Language and identity
I've always been grateful that, as a rule, languages come easily to me - which can’t be said about maths or anything science-related! Both ancient and modern languages, in my head, form one vibrant and ever-expanding web with lots of wonderful and quirky connections, and having access to this conceptual beauty makes the harsh reality of human existence a bit more tolerable for me – or so I thought, until I met Welsh.
One of the first things I did when I moved to Wales was purchase a ‘Teach yourself Welsh’ book, as I was determined to master at least the basics. I can’t not want to learn a language that has totally bewildering common words like gwasanaethau and llongyfarchiadau – and that it so obviously influenced Tolkien’s Elvish makes it all the more attractive. Having lived in Swansea for seven years now, I know that many Welsh people think the Welsh language is irrelevant and impractical. All the more reason for a classicist to attempt it, of course (as we are proud masters of irrelevance) – though in reality, I couldn’t disagree more with this widespread notion of irrelevance and impracticality. Perhaps it’s because my own mother tongue, Dutch, can be called a minority language too, that I have given a lot of thought about how language and identity are intertwined. But it seems clear to me that, even among Welsh people who don’t speak Welsh, the particular pronunciation, idiom, and syntax of the Welsh language have shaped the way in which they speak English and hence, understand and make sense of the world around them.
Direct Method v Grammar Approach: 0-1
After these lofty words, I have to admit that my own battle with Welsh has been a bit of a personal embarrassment. In the seven years I’ve lived in Swansea, I’ve tried to teach myself Welsh several times, attended courses twice, and just couldn’t get it. My problem – apart from time constraints and the fact that I’m not as young as I was when I learned the other languages (student life does nothing for brain cell lifespan) – was that the courses and course books primarily use the Direct Method, which immerses you into the spoken language and encourages you to derive the rules from that intuitively. To give an example, one of the first sentences I learned was dw i’n byw yn Abertawe, which means “I’m living in Swansea”. I could easily connect byw with live (I thought of βίος in Greek), I’ve lived in Swansea long enough to know that Abertawe (“mouth of the river Tawe”) is Swansea, and yn was obviously “in”. But what to do with dw i’n? This has to mean “I am” but neither the apostrophe nor what had been elided or the word order were ever explained to me. Was I being silly wanting to understand such details? Possibly - but this lack of insight stopped me from making progress. Try as I might, I was left completely disheartened every time, and none the wiser. I could say specific sentences and even replace some words with others, but I didn’t feel I understood the language and gave up entirely.
The situation finally changed this summer: about half of the people taking the Ancient Languages in the Park classes I organise each year were native Welsh-speakers, and when the conversation turned to my inability to learn Welsh, one of the participants (thank you, Geraint!) gave me a Teach yourself Welsh book from the sixties. Finally, a book that understands me: the hard-core grammar approach! Conjugations and mutations neatly in rows, clear explanations of linguistic developments, and lots of English-Welsh and Welsh-English translations were what I needed, and for the first time in seven years, I get it (or at least the basics).
Part of my job, though, involves working with my students on creating new and innovative resources for teaching Latin and Greek at primary level – this involves incorporating the latest approaches to Second Language Acquisition. That I myself am apparently incapable of learning a language other than through a very old-fashioned approach made me rather uncomfortable: if I’m advocating an integrated approach to language learning, surely I should be able to apply it myself? But then, part of the modern language approach is acknowledging that everyone has different ways of learning a language, and as I accept this from my students and pupils, I have had to accept it from myself as well. Now that I understand the basics through the grammar-approach, I can use more 'modern' course books to complement my learning process. That way, I'll be able to have every-day conversations as well as talk about poets and sheep (a bit similar to Latin and Greek, in which I can communicate about poetry and war much more easily than about what I'm having for lunch today.)
The switch I’ve been able to make in my mind has brought a whole new level of meaning to my life in Wales. Place and street names now make sense, I can understand parts of Welsh all-staff emails, and even attempt some basic Welsh conversation when emailing administrative staff. Most importantly, I’m excited that this will help me help local schools tackle low levels of literacy, as we’ll be able to connect Latin not only to English but also to Welsh. In the past three years that my Literacy through Latin project has been running, the Welsh side of it has been entirely up to the few students among my teaching cohort who spoke Welsh – whereas now I feel I can take ownership of this part of the project and actively help my students teach it in schools.
Of aspirations and mutations
All of this as contextualisation of my struggle with Welsh… Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that learning Welsh is now easy! Yes, there are obvious correspondences to English – I love words such as beisicl, plismon, cwpwrdd (remember: w is pronounced as ‘oo’ in ‘look’), castell, dawnsio, and siwgr. Once we leave the comfort zone of English derivatives, however, I’m having to use increasingly peculiar techniques to memorize vocabulary. I can, for example, remember that golchi means “to wash” as I visualise Gollum (gol-) in the dirty mud inside the cave when Bilbo first meets him (yes, I’m that kind of geek). For digon, meaning “enough”, I visualise someone who’s patting his belly after he’s eaten lots/enough (as the Dutch for ‘large’ is dik – hence digon). Byr, “short” is easily remembered because a beer never lasts long, and dafad means “sheep” because David (the one of Goliath fame) was a shepherd. I know… my innate absurd folk etymology generator is working at full speed!
I’m still very much a beginner, but the more I delve into the Welsh language, the more I find similarities to the ancient languages – and this makes my geeky poetic soul very happy. And it’s not just the similarities at vocabulary level. Yes, it’s nice to find resemblances. Verbs tend to change the infinitive ending, for example in ysgrifennu (naturally with y pronounced as u and u pronounced as y) and scribere, canu and canere, dysgu and discere, credi and credere. As in other modern languages, nouns drop the ending, as in mur and murus, llyfr and librum, ffenestr and fenestra. And there are words that bear resemblance to Greek as well: buwch and βοῦς, ci (plural cŵn) and κύων, eglwys and ἐκκλησία, geni and γίγνομαι (the short γεν root).[6a]
The thing I would like to touch upon for the moment, though, are the mutations. They are beautiful! A child in Welsh is plentyn (note that there is no indefinite article, as in Greek – and isn’t it lovely how the notion behind plentyn and the English ‘plant’ is one of growing), but buying a present “for a child” is i blentyn: the preposition forces the first consonant to undergo soft mutation, so the labial consonant changes from a hard p to a soft b. “Her child” is ei phlentyn, with the personal adjective provoking an aspirate mutation (an “h” is added after the consonant), and “my child” is fy mhlentyn, called a nasal mutation which is still a bit of mystery to me, but nonetheless beautiful in its own right. There are various reasons for the occurrence of these mutations - mostly to do with prepositions and gender.
I know the details aren’t entirely the same, but the concept of soft and aspirate mutations exists in Greek as well and this made the learning process more exciting. An obvious example of the aspirate assimilation is the negation οὐκ changing into οὐχ if the following vowel is aspirated as well. And the passive perfect indicative is full of interesting mutations: for example, the verb πλέκω (“I pleat”) undergoes a ‘soft mutation’ before the μ into πέ-πλεγ-μαι and transforms into an aspirate in front of an aspirated consonant (πέ-πλεχ-θε). To me personally, there seems to be more logic to the Greek stem changes, but I sense there must be an internal logic to the Welsh mutations too – even if it currently escapes me. I quite like playing with the same principle at the end of words in Greek and the beginning of words in Welsh.
It's a similar thing with adjectives: where Greek and Latin adapt the ending of the adjective to agree with the noun, Welsh adapts the start, eg. the adjective byr mentioned above becomes fer after a feminine noun, e.g. nofel fer = a short novel. The mutations (with the vowel becoming short as well) thus create a wonderful fluidity in the language. Gardd is 'garden', and prydferth is 'beautiful'. But put them together and 'the beautiful garden' becomes yr ardd brydferth as the noun undergoes a soft mutation after the definite article (therefore dropping the g altogether), and the adjective undergoes a soft mutation to agree with the feminine noun. It's a language lover's dream!
These are but a few obvious things I’ve picked up on during my early study of Welsh. I’m rather intrigued by the intangible aspect of the linguistic connections, which is the poetic nature of both Welsh and Greek and the grammatical fluidity for the purposes of metre. But I might blog about that some other time.
Written by Evelien Bracke
 You’ll find gwasanaethau, “services”, all along the M4 motorway, and Llongyfarchiadau means “congratulations”.
 I know now that dw (short for rydw) means “am”, the i is “I” (so verb-pronoun in contrast to English) and the ‘n is short for yn which is used as particle before verbs without meaning.
 Just for reference, these translate as bike, policeman, cupboard, castle, to dance, and sugar.
 I’m not claiming expertise on the intricate ways in which Latin and Greek roots can be found in Welsh. These are simply similarities I have observed.
[6a] ysgrifennu/scribere means 'to write', canu/canere 'to sing', dysgu/discere 'to learn' (though the Welsh can mean 'to teach' as well, just like 'leren' in Dutch), credi/credere 'to believe'. Mur/murus means 'wall' (and interestingly, Welsh also has a germanic-derived word gwall), llyfr/librum means 'book', ffenestr/fenestra is a 'window'. Buwch/βοῦς means 'cow', ci/κύων means 'dog', eglwys/ἐκκλησία 'church' (via Latin ecclesia), geni/γίγνομαι means 'to be born'.