Pidgin Welsh confronts mutations

On the eve of the Eisteddfod Colin Miles describes the frustrations and problems of an Englishman learning the language

When I was at Swansea University in the early 1960s the Welsh language was notable only by its absence. In truth the impression I got was that it was virtually a dead language. Obviously, this was not the case. So when we moved back to Wales seven years ago almost the first thing we did was to enroll for Welsh classes – initially with WLPAN then on to Pellach, Canolradd, and so on.

How successful has this been? In my case, I’m afraid, not very much. With the aid of a dictionary – well several actually – I can make a reasonable stab at translating from Welsh into English. But when it comes to speaking or writing it is a different matter. I can, with difficulty and some effort, make myself understood in both areas. However, when writing I normally include both the English and the Welsh so that my tutor knows what I am really trying to say. And as for speaking, mine is more what you might call pidgin Welsh.

So what are the problems? Well, certainly not anything like the ones that Welsh speakers seem to think they are. They identify some of them but not the most important ones. Often they do not even understand or realise, for instance, which words are ‘difficult’ or ‘uncommon’ and need to be translated for any given vocabulary. Instead they often repeat words that most learners already know. And this is true for both the courses and the Welsh learner books.

Let me take another instance. In Canolradd, Uned 29 there is a tasg – beth sy fwya anodd wrth ddysgu Cymraeg. And there is a list, which you are asked to discuss with your partner and put in order of difficulty. Here it is:

  • deall y treigladau
  • cofio pethau
  • siarad â phobol
  • deall y newyddion
  • cael yr amser i adolygu
  • darllen llyfrau Cymraeg
  • tafodieithoedd gwahanol
  • sefyll arholiad

This corresponds very badly with my own list. The following had been intended to be in order of difficulty or when I first encountered a problem, but by the time I had gone a little way into it, that went out of the window.

When I first started learning the language my first stumbling block was not mutations but conjunctions and prepositions – simple words like i, o, ar, am, at and their myriad meanings. There is no simple one-to-one relationship between the English and the Welsh. And even now I would rate this as a major problem. Once you stray out of the comfort zone of the phrases you have learnt, and try to say or write something else, you are in an area where there are apparently no rules. Instead, uncertainty rules.

Welsh speakers speak too fast. There is a joke about the Englishman speaking very loudly and very slowly to a foreigner in English. Well, apart from the very loudly bit, it actually makes sense! But do the Welsh understand that? Every Welsh learner is confronted by the situation where s/he feels/knows that if s/he attempts to speak in Welsh s/he will be faced with a torrent of Welsh which s/he doesn’t understand. The result is panic and completely forgetting everything s/he has learnt. Outcome: speak in English.

I am particularly bad at following Welsh conversations and even now am lucky if I manage to understand 75 per cent or more.
The difference between the spoken and written word in Welsh is so great it has been said that “There is a case for regarding the spoken and written Welsh as being two separate languages”. This view may have been referring to literary Welsh rather than ‘normal’ written Welsh, but it often seems that it is true of both. Welsh may primarily be a spoken language. Yet, if Welsh speakers cannot read written Welsh it starts to sound as if this division may be true. And what future can a spoken-only language have?

Encouraging us to speak Welsh as often as possible may sound a good idea. And, of course, we will have these little conversions in Welsh at classes, or between ourselves. But if we are speaking rubbish Welsh what good is it? When you are learning a new language you want to learn it properly otherwise why bother? And if written and spoken Welsh are so different it creates an obvious problem.

Apostrophes and missing words are another issue. We are told, “You don’t need to put that word in as it is implied”. And, “The word is missing but the mutation it causes remains”. Why miss words out? And why use apostrophes to the extent that sometimes most of the word is missing? Why make life so difficult?

Welsh is a phonetic language. The priests or whoever it was who decided to write things down as they heard them did the language no favour at all. They saddled it not just with mutations, but the mantra that, “Welsh is easy to learn because it is a phonetic language”. When many letters and combinations of letters sound the same, plus the fact that dialects always exist and living languages always develop and change, it makes it anything but easy.

There is no such thing as standard Welsh. Well, that is what we are told. How can a language survive without standards? You don’t teach Geordie to those newly-arrived at Newcastle, or Cockney Rhyming slang to immigrants at Heathrow bound for the East End.

Then again, there is the north/south divide. When southerners say that they can’t understand a word that north Walians say – I don’t know if the reverse is true –it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, especially when they apparently just give up. And to us English, used to dialects like Geordie, or the west Country, the differences seem greatly exaggerated.

So many words have dual meanings. Lend/Borrow, Teach/Learn are obvious examples, Sometimes I have to re-read written Welsh in order to work out who is doing what to whom and is it to a person, for a person, or with a person.

Word order is a major preoccupation: Generally the word order is different and that creates a major problem for the English speaker, particularly where verbs are split between phrases. But again there appears to be many exceptions. 
Plurals: Take any 50 Welsh nouns and the chances are that around 70 per cent of them will form their plurals in completely different ways. And some of the changes are so strange that the singular and the plural look totally unconnected. Incidentally, I highly commend the Geddes & Grosset Welsh-English dictionary because it gives Welsh plurals as separate entries.

Feminine endings cause a headache. Having been given a list of word endings which denoted the feminine, none of the endings of the first 12 words we looked at fell into that list and they were all different.

Yeses and Noes were fine in a more formal age, but how can the many combinations survive in the Internet age? And if they don’t what happens to the ability to read ‘old’ Welsh?

Learning by rote as children do? Adults are NOT children. We don’t learn the same way. We can’t spend five years learning the basics in the way that children do. Yes, we do need to learn some things by rote – grammar is an instance – otherwise we are lost. But we cannot go back to being a child and thinking like a child and being immersed 24 hours in a single language. It is difficult to politely describe the WLPAN idea that we dispense completely with dictionaries and grammar.

I go on to S4C and switch on the sub-titles. OK, I now fully understand that the Welsh and the English languages are often incompatible when it comes to translating from one to another. But this is not helped when Welsh speakers say that they are often amused by the sub-titles bearing little relation to what is actually said. The same kind of thing happens with written translations and you too often find yourself asking the question, how did they get from that to that? Sometimes it is you, sometimes not.

Every language has its particular phrases that have evolved. With a very old language like Welsh there are many such sayings. Again, the lack of proper translation of some, and, indeed, a mistranslation of others, doesn’t help.
We don’t mutate, we don’t bother with that – or so older native Welsh speakers will tell you. Then you will be told that they do, but they don’t realise it.

Last but not least are the mutations. We are told it only involves nine letters. Unfortunately 60-70 per cent of words begin with those letters. This is a major stumbling block, not for just the beginning of words, but in the middle as well. Maybe when speaking, assuming that the mutations are used, the meanings can be worked out from the context. If the context isn’t clearly stated then sometimes the meaning in written Welsh can become ambiguous because of the mutation.
 What are the solutions?
 I don’t know and as an Englishman I cannot presume to more than make suggestions. But first I would suggest that you have to look at the problems inherent in the language. If you were to think of it in terms of efficiency of information transfer, that is conveying meaning, then obviously Welsh suffers from many problems. But the biggest one is probably the gap between the written and spoken word.

How do you close the gap? First of all there should be a standard Welsh like the standard Hebrew that was established and was taught in the original WLPAN – not a success incidentally if you read the follow-up. As to how Welsh is taught in schools I have few ideas other than it should be taught rigorously (both spoken and written) otherwise the gap between the two will never close.

I do know that children who attend the local Welsh primary school play in English, which is not a good sign. One can hope that later on they regain some of their pride in the language. Yet without constant use even native Welsh speakers will lose it.
 As for teaching people like me this, in cold financial terms, is not cost-effective. We will never be fluent Welsh speakers or writers. Far better spend the money in the schools. But you also need the support of people such as myself otherwise we will neither understand or appreciate what is being done, so a balance has to be struck.

There are other Welsh attitudes to take into account as well.  In general, there is goodwill towards the language, but it is a fragile thing. The antics and attitudes of some Welsh campaigners risks losing it. For the people at to support Osian being sent to prison by sending him a letter of support may just about be acceptable. However, to then bring up John Redwood and suggest that the YouTube video be passed around is just childish.

A further problem is the financial one. Translation costs are an overhead that the other side of the border doesn’t have. Large corporations can usually manage this extra cost, though the pressure is on everyone these days. But for charities this can be a bit of a killer if the requirement becomes mandatory. And, sad to say, when you look at the usage of the written language, including the Welsh sections of web sites, which I have a particular interest in, at times it borders on the non-existent.

What bugs me in particular is that Welsh speakers/ writers seem massively unwilling to step up and fill in the gaps. They complain that a web site is English only but won’t do anything about it. If I were a Welshman in that position I’d do something about it. Without a proper understanding of the problems of the Welsh language and Welsh attitudes no amount of money thrown at it will improve the situation.

Colin Miles was educated Cheltenham Grammar School, attended Swansea University, studied Chemical Engineering at Edmonton, Alberta in Canada, and Hull, and lived in Hemel Hempstead between 1968 to 2004, before retiring to Llannon in Ceredigion.

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