Cymdogion ieithyddol eich ymennydd 

I lawer iawn o bobl sy’n medru mwy nag un iaith mae trawsieithu (neu translanguaging yn Saesneg) yn rhywbeth hollol anniddorol ac i siaradwyr Cymraeg mae’n rhywbeth nad yw’n hawdd iawn ei osgoi. Trawsieithu yw’r enw sy’n cael ei roi ar y broses o gymryd gwybodaeth i mewn drwy gyfrwng un iaith ac wedyn ei defnyddio mewn iaith arall. Gallai’r broses hon fod yn anffurfiol iawn; byddai darllen erthygl yn Saesneg ac wedyn sôn amdani ddiwrnodau yn ddiweddarach gyda’ch ffrindiau Cymraeg-eu-hiaith yn enghraifft o drawsieithu. Mae enghraifft fel hon yn ymddangos yn eithaf arferol i ni yng Nghymru- dyma’r hyn rydyn ni’n ei wneud bob dydd. Does dim modd i chi fyw eich bywyd drwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg yn unig- mae’r Saesneg o’n cwmpas ac mae’n rhaid i ni gymryd gwybodaeth i mewn yn un iaith ac wedyn defnyddio’r wybodaeth honno mewn cyd-destun ieithyddol arall. Mae’r pwnc wedi hawlio cryn dipyn o sylw yng Nghymru- credir taw yng Nghymru y daeth y term ‘trawsieithu’ i’r fei. Mae trawsieithu bellach yn rhan o gymwysterau cenedlaethol megis Lefel U Cymraeg Ail Iaith a Thystysgrif Sgiliau Iaith y Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol. 

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Gwelir llawer o waith sy’n ystyried defnyddio trawsieithu mewn ysgolion uwchradd er mwyn meithrin sgiliau amlieithog a manteisio ar alluoedd ieithyddol amrywiol disgyblion mewn ymdrech i hybu cydweithrediad ieithyddol a diwylliannol mewn ysgolion rhyngwladol. Mae cysyniad syml y tu ôl i’w defnydd: nid oes angen i’r gwahanol ieithoedd y mae person yn eu siarad neu’n ceisio eu dysgu frwydro yn erbyn ei gilydd. Os ydych chi wedi dysgu mwy nag un iaith fel odolyn, fe fyddwch chi’n gyfarwydd â’r teimlad hynod o rwystredig o geisio dweud gair yn Almaeneg ond i’ch gwybodaeth Ffrangeg darfu ar y broses ar y foment olaf a striwo eich brawddeg Almaeneg berffaith. Mae diffodd un iaith er mwyn siarad iaith arall yn dasg wybyddol a hanner- hyd yn oed i siaradwyr rhugl neu alluog iawn. Os ydych chi wedi bod yn y gwaith yn siarad Cymraeg yn ddi-dor drwy’r dydd ac wedyn yn mynd i gyfarfod am 16:00 lle mae angen i chi gyfathrebu yn Saesneg mae’n gallu bod yn anodd diffodd eich Cymraeg: “If you’re mynd i consider- sorry… if you’re going to consider….” Mae hyn yn fwy anodd byth os oes pobl yn yr ystafell yr ydych chi fel arfer yn siarad Cymraeg â nhw. 

Mae’r ieithoedd yr ydyn ni’n eu siarad i gyd yn ein hymenyddiau ac maen nhw’n cystadlu yn erbyn ei gilydd am ein sylw. Felly, yn hytrach na mynnu mai un iaith yn unig a ganiateir mewn dosbarth, rhoddir rhyddid i ddisgyblion ddefnyddio pa bynnag iaith y maen nhw am ei defnyddio. Mae’r sefyllfa ieithyddol yn gallu bod yn hyblyg iawn. Efallai y byddai 5 disgybl wrthi’n gweithio ar brosiect a phob un yn chwilio am wybodaeth ar y we yn ei (h)iaith ei hunan. Gwglo ac ysgrifennu nodiadau yn Bwyleg, Portiwgaleg, Sbaeneg, Hwngareg a Chymraeg. Byddai’r dysgwyr wedyn yn dod at ei gilydd i drafod eu hymchwil drwy gyfrwng un iaith, efallai Saesneg ac wedyn ymateb i beth bynnag yw gofynion y dasg mewn iaith arall, efallai Ffrangeg. 

Mae trawsieithu yn rhywbeth yr ydw i wrth fy modd yn ei wneud gyda disgyblion o bob lefel ac mae sawl ffordd i’w ddefnyddio. Gan amlaf, bydda i’n darparu deunydd darllen neu fideo Saesneg i’r myfyriwr ei ddarllen neu wylio cyn y sesiwn nesaf. Byddwn ni wedyn yn mynd ati i drafod y deunydd hwn yn Gymraeg yn ystod y wers. Gall darparu cwestiynau dealladwyedd o flaen llaw yn Gymraeg helpu dysgwyr nad yw’n hyderus iawn yn siarad yn ddigymell neu ddysgwyr sydd yn hoffi paratoi o flaen llaw. 

Does dim rhaid trafod y deunydd yn yr iaith darged- yn lle, gellir darparu deunydd yn Gymraeg ac wedyn ei drafod yn Saesneg. Yr hyn sy’n bwysig yw bod yr iaith darged yn bresenol yn un cam o’r broses isod:

MEWNBWN > PROSESU > ALLBWN 

Rhywbeth arall sy’n hynod o effeithiol yw trawsieithu “cudd”: gellir gosod tasg i’r dysgwr sydd yn gyfangwbl drwy gyfrwng yr iaith darged, hynny yw, byddai pob cam uchod yn yr iaith darged ond bod y cam prosesu yn cynnwys iaith gyntaf y dysgwr mewn ffordd lai amlwg. Er enghraifft, gellir gofyn wrth y dysgwr ddarllen cyfieithiad o lyfr Saesneg y mae e neu hi’n gyfarwydd iawn ag ef. Dyma rywbeth dwi wedi’i drïo fy hun yn yr iaith dwi’n ei dysgu, sef Swedeg. Dwi’n ffan mawr o waith F Scott Fitzgerald, yn enwedig “the Great Gatsby”. Dyma lyfr yr ydw i wedi’i ddarllen nifer o weithiau ers i mi ei ddarllen am y tro cyntaf yn yr ysgol. Dwi’n gyfarywdd iawn â’r stori a’i themâu a’i chymeriadau. Felly, er yr oeddwn i’n straffaglu’n sylweddol ar adegau i ddeall brawddeg neu baragraff, roeddwn i’n gallu defnyddio fy ngwybodaeth am y nofel i ddehongli’r hyn oedd yn digwydd. Roedd yn heriol, ond roedd yn caniatáu imi gyfieithu heb eiriadur ac i ddyfalbarhau gyda chynnwys ieithyddol a oedd y tu hwnt i fy lefel gallu presennol.   

Dwi’n ddigon ffodus i gael llawer o ddysgwyr brwdfrydig iawn sy’n medru sawl iaith. Dwi wedi mwynhau gosod tasgau sy’n galluogi fy nysgwyr i adolygu eu sgiliau Eidaleg wrth iddynt wneud eu gwaith cartref Gymraeg drwy ysgrifennu crynodeb Cymraeg o erthygl yn Corriere della sera. Mae’n ffordd hynod o effiethiol i’r Polyglots sydd am ddysgu gymaint â phosib a hwyluso’r broses o gaffael dwy iaith newydd ar yr un pryd. Ond yr hyn yr ydw i’n ei sylweddoli nawr yw nid oes angen eich bod yn medru sawl iaith er mwyn elwa o drawsieithu. Does dim angen i chi fod yn hollol rhugl mewn iaith arall chwaith. Yr hyn sydd angen yw bod yn agored i ddefnyddio ieithoedd mewn modd hyblyg a chreadigol.  

Felly, peidiwch â cheisio gwahanu eich ieithoedd- cymdogion yn eich pen ydyn nhw, felly mae’n rhaid i chi sicrhau bod digon o Gymraeg rhyngddyn nhw. 

The first sign of madness

Do you talk to yourself in your second or third language? Probably not because that would be weird, wouldn’t it? Another reason not to do it is because most language learning for adults is firmly rooted in what’s sometimes termed the conduit approach or communicative approach. This is what commonly drives pedagogy in adult second language classes: the passing back and forth of information between conversational partners. This can be very structured, e.g. in the form of a gap fill exercise  (e.g. relaying information about missing train times on a timetable). It might be less formally structured but still controlled by the teacher to some degree, e.g. “find out the following pieces of information from your partner”. Alternatively, your language teacher might set the communication context and ascribe roles, e.g. “you’re in a cafe in Istria, you are the waiter and you three are customers”. This is all good language practice. Ultimately you want to be able to talk to your in-laws in Welsh about something or you want to order something at a cafe in Croatia. That is, you want to communicate. However, language isn’t just something we do to other people in order to produce some kind of effect- language is also in our heads and we vocalise things even when no-one is around to hear it. If we’re struggling with a procedural task then we might talk ourselves through what the options are. This kind of speech often manifests itself as telegrammatic, i.e. not in full or proper sentences. It’s the kind of language we need after we’ve bought something from IKEA:

“Hmmmm. That one… no- wrong piece. Where is…? Right, put that…and yes! Done!”

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Children who are learning their first language get to use this kind of speech all day every day. They get to sit in a chair in the middle of a room and point at things, name them and receive a constant stream of linguistic feedback from adults. They get to say absolute nonsense, but adults process it as having communicative import and offer interpretations and corrections of what the child says. A small barely-verbal child might say “It’s a booo blah eurgh!” and an adult will reply “Yes, it’s a sheep! It’s not blue though. Do you want the sheep?”. It’s very unfair really- we never get this optimum language learning environment ever again. All this language practice means kids end up speaking their native language fluently whilst having made no automatic or conscious effort.

They then use their language skills to talk to themselves whilst engaged in procedural tasks and play. Lev Vygotsky was a famous Soviet psychologist whose work on the development of children is difficult for any social sciences undergraduate to avoid. Vygotsky found that when children are confronted with difficult tasks they engage in private or self-directed speech in order to focus their attention and ultimately overcome these difficulties:

> “Where’s the pencil? I need a blue pencil. Never mind, I’ll draw with the red one and wet it with water; it will become dark and look like blue” (from Vysgotsky’s Thought and Language)

James Lantolf & William Frawley offered categorizations of private speech in the context of second language learning:

Object-regulation: this kind of language allows the speaker to “get a grip” of the situation or difficult they’re currently facing. These might take the form of metacomments about the task or about how the speaker is feeling about completing it. Some examples from Steven McCafferty include the following, which were taken from second language research on describing complex picture sequences:

  • “Think this picture is not good”
  • “I can do this in Spanish but not in English”
  • “I can see a boy walking down the street”

Other-regulation: addressing (otherwise irrelevant) questions to someone, i.e. in Mcafferty’s picture description task the subjects in the studies he considers often ask the researcher questions, e.g. “This picture… do you want to tell me, I tell you where he is or…?”. Also in this category are questions the speaker asks of themself, e.g. “How do I say this…? Hmmm. I know this word…”

Self-regulation: this is the final category identified by Lantolf & Frawley and concerns speech which signals the speaker is making progress in the task or correcting a difficulty or mistake, e.g. “five monkeys are playing with a man- no- the man is angry”.

Steven McCafferty surveys a number of studies that have examined second language speakers’ self-directed or private speech and finds that learners expend just as much or more effort in self-regulating and talking to themselves as they do in actually communicating and completing the task at hand. We use language to talk to ourselves when we’re small children, however, it doesn’t look as though talking to ourselves is something that dies out completely. It resurfaces in our native language when we’re engaged in completing a difficult task and it can also resurface in second language contexts. It seems that we have a  natural linguistic predisposition to speak to ourselves.

However, adult language learners aren’t encouraged to speak to themselves. The focus is always on communicating, on imparting information to others and receiving information from conversational partners during evening classes. But what about talking to yourself in the target language? I teach a lot of people over Skype and in person who don’t live somewhere where Welsh is spoken, either in Wales, or England or more exotically in Canada and further afield. “I’ve got no-one to talk to! No-one to practice with”. Yes you have, you have yourself. It’s not the first sign of madness, it’s the first sign of language learning. If kids can talk to themselves, why can’t adult learners?


Here are some examples of how and when to use self-directed speech in your target language:  

  • Prepare a list of self-directed phrases, e.g.:
    • “No that’s not right”
    • “Where did I put my pen?”
    • “I’ll move this a bit”
    • “That’s better”
  • Use self-directed speech when engaging in a procedural task, e.g. talk yourself through the constituent stages of making a cake or mending your bicycle.
  • Plan in your target language: if you’re flicking through your calendar to try and find a convenient time to do something then go through the options out loud in the target language, e.g.:
    • “I can’t do Monday because I have a Greek lesson”
    • “I’ve got a meeting in Cardiff on Thursday so I can’t do it then”
    • “August would be best, but which day… ?”
  • Swear! Swearing in a second or third language has recently become a subject of psycholinguistic investigation. Language scientists use the term reduced emotional resonance to describe how second language speakers feel when they describe their new language as “meaning less to them” or “having less impact” than their native tongue. Swearing can be difficult because you don’t have the insight into what is normal or acceptable in your target language, particularly if you don’t live somewhere where the language you’re learning is routinely spoken. But swearing, particularly when used as an exclamation, is something everyone does, it’s automatic, it’s real-time language and represents a perfect opportunity for self-directed speech. Try replacing your first language exclamations with some from your target language- making sure they won’t cause a scene if you use them. Remember, you might have reduced emotional resonance in your second language, so check with a trustworthy native or proficient speaker before committing yourself to a selection of profanities! By making a conscious effort to swear or exclaim in your target language you can start to make language use, previously something confined to a classroom or book, into something which is instead instantly on your tongue, delivered without hesitation and used in real-time. Eventually, you can scream automatically, loudly and confidently at yourself in Polish or Welsh when you next drop something out your foot or realise you’ve forgotten your umbrella when it starts raining.

Discover Welsh

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Dinbych-y-Pysgod (Tenby), Pixabay

I’ll be taking one of this year’s Discover Welsh sessions at City Lit. We’ll introduce pronunciation and stress rules in Welsh in order to get you confidently and accurately pronouncing the language.  Basic introductory phrases will be taught and practised in this informal and supportive session.

This session is pitched at absolute beginners. If you’ve been thinking about learning Welsh, this is a brilliant first step. Hope to see you there!

Wales’ sad export

Wales has exported an awful lot over the centuries: we’ve churned out of coal, a lot of water has been extracted out of us and we now do a good line in pop singers, sports personalities and cheese. Since living in London and working as a Welsh tutor, I’ve noticed another one of Wales’ primary exports: the Linguistically Bereaved Welsh.

The Linguistically Bereaved Welsh are a group who left Wales in their early twenties to study or work in England or further afield and who don’t speak Welsh. Their linguistic bereavement doesn’t come directly and necessarily from an absence of the Welsh Language. We know that you don’t have to speak Welsh to be Welsh. Political analyst Dennis Balsom’s Three-Wales Model may now be approaching 35 years old, but it probably still holds a lot of water. The Three-Wales Model chops the country up into three broad parts:

  • Y Fro Gymraeg: Welsh-speaking, Welsh-identifying Wales (North Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire, Gwynedd, Anglesey)    
  • Welsh Wales: Non-Welsh-speaking, Welsh-identifying (Swansea, Gower and the Valleys)
  • British Wales: Non-Welsh-speaking, British-identifying Wales (South Pembrokeshire, Cardiff, Newport and the rest of the country)

The point is that we’re quite flexible when it comes to the language and our identity. For some of us, being Welsh is inextricably linked with speaking the language, for others not speaking Welsh is as much a part of their Welsh identity as screaming at the television during the Six Nations.

Click here to read the rest of this post (published as an opinion piece in nation.cymru)

For English, click on the English flag

In countries with more than one official or main language, we have to make choices about our language use when accessing services with some kind of digital interface. Most ATMs in Wales will compel you to make a choice between Welsh and English. Lloyds, perhaps, rather aggressively, asks you whether you’d like make a transaction in Welsh, forcing those who would like English to answer “no thanks” or Welsh speakers to answer hoffwn I would. It’s hoped that soon we won’t have to make these choices so often, partly because it doesn’t look like there’ll be any banks or ATMS left in Wales soon anyway, but also because technology will remember our initial choice on apps, ATMS and websites and so we won’t have to make a declaration every time we interact electronically with an institution.

Some multilingual organizations have multiple social media pages for their different linguistic customers and so delete the need for language selection. Estonian customers complain about cancelled flights to the airline’s Estonian Facebook page, whilst Lithuanian customers vent their frustration or like pictures of teddy bears looking out of plane windows via the airline’s Lithuanian social media mouthpiece.

But what happens when an organization decides to have one website or one social media channel and try to please all its customers at the same time? In bilingual output like Facebook pages and Twitter, choices still have to be made at some level. Which language to put first? How to signal the start of a different language in the same post? How to signal language choices in links?

Last year the people of Wales waved goodbye and/or celebrated the end of Arriva Trains Wales’ presence in Wales. A new not-for-profit transport company is now running the railroad show in Wales. Great news! What isn’t great is their social media output. It’s not the content that’s the problem (it’s as dull as anything else any other transport company generates), it’s their strange use of symbols for language choices

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Facebook post from Transport for Wales, 1st May 1019

All their posts that contain links to Welsh and English versions of web pages are prefixed by either an English flag or a Welsh flag. The Saint George’s cross if you want to read it in English and y ddraig goch if you want to read the content in Welsh.

This might seem like something and nothing, but the use of national flags for language choice is deeply problematic. The Welsh Language Commissioner’s official guidance is against their use altogether. What do national flags signify? They denote a nation, country or people. The red cross denotes England, it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, denote English. English is spoken natively by an incredible number of people all over the world in many different countries- we can’t count them all because that would be impossible, but conservative estimates (1) are at somewhere between 360-400 million speakers. Would it make sense for people in Ireland, New Zealand, Malta, Hong Kong or South Africa to select a St George’s cross to read something in English? English doesn’t belong to England- it may have originated from there, but now the world owns it. And it’s exactly the same for other languages. Which flag would you pick for the following languages?

  1. Spanish: spoken in (to name but a few) the Philippines, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba.
  2. Portuguese: spoken in natively or by a significant number in (to name but a few) Brazil, Macau, São Tomé and Príncipe,
  3. French: spoken in (to name by a few) Canada, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Switzerland
  4. German: spoken in Austria & Switzerland

But what about the particular case of Wales. What’s the problem here? For lots of people in Wales, English is their first and only language. But these monolingual English speakers are still Welsh and they are still represented by Wales’ flag. The Welsh flag, and any other Welsh thing from lovespoons and Eisteddfodau to rugby matches and lava bread, belong to everyone, whether you had the privilege to grow up in a bilingual environment or not. There’s something simply accidentally nasty about using these flags. They don’t, I believe, signal two benign linguistic options, they are forcing the user to make a declaration: “click here if you can speak Welsh” or “click here if you’re not Welsh”.

What’s the way out then? How should Transport for Wales represent these languages without being exclusive or, possibly offensive? It’s easy, what about a simple CY for Welsh and EN for English. Or perhaps just put both without any heralding or announcing symbol before them and just let people read the ones they want! Whatever we choose to do with language choices, we absolutely must not tie these choices to national or cultural identity through the use of symbols such as flags.

  1. Crystal, David (2006). “Chapter 9: English worldwide”. In Denison, David; Hogg, Richard M. (eds.). A History of the English language. Cambridge University Press. pp. 420–439. ISBN 978-0-511-16893-2.

#joiobyw!

Here’s a table of Wenglish words with translation into English and proper Welsh:

English Wenglish Welsh
to enjoy joio mwynhau
to like licio hoffi
to share siario rhannu
to drive dreifio gyrru
to smoke smocio ysmygu
to use iwsio defnyddio
to find ffeindio dod o hyd i

Languages always borrow words from other languages. This is simply what happens in a globalised world in which we can hear and see other languages. English has borrowed an awful lot of words from other languages (from the word moped nicked from Swedish, to Hindi giving us the words shampoo and bungalow, to Dutch’s gifts of aloof, bluff, dam, yacht, smelt, snack, to the pronoun they form Icelandic and the thousands of French loanwords) as well as stealing lots of phrases (e.g. de facto, en route). Now that English is a behemoth linguistic force majeure, it’s other languages that are borrowing things from English and not the other way round. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that a minority language like Welsh is adopting words from the super-dominant language in the British Isles. English speakers are seemingly fascinated by phrases and words from their language that get co-opted into other languages. Radio Sweden, a national English-medium broadcast service in Sweden, recently did a feature of the phenomenon of the importing of English swear words into Swedish.

Whilst lots of my adult learners laugh at words like smocio (ysmygu, to smoke) or smwddio (to iron), I’ve never encountered a learner who’s irritated at the use of “Wenglish” (which I’m now going to put in quotation marks from now on). This learner on Twitter was irritated. His call for linguistic purism criticised first language speakers for using “Wenglish” over Welsh words. It sparked a small Cymric Twitter storm as well as this article on the BBC’s Welsh language service, BBC Cymru Fyw.

The complaining learner on Twitter prefers to use what he calls “actual Welsh words”. The response from lots of native speakers has been that when they say dreifio instead of gyrru they are in fact using a Welsh word. It’s not just that fluent speakers see these words as actually being Welsh ones- rather, it’s that they are linguistically adapted when they are imported into Welsh. Siario is a linguistically Welsh word. These words aren’t just imported unchanged into Welsh. They are adapted to suit Welsh orthographic conventions (e.g. using f for “v”) and are pronounced according to the phonological rules of Welsh. This means they are said in a way that, for example, obeys Welsh’s stress placement rule. For example, proffesiynol (professional) has stress on the penultimate syllable, whereas the word in English has stress on the second syllable. Welsh doesn’t have a vowel reduction rule in unstressed syllables like most British varieties of English. This rule in English means we say “problem” as “problum” and not “problemme” and “Adam” as “Adum”. The vowel in the unstressed syllable is called schwa and is the most common sound in the English language. But in Welsh we keep the vowels’ original quality even in unstressed syllables, meaning that problem is pronounced as “problemme”. Welsh also has a tendency for word-final voicing. Lots of sounds can be put into pairs in which the only thing distinguishing the two sounds is whether it’s voiced or voiceless, compare “v” with “f” or “d” with “t” in English. Welsh’s preference for word-final voicing means that words like “cricket” and “basket” are rendered in Welsh with voiced consonants at the end: criced, basged.

When verbs are imported into Welsh, they also take Welsh inflexions (aka word-endings). It’s very common in North Wales for people to say licio for to like. -io is a common verbal ending in Welsh. The word like hasn’t just been wholesale imported into the language. Dw i’n like dancing isn’t a permissible sentence in Welsh: dw i’n licio dawnsio is though. The verb licio would also change its ending when we convert it into the conditional tense: Liciet ti goffi? (Would you like coffee?). Last week I was at a wedding in south east England and someone in response to my saying I was a Welsh tutor said “dim parcio!” and started laughing. Perhaps he’d just availed himself too readily of the free booze, but he seemed to genuinely find that phrase entertaining. A have a friend who finds cwstard funny (even though the English word is actually pilfered from the French word croustade) It’s a strange kind of mentality this. But it’s not too far removed from the way the Twitter learner calls out “Wenglish”. Both mentalities seem to think that Welsh should have its own words or different words from English. Welsh is somehow lessened by importing words from English. It becomes less of a language in these people’s eyes and more of a “patois” or dialect of English.

It’s not just about defending the use of these words by fluent speakers, or indeed by anyone who chooses consciously or otherwise to use them. There’s perhaps also a pedagogical consideration. Should we also be using these words more in Welsh second language education in schools, universities and adult courses? Are tutors guilty of presenting “pure Welsh” vocabulary when learners may not hear these words so frequently outside of the classroom environment? Are tutors linguistic hypocrites for teaching gyrru and hoffi, but then saying sa i’n licio dreifio i Aberystwyth (I don’t like driving to Aberystwyth) instead of the more standard dw i ddim yn hoffi gyrru i Aberystwyth? Perhaps the word hoffi is actually on the way out and we should just teach people licio instead? Whatever we decide, it seems tutors might also be guilty of the same kind of linguistic snobbery displayed by the Twitter learner.

No-one is bothered about the hundreds of thousands of loanwords in English, probably because most of them were borrowed hundreds of years ago. Welsh’s taking words from English is just an inevitability. It’s just what languages do. It’s not to do with the laziness of native speakers and it’s not about choosing non-Welsh words over linguistically indigenous ones. These loanwords’ gradual incorporation into Welsh is an example of Linguistic change happening in real time. It should be interesting to observe and, if we want, participate in it.

Perhaps we need to present “Wenglish” words as Welsh words and through guiding our learners through correct pronunciation offer them an insight into how these loanwords have become part of modern spoken Welsh.

There’s definitely no point in despairing of these words. They exist. Jyst relacswch!

half of twenty less than five times twenty

What’s “42” in Welsh?

There are two options:

Pedwar deg dau or dau a deugain

Welsh has two counting systems. One is decimal (i.e. centred on a base of tens) and the other is vigesimal (i.e. centred on a base of twenties). When we talk about a “base of tens” what we mean is that the system pivots around 10 when we form numbers above 10. In English, we have such a decimal system. “Seventy” is “7 lots of ten” (“-ty” from the Old English tig meaning ten). But lots of languages don’t form their numbers in reference to 10. In our Welsh example,  Pedwar deg dau is the decimal version, literally “four ten two”. Dau a deugain is the vigesimal version, literally “two  two-twenty”.

Perhaps somewhat apocryphally, Welsh has ended up with two number systems because Patagonian Welsh speakers in Argentina created a decimal system for use in their Welsh medium schools and this number system was then imported across the Atlantic. This leads to a bit of a muddled situation in Wales, which often confuses learners, where there are two versions of all numbers between 11-99. We tend to use these different systems in different contexts. So we talk about someone being pedwar ugain for age (literally “four twenty” for 80) and driving trigain miles (literally “three twenty” for 60), but we’re more likely to talk about there being dau ddeg (“two ten”, 20) chairs or other things we’re counting. Weights, measurements, money, time and ages are still mostly referred to using the “old” (i.e. vigesimal) system. However, this is rapidly changing as more and more adult learners become part of the Welsh language community and as school children just see the old numbers as exactly that: old.

The ancient Babylonians apparently had a sexigesimal number system (with a base of 60), well, they sort of did. That’s objectively weird. Welsh’s number system being vigesimal based isn’t weird. Loads of languages have a system which is (at least in part) based on this: French, Basque, Inuit languages to name but a few. What’s perhaps intriguing about Welsh’s “old” system is that’s it’s slightly mixed. 15 is an important pivot sometimes:

16 Un ar bymtheg One on fifteen
19 Pedwar ar bymtheg Four on fifteen
35 Pymtheg ar hugain Fifteen on twenty

The old system is full of inconsistencies. The pattern in the teens is, for example, broken by the words pymtheg for 15 and deunaw for 18 (“two nine”). If 14 is pedwar ar ddeg (“four on ten”), then why isn’t 15 just pump ar ddeg (“five on ten”)? And why not have 18 as wyth ar ddeg (“eight on ten”)?

The system isn’t really strictly about a base of 20 as opposed to 10 either- sometimes it’s both. 90 is deg a phedwair ugain (“ten and four twenty”). Danish is a language that makes good use of the idea of using 20 as the base. Danish is a (largely) vigesimal system, but interestingly the 20 bit has been lost slightly. Sindstyve is the part of Danish numbers meaning x20 which isn’t really pronounced in modern spoken Danish anymore. So tredsindtyve for 60 is just pronounced tres nowadays.

Here are some numbers in Danish that make the Welsh system look completely boring.

50 halvtreds [(3-½) x 20] ~“half of 20 less than 3 times twenty”
60 tres [3 x 20] ~“3 times twenty”
70 halvfjerds [(4-½) x 20] ~“half of twenty less than four times twenty”
80 firs [4 x 20] ~“four times twenty”
90 halvfems [(5-½) x 20] ~“half of twenty less than five times twenty”

“Half of twenty less than five times twenty” is much more exciting than Welsh’s version of 90. Instead of trying to crowbar the vigesimal theme throughout, Welsh just opts for “ten and four twenties” for 90 and combines a decimal and a vigesimal system, much like French. Danish, however, is loyal to the vigesimal cause and renders 10 by talking about it as half twenty.

If you only speak English and you’re learning a vigesimal number system, then this can cause a headache. But this headache is compounded by the fact that there are actually two different number systems to learn in Welsh. Another thing that causes my learners and tutees to despair is feminine number forms (dwy gath (two cats) but dau gi (two dogs). Yet another trauma is the placement of the noun in quantified noun phrases, e.g. dwy gath ar hugain (“two cat on twenty” for 22 cats) and pedair punt a deugain (“four pound on two twenty” for £44). Ordinal numbers seem to cause even more distress: y bedwaredd ar bymtheg a phedwar ugain  (“the fourth on fifteen and four twenty” for 99th). The learners that make the most progress are always those who look at this kind of linguistic irregularity and think “there’s a challenge!”. Human languages have created a seemingly infinite number of interesting and different systems for things like numbers. Getting our heads around something like Danish or Welsh numbers might be tricky, but it’s a good bit of linguistic legwork and a means of realising our linguistic potential. English numbers are so boring! We can do so much better!

Check out my resource page on the numbers to find out more.