Skip to content ↓

June 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Some Reflection in Learning Welsh

Message from Tim

With apologies to Welsh native-speakers for any errors.


Tim Bowen is a free-lance teacher trainer, materials writer and translator. His main interests in the field of language teaching and linguistics are etymology, philology and pronunciation. Email:

I am half-Welsh. My family on my father’s side have roots in Sir Caerfyrddin (Carmarthenshire) and, more recently, strong links to the Welsh valleys, notably the Rhymney Valley and the towns of Aberbargoed and New Tredegar, all areas where the Welsh language is widely spoken. I have never been a Welsh speaker, having grown up and attended school in England but I have always felt a strong affinity to the culture and, in particular, to the landscape, those green mist-shrouded mountains stretching out to the Irish Sea.

This interest has been lifelong and has built on the occasional Welsh word from my childhood (notably gwely, meaning ‘bed’ and hence the instruction for bedtime and ych a fi, meaning something like ‘ugh’ and used to register disapproval or disgust). Another widely heard word was duw (god), used, as in English, as an interjection, and the phrase chwarae teg, meaning ‘fair play’ in the sense of ‘well done’. Oh, and the numbers 1-10 of course.

As a postgraduate student, I somewhat unexpectedly found myself at the University College of North Wales in Bangor, in the Welsh-speaking heartland but a part of the country virtually unknown to me. Naively, I imagined I would simply pick up some Welsh simply by being there. I did manage to acquire an extremely limited and rather diverse vocabulary. Apart from the everyday greetings (Bore da, Nos da etc), I quickly learnt the words for various parts of the university (prifysgol): addysg (education, my department), gyfraith (law), hanes (history, which I seem to recall was in the same block) and, of course Saesneg (English). The activities of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Cymraeg (Welsh Language Society) were very much in the news at the time, so that term stuck. Extra-curricular activities also contributed so llwybr cyhoeddus (public footpath) was an early acquisition as were various tafarn (pub) related words, notably dim ysmygu (no smoking), cwrw (beer) and, memorably, gwin gwyn (white wine) but, on the whole, those words which did creep in were random and the result in the main of visual exposure rather than any systematic attempt to learn them and use them actively.

A lifetime spent working with language and languages has, I hope, given me a good level of language awareness, at least with those languages belonging to the various branches of the Indo-European tree. Knowing Slavic languages, Romance languages and some German, I can generally work out what is going on in a piece of text in languages ranging from Dutch to Polish and from Romanian to Norwegian. But Welsh genuinely left me stumped. Confronted with a piece of text in Welsh I might be able to work out the odd word but the overall context was always a mystery.

Faced with the unenviable task of attempting to stay relatively sane and busy during the Covid pandemic, I resolved to confront this unresolved issue in my linguistic make-up. I started (and finished) an online course designed and administered by a well-known American company. I will be the first to acknowledge that, like the curate’s egg, parts of it were quite good but, overall, the basic lack of a communicative focus and an over-reliance on endlessly repeated phrases, some of which were designed to be memorable in their esoteric nature (e.g. Owen is eating parsnips in Argentina), but which were simply irritating, forced me to go further afield in my search for the holy grail. 

A first step was to get a dictionary. I have long had an ancient Welsh-English dictionary but ancient is the operative word and many of the terms in it would appear to be archaic and there is little reference to where in the country a particular variant is used. I bought the OUP Geiriadur Cymraeg Cyfoes (Modern Welsh Dictionary), five hundred or so pages of absolute joy. I also bought a grammar book, which is, by contrast, a bit disappointing. It is exercise-based and, again, those exercises seem to lack much communicative focus.

I also added Twitter links to Welsh news and politics and, with the help of BBC Cymru, tried to read at least one item of news a day. Added to this, I took the highly unusual (and possibly unprecedented) step (for me) of watching soap operas. In Welsh, of course, but with sub-titles the programmes are Pobl Y Cwm (People of the Valley, the second longest-running soap in UK history after Coronation St) and Rownd a Rownd (Round and Round). While the former is centred on a fictional village somewhere near Swansea in South Wales, the latter is clearly situated in Menai Bridge, a village on the stretch of water separating Ynys Môn (Anglesey) from the Welsh mainland, thereby providing a different accent and some distinct vocabulary differences. 

And then it started. Some very large pennies started to drop. At first, it was just the occasional revelatory experience. The Welsh word for autumn is hydref and the word for October is mis hydref (autumn month). Dydd (day) Mawrth is Tuesday but mis Mawrth is March. Of course, Mars, mardi, March. The connections were there!  Dydd Sadwrn (Saturn’s day), Dydd Iau (Thursday – Jupiter’s day) is a calque of Latin Dies Jovis from which we get jueves in Spanish. Likewise, Wednesday is Dydd Mercher (Mercury’s day, hence, mercredi, miercoles). Then we have arian (silver), which also means ‘money’ and gives us Yr Ariannin (Argentina) as well. From tiny acorns …

Some cognates and borrowings (not necessarily from English) help of course. Here are a few of the more common ones: môr (sea), afon (river), pont (bridge), melin (mill), mynydd (mountain), tad (father), mam (mother), nesa (next), ffordd (road, cognate with ‘ford’ perhaps), cath (cat), cwningen (rabbit), niwl (fog, c.f. German Nebel, Spanish niebla)), perygl (danger), tatws (potatoes), afal (apple), beic (bike), ysgol (school), bae (bay), eglwys (church), cwmwl (cloud), cwpwrdd (cupboard), fferm (farm), lwc (luck), uffern (hell), awr (hour), munud (minute), sbectol (glasses), siocled (chocolate) and ffenest (window). I like the verb smyddio (iron) which probably derives from ‘smooth’ and the verb ‘write’ (y)sgrifennu (has links with scribe, scripture, inscription etc).

Really obvious borrowings (no translation needed) include brown, bws, trên, eliffant, pensil, cloc, banc, desg, tap, fferi, ffilm, siop, rwber, sinema, mwnci, sgert, trowsus, gêm, set, ffrind, octopws, ocsigen, seidr, criw, storm, grŵp, castell and fideo.

It gets weird at times. The Welsh for ‘rat’ is llygoden fawr (literally ‘big mouse’). ‘Toilet’ is tŷ bach (the little house, a reflection of the times when it was just that, a little shed at the end of the garden. Wythnos (week) is formed by wyth (eight) + nos (night). Eight nights? Compare Italian settimana or French semaine, clearly based on seven. The Welsh for July is mis Gorffennaf (formed of gorffen + haf) meaning ‘end of summer, which seems a bit pessimistic even for rain-soaked Wales. 

No, the Welsh for microwave is not popty ping, much though those who deride the language would like it to be. Popty is the word for ‘oven’ but microwave oven is popty meicrodon. In a similar vein, there was a long held view that the word ‘penguin’ was derived from Welsh -  pen (head) + gwyn (white). Very persuasive at first sight but not when you consider that penguins have a black head and live in Antarctica, a long, long way from where intrepid Welsh explorers might have ventured.

Memory aids have proved useful too. It was helpful to find that two of the most common interrogative pronouns, the words for ‘what’ and ‘why’, are beth and pam. Those two girls in the pub last Saturday  – easy to remember! Similarly, glôwr (miner) has the association of a glowing miner’s lamp and diog (lazy) of a dog just lying around. I use Bob Dylan to remember the word for ‘should’ dylwn and a complaining, whinging politician (Johnson?) to help me recall Prif Weinidog (Prime Minister). Annibyniaeth (independence) is clearly someone I knew at school, while the similarity with S’il vous plait helps me remember Os gwelwch yn dda (literally ‘if you (will) see well’). 

Welsh also provides some interesting imagery in its vocabulary. ‘At daybreak’ is yn y bore glas (literally ‘in the blue morning’) and ‘peach’ is eirinen wlanog (woolly plum). Bochdew (fat cheek) is hamster, while ladybird is buwch goch gota (little red cow) and woodlouse is mochyn coed (wood pig) but can also mean ‘pine cone’. Mochyn daeaf (earth pig) is badger. The South Walian word for ‘owl’ is gwdihŵ, an onomatopoeic word pronounced ‘goo-dee-hoo’, which does the job perfectly. The word for butterfly is colourful in many European languages (mariposa, farfalla, sommerfugl, Schmetterling, borboleta to name but a few). Welsh has pili pala

A strange one is the North Walian euphemism for ‘toilet’ – lle chwech (literally ‘place six’). There are numerous theories about the origin of this expression, from workers’ toilets being in rows of six at workplaces such as slate quarries to it being a corruption of rhech (fart). One suggestion is that until the mid-19th century ‘six’ was a euphemism for toilet in English and this may be a direct translation of the old term. 

Then we come to numbers. Apart from the various forms of the early cardinal numbers 2-4, Welsh also has two systems that are both in use. The newer decimal system is fairly consistent and less interesting as a result. 43, for example, is pedwar deg tri (four ten three) while 54 is pum deg pedwar (five ten four) and so on. The older ‘20’ system is, as the name suggests, based to some degree of units of twenty (c.f. French quatre vingts for 80), so in Welsh you have ugain (twenty), deugain (two twenties, so forty), trigain, pedwar ugain (60 and 80 respectively). Fifty is hanner cant (half a hundred) in this system but (as above) pum deg in the simpler decimal system. You get some mouthfuls here, e.g. thirty-three, which is tri/tair ar deg ar hugain (three on ten on twenty). Real oddities are seventeen dau/dwy ar bymtheg (two on fifteen) and nineteen pedwar/pedair ar bymtheg (four on fifteen). 

Welsh has no specific words for kitten and puppy. The former is cath fach (little cat) and the latter ci bach (little dog), which brings us to the final instalment of this mystery tour. Why is ‘little’ fach in one case and bach in the other? This is consonant mutation, one of the phonological and hence orthographic features of Welsh. As I will never need to write Welsh, I am not particularly bothered by the spelling rules but the pronunciation seems rather more important. This is often affected by the environment of the particular sound and comes naturally so to speak. However, as mentioned above, I studied in Bangor, which is, well, Bangor, except when it’s Ym Mangor (in Bangor) or Dw i’n mynd i Fangor (I’m going to Bangor). Similarly, Cardiff can be Caerdydd, yng Nghaerdydd, or I Gaerdydd. I’m getting there but very slowly.

Diolch am darllen hwn. (Thanks for reading this)


Please check the Pilgrims f2f courses at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Pilgrims online courses at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Voices 
  • Some Reflection in Learning Welsh
    Tim Bowen, Wales, UK