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I'm absolutely surrounded by linguists in my family. My dad is a French teacher who also speaks Spanish, a little German and Italian and occasionally dabbles in Sanskrit (useful for philology - the study of language - as it's a very early Indo-European tongue). My mum has a degree in zoology, so has to keep up her Latin. My late grandpa picked up a fair smattering of Urdu when in India during the war, and it was from him that I obtained an (unintentionally) hilarious Swahili phrasebook by BJ Ratcliffe and Sir Howard Elphinstone, Bt., extracts from which await at the very end of the op - it's worth the wait, I promise you. Oh, and my granny used to teach English to Chinese people.
So there was I, with my A Level in French and GCSE in German, feeling a little bit overshadowed. Whatever to do? The obvious answer was to learn a language that none of them knew, so that I could swan about looking superior. As I was about to start a job in Wrexham, Welsh seemed the obvious choice, especially as at the time I believed I had Welsh ancestry (in fact, the ancestor in question was born in Toxteth, though my granny did go to school in Mold...).
Learning Welsh is quite different from learning French or Russian. For a start, you'll almost never *have* to use it in day-to-day life, as any remaining Welsh people who claim to be monoglot are almost certainly doing so for political reasons, and could quite easily converse in English; they're simply too stubborn.
Not that it's quite that simple, naturally. Of course, if you're going to be a teacher in a Welsh-language school (ysgol Gymraeg), you'd expect to have to know the language, but in fact a pretty wide range of jobs now require a reasonable degree of fluency, especially those in public service which are affected by the Welsh Language Act. You've got next to no chance of becoming a local government officer in Llandudno or a librarian in Bangor unless you're reasonably bilingual. It's not quite as stark as that, though; in many cases you can get dispensation provided you commit to achieving fluency within two years (this forms part of your contract, so take it seriously!). Some Welsh people whinge no end about this... but would you go to Canada, even outside Quebec, without learning French? Not if you had any sense.
So, you want to learn Welsh. How should you go about it? Well, as with most of these things, it's impossible to give hard and fast rules - what's good for the goose may not be good for the gander. If you're a precocious child reading this at the age of two, then you've got a headstart on the rest of us - it's far, far easier for a youngster to learn a new language than for us old gits (say, anyone over eight...). And, of course, it's much easier if you actually live in Wales, as there's masses of support available there that just doesn't exist on this side of the border (a good example is Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin - a highly successful nursery schools movement). Still, it's not quite as hopeless as it would appear...
Now, the first problem with learning Welsh in England is the lack of opportunities to speak the language to native speakers. Everyone says that this is the best way to learn a language, and broadly they are correct - though I worry about learning English from certain English people I hear - so you decide to dash off on a couple of day trips to Rhyl (though Scouse would be a more useful language there...), encouraged by the introduction to Teach Yourself Welsh:
"It cannot be too strongly urged that the way to learn the language is to use it. When ... you have learnt Bore da (Good morning), say it to the first person you meet who can speak Welsh. Your reward will be the satisfaction of having made the first serious step towards learning the language".
Fine words, and certainly an admirable sentiment, but if real life could be allowed to intrude for a moment... your reward is *actually* likely to be slightly different. Reasons for this include:
1) How, exactly, are you supposed to identify whether "the first person you meet" is able to speak Welsh? What are you supposed to say: "Good morning; could you tell me whether you speak Welsh so's I can say bore da to you"? It's more than likely that the other person will turn out to be someone from England (or, even worse, Monmouthshire) who can't speak a word of the language.
2) What if they reply with a stream of perfect Welsh? You're going to look a right fool if all you can then say is "sorry, I don't speak Welsh" - the other party is likely to wonder why, in that case, you pretended that you could.
3) The other person *can* speak Welsh, but answers you in English. This is just about the most disheartening thing that can happen to you, and can really set you back. Often the other person is genuinely trying to help you, but occasionally it's just unpleasantness. In this case, if you can, continue the conversation in Icelandic or Guarani just to annoy them. This is, if you like, the reverse situation from when all the regulars in a pub suddenly switch to Welsh when a "sais" (Englishman) appears - yep, it does happen.
4) Language snobbery still exists in many parts of Wales, in both directions: sometimes people look down their nose at the fact that you can't speak Welsh perfectly; on other occasions they get uppity at an outsider trying to barge into their culture. The latter is getting less common, but you still come across it, especially in remoter parts of the north.
Having ploughed through that lot, you might conclude that a different approach is called for, and luckily there are many such. The advent of the internet has made things both easier and more difficult: there are enormous numbers of Welsh learning resources, but many of them are worse than useless, for a variety of reasons. I've come across:
1) Sites that use literary Welsh to teach the spoken language. Literary Welsh is a very worthwhile and interesting area of study; it's changed far less than literary English, so that the great Welsh epic, the Mabinogion, which dates from around 1100, is easier to read for a Welsh person than Chaucer is to an English speaker. The thing is, can you imagine what would happen if you went around talking like Chaucer in the supermarket? Quite.
2) Sites that teach that wonderfully pointless hotch-potch, "Cymraeg Byw". This translates as "Living Welsh", which is rather ironic seeing as how no-one actually speaks it. It was concocted as a "new standard" in the 1960s, and did no good at all, as the "dialect" that it taught bore little resemblence to anything that was actually spoken. First rule of language teaching: teach what *is* spoken, not what you think *ought* to be.
3) Sites written by Americans who have never been closer to Wales than Swansea, Massachussetts. I found a page just now by someone in Oregon, which read as though the author knew what he was talking about... until he solemnly informed us that he had never come across the construction "dw i ddim" for "I am not" - for heaven's sake, I heard it just about every day in Wrexham, and that's not even a majority Welsh-speaking town!
Phew! A lot of negativity there, eh? Let's get into a more positive frame of mind, shall we? Once you've sieved out the dross, there is a fair amount of useful stuff on the net to help you with your Welsh. A very fine place to start is the website of Acen at http://www.acen.co.uk - Acen, which means "accent", is a project that grew out of S4C (Wales' bilingual equivalent to Channel 4) which is now a company in its own right dedicated to serving the interests of Welsh learners. For example, watch the famous Welsh-language soap "Pobol Y Cwm" (People of the Valley) and stick up 889 on the teletext - you'll see a simplified transcript of what's going on, which is highly useful to get a gist through some of the more obscure expressions.
The Acen service that's likely to be of most interest (well, except for their puzzles - *cough*) is their large list of courses (http://www.acen.co.uk/courses/index.html), all of which are in (mostly south) Wales, though you don't have to be Welsh. They offer courses for various levels of proficiency in the language, including intensive courses where you pretty much eat, drink and sleep Welsh for a week or so. I've never yet been on one (which I regret), but those I know who have say they're well worthwhile. Fascinating fact: Prince Charles used an Acen course to bone up before his Investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969.
Another course I like (although it must be admitted that some people dislike its methods) is BBC Wales' Catchphrase: http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/catchphrase/catchphrase1/ is the place for beginners to start. This is the online version of a long-running series broadcast throughout the year on BBC Radio Wales (882KHz MW seems the best bet from England) - once heard, it'll be with you always. Its cheery theme tune was a kitsch classic, and who could ever forget that thrilling exchange: "Shwmae [hi, how are you?] Nigel. Shwmae Cennard."? Thanks to the wonders of technology, you too can experience it in your own... well, wherever you keep the PC! All the lessons are available free in RealAudio format.
Cennard Davies, something of a cult figure thanks to his stern-but-fair style, along with Ann M Jones and Basil Davies (no relation) are the three Catchphrase presenters trying, with a fair degree of success, to knock some Welsh into Nigel Walker. Yes, that Nigel Walker, the ex-international hurdler and rugby player. The reason for the three presenters is to give listeners experience in various types of Welsh - there's a fairly obvious, though (thanks to modern media) probably decreasing, north-south difference (for example, "Meic has a car" would be "Mae gan Meic gar" in northern Wales, but "Mae car [gy]da Meic" in the south), but there are also differences in accent and speed.
Now, you'll notice in my example of regional differences above that I've misspelt "car" in one of the phrases. Gotcha, you think. Sorry, no - this is where we have to confront that most cursed of Celtic constructions, the mutation. Anyone who's learnt German will be aware of the dreaded adjectival endings... which, of course, are largely ignored by native German speakers. Mutations are much the same thing, except that a) they're at the front; and b) it isn't just adjectives - there's an enormous list of rules to remember about when to use them... and again, most natives largely ignore it.
I really am not going to start explaining all the ins and outs of mutations here - it could easily make a book on its own - but here's a little table of what happens, plus a short introduction, which will serve either to help you make sense of a Welsh dictionary or (more likely) confuse you beyond belief...
C - G - Ngh - Ch P - B - Mh - Ph T - D - Nh - TH G - * - Ng - / B - F - M - / D - Dd - N - / M - F - / - / Ll - L - / - / Rh - R - / - /
/ = no mutation; * = remove the initial "g", eg "gardd" (garden) becomes "yr ardd" (the garden). In this case, the noun undergoes soft mutation because it comes after "y" meaning "the". Well, "yr", in fact - the "r" is added for easier pronunciation, in much the same way as "a" becomes "an" before a vowel in English. There are loads of exceptions, of course - to say "in Welsh" you don't say "yn Cymraeg", but "yn Gymraeg" because there is an implied "y" in between "yn" and "Gymraeg" which causes a soft mutation, even though it doesn't actually appear in the phrase. And "in Wales" is "yng Nghymru", as this construcion causes a nasal mutation. But "in Colchester" is just "yn Colchester", as foreign words (and all names) don't mutate. There are, as I say, any number of exceptions to these rules, and native Welsh speakers often just shove a soft mutation onto everything.
Fun, huh? And oh, before I forget... Ng, like Ch, Th, Ll, Dd and Rh, is a letter in its own right in the Welsh alphabet - but don't go looking for it in the dictionary after N. It comes after G. Ain't that swell? Now then, about conjugated prepositions... oh, all right, I'll leave off for now.
Books, then. It's a fair bet that you're going to use them a fair amount, unless you have Welsh-speaking friends who are *very* understanding, or live next to the location of the National Eisteddfod. This, broadly, is a celebration of Welsh culture and language - the grounds are Welsh-language only, except for a "learners' tent", and prizes (crowns, chairs etc) are awarded for success in fantastically obscure types of poetry that about seven people in the world understand. Think of it as a sort of Fermat's Last Theorem convention for Welsh. There are also competitions for more conventional artforms, but the high flyers look down at them because ordinary people can actually understand what the heck is going on. Try to catch the coverage on S4C - it's like nothing else.
Sorry, got diverted there. I was supposed to be talking about books. Acen do a good range, but my favourite ones come from a smallish company going by the name of Y Lolfa (http://www.ylolfa.com) - they have a very wide range of books and cassettes catering to many levels of ambition. The book which I treasure most is Heini Gruffudd's "Welcome to Welsh", advertised as being for "the more ambitious learner". It's a fifteen-part course with some very funny (and quite near the knuckle - not for young kids, this one!) photo-strips forming the basis of each chapter. It's only a fiver, as well - an unmissable bargain. The absolute antithesis of the dry-as-dust stuff we see all too often which turns people off the language instantly. As Gruffudd says in another of her book titles, Welsh is Fun!
Then, of course, there's the venerable "Teach Yourself" series, the Welsh volume of which is written by T J Rhys Jones. Be careful when buying Teach Yourself Welsh - make sure you have the most recent (1992) edition, as the previous version (1977) uses the now discredited "Cymraeg Byw" (referred to above). It's a pretty solid effort, up to the standard you would expect from the series. Holes can be picked in it, of course (Rhys Jones gives "sut ydych chi" for the northern equivalent of "shwmae", whereas the form I used to hear - and use, if I had the nerve - in Wrexham was something more like "su' dych chi" - my spelling is a guess), but there doesn't appear to be anything hugely wrong with it; certainly it's preferable to see a dialogue about village banking facilities than one about gardens of one's uncle and pens of one's aunt....
Grammar. Don't talk to me about grammar. Loathe it or ignore it, you can't like it. I think I ought to tell you, though, that even if you are feeling very depressed, it's something you're going to have to live with. Welsh, it's fair to say, does not have the simplest grammatical structure in the world, so a good guide is essential. Luckily, salvation is at hand in the form of Gareth King, who has deservedly obtained a reputation for clarity and common sense - you won't find silly constructions like "bws a thacsi" here (it means "bus and taxi", and the aspirate mutation on a "t" is practically never used in colloquial speech - you say "bws a tacsi"). His grammar/workbooks "Basic Welsh" and "Intermediate Welsh", and his comprehensive guide "Modern Welsh" (all published by Routledge) are unbelievably useful reference tools for learners - and for more advanced speakers as well.
Lastly, don't underestimate the "passive learning" you can do simply by letting it wash around you. Go to Wales, and use the Welsh-language parts of the bilingual signposts to get around. Listen to Radio Cymru (~104MHz FM) - do they still have that utterly insane bloke, "Jonesy yn y P'nawn" (Jonesy in the afternoon)? Sit in a library and listen to the librarians handling enquiries on the phone. Read the Welsh-language notices posted outside community centres and the like. And so on and so forth.
I've just realised how long I've been yattering on for, so without further ado I'll bring this op to a close, and leave you with the most useful expression you'll ever learn (at least, the version I picked up - I expect it's totally wrong, but it got me by): "Esgusodi fi, dw i ddim yn gallu siarad Gymraeg yn dda iawn" - "Excuse me, I don't speak Welsh very well"! =========== And now, as promised, it's time for some upcountry Swahili! These are all genuine, unaltered phrases from the book I mentioned at the start - it was published in Mombassa in 1957, approved by the East African Swahili Committee, no less!
Waweza kazi ya kupiga pasi? - Do you understand ironing? Huuzwaje kuku siku hizi? - How are fowls sold these days? Pangeni mahema yote ya Wazungu mstari moja kwa moja - Pitch all the white men's tents in line. Tia maji ndani ya kichwa katoe ubongo kwa kijiti - Put water in the skull and get the brains out with a stick. Dirisha hilo halisimami wima; lete timazi - That window is not upright; bright a plummet. =================
I used to work with a woman who was London born and bred but took up learning Welsh because some of her favourite bands sang in the language, then started producing a bilingual magazine called Welsh Bands Weekly. I don't know if you ever came across it. Debbie since fell in love with a Welshman and they've since married and moved to north Wales. I remember her worrying about meeting his parents (she was expected to speak to them in Welsh). Luci
MRSCANADA 05.06.2002 04:41
Very few people out side of Quebec speak French in Canada. My Son speaks Welsh(he went to the U of Wales in Cardif, Hebrew and South Korean)...nice review..Lyla
malwen 26.11.2001 00:10
An interesting and amusing op, which takes me back, ahem, quite a few years.
Of course the native Welsh speakers never had to pay much attention to the artificial dialect of Cymraeg Byw. They just carried on speaking their own dialect, with perhaps only a smidgeon of insecurity if it happened to be less prestigious and pure than that spoken in, say, Snowdonia.
However, I grew up in Shotton, not so far from Wrexham, and about as Welsh as Lobscouse. I was taught 'CB' for years. Only after doing 'O' level did it really hit home that no Welsh literature was written in the language that I had learnt. Fortunately I understood Fermat's Last Theorem, and after being stranded on the moors with only a copy of Cyn Oeri'r Gwaed to sustain me, survived to emerge with an 'A' level, Iaith Fodern wrth gwrs.
Sadly, the lure of the fleshpots of London has kept me away from things Welsh for many years, so despite being fond of the language it has mostly slipped away.
Wayback then, I'd sometimes ask "sut mae?" to sound like "shwmae?", but moshtly only if I'd had a few pintsh. More often "sut 'dach chi?", which I think is close to your Wrexham variant.
Whatever, I hope the answer is "'n iawn".
(Yes, Malwen is Welsh. Cos' I'm like, kind of quick. Maybe)