was more writing than ever before and the whole culture was given a boost by the creation in 1982 of S4C, the Welsh television channel (the future of which the London government is now putting in danger).
Poetry remains much central today in Welsh-speaking culture today than it is in English-language cultures. Short poems or “englynion” are still composed for special occasions such as weddings or on somebody’s death. A poetry competition, Talwrn y Beirdd is one of the most popular shows on BBC Radio Cymru (still the only national Welsh-langauge radio station – it’s not, surprise, surprise, broadcast in England, so thanks be to the “Wê Byd Eang” (the World Wide Web).
There’s a strong Welsh-language theatrical tradition too and a new national Welsh-language company, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, was set up in 2003.
In short, you will find there much to read, listen to and watch. Maybe you’ll even add to the canon yourself. Several of the leading writers have been learners.
The living tradition is made most visible in a different part of Wales each year by the large tent of the National Eisteddfod. Wales’ nomadic cultural capital springs up for the first week of August. Each year it’s in a different part of Wales, a pop-up metropolis of tents and stalls, athrob with declamation, declaration and chatter.
It’s not just about poetry, prose and theatre, by the way. There are business, commercial and craft stands, lectures on history, law and science and political meetings.
Oh, and quite there’s quite a bit of singing.
If you’re a Welsh learner, you’ll never forget your first time. Away with the simultaneous translation headsets that are available for non-Welshspeaking visitors! Learn Welsh: feel at home at the Eisteddfod.
6. Song. They call Wales “Gwlad y Gân”, the Land of Song. In music, it’s perhaps best known for its large male voice choirs. They may be a cliché there’s nothing like the sound of a one of the best at full volume!
The Welsh love of choral singing comes out at sporting events, too.
The Wales-New Zealand rugby match in 1905 was the first time a national anthem was sung at the start of an international sports event. The anthem: Wales’ Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (The Land of My Fathers).
What you’ll hear today is nothing compared with how it must have sounded a century ago – too many Welsh have lost the culture. Then, there were a million Welsh-speakers and a majority of your typical crowd may have spoken Welsh.
All the same, the public still have a go at Welsh songs today. “Calon Lân” rang out, after a fashion, at the European Football Championships and, of course, the National Anthem.
Any self-respecting choir will include some hymns in its repertoire for Wales has a great tradition of hymns (song sung as part of a Christian service of worship).
Organised religion is a shadow of what it was a hundred years ago, very much a minority sport in today’s Wales. Many of the chapels now stand derelict or now serve, deconsecrated, as carpet shops or student bars.
Attend a service in one of those that still stagger on though and you’ll be amazed at the often striking interiors (on the outside many chapels seem rather drab). You’ll find a standard of signing much, much higher than the embarrassed drone you’ll get in an Anglican church on the English side of the border. It’s quite common for the congregation to sing different voice parts.
When I was learning Welsh I often attended chapel in the morning with my host family and the Anglican church in the evening. The sermons gave me a good dose of high-register Welsh but the hymns were also a linguistic work out, poetic and rich in vocabulary (even if the use of literary forms make them challenging for the beginner).
Wales has had traditional songs since before anyone can remember, too.
The oldest Welsh songs which survive as sung as part of seasonal processions: the new year “Mari Lwyd” parades or another January tradition, “Hunting the Wren”.
Straight-laced, po-faced non-Conformity didn’t approve of too much fun, though. (I always get the impression that the Catholic Irish Bretons have retained more verve when the fiddle and pipes come out). As in literature, a musical revival began towards the end of the nineteenth century.
Anglo-American commercialism dominates, of course, but, if you’re looking for it, you’ll find that the old Welsh songs are being performed, sometimes with traditional Welsh instruments, such as the Welsh bagpipes.
The triple harp originates in Italy but is regarded as Wales’ national instrument. A unique Welsh tradition is cerdd dant. A poem is sung (often with improvised harmony) over a harp accompaniment. It’s still an eisteddfod mainstay though, as with something like Chinese opera, it’s a bit of an acquired taste.
Wales has a strong classical tradition with many more world-famous classical singers. The Welsh National Opera was set up in 1946 and the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, launched in 1983, attracts competitors from around the world (not usually signing in Welsh). Another international dimension further from the language is the International Eisteddfod, which focusses on music and is held in Llangollen in the first week of July each year.
From the late 1950s and more in the 1960s a Welsh-language rock and pop scene emerged, with bands and solo artists working across a wide range of styles.
The national creative juices of the nation in this area ebb and flow and one bone of contention is whether artists should perform in English as well. The sheer amount of material is astounding. As you’d expect in this field, much is throw-away, derivative stuff but the Welsh scene has more than its share of genuine creative gifts, including those such as Bob Delyn who draw on native traditions to create something new and unique or reflect the gritty realities of post-industrial south Wales (Geraint Jarman).
I’m by no stretch of the imagination a musical person, so I’ve tried to say too much already.
Learn Welsh and hear for yourself!
7. You visit Wales and want to enrich the experience.
Many people remark that you know you’re in a different country when you cross the border from England into Wales. It’s partly the mountainous landscape and (now) the bilingual road signs, but it’s partly that wherever you are in Wales, you’ll come across towns, villages, rivers, mountains, hills and fields with Welsh names.
Landscape and naming are deeply intertwined, with many place names telling you something about the topography or history of a location.
You may long to know more about that history.
You may just want to be able to pronounce the names properly.
The good news is that Welsh spelling is phonetic child’s play and once you know how to pronounce it, you’ll be able to have a reasonable stab at what at first sight seem impenetrable clusters of consonants. You can learn some basic phrases quite quickly, too, to show respect for your hosts. Maybe once you’ve started, you’ll want to take it further.
Of course, there’s another approach which is to be found: you become the sort of tourist who thinks that Wales would be great without the Welsh.
The murder you commit on place names may be figurative as you belch a cack-handed mispronunciations (still commonplace on the BBC by the way. It doesn’t matter, they’re only Welsh). It may be literal: you sell your small flat in London and with the money you buy a holiday cottage, small-holding or small town in Wales. Then you change the name to something English and twee, effacing centuries of association and history.
Feel free, the choice is yours (and if you opt for the latter, I’m afraid the dear old Welsh are likely to be too spineless to stop you).
8. You want a cause!
If the sort of colonial attitude of some incomers I’ve just mentioned causes you ire, you may be the sort who gets drawn into the Welsh language “movement”.
No, I’m not talking about the embarrassment that is revived Welsh traditional dance (better go to the Basque Country for a real reanimated knees-up).
When attempts are underway to revive a minority language, it’s inevitably political. It’s about changing the balance of power and not everyone will like it. By learning, you’re taking sides.
Since the 1960s, the Welsh language society has taken direct action to win status for the language. Inspired by the pacifist philosophy of Gandhi, they eschew violence against people. Property is fair game. They’ve broken into offices to state sit-ins and their first campaign involved removing or defacing official, monolingual official signage.
Cymdeithas’ philosophy is to turn themselves in afterwards and use the court cases and prison terms as a way of drawing attention to the cause. How effective this has been is a matter of debate – you sometimes get the impression that they think that sacrifice is virtuous for its own sake, even if it achieves precious little.
Still, there’s no doubting the sincerity of the activists or that the public status of the language has been transformed for the better since the 1960s, even if there’s more to be done and even if – critically – the decline in the number of speakers and the erosion of Welsh as a community langauge still hasn’t been reversed.
There’s still a fight to be had, then.
If direct action is not your thing, you’ll still find many less dramatic opportunities to get involved in the language movement.
There’s now also a “respectable” pressure group called Dyfodol yr Iaith (The Future of the Language).
A fun new development is Ras yr Iaith (The Language Race), a biennial mass relay race to raise awareness of the language and to raise money for language-related causes. It’s based on the Korrika, the long-standing Basque equivalent.
There are also many organisations which promote the language indirectly by conducting their activities in Welsh.
Welsh women set up “Merched y Wawr”, their own version of the British “Women’s Institute” because of the latter’s insistence that English, and English only, was its langauge. In rural areas the Ffermwyr Ifainc (Young Farmers) is a hotbed of youthful activity, in the Welsh language.
There are local, volunteer-produced monthly newsheets (Papurau Bro). Hacio’r iaith is a group of computer programmers and IT geeks who hold an annual conference and are involved in things like the Welsh versions of open-source software. Facebook is available in Welsh, by the way, though Twitter is behind the curve.
One of the most effective ways to learn a language is to start dong things in it that you would be doing and enjoy anyway. If you’re an activist or enthusiast, get on board in Welsh! It’s all hands on deck so your contribution will be appreciated. And if you can’t find a group doing your thing in Welsh, set one up!
9. You want to reap the economic benefits.
Erm, I hope this isn’t your main reason. We’re talking about a minoritised language here. Since the those Tudor Acts of Union with England in the sixteenth century, English has been the langauge of power and privilege in Wales. It continues to be so.
Don’t believe what swivel eyed loons, motley haters, assorted English colonel blimps and Welsh chip-on-the-shoulderers would have you believe: that Wales is controlled by a secret, Welsh-speaking “Taffia” (a mafia on Cardiff’s River Taff) which, along with the very existence of the language, is responsible for all the country’s ills. They’d blame Welsh on global warming, this lot, except that they tend to be the same sort of people who deny climate change.
Back in the real world, state power (police, courts, army, civil service) all operate virtually totally in English.
Limited legislative action has been taken to promote the language and spread its use a bit in settings where members of the public deal state bodies and utility companies. It’s patchy and often tokenistic and doesn’t address the key issue: what’s the internal working language of a given institution?
There is no legislation to promote or force the use of Welsh alongside English in the provisions of private sector goods and services. Individual Welsh speakers have no linguistic rights which they can assert vis-à-vis the state or private corporations.
Still, if get your Welsh up and running, it could come in as a useful skill and help you get a job, especially if you’re dealing with the public in one of those areas where the law now says that services should be available in Welsh.
A handful of public bodies are more enlightened and do administer internally mainly or partially through Welsh (the only approach which really ensures that Welsh language services will not be only skin-deep). There are some social organisations and businesses too with a Welsh ethos, especially in areas where the language is stronger on the ground.
As is often the case with languages in the labour market, aside from roles directly related to the langauge itself (Welsh teacher, translator, media), combining knowledge of the language with another marketable skill gives you the best chances.
The main areas where Welsh could help you more is in the education system. There are opportunities for teachers of many subjects: about a quarter of the schools in Wales teach through the medium of Welsh and all the other state-run schools teach it as a second language, although it often isn’t taken very seriously (the private ones often don’t, which just goes to show that the English elite and their hangers-on haven’t changed their spots). Parents still don’t have the right to insist on a Welsh education for their children.
Mmm. I hope this section isn’t putting you off. If it’s p*ssing you off, scroll back up to the previous one and join a Cymdeithas yr Iaith or Dyfodol yr Iaith (or both).
All in all, learning Welsh doesn’t promise financial riches, but it could provide you with an added advantage in the job market. It will certainly open the door to unexpected opportunities, even if their main rewards are not monetary.
10. Make Welsh your Celtic language of choice
If you’re a language nut (an iaithgi (literally language dog)) it’s a question of which Celtic language you’re going to add to your roster.
The Celtic group is Indo-European (so distantly related to Germanic languages (including English), Romance ones like French and Slavic ones like Polish, Serbo-Croat or Russian) and there are two branches: Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx (“Q Celt”) and then Breton, Cornish and Welsh (“P” Celt).
They all share common features which you’ll want to get stuck into: the comparatively unusual VERB-SUBJECT-OJBECT sentence structure, prepositions which inflect (e.g. “iddo fe” (to him); “iddi hi” (to her)) and those famous “mutations”.
While in German or Russian cases change the end of nouns or adjectives, in Celtic it’s the beginnings of words that “mutate” – the first letter changing according to set rules in certain circumstances (such as, in the case of feminine nouns, after the definite article).
If I’ve lost you already, don’t panic. Mutations are just a matter of practice. They’re much simpler than the case systems of Russian or Greek and you’ll usually be understood even if you make mistakes.
Here’s some good news for learners: Welsh doesn’t have cases. Irish does. Don’t let on but (unless you’ve already learned Scottish Gaelic or Manx), Welsh is easier than Irish.
Cornish and Manx both died out (1777 and 1974 respectively), though there are valiant attempts to “wake them up” (as , with perhaps a few hundred speakers of each, including children raised as new native speakers.
Scottish Gaelic and Breton are in a parlous condition, not least due to deliberate state policies.
There are maybe seven times more people who use Welsh in daily life (outside school) as use Irish. What a pathetic performance by an Irish state which has been in existence for nearly one hundred years!
Each Celtic language is worthy of your attention and you may think that the weakest languages need an extra speaker most.
You’ll be welcomed with open arms whichever you learn but if you want the one that has the most number of people using it in their daily life, though, and which is a relatively simple one to learn, that’s Welsh.
BONUS: Welsh – the future World language! Ok, ok, before Irish, Breton, Gaelic and Manx fans start writing in en masse to complain, I’ll admit reason ten, above, was a bit below the belt. I shouldn’t be promoting one Celtic lang above the others. So, in a spirit of Pan-Celtic solidarity, here’s a replacement bonus.
I’ve seen the future and the future is Welsh. It’s not Cornish that Welsh is in competition with but English, Spanish and Chinese 🙂 🙂
Well, maybe not quite, but, hey, Welsh does spread rather further than one small corner of the island of Britain!
The British government refuses to count the number of Welsh speakers in other parts of the United Kingdom but there are an estimated 100,000 of them. As you’d expect, multi-lingual London is one of the main centres. The Welsh community there is one of the city’s oldest linguistic/national groups. There’s a Welsh Centre, various Welsh societies (with members who speak English or Welsh), a number of Welsh places of worship (with Welsh or bilingual services) and even a Welsh-language primary/junior school.
In the 1860s, fed up with the suppression of their language in public life at home, a group of intrepid Welsh established a colony in Patagonia in southern Argentina. They’re still there, holding their eistddfods, bilingual in Welsh and Spanish. The language is now taught in some schools there.
There are still Welsh communities former British dominions and in the United States (16 signatories of the Declaration of Independence were of Welsh descent). At the Versailles Peace Treaty at the end of the First World War, there were two Welsh-speaking Prime Ministers (Lloyd George of the UK) and Billy Hughes of Australia and a third key Welsh-speaker: Charles Evans Hughes, the US Secretary of State.
Fact is, when you start looking for them, Welsh-speakers have a way of coming out of the woodwork. It’s the same with any language really, it may not be a “biggie” but you never know when or where it might open doors or just help you connect. Isn’t that what language learning is all about?
I had a surreal experience on one of my first evenings out after I moved to Moscow to work: in an Irish bar with three Russians, speaking Welsh.
When I was a student at Heidelberg University in Germany, I was taken for a pizza by the professor of Japanese. He was a German but we weren’t speaking German (and certainly not Japanese, I’m afraid!). Welsh was our language.
Wherever there’s a disaster or political crisis, it’s a good bet that Welsh radio and TV will have sniffed out a Welsh expat based in the country concerned to talk to!
The Welsh may not be about to inherit the earth, but don’t underestimate possibility of strange coincidences and surprises which will see you using Welsh (or many an other lesser-used language) in the most unexpected of places.
So “dyna ni”! (there we are!). That’s my run-down of reasons for speaking Welsh. I hope you’ll find some there that apply to you as you weigh up whether this (or some other) langauge is for you.
If you’re wondering where to start with Welsh, try the acclaimed (and free) introductory podcast course created by Aran Jones and his team over at SaysomethinginWelsh.
One final point: you may be wondering why I’m holding a vegetable in this post’s featured image. Well, it’s not any old vegetable. It’s a cennin (a leek allium ampeloprasum), the national vegetable of Wales, see?
I’ll be writing again about learning Welsh and other “minoritised” languages soon and looking in detail at resources for Welsh and Basque. In the meantime, if you have comments to share or questions, let me know below or by email (address under the “About” tab).