Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Advice on Learning Welsh - Dysgu Gymraeg

Cynghorion i Ddysgwyr • Advice for Learners
"Isn't Welsh miserably difficult?"

Welsh has an entirely undeserved reputation for being a very difficult language to learn. Its initial consonants jump around, it switches its verbs and sentence subjects, and there is some angst over precisely what part of speech a typical verb actually is. Not only that, but the writing is cryptic and the pronunciation of some consonants is so difficult that your tongue will quite literally tie itself in knots trying.

Well, that's the myth. The reality is quite a bit different. The initial consonants of words do shift, but in very predictable -- and more importantly, in completely regular -- ways. Tad is the Welsh word for "father." Ei dad means "his father," but ei thad is "her father" and fy nhad "my father." That one letter /t/ shifts between /d/, /th/, and /nh/. However, when you learn about these consonants shifts -- called mutations -- you realize that they are in fact completely regular and not difficult to understand.

And while Welsh switches its verbs and subjects in some ways, the jury is still out on precisely how engrained that is. In most of the commonly conjugated (long-form) verbs, the inflection comes before the subject, but the verb, strictly speaking, does not. Short-form verbs are another matter, but what seems to be happening is not that the verb starts the sentence, but that the inflection does. In English questions, this also happens. Consider the sentences "Do you want to go to the store?" and "Did you want to go to the store?" The verb to do is meaningless in that sentence, but functions as a sponge to soak up the verb tense, which must "bubble up" to the front of the sentence in English questions -- present tense in the first example, past in the second. The only difference between English and Welsh is that in English, this process only occurs in questions whereas in Welsh, it happens in all sentences.

And the much-feared Welsh "verb-noun" is also nothing unusual in English, where we simply add an -ing ending to a verb to create a noun. "To ride" is a verb; one rides. However, "riding" is a thing, a pasttime. Welsh does the same thing, only leaving off the -ing.

And unlike English, where the -ough at the ends of words like "through," "though," "cough," "bough," and "enough" are pronounced completely differently, the words in Welsh are (for the most part) pronounced precisely as they are spelled. Granted, when one is confronted by a word like "llongyfarchiadau," that might not be terribly reassuring, but if you take it slowly, you will know exactly how the word is pronounced. The voiceless /rh/ and the signature /ll/ of Welsh -- called a lateral fricative and not really that scary at all -- are not hard to get a grip on, any more than the oddball English voiced /th/ that comes in front of words like "this" and "that," and the even stranger and harder to characterize American English /r/ sound, which is found in very few other languages on Earth.

In short, just about everything that is called strange and intimidating in Welsh happens in other languages. We've examined the movement of inflection to the head of the sentence above, but that's not all. Spanish softens consonants in some contexts, where the first and second /d/ in a word like dedo sound completely different. The "stacking" nature of possessive and genitive phrases in Welsh is very similar to Arabic, where "your brother's phone number/the number (of the) phone (of) your brother" in Welsh is written as rhif ffôn eich brawd/number phone your brother. In Arabic a similar construction would be used for a phrase like "the bank manager's name/the name (of) the manager (of) the bank" -- ism el mudir el bank/name the manager the bank. In both cases, the nouns are "stacked" in the reverse order of English, with the linking "of's" knocked out.

Not only that, but the language is breathtakingly regular! All those consonant shifts? When the rules require them, they happen. Without exception. The odd sentence structure? Graven in stone. There are five irregular verbs in Welsh, and four of them are very similar. One, bod or "to be," is used to conjugate just about everything, so you'll memorize it in short order.

So drop your fear of all those enormously long words and mutable consonants. It's really not that bad at all. Speaking as someone who began studying French when I was 10 and was once fluent, and who has since picked up no small amount of Spanish from living in southern California, I can tell you right now: compared to the Romances languages, Welsh is a breeze. And the abundance of resources for the learner make the speaking of it even more of an attainable goal.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

Thanks for the link: I sent the creator of these pages a note, as she lives but a dozen miles away from me! Excellent resources for those of us terrified of facing the daunting heights of the language of heaven. Hwyl fawr!