Wednesday 31 July 2013

Is Welsh difficult?


There has been some confusion in the comments section about what Rhys David looks like. So to clear matters up, here is a handy guide:


Meri Huws

Rhys David

In what seems to becoming an annual ritual around this time of year, the Institute for Welsh Affairs has published another article peddling the myth that the Welsh language is inherently difficult and needs to become more like English. It's a bit like Rex Harrison singing "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" in "My Fair Lady".

The author this time is Rhys David, a former journalist and executive with the Financial Times. Last year it was Colin Miles, another retired businessman (see Cneifiwr's reaction and link here).

Rhys David has some interesting things to say in what is quite a wide-ranging article, but he devotes a lot of space to explaining why in his view Welsh is a difficult, stuck-in-the-mud, geriatric sort of language.

The Welsh language faces many challenges, and it is fair to say that the perpetuation of this myth is one of them.

It is very common to hear Welsh speakers say to learners, "Welsh is a very difficult language, isn't it?" They invariably say this with good intentions, but the correct, if somewhat rude, response should be, "If it's that bloody difficult, how come you can speak it?"

Unlike Colin Miles, Rhys David is certainly familiar with the language, and from what he writes, he most likely speaks it. The trouble is that he looks at Welsh through the prism of English.

After some preliminary thoughts, Rhys gets into his stride by comparing Welsh to software. Although it's been around for a long time, "we only have the beta version at present and it needs some reworking to make it fit for purpose".

Let's take a deep breath and move on to the substance.

All languages have their quirks and irregularities. English has around 200 irregular verbs in common use (I see, I saw, I have seen). Modern spoken Welsh has five. Yes, five (bod, mynd, cael, dod, gwneud).

English has two or arguably three present tenses (I go, I am going, I do go). Modern spoken Welsh has just one.

To make a present tense in Welsh, all you need to know is the forms of the verb bod ("to be") and some vocabulary:

Mae e'n mynd.  He goes/he is going/he does go.

Replace the 'n with the word wedi and you've got:

Mae e wedi mynd   He has gone.

Now compare the four English permutations, including the forms "go, goes, going, gone" with the two Welsh sentences. Which of these languages is making a meal out of things?

Rhys goes on to talk about "archaic declensions". In grammar "declension" is a term used to describe how nouns, pronouns and adjectives change depending on what is going on around them. Welsh nouns and pronouns do not decline execpt to show plural forms. Ever. Nhw in Welsh can be either "they" or "them" depending on whether the English pronoun is a subject or an object (direct or indirect). In English you add 's to show possession (genitive case). Jac's car. Welsh: Car Jac.

True, there are a small number of feminine adjectives in Welsh in regular use, but they have never caused anyone to have a nervous breakdown, and people happily sing Gafr wen, wen, wen, ie finwen, finwen, finwen....  As far as I know, nobody has ever objected to the use of wen and insisted on singing gwyn ("white" in English).

Rhys is not very happy that Welsh has masculine and feminine grammatical gender, forgetting that among European languages English is very unusual in not having grammatical gender. Quite a lot of European languages have three genders, but that has not threatened the existence of German, Polish or Russian.

Welsh has multiple plural forms, he complains. But so too do German, Italian, Swedish, Greek and Russian. English also has a few oddities in this department (children, mice, men....).

Rhys finds that using peidio to make negative commands is also unsatisfactory. In English you say "run!", but if you want to make that negative you have to say "don't run!" You see, Rhys, in English you have to use the word "do" as well as the word "not" to make a negative command. In Welsh you can just stick the word paid in front of the verb. Paid siarad rwtsh. Or if you prefer, paid â siarad rwtsh.

Staying with negatives, Rhys thinks Welsh is too complex here as well. Compare and contrast:

Aeth e     He went

Aeth e ddim  He did not go.

Which language is making life difficult?

Of course mutations make an appearance on the charge sheet as well. Most people who speak Welsh as a first language have not got a clue about the rules for mutations. They do mutate, without thinking about it, and very often not according to the rules set down in the books. Mae Dylan yn mynd i Llanelli, people say, but mae Eirlys yn mynd i G'fyrddin.

In fact the rules for using mutations in written Welsh are pretty easy to learn. Much more difficult, in fact impossible, is to formulate clear rules for how mutations are used in spoken Welsh. Very often spoken Welsh avoids mutations which are standard in the written language, but sometimes spoken Welsh introduces mutations where the written language has none (after the word os for example).

Recently I saw someone who is one of the most prolific Welsh tweeters on Twitter worrying that he did not know the rules for mutations, and yet he consistently writes good Welsh and has interesting things to say.  

Paid â phoeni, Hedd.

The point is, Rhys, that mutations are not something anyone should lose sleep over. If you are a learner, go with the flow. Copy what you hear other people saying. If you want to write and cannot get to grips with the rules, there are handy mutation checkers available.

Welsh is no harder and no easier than any other European language, Rhys, so please stop perpetuating this depressing and destructive myth.

Finally, Rhys David reckons we need something like the Academie Francaise to regulate and standardise the language. He also thinks that Welsh is somehow not strong enough to evolve naturally as other languages do.

The truth is that Welsh is evolving and changing naturally, and it always has. All languages do. That is why you hear people saying things like fi'n mynd or car fi. Judging from what he says about the sort of Welsh to be found on Facebook, Rhys David is not too keen on this sort of thing.

So what would an academy do? Which forms would it give its seal of approval to? Yr wyf yn mynd? Rwyf yn mynd? Dw i'n mynd? Dwi'n mynd? Or one of the several other possibilities?

A number of countries have tried to legislate on language, and they have nearly all come a cropper. The German speaking world tried to introduce a series of spelling reforms back in 2006, and the arguments are still raging.

Norway tried over a long period to merge the two distinct forms of Norwegian, with penalties for children who used the "wrong" word for seven at school. It simply upset everyone.

One of the few examples of successful legislated language change in Europe was the simplification in Sweden of the rules for using the words for "you". Now you say "du" to one person or "ni" if you are addressing more than one person. The reason why that reform took hold had a lot to do with the insanely complex system which preceded it, where if you wanted to be polite to someone you had to refer to them in the third person.

Did Mr Eriksson have a nice holiday? Did his son enjoy it too? And has he stopped wetting the bed yet?

But who wet the bed? Mr Eriksson or his son?

There are lots of things which need to be done to promote the Welsh language and encourage its use, but fiddling with the language itself is not one of them. The one sure way of killing the language would be to strip it bare to make it conform to English rules.

And no, Rhys, Welsh is not a piece of dodgy beta software.


Efrogwr said...

Well said, Cneifiwr! Rhys does not seem very aware of the nature of languages. Does he speak any language other than English and Welsh, I wonder? Has he studied linguistics? The main challenge for Welsh learners - in my experience having learnt to fluency as an adult - is the minoritised status of the language.

Anonymous said...

Pam na wnewch chi bostio hwn oddi tan darn Mr David?

Anonymous said...

A thoroughly enjoyable post - especially for a Welsh learner like myself.

Although I'm pretty sure my old A Level Welsh teacher wouldn't agree about the level of importance for mutations! :)

Anonymous said...

The main trouble with learning the Welsh language is finding someone else who is also interested in the language to learn from.

Most people just want to chat to, learn about and gossip with others. They care nothing for the language that they use for this sort of communication, invariably English.

We Welsh learners must be a strange breed.

Anonymous said...

Pen-i-blydi-gamp gyfaill! An excellent blog. Should be on the IWA website.

Anonymous said...

Mwynheuais i'r post yn fawr. Yn anarferol falle, rwy'n mwynhau dilyn rheolau treiglo wrth siarad ac ysgrifennu ac yn dwli ar derfyniadau 'egsotig' ein henwau. Rwy'n cofio fy nghefnder yn sôn am gathod a "cïod" pan yn ifanc iawn! Bu rhaid i mi chwerthin (nid mewn ffordd faleisus, wrth gwrs). Rwy'n cofio fy ffrindiau o Bortiwgal yn rhyfeddu bod geiriau fel aderyn ac asgwrn yn troi'n adar ac esgyrn!!
Ond pethau felly sy'n rhoi cig a chnawd ar esgyrn ieithoedd.

Nid cod sefydlog, cyfrifiadurol ydy iaith - cod dynol ydyw! O'r herwydd ni fydd yr un iaith fyw yn hollol reolaidd a "chywir". Atalnod llawn!

Wedi'r cyfan: heb ei fai, heb ei eni.

Cneifiwr said...

Diolch o galon Anhysbys @11.33. Rwy'n cytuno gant y cant.

Clywais i lefarydd Heddlu Dyfed Powys yn siarad ar y radio yn ddiweddar. Roedd purdeb ei iaith a'i ddefnydd naturiol o'r treigladau'n syfrdanol ac yn hyfryd.

Meddwl am bobl sy'n dysgu Cymraeg roeddwn i yn yr erthygl yn bennaf. Y peth pwysicaf iddyn nhw yw hyder a gallu siarad yn rhugl heb boeni gymaint am y treigladau a rheolau gramadegol eraill.

Anonymous said...

We need to get away from these arguments that run, "Welsh is a difficult language" - "No it isn't". Like every language it's somewhere on a continuum where it's more difficult than some and less difficult than others.

Try googling 'comparative difficulty of languages' for discussion and academic analysis on this. In general this shows that Welsh is certainly not the easiest but there's much, much worse out there.

Anonymous said...

Well, looking at the photo of the author, if indeed that is the author,, I can see why the existence of masculine and feminine nouns in any language might cause some difficulties.

Cneifiwr please don't publish if this is offensive. I don't mean to be cruel or personal, but it may be a salient point.

dghughes82 said...

@Anonymous: That's Meri Huws, the Welsh Language Commissioner, not Rhys David, the author of the article. Perhaps it is you who has trouble differentiating between masculine and feminine? ;-)

Though it's a bit out of order to be making attacks on people based on their appearance in any case, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to defend Rhys David's position because much of what he says seems rather misled, but Welsh doesn't have only five irregular verbs. You're vastly underestimating what a Welsh learner needs to learn to truly master Welsh if you're putting it that way.

For verbs alone, if we looked at their various parts we'd have quite a large tally of points to be learned.

Bod, (+ Compounds; gwybod, adnabod, cydnabod, canfod, cyfarfod, darfod, darganfod, dirnabod, gorfod & hanfod), dod, mynd, gwneud = 14

cael & gadael (gadael takes the 3rd person singular pres. and 2nd person singular impv. from defunct verb 'gadaw' so similarly isn't 'regular' even if it takes regular suffixes for all but two forms where it borrows an alien stem). Cael isn't a formally irregular verb, by the way - it merely has an irregular stem and some defective imperative forms.
VERBS WITH UNPREDICTABLE 3rd Person Singular Present & 2nd Person Singular Imperative Forms:-
Tybied, rhagdybied, cau & amgau.

So there's an additional 6 verbs you could add to the original 14 irregular forms taking that up to 20.

Add to that the 30 DEFECTIVE VERBS (excluding instances where they overlap certain compounds of 'bod')
15 of which are added to that list because they are Verb-Noun only verbs, like byw and marw.

So there are some 50 Welsh verbs which are either irregular, conflated or defective.

REGULAR VERBS themselves have 48 distinct conjugation sets - made unique by whether they're primitive or derived (which impacts on their literary forms), have orthographic issues with diacritical marks, experience contractions due to stems terminating in vowels or are subject to exceptions to these various vowel contraction rules because the verbs are loanwords or have monosylabic stems, whether they have a extraneous -i- or -h- infixed between the stem and verbal suffix or if the stem is subject to changes impacting on double letter (rr/nn) pairs due to the movement of penult stress when the verb takes a bisyllabic suffix.

So a learner of Welsh needs to learn some 98 unique verb paradigms, as well as the fiddly details of the unpredictable parts among the primitive verbs; like imperative parts like dal! gwêl! paid! etc. But this also fails to account for complex issues of register - where the classical Literary forms differ in a number of ways from the general colloquial forms - which would be split even further in the dialects. So the diglossic nature of Welsh makes it a difficult beast to pin down on paper - and available resources are lacking in the extent to which they do so.

Saying that, this is simply the work that has to be done to learn a real, ethnic language. French has some 350 irregular verbs which don't conjugate along paradigms one could flawlessly predict. The number is over 400 in Italian, and about 170 in German - all exceed the number one needs to learn for Welsh.

Cneifiwr said...

Anon @14.22 A very good response, but in my defence I was talking about the modern spoken language. I don't know many (any to be truthful) people who say "erys" instead of "mae'n aros", or "adnabu" instead of "roedd e'n nabod". But perhaps I move in very down market circles!

But, yes, in spoken Welsh there are a few slightly irregular verb stems in common use, but not many. And some are really only 'irregular' when it comes to spelling (e.g. cyrraedd/ennill).

Anonymous said...

Sorry, just didnt recognise her! Apologies to all. No wonder i was confused. No excuses mind.

Anonymous said...

(Anon 14.22 again) I appreciate these distinctions are literary - but reading literature is how many language learners acquire new vocabulary - a method precluded from learners who've been taught Welsh as if it were now two slangy colloquial dialects, so distinct they should be taught separately in two arbitrarily partitioned parts of Wales as with the modern WLPAN courses. Welsh language literacy is obviously a problem for a considerable number of the self-described Welsh speakers in the last census - it's considered a completely secondary skill for learners for some reason, despite the fact that many learners would have to go far further out of their way to find another Welsh speaker than simply pick up a book and enjoy it.

I agree that the problems relating to the learning of Welsh are little to do with the language itself and its integral structures - but more to do with its teaching and the resources available which attempt to describe it.

The fact that two colloquial dialects, informal written Welsh and formally written Welsh are all taught as if they were completely separate languages would be enough to scare anyone off if they were never taught to see how they overlap to comprise the rich features of a SINGLE rich and nuanced language. Add to that confusion created by disparities in prescribed forms presented in even supposedly colloquial courses - like those of the Cymraeg Byw era, and new forms presented by Gareth King and I don't blame learners for feeling that grasping this language is like grasping runny custard.

Learners frequently get exasperated at the ever-changing forms they're presented with, and frequently give up for that reason, yet it's not beyond scope to present Welsh in most of its forms at once with explanations designed to allay that confusion, if that is what it takes to stop people from giving up on it.

People's problems with the actual features of Welsh, like mutations, or memorising vocab and grammatical genders are down to insufficient drilling exercises in the available courses. They often fail to take account of how people struggle with them - and move at too fast a pace into complex structures before students have mastered the basics. Yet brightly designed drilling exercises for learners could easily be devised and made available online, or via smartphone apps. if the government were serious about increasing the numbers of speakers. It could spend far less creating lessons recorded by digital media, and supplemented by apps and websites than by spending fortunes on classes which people, with their busy schedules struggle to attend and often drop out of.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous from August 2, 2013. Your suggestion that drilling exercises be developed has been implemented at the site saysomethinginwelsh. I'm not a shill for the site, but I've been working on the lessons there for a couple of years now. Unfortunately, just like with a formal class, finding time to listen to the lessons even with an .mp3 player can be difficult.

Anonymous said...

Ardderchog! NO language is easy (and I've learnt a few) unless you are a 3 year old and I'd say English is harder to learn than Welsh; probably.

The only big thing you missed was the fact that you can always read Welsh directly from the page. I've lost count of how many times my kids ask me how do they say a word in English. Vowels change sounds dependent on the word (the 'I' in Indeed or Important for e.g) and there is never any indication of where the stress might be. This means you need to have HEARD a word to read and pronounce it and often there is not much resemblance between a word you know of as spoken but haven't seen written. Welsh is constant, regular, predictable and just phonetic like many other European languages. This vastly helps you with other European languages and if you 'get' the masc/fem concept of tair cath a tri mochyn too then its plain sailing for necotiating tria or tris animals in Greek too. Bonus!


Anonymous said...

I'm learning Welsh, and I agree that it's no harder than any other modern language; indeed aspects of it are a lot easier than other languages (forming the present tense, for example).

Some things are slightly harder: the various forms of Bod necessary for affirmatives, negatives and questions; mutations caused by gender, but these are fairly minor details.

The comparison with the Academié Francaise isn't entirely fair, as French does not have the problem of being a second language within its own country, as Welsh is. Welsh has the very real threat of becoming entirely pushed out by English in the next centuries, whereas French does not.

Shrey said...

I enjoyed reading this article. I'm a non-Welsh learner learning the language and I find this language very intriguing, almost mystical.