A Brief History of the Welsh Language

Modern Welsh is a descendant of Celtic, one branch of the Indo-European family of languages, and thus ultimately derives from a common Proto-Indo-European language used by the nomadic tribes of Europe and Western Asia about 5,000 years ago. The Celts were at the height of their powers in the 4th century BC, occupying most of central and eastern Europe as well as Gaul (modern France); from Gaul they spread south-west into Spain and north-west into the British Isles, displacing or exterminating the native peoples. In time the Celtic language separated into two related forms, Continental Celtic in mainland Europe and Insular Celtic in the British Isles. For centuries Continental Celtic co-existed with Latin in the Roman Empire, but it ultimately fell victim to the Romance languages, such as French and Spanish, which were derived from Latin; its final demise came when the Germanic-speaking GothsOstrogoths and Visigoths from northern Europe succeeded the Romans as the masters of western Europe. Insular Celtic alone survived.

Insular Celtic itself falls into two branches: Brythonic (from Brython ‘Briton’) and Goidelic (from Goidel ‘Irishman’). This simple division situation is often made to appear more complicated than it really is as Brythonic is also called British by some scholars and Old Welsh by others. Similarly, Goidelic is called Gaelic (from Gael the modern form of Goidel) in some sources and in Ireland is now generally called Irish.

In the 5th century the Irish colonists invaded western Scotland and the Isle of Man, displacing the native, probably non-Indo-European, Pictish language with their own; this subsequently developed into Scottish Gaelic, which still thrives, and the now-extinct Manx language. To this day Irish and Scottish Gaelic, particularly in the written form, remain very close.

England and Wales were occupied by the Romans from AD 70 to AD 410 and the British tongue was therefore strongly influenced by Latin. It was displaced in England by a distantly related Indo-European language, Anglo-Saxon, from about AD 450, following Anglo-Saxon colonization from northern Europe, but still survives in Wales as Welsh. (Ironically it was an Anglo-Saxon word walas meaning ‘foreigners’ which gave the name both to that country and its language.) A British-speaking pocket also remained in the county of Cornwall in the far south-west of England until 1800. It was from Cornwall in the 6th and 7th centuries that refugees from Anglo-Saxon pressure sailed across the channel to what was to become Brittany, taking with them their language which still survives under the name of Breton. Thus it is that the only Celtic language now found on the continent of Europe is Insular rather than Continental Celtic.

(This brief history of Insular Celtic is of necessity somewhat simplified: the Celts were a mobile tribal people and it is known that there were Brythonic as well as Goidelic speakers in Ireland at an early date; likewise Goidelic raiders colonized areas of Wales during the centuries after AD 400 and that language was certainly used at times by some of the ruling classes there. Some scholars also recognise another division into ‘P-Celtic’ and ‘Q-Celtic’ based on probable pronunciation – thus cenn in Ireland, ben in Scotland and pen in Wales, each meaning “head, summit”, are in fact the same word.)

In England, Anglo-Saxon, initially influenced by Celtic and Latin, and, later, by the closely related Norse or Old Scandinavian spoken by Vikings, who arrived England in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, grew into Old English. The inroads made by the Vikings into the coastal areas of Wales can, incidentally, be traced in place-names such as Swansea and Skomer. Following William the Conqueror’s invasion from Normandy in 1066, Old English in its turn incorporated many Norman-French words and became Middle English. In 1267, Norman French was still the language of Henry III’s court, but the majority of the English inhabitants of the Welsh Marches would have spoken Middle English.

Common Placenames

Welsh placenames can reveal much about a town, village, area or mountain.

Many placenames are based on local physical or geographic features, such as rivers, hills, bridges, woodlands and so on. Aber, for example, means ‘mouth of’, so Abersoch means ‘The mouth of the River Soch’.

Here are a few examples of Welsh you will encounter during your visit:

aber confluence, river mouth

afon river

bach, fach small

ban, fan peak, crest

blaen head, end, .source

bryn hill

bwlch pass

caer, gaer fort, stronghold

carreg stone, rock

castell castle

cefn ridge

clawdd hedge, ditch, dyke

coch, goch red

craig, graig rock

crib crest, summit, ridge

cwm valley, cirque

cymer meeting of rivers

dinas fort, city

du, ddu black

dyffryn valley

eglwys church

ffin boundary

glyn glen

gwaun, waen moor, mountain pasture

hendre winter dwelling, permanent home

heol road

llan church, enclosure

llwyn grove, bush

llyn lake

llys hall, court

maen stone

mawr, fawr great, big

merthyr martyr

moel, foel bare hill

mynydd, fynydd mountain

pant hollow, valley

pen head, top, end

pentre village, homestead

plas hall, mansion

pont, bont bridge

sarn causeway, old road

tre, tref hamlet, home, town

uchaf upper, higher, highest

ystrad valley floor

The Language and the People

The Welsh are on the whole a friendly nation but insular.

As a visitor you should have no problems as all but the die-hards speak English if addressed in that language. If you want to try out the language for yourself, lessons on pronunciation are essential as you are unlikely to be understood otherwise.

The Welsh language is spoken by fewer than a quarter of the population and the written word is understood by less. The language differs in the north and south of the country and is not the easiest to learn, or the most practical, but a minority of the population wish to impose it on the rest through a Welsh language policy that has come under much criticism.

The use of the language outside of Wales is virtually nil, the cost of printing everything from Road Signs to Water Bills in two languages is ludicrous beyond belief. It is a classic case of Political Correctness gone mad – but that is not unusual in Wales!

Whilst the necessity to preserve Welsh culture cannot be denied, the language could be kept alive for those that want it in other ways and the resultant money saved spent on far more deserving projects. The wealth of the country would be that much greater. The cost to the economy is hard to identify as official figures are rarely – if ever published. It has been said that if the true cost were made public there would be a public outcry.

bore da good morning

dydd da good day

prynhawn da good afternoon

noswaith dda good evening

nos da <style=”font-style:normal”>good night</style=”font-style:normal”>

sut mae? how are you?

hwyl cheers

diolch thanks

diolch yn fawr iawn thanks very much

croeso welcome

croeso i Gymru welcome to Wales

da good

da iawn very good

iechyd da! good health!

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