Category: Orthography - Dreams and Dialects
 
Last week I came across a meme on the increasingly bad Welsh Memes Facebook page and I admit, it was nice to see a meme that was actually being used correctly and wasn't about bestiality, but I ended up having to correct a couple of angry Welshmen who refused to believe that Welsh isn't one of the oldest languages in Europe. I admit this is something I used to believe myself, when I was maybe, oh I don't know, 13, but there are so many myths going around about the Welsh language that I feel need to be addressed, for Welsh speakers and non-Welsh speakers alike. 

This is absolutely in no way whatsoever an attack on the Welsh language, nor is it an attack on its speakers or those who believe in these myths. I just want to get this off my chest more than anything. People need to stop saying this stuff because it's ridiculous and starting to really, really annoy me

1. Welsh is not one of the oldest languages in Europe, nor is it any older than English

This is such a common myth and this is precisely why I'm writing this blog post. Within the past few months I have heard so many people argue that Welsh is older than English, and it truly is ridiculous. The idea that Welsh is older than English is incredibly outdated and goes back to the early days of Linguistics when people took the story of the Tower of Babel literally. By today we know that Welsh and English share the same root and have both been around for the same amount of time. 

True, Welsh (and Cornish and Breton) come from the Brythonic language, which existed in Britain before Anglo-Saxon arrived, but that doesn't make Welsh older than English. No, English didn't 'come from German'. No, English didn't 'come from Latin'. And, goddamnit, no, English isn't a younger language than Welsh. 

English as we know it today has changed a lot from Old English, which was a super cool language with lots of extra letters and is completely unrecognisable as the ancestor of today's language. It can be argued that Welsh hasn't changed quite as drastically as English over the centuries, but that doesn't make it any older either. 

Maybe people think that Welsh is older because it existed in Britain before English did, maybe they think it's older because minority languages are generally linked with tradition, maybe it's the aftermath of decades of being told that English is the language of modernity and Welsh is the language of the olden days, but none of these things matter because, and this is the last time I will be saying this, so read it slowly and carefully now, please: the Welsh language is not older than the English language

2. Welsh is not a dead language

This is aimed at those who don't speak Welsh or feel like they were forced to learn Welsh in school: so often have you gone out of your way to let me know that the language I hear on a daily basis is dead. Just because you don't use it, it doesn't mean that it's dead. 

Let's put it this way: I don't personally know anybody with an iPad, I've never used an iPad despite all the adverts I ever saw and I never will buy such a thing. But I don't claim that it doesn't exist just because I haven't personally encountered one or found use for one. 

Me claiming that iPads don't exist is exactly how daft you sound when you say Welsh is a dead language, especially since it has 562,000 speakers in Wales alone. 

3. Welsh is not a dying language

And this is for those of you who exaggerate the state of the Welsh language for the opposite reason. Now, I am by no means whatsoever saying that there is no need to preserve the Welsh language, or that no action needs to be taken to help the Welsh language survive. I wouldn't be dedicating my life to the cause if I didn't think so. The point is, I understand that Welsh is a vulnerable language but it is nowhere near dying. We have radio, TV, websites, education systems, newspapers, magazines, popular music, films, all sorts of amazing Welsh-medium stuff that most dying language activists would only dream of having. You can use Welsh daily if you choose to, speakers of real dying languages can't do this.

If you look at Fishman's Graded Inter-generational Disruption Scale, Welsh is most definitely at stage 1 or 2. That means, for a minority language, we're doing pretty damn well. I think more of us need to be grateful for that. Go and read about languages with less than 5 speakers and then see if you still want to complain about how we have English adverts on S4C. 

4. Welsh spelling is not stupid

We've all either said it or heard it at some point: Welsh looks like a cat walked across a keyboard. Trust me, it gets funnier every time, folks. But what a lot of these people don't realise is that Welsh spelling is far more uniform and easy to learn than English spelling is. 

I can understand why words like anghydweddogrwydd  might look like a mess to non-Welsh speakers, but while our spelling system may seem strange to outsiders, it is at least more or less, what we call, transparent. What this means is that a letter of the alphabet represents a particular sound and will represent that sound in all contexts. This seems basic enough, but there are plenty of languages that aren't transparent; English being one of them. Orthographical transparency is almost entirely true for Welsh however, with only a few exceptions that have simple rules that can be learned. 

For example

Most people can't get their head around the fact that <dd> is used in Welsh to represent [ð] (i.e. the 'th' sound at the beginning of the words 'the' and 'this'). It might seem weird to have <dd> for this sound but whether it is at the beginning, middle or end of a word, it will always be pronounced the same way. 

What about English? Well, just then I had to clarify the fact that <dd> in Welsh is the 'th' sound of 'the' and 'this' rather than 'thin' and 'through'. In English, <th> represents both sounds [ð] and [θ] and it isn't immediately obvious which is used in what context. Essentially, with English you generally have to learn how to pronounce a lot of words individually, whereas a Welsh speaker will be able to pronounce almost any new or unfamiliar Welsh word when it is presented to them. If you need more proof, you need only try to list as many words as you can that end in -ough and hopefully you will never need to think that Welsh spelling is stupid ever again. 

In fact, I'm not quite done just yet, because this is the one myth that bothers me above all others. I am going to give one final example before I leave you all alone. So let's look at a nice made up word:
If I were to show this to 50 Welsh speakers and tell them 'this is a brand new Welsh word, how do you think it's pronounced?' I would say that almost all of them would pronounce it something like [aˈbamɛ]. Tell the same amount of English speakers that it is a new English word and you would get all sorts of different answers ([ə'beɪm, 'abeɪm, ə'bɑːmeɪ, ə'bɑːmiː] etc etc). 

The point is that Welsh spelling is far more regular than English so please stop complaining about it, thank you. 


5. Welsh has no vowels

We get this one a lot, and you have no idea how stupid you sound when you say that Welsh has no vowels. In all fairness, unless you have some knowledge of Linguistics you probably don't know that spellings and sounds are not the same thing, so even in English, 'the word rhythm has no vowels' is about the dumbest thing you can say because <y> is being used as a vowel in this context.

As far as phonemes go, standard RP English and Welsh have pretty much the same amount of vowels, with Welsh winning by one extra. When it comes to the alphabet, English vowels are taught as a e i o u (y), Welsh vowels are taught as a e i o u w y. So as far as the alphabet goes, Welsh has more. 

So the reason why people think that Welsh has no vowels is because <y> is used to represent a vowel sound in Welsh, and <w> is used as both a vowel and a consonant (just like how <y> is used in English, e.g. yes vs happy). In fact, <w> is used to represent vowels in English, too (crowd, crown, news), so it's not that weird that we use it as a vowel (words like cwrw are a lot of fun for non-Welsh speakers). In fact, ever stop to think that the English name for <w> is called DOUBLE-U and the Welsh use it as a long [u:] sound? Logic'd. 

6. Welsh is not just "a cheap copy of English"

Welsh is full of English loanwords and apparently this is a source of much hilarity. There's no point in me lying though, I've found myself scoffing at an ashtray marked stwmps sigarets in Welsh, and I think everyone in Wales is familiar with bin brown, the Welsh translation of 'brown bin' found on our food waste bins. To be honest, this is a lesson I need to learn myself; I am always the first to laugh at 'stupidly bad' Welsh borrowings but I'm also the first to point out that there is nothing wrong with loanwords, no matter how stupid they seem. 
Wait... what language was I learning, again?

Lexical borrowing happens in all language contact situations, and the language with less influence is the one that ends up borrowing lots of words from the language with more influence. This happens all over the world and it's not just the Welsh 'being lazy'. The people who criticise the amount of English loanwords in Welsh tend to either be monolinguals who don't understand how bilingualism and language contact works, or language purists who won't accept the reality of how bilingualism and language contact works. But for those of you who scoff at our words like tacsi, ciwb, pyramid, ambiwlans and coffi, let me just remind you: 

Taxi comes from French (from German, from Latin)
Cube comes from French (from Latin, from Greek) 
Pyramid comes from French (from Latin, from Greek)
Ambulance comes from French (from Latin) 
Coffee comes from Italian (from Turkish, from Arabic).
 
I've never been particularly fond of writing introductory blog posts. To be honest, I think I usually just write the one post and then give up on the blog altogether. So this time I don't think I'll dwell on introducing myself and just get straight into the cool stuff. You will get to learn that I use the term 'cool' lightly.

Do not judge me lest ye be judged: I take an immense amount of joy in reading about old orthographies, and I am hopelessly interested in their development. So, yesterday, while looking for an online copy of William Owen Pughe's hilariously fantastic dictionaries from the 19th century, I came across this absolute gem of an orthography and I have fallen madly in love with it. 
It appears to be based on Coelbren y Beirdd, the Welsh bardic alphabet invented by Iolo Morgannwg.  It's unfortunate that the book is so old that the diacritics aren't very clear. Here's a copy of the alphabet. The Coelbren-inspired orthography is on the left, while the modern orthography is on the right: 
The graphemes for <w> are a little hard to decipher. They look a bit like Cyrillic <ϭ> or Greek <σ>. I know that in Mediæval Welsh texts, a letter that looked similar to the number <6> was used for this letter, so it's likely based on that (I don't think it's available in Unicode yet). Since neither of these however will combine with a circumflex, I'm going to be boring and just use the <ϭ> for both <w> and <ŵ>.


a ... [a]
â ... [a:]
b ... [b]
b̓ ... [v]
b̔ ... [m]
c ... [k]
c̓ ... [g]
c̔ ... [ŋʰ]
ć ... [x]
d ... [d]
d̓ ... [ð]

d̔ ... [n]
e ... [ɛ]
ê ... [e:]
v ... [v]
f ... [f]

g ... [g]
g̔ ... [ŋ]
h ... [h]
i ... [ɪ, i]

l ... [l]
l̔ ... [ɬ]



m ... [m]
m̓ ... [v]
n ... [n]
o ... [ɔ]
ô ... [o:]
p ... [p]
p̓ ... [b]
p̔ ... [mʰ]
ṕ ... [f]
r ... [r]

r̔ ... [rʰ]
s ... [s]
t ... [t]
t̓ ... [d]
t̔ ... [nʰ]
t́ ... [θ] 
u ... [ɪ, i, ɨ]
ϭ ... [w, u, u:]
y ... [ɪ, i, ɨ]
ᶌ ... [ə] 


In all fairness, it is a complete mess of an orthography. But it has its charms, and the fact that you can tell which letters are mutations is useful. Apart from that though, it's an awful, awful mess. Just for fun here's a little comparison of the first verse of the Welsh national anthem in both orthographies: 

Contemporary Welsh: 
Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi,
Gwlad beirdd a chantorion, enwogion o fri;
Ei gwrol ryfelwyr, gwladgarwyr tra mad,
Dros ryddid collasant eu gwaed.


This silly Welsh: 
Mae hen ϭlad vᶌ t̔adau ᶌn annϭyl i mi, 
Gϭlad beird̓ a ćantorion, enϭogion o b̓ri; 
Ei gϭrol rᶌvelϭyr, gϭladc̓arϭyr tra mad,
Dros rᶌd̓id col̔asant eu gϭaed. 


Despite being messy, I think it's fairly cool-looking. I'm personally a big fan of having lots and lots of diacritics (Vietnamese, hnngg). Being the big orthography geek that I am, I might spend lots of time learning to read and write this fluently. Maybe it would make a useful shorthand for Welsh? Or maybe it should just stay in that book forever where it belongs.