Welsh language

This article describes the Welsh language. For other meanings of Welsh, see Wales (disambiguation).
Welsh (Cymraeg)
Spoken in: Wales, Argentina, England, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand
Total speakers: 610,000
Ranking: Not in top 100


Official status
Official language of: Wales
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1 cy
ISO 639-2(B) wel
ISO 639-2(T) cym

Welsh (Cymraeg or y Gymraeg), not to be confused with Welsh English (the English language as spoken in Wales), is a member of the Brythonic branch of Celtic spoken natively in the western part of Britain known as Wales (Cymru), and in the Chubut Valley, a Welsh immigrant colony in the Patagonia region of Argentina.

There are also speakers of Welsh throughout the world, most notably in England, the United States and Australia.

Template:IPA notice



The 2001 census gives a figure of 20.5% of the population of Wales as Welsh speakers (up from 18.5% in 1991), out of a population of about 3 million; however, the same census shows that 25% of residents were born outside Wales. The number of Welsh speakers throughout the rest of Britain is uncertain, but numbers are high in the main cities and there are speakers along England's border with Wales.

Even among the Welsh-speakers, few residents of Wales are monolingual in Welsh. However, a large number of Welsh speakers are more comfortable expressing themselves in Welsh than in English. A speaker's choice of language can vary according to the subject domain (known in linguistics as code-switching).

Although Welsh is a minority language, and thus threatened by the dominance of English, support for the language grew during the second half of the 20th century, along with the rise of nationalist political organisations such as the political party Plaid Cymru and Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society).

Welsh as a first language is largely concentrated in the less urban north and west of Wales, principally Gwynedd, Denbighshire, Merioneth, Anglesey (Ynys Môn), Carmarthenshire, North Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, and parts of western Glamorgan, although first-language and other fluent speakers can be found throughout Wales.

Welsh is very much a living language. It is used in conversation every day by thousands and seen in Wales everywhere. The Welsh Language Act 1993 and the Government of Wales Act 1998 provide that the Welsh and English languages should be treated on a basis of equality. Public bodies are required to prepare and implement a Welsh Language Scheme. Thus local councils and the Welsh Assembly use Welsh as an official language, issuing official literature and publicity in Welsh versions (e.g. letters to parents from schools, library information, and council information) and all road signs in Wales should be in English and Welsh, including the Welsh versions of place names (although some of these are recent inventions based on the English names).

Welsh also has a substantial presence on the Internet, but this is strongly biased towards public bodies: the ratio of search engine hit frequencies for Welsh words to their English equivalents tends to be about 0.1% for formal terms such as addysg/education, cymdeithas/society or llywodraeth/government, but only about 0.01% for everyday terms such as buwch/cow, eirlaw/sleet or cyllell/knife.

Missing image
Bilingual road markings in Wales

The UK government has ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect to Welsh.

The language has greatly increased its prominence since the creation of the television channel S4C in November 1982, which broadcasts exclusively in Welsh during peak viewing hours. The main evening television news provided by the BBC can be found here (http://www.bbc.co.uk/cymru/live/newyddion.ram) (Real Media).

Given the British Government's current plans (December 2001) to ensure that all immigrants know English, it remains to be seen if Welsh will be considered a separate case. At present, a knowledge of either Welsh, English or Scottish Gaelic is sufficient for naturalisation purposes and it is believed that this policy will be continued in any proposed changes to the law.

History and development

Like most languages, there are identifiable periods within the history of Welsh, although the boundaries between these are often indistinct.

The earliest extant sources of a language identifiable as Welsh go back to about the 6th century, and the language of this period is known as Early Welsh. Very little of this language remains. The next main period, somewhat better attested, is Old Welsh (9th to 11th centuries); this was the language of the laws of Hywel Dda, as well as some poetry from both Wales and Scotland. As Anglo-Saxon colonisation of Great Britain proceeded, the Celtic-speakers in Wales were split off from those in northern England, speaking Cumbrian, and those in the south-west, speaking what would become Cornish, and so the languages diverged.

Middle Welsh (or Cymraeg Canol) is the label attached to the Welsh of the 12th to 14th centuries, of which much more remains than for any earlier period. This is the language of nearly all surviving early manuscripts of the Mabinogion, although the tales themselves are certainly much older. Middle Welsh is reasonably intelligible, albeit with some work, to a modern-day Welsh speaker.

Modern Welsh can be divided into two periods. The first, Early Modern Welsh ran from the 14th century to roughly the end of the 16th century, and was the language used by Dafydd ap Gwilym. Late Modern Welsh began with the publication of William Morgan's translation of the Bible in 1588. Like its English counterpart, the King James Version, this proved to have a strong stabilising effect on the language, and indeed the language today still bears the same Late Modern label as Morgan's language. Of course, many minor changes have occurred since then.



Letter(s) IPA Name
a a â
b b bi
c k ec
ch x ech
d d di
dd edd
e ê
f v ef
ff f eff
g g eg
ng eng
h h hets
i î
l l el
ll ell
m m em
n n en
o ô
p p pi
ph f ffi, yff
r r ri
rh rhi
s s es
t t ti
th eth
u , i û
y , i,
  • h indicates in mh, nh, and ngh.
  • ph is only used as a result of aspirate mutation.
  • y indicates in monosyllabic words or non-final syllables, but or [i] everywhere else.
  • u and y are usually pronounced in North Wales and [i] in South Wales.
  • si indicates when followed by a vowel.

Vowels also come in long variants; these are often marked with a circumflex.

Letter IPA
û ,
ŷ ,

Welsh also has diphthongs:

Letters IPA
au but as plural ending a,
eu ,
ey ,
ou ,
uw ,
yw ,
  • The pronunciation on the left is used in North Wales, the one on the right in South Wales.

The following are only used in foreign loanwords.

Letter IPA

The stress in spoken Welsh is almost invariably on the penultimate syllable of a word; the few exceptions are indicated by the presence of an acute accent (´), e.g. ffarwél.

The placing of a diaeresis (¨) above a vowel indicates that it is to be pronounced fully, not as part of a diphthong, e.g. copo (to copy) - pronounced , not *.

Welsh also uses a grave accent to mark vowels that should be short, when a long vowel would normally be expected, eg pas 'a cough', ps 'a pass/permit'; mwg 'a smoke', mẁg 'a mug' [1] (http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=35d8b6b4.955440%40news.portal.ca).

The positioning of the stress means that related words or concepts (or even plurals) can sound quite different, as syllables are added to the end of a word and the stress moves correspondingly, e.g.:

  • Ysgrif — - an article or essay
  • Ysgrifen — - writing
  • Ysgrifeniadau — - writings
  • Ysgrifenedig — - written
  • Ysgrifennu — - to write
  • Ysgrifennydd — - a secretary
  • Ysgrifennyddes — - a female secretary
  • Ysgrifenyddion — - secretaries

(Note also how adding a syllable to ysgrifennydd to form ysgrifennyddes changes the pronunciation of the second "y". This is because the pronunciation of "y" depends on whether or not it is in the final syllable.)

The connection between the Welsh word ysgrif and the Latin scribo 'I write', from which it is derived, is fairly clear, taking diachronic sound shifts into account.


Initial Consonant Mutation

Initial consonant mutation is a phenomenon common to all Celtic languages. The first letter of a word in Welsh may change depending on grammatical context (such as when the grammatical object directly follows the grammatical subject), or when preceded by certain words, e. g. i, yn, and a. Welsh has three mutations: the soft mutation, the nasal mutation, and the aspirate mutation:

Radical Soft Nasal Aspirate
p b mh ph
b f m
t d nh th
d dd n
c g ngh ch
g ng
m f
ll l
rh r

A blank cell indicates that the letter is not affected.

For example, the word for "stone" is carreg, but "the stone" is y garreg (soft mutation), "my stone" is fy ngharreg (nasal mutation) and "her stone" is ei charreg (aspirate mutation). The examples show usage in the standard language; the soft mutation is slowly supplanting the nasal and aspirate mutations as the mechanism behind the mutations ceases to be understood. These days, the aspirate mutation is only really carried out for words beginning with C in colloquial language and in some areas it is totally unknown. The nasal mutation is now only used in two circumstances and it is also being replaced by the soft mutation.

The article

Welsh has no indefinite article. The definite article, which precedes the words it modifies and whose usage differs little with that of English, has the forms y, yr, and 'r. The rules governing their usage are:

  • When the word begins with a vowel, yr is used, e. g. yr ardd.
  • When the previous word ends in a vowel, regardless of the quality of the word following, 'r is used, e. g. mae'r gath tu allan. This rule takes precedence over the other two.
  • In all other places, y is used, e. g. y bachgen.

The article triggers the soft mutation when it is used with feminine singular nouns, e. g. tywysoges '(a) princess' but y dywysoges 'the princess'.


Like most other Indo-European languages, all nouns belong to a certain grammatical gender. In Welsh there are two genders: masculine and feminine. Aside from nouns whose gender is clear from the meaning (e. g. mam 'mother' is feminine), there is no pattern and gender simply must be learnt.

In Welsh, there are two systems of grammatical number. There are the singular/plural nouns, which correspond to the singular/plural number system of English. Noun plurals are unpredictable and formed in several ways. Some nouns form the plural with an ending (usually -au), e. g. tad and tadau. Others form the plural through vowel change, e.g. bachgen and bechgyn. Still others form their plurals through some combination of the two, e. g. chwaer and chwiorydd.

The other system of number is the collective/unit system. The nouns in this system form the singular by adding the suffix -yn (for masculine nouns) or -en (for feminine nouns) to the plural. Most nouns which belong in this system are frequently found in groups, for example, plant 'children' and plentyn 'a child', or coed 'forest' and coeden 'a tree'. In dictionaries the plural is often given first.

Genitive relationships are expressed by apposition. The genitive in Welsh is formed by putting two noun phrases next to each other, the possessor coming second. So English "The cat's mother", or "mother of the cat", corresponds to Welsh mam y gath — literally, "mother the cat"; "the man's car's windows" is ffenestri car y dyn — literally, "windows car the man". In Welsh the thing possessed never takes the article.


In Welsh, adjectives normally follow the noun they qualify, while some, such as hen, pob, and holl precede it. For the most part adjectives are uninflected, though there are a few which maintain distinct masculine/feminine or singular/plural distinctions. After feminine singular nouns, adjectives receive the soft mutation.

Adjective comparison in Welsh is fairly similar to the English system. Adjectives with one or two syllables receive the endings -ach '-er' and -a '-est', e. g. bannog 'high', bannogach 'higher', bannoga 'highest.' Adjectives with two or more syllables use the words mwy 'more' and mwya 'most', e. g. teimladwy 'sensitive', mwy teimladwy 'more sensitive', mwya teimladwy 'most sensitive'. Adjectives with two syllables could go either way.

These are the possesive adjectives in Welsh:

Singular Plural
First Person fy (n) ein
Second Person dy (s) eich
Third Person Masculine ei (s) eu
Feminine ei (a)

The possessive adjectives precede the noun they qualify, which is often followed by the corresponding form of the personal pronoun, e. g. fy mara i 'my bread', dy fara di 'your bread', ei fara fe 'his bread', etc.

The demonstrative adjectives are 'ma 'this' and 'na 'that'. They follow the noun they qualify, which also takes the article. For example, y llyfr 'the book', y llyfr 'ma 'this book', y llyfr 'na 'that book'.


The Welsh pronouns are:

Singular Plural
First Person i ni
Second Person ti, di chi
Third Person Masculine e, o nhw
Feminine hi


In Welsh, the majority of tenses make use of an auxiliary verb, usually bod 'to be.' It is conjugated irregularly:

Declarative (I am) Interrogative (Am I?) Negative (I am not)
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Present First Person dw dyn ydw? ydyn? dw dyn
Second Person (r)wyt dych wyt? ydych? dwyt dych
Third Person mae maen ydy? ydyn? dydy dydyn
Past First Person bues buon fues? fuon? fues fuon
Second Person buest buoch fuest? fuoch? fuest fuoch
Third Person buodd buon fuodd? fuon? fuodd fuon
Imperfect First Person roeddwn roedden oeddwn? oedden? doeddwn doedden
Second Person roeddet roeddech oeddet? oeddech? doeddet doeddech
Third Person roedd roeddyn oedd? oeddyn? doedd doeddyn
Future First Person bydda byddwn fydda? fyddwn? fydda fyddwn
Second Person byddi byddwch fyddi? fyddwch? fyddi fyddwch
Third Person bydd byddan fydd? fyddan? fydd fyddan
  • ddim (not) is added after the pronoun for negative forms of bod.
  • There are many dialectal variations of this verb.
  • Colloquially the imperfect tense forms are o'n i, o't ti, oedd e/hi, o'n ni, o'ch chi and o'n nhw. These are used for the declarative, interrogative and negative.
  • Welsh is unusual in having no fixed words for yes and no. The relevant part of the verb bod is used instead e. g.: Ydych chi'n hoffi coffi? (Are you liking coffee? = do you like coffee?) then either Dw (I am = I do = Yes) or Dw ddim (I am not = I do not = No)


In Welsh, prepositions frequently change their form when followed by a pronoun. These are known as inflected prepositions. Most of them, such as dan, follow the same basic pattern:

Singular Plural
First Person dana i danon ni
Second Person danat ti danoch chi
Third Person Masculine dano fe/fo danyn nhw
Feminine dani hi

There is some dialectal variation, particularly in the first and second person singular forms. In some places one may hear dano i, danot ti, or danach chi.

The majority of prepositions trigger the soft mutation.

Other Features of Welsh Grammar

  • Possessives as object pronouns. The Welsh for "I like Rhodri" is "Dw i'n hoffi Rhodri" ("I am liking Rhodri"), but "I like him" is "dw i'n ei hoffi fe" - literally, "I am his liking him"; "I like you" is "dw i'n dy hoffi di" ("I am your liking you"), etc.
  • Significant use of auxiliary verbs. While English can either use verbs directly (e.g. I go) or with the aid of an auxiliary verb (I am going, here using to be as the auxiliary), Welsh inclines very strongly towards the latter use. In the present tense all verbs are used with the auxiliary bod (to be), so dwi'n mynd is literally I am going, but also means simply I go. In the past and future tenses, there are inflected forms of all verbs, but it is more common in speech to use the verbal noun (berfenw, loosely equal to the infinitive in English) together with the inflected form of gwneud (to do), so I went can be mi es i or mi wnes i fynd and I will go can be mi á i or mi wna i fynd. There is also a future form using the auxiliary bod, giving fydda i'n mynd (perhaps best translated as I will be going) and an imperfect tense (a continuous/habitual past tense) also using bod, with roeddwn i'n mynd meaning I used to go/I was going.
  • Affirmative Markers. Mi (mainly North) and Fe (mainly South) are often placed before inflected verbs to show that they are declarative. This is mainly a colloquial formation and is not often seen in Written Welsh or more formal language.


Like any natural language, Welsh has a number of different dialects.

These are very evident in the spoken, and to a lesser extent the written, language. A convenient, if slightly simplistic, classification is into North Walian and South Walian forms (or "Gog" and "Hwntw" based on the word for North, gogledd, and the South Walian word for "them over there"). The differences between dialects encompass vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar, although particularly in the last regard the differences are in fact relatively minor.

An example of the difference between North and South Walian usage would be the question "Do you want a cup of tea?". In the North this would typically be "Dach chi isio panad?", while in the South the question "Dych chi'n moyn dishgled?" would be more likely. An example of a pronunciation difference between Northern and Southern Welsh is the tendency of Southern dialects to "lisp" the letter "s", e.g. mis, a month, would tend to be pronounced mees in the north, and meesh in the south.

In fact, the difference between dialects of modern spoken Welsh pale into insignificance compared to the difference between the spoken and literary languages. The latter is significantly more formal and is the language of Welsh translations of the Bible, amongst other things (although the Beibl Cymraeg Newydd — New Welsh Bible — is significantly less formal than the traditional 1588 Bible). Although the question "do you want a cup of tea?" is not likely to occur in literary Welsh usage, if it did it would be along the lines of "a oes arnoch eisiau cwpanaid o de?", the corresponding spoken form would be "Dach chi eisiau panad o de?".

Amongst the characteristics of the literary, as against the spoken, language are a higher dependence on inflected verb forms, a shift in the usage of some of the tenses, a reduction in the explicit use of pronouns (since the information is usually conveyed in the verb/preposition inflections) and a greatly reduced tendency to substitute English loanwords for native Welsh words.

Breton and Cornish are quite closely-related languages.

Welsh in education

Welsh is widely used in education, and many Welsh universities are bilingual, most notably the University of Wales, Bangor.

Under the National Curriculum, school children in Wales must study Welsh up to the age of 16. According to the Welsh Language Board[2] (http://www.bwrdd-yr-iaith.org.uk/en/cynnwys.php?cID=7&pID=144), over a quarter of children in Wales attend schools which teach predominantly through the medium of Welsh. The remainder study Welsh as a second language in English-medium schools. Specialist teachers of Welsh called Athrawon Bro support the teaching of Welsh in the National Curriculum.

See also

External links

Template:Spoken Wikipedia Template:InterWiki Template:Commonscat

ang:Wielisc geode br:Kembraeg ca:Galls cy:Cymraeg de:Walisische Sprache eo:Kimra lingvo es:Gals fr:Gallois ga:Breatnais gl:Gals ja:ウェールズ語 kw:Yeth Kembrek la:Lingua Cambriana li:Welsh minnan:Cymru-gí nl:Welsh no:Walisisk sprk pl:Język walijski pt:Lngua galesa ro:Limba galeză ru:Валлийский язык sl:Valižanščina fi:Kymrin kieli sv:Kymriska wa:Wals zh:威尔士语


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