Uncommon Language: How the Welsh and English language differ

The Bridge at Betws-Y-Coed, Snowdonia, Wales

The Bridge at Betws-Y-Coed, Snowdonia, Wales - Credit: Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL on some of the ways Welsh and English have stayed apart.

The name of the village of Betws-y-Coed in North Wales means 'prayer-house (in) the trees'. Coed, 'trees', is the plural of coeden, 'tree'.

This is an intriguing grammatical fact. In the languages of the world generally, plural forms of nouns are normally derived from, and more often than not longer than, singular forms.

English trees is derived from tree by the addition of plural -s. German Bäume, 'trees', is obviously derived from Baum,'tree', as is Dutch bomen from bom, and Spanish árboles from árbol.

But, in the same unusual way, Welsh pluen, 'feather', is derived from the plural plu, 'feathers', seren, 'star', comes from sêr, 'stars', and deilen, 'leaf' is clearly based on dail, 'leaves'. Things seem to be the 'wrong' way round: the singular forms are longer than the plural forms, and seemingly derived from them.


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In fact Welsh is not really so very different from English, German, Dutch or Spanish. Most Welsh plurals are actually derived from singulars. Llyfr, 'book', has the plural form llyfrau, 'books', singular pensil, 'pencil', has the plural pensiliau; and the plural of trên, 'train', is trenau.

But Welsh does have the capacity to make a very interesting grammatical distinction which is not available in English. To call Welsh forms such as coeden and coed 'singular' and 'plural' is really not the correct analysis. Coed ('trees'), plu ('feathers'), sêr ('stars'), and deil ('leaves') are better described as 'collective' nouns. Coeden, pluen, seren and deilen, the longer words which are derived from them, can be described as 'unitary' or 'singulative' forms.

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A coeden, 'tree', is an individual instance of the collective phenomenon signified by the term coed – which could just as well be translated into English as 'wood' – a wood is after all a collection of trees. Plu could similarly be translated as 'plumage': a bird's plumage is made up of its feathers. And deil could very well be rendered as 'foliage' – foliage does consist of leaves. I can't, though, think of a satisfactory translation for the collective noun which corresponds to the singulative mochyn, 'pig', other than to say that moch means 'pigs'.

Welsh is the earliest language that we know of in Britain. Its ancestor, Brittonic Celtic, seems to have been the island's only tongue for very many hundreds of years indeed, until it was joined, temporarily as it turned out, by the Latin which arrived with the Roman invasion of AD 43. Then, in the 5th century AD, it was joined on a much more long-term basis in the northwest of Britain by Gaelic, which arrived from Ireland; and elsewhere on the island by English, arriving from continental Europe.

Gaelic and Welsh are quite closely related Celtic languages. But English and Welsh are only very distantly historically connected. Being able to speak English gives you no help at all with the learning of Welsh, nor vice versa.

After 1,500 years of co-existence on the same rather small island, these two languages are still highly dissimilar in many ways.

A grammatical characteristic of Welsh which illustrates this point rather nicely is one which it shares with Gaelic and other Celtic languages such as Breton. In English, most grammatical transformations to words take place at the end of the word: cat – cats, children – children's, walk – walked, sing – singing. This is true of Welsh as well, as we just saw with llyfr and llyfrau. But Welsh can also carry out grammatical operations by alterations to the beginning of words. In Welsh, 'dog' is ci, but 'her dog' is ei chi and 'his dog' is ei gi. You have to understand how these initial 'mutations', as they are called, work before you can be confident about looking up a word in a dictionary. It's no use trying to find nghar, gar or char in most Welsh dictionaries because they are all mutated forms of the word car, 'car'.

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