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.