Welsh, it turns out, isn’t at all like French

I have learnt a lot of things since moving to Wales. Chief among those is the fact that the Welsh language isn’t at all like French.

THERE has been a flurry of St David’s Day celebrations across Wales this week.

Although most celebrations were on March 1 – the patron saint of Wales’s dedicated day in the calendar – many more have continued throughout the week.

This nation relishes celebrating Wales and all things Welsh. As an outsider, I can only say what impressions I have of Welshness. It seems to be an endearing mix of pride in a culture, passion for sport, love of singing, unabashed emotion and appreciation for beauty.

But one thing that is not necessarily universally celebrated is the Welsh language.

Welsh speakers are mostly concentrated in Mid and North Wales – but there are Welsh-speaking communities across Carmarthenshire and in the Swansea Valley too.

Travel farther south to Swansea, and the Welsh language is less obvious. It is rare to hear Welsh voices in the streets here. For most people in Swansea, English is their first and only language. Quite rightly, they don’t feel they need to speak Welsh to be Welsh.

Of course, to practically all North Americans raised on fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings and films like Tristan and Isolde and The Mists of Avalon (we don’t bother to differentiate between the Celts, I’m afraid), the Welsh language is a deeply romantic thing.

But I have had to admit that, as a Canadian living in Swansea, I see very little practical use in learning the language.

Don’t get me wrong, I started out with quite a lot of enthusiasm for the language. But my initial attempts to pronounce things were laughable, and my enthusiasm has waned.

As a once fluent French speaker – merci, Mr Trudeau, pour l’immersion française – I tend to regard all “foreign” languages as “probably a bit like French”.

This sort of works for, say Spanish or Dutch – there are quite a few shared words and some pronunciations are not miles apart, but it doesn’t work for Welsh. At all.

But French is such a strong influence that I’ll still look at a Welsh word I don’t recognise and pronounce it in my head as a French speaker would. So when I first moved to Ceredigion during my exchange year at Aberystwyth University, Ceredigion became “SAIR-u-dee-G-EE-awn”. (It’s actually pronounced “KERR-AH-dig-ee-on”).

But in Aber, I didn’t know any Welsh speakers, and as a student I rarely travelled outside the town’s borders, so it didn’t really matter that I couldn’t pronounce Machynlleth properly.

That changed a little bit when I returned to live here seven or so years after leaving Aber. Upon learning that we would be working in South Wales, my husband and I embarked on a tour of the area to scout out where we should live.

With him working mainly in Carmarthen and me in Swansea, one of our first thoughts was to base ourselves in the town of Pontarddulais, on the border of Carmarthenshire, which is one of the biggest places between the two centres.

Having never had to pronounce it, I found myself talking, in front of my in-laws, about a place called “Pont-ARE-DUE-lay” with my best foreign (French) accent.

Naturally, my in-laws were very amused by my mistake and had a bit of a chuckle.

Feeling a bit foolish, I didn’t end up in Pontarddulais (PONT-a-DULL-uss), and I didn’t start learning Welsh.

But I’m happy to report that, since then, I have had the opportunity to learn the root words of many longer Welsh words. For example, “bryn” is hill and “mawr” is big, so the common place name Brynmawr is big hill. “Pen” means head in Welsh and “gwyn” means white, so pengwyn (or penguin) is “white-head”. “Pont”, a word the Welsh learned from the Romans, is bridge, and “Dulais” is the name of a river. So Pontarddulais means a bridge over the river Dulais.

Very basic knowledge can teach you a surprisingly large amount about the countryside.

So this year I am paying tribute to St David by sharing some of my newly acquired knowledge with anyone who happens to stumble upon this blog. Here are a few of my favourite words. Pob lwc (good luck) learning the rest of the language on your own.

Popty-ping: One of my favourite Welsh words is a modern one. “Popty-ping” combines the traditional Welsh word for oven, “popty”, and the onomatopoeic word “ping” – the sound of a microwave oven finishing its cycle. So popty-ping means microwave oven.

Ysmygu: I recently learned, through the magic of Twitter, that “smoking” is “ysmygu”. When the guy at the train station asks you not to smoke he says “dim ysmygu”, which is pronounced very much like DIM SMUGGY. I don’t want to be condescending, but it sounds adorable.

Nos da: Welsh for “good night” and a beautiful phrase. I am off to bed, so it’s a good way to end this post.


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