The preface to my 1960 Welsh course book never fails to amuse me. And it’s not just because it so succinctly asserts Welsh linguistic superiority over the hapless English speaker. It’s also the ironically unrealistic representation of learning Welsh as “child’s play”, to be attained “at a glance”. If there is one thing you can’t say about Welsh, it is that it is child’s play. Beautiful, philosophical, and poetic – yes. Easy – definitely not. Just as I disagree with the authors regarding the simplicity of the vocabulary, conjugations, and pronunciation, I also don’t agree with them that the mutations are the trickiest part of the language. I would rather argue that it’s the fluid and protean nature of the language itself which shifts according to contexts and narratorial intentions (though mutations are part of that). Even though my vocabulary is slowly increasing and I am becoming more confident in recognising grammatical forms in Welsh, this fluidity leaves me mystified yet.
Poets and Druids
The longer I am contemplating this challenging language, the more I find resemblances to that other poetic and protean language, ancient Greek. I recently had the pleasure of going to my first Eisteddfod – a Welsh festival with music, food, druids (I loved the druids!), and competitions. That the main prize each year is given to the best formal, metrical Welsh poem (see the picture, in which the winner is being led to the stage by the Gorsedd) demonstrates the continuing focus on poetry as a means of expression, and that reminds me very much of the focal place which the Homeric epics - and in fact poetry in general - held in Greek language and its development.
I started studying Latin age 12, but Classics only came to life for me in the final two weeks of that school year, when we were introduced to Greek. Strange though it may sound, learning Greek was like a Platonic anagnorisis for me, a "recognition" of a long-lost friend, as if the knowledge of it was merely being re-awakened after having lain dormant in my brain for more than two thousand years. While Latin could sometimes feel like a grammatical straitjacket, Greek grammar felt like a fluid and poetic entity which made me fall in love with it. There are many ways in which Greek is more fluid than Latin, but today I would like to focus on one particular word type: particles – small words that do not convey meaning on their own but must be connected to other words, such as ge, de, men, dh. They must probably be the most hated of all Greek words among students: small and negligible in meaning yet undeniably present, they tend to baffle the beginner. For they can be deleted with hardly any change in sentence content, and yet they are significant, because they impart meaning in a very subtle way, sometimes merely by adding to the meter or the rhythm of the language. This makes them beautiful in an almost ephemeral manner.
To give but one example, let us look at the anagnorisis scene in the Odyssey (24.205): Penelope, to test the identity of the beggar who claims to be her husband, has told him their marriage bed has been moved to another room. In anger, the beggar proclaims that this is impossible because he had carved that bed from an oak tree which grew in their courtyard and thus cannot be moved. The knowledge of this secret tells Penelope that it is her husband standing before her. In this emotional moment of reunion of husband and wife after 20 years, the Homeric narrator tells us that ὣς φάτο, τῆς δ᾽ αὐτοῦ λύτο γούνατα καὶ φίλον ἦτορ. “Thus he spoke, and her knees gave way and her dear heart”. I love this phrase: it contains such intrinsic beauty in its encapsulating of vivid emotion both externally and internally in a person. The particle δ᾽ appears to add very little other than a minor differentiation between what was said and what it provoked in the listener. Yet it also adds an instant connection between the two people and their actions, simultaneously keeping them at a distance and connecting them. Without it the sentence would be somehow less complete, less poetic.
I am in Welsh
In Welsh, similarly meaningless and yet expressive particles abound (though I'm not claiming they work in the same way as the Greek ones). Their use, however, is in demise. Let’s look at the most straightforward example, that of the verb ‘to be’, bod. My 1960 book gives the following forms:
Yr ydw i I am (yr = particle; ydw = am; i = I)
Yr wyt ti you are
Y mae e/hi he/she/is (to be replaced by yr ydy/yw in certain cases)
Yr ydym ni we are
Yr ydych chi you are
Y maen nhw they are
Compare this conjugation with the forms given by my modern BBC grammar book:
Rydw i I am
Rwyt ti you are
Mae e/hi he/she is
Rydyn ni we are
Rydych chi you are
Maen nhw they are
The obvious change that has taken place is the disappearance of the vowel of yr, according to my book a “meaningless particle” (but surely at some point it must have had meaning?), and the assimilation of the r into the verbal form, so we get rydych from yr ydych. In the first person singular, the colloquialisation goes even further: the ry is dropped as well and the personal pronoun is added to the verbal form, resulting in dwi.
The abandonment of the Welsh particle can be further observed in the present tense. Originally “I sing/am singing” is rydw i yn canu. The auxiliary verb rydw i is followed by… yes, another particle: yn, before the actual action canu = sing (from the Latin cano). According to my book, this is another meaningless particle. But since it is replaced by wedi to create the past tense (e.g. rydw i wedi canu, "I have sung"), presumably it conveys (or once conveyed) some meaning pertaining to the present tense?
To your boss, you may still write rydw i(’n) canu if you’re particularly happy at work. But in spoken Welsh, you would say dwi canu thus losing both particles at once. The shortest form is the most colloquial, while the less elided form is still in use to some extent in the formal context. I am told, however, that no one nowadays would use the initial particle yr: compare it with speaking Jane Austen English today.
Particles and identity
I know that a propensity for simplification is inherent in most languages to some degree. But I cannot help but wonder whether this demise of the Welsh particle somehow represents a demise in the poetic and fluid nature of the language as a whole, and thereby of the identity of its speakers.
Few people in the world are likely to mourn the death of a particle – it goes almost unnoticed, hardly leaving a trace. But particles are a bit like Classics and Welsh. Mocked and rejected as relics of an outdated world, these subjects may not fit well in the idealised global identity of the twenty-first century. But although they exist in the relative margins of life, they create, in their impractical meaninglessness, a meaningful beauty that draws our attention to the big words in the centre and questions their meaning, even if we cannot change it. And thus, at the danger of sounding both Victorian and a idiotic, I will continue to use particles in Welsh. Because meaning can be created even in the margins.
 Teach yourself books: Welsh, by John T. Bowen and T.J. Rhys Jones, p. 5.
 I know they are not easy, but as I said in my previous blog post, there is a certain logic to it, similar to ‘mutations’ in Greek, which allow me to master them with relative ease.
 Of course this is an entirely subjective feeling, and I know many people who disagree.
 See note 1, p 15.
 Being someone who learned English primarily through Jane Austen, combined with Blackadder, Monty Python, and Father Ted, I know what it feels like to have native speakers stare at you in disbelief at your outdated and peculiar use of their language.
Here is the Gorsedd (the Druids) on stage - everyone standing up for the Welsh national anthem: