Welsh language

Welsh (Cymraeg or y Gymraeg, and [[IPA|)]], is a member of the Brythonic branch of Celtic spoken natively in Wales (Cymru), in England by some along the Welsh border and in the Welsh immigrant colony in the Chubut Valley in Argentine Patagonia.

There are speakers of Welsh throughout the world, most notably in the rest of Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The most recent census figures (2001) presented in "Main Statistics about Welsh" by the Welsh Language Board, indicate 582,400 (20.8% of the population of Wales in households or communal establishments) were able to speak Welsh and 457,946 (16.3%) can speak, read and write it. This compares with 508,100 (18.7%) for 1991. Increasing use of the English language had led to a decline in the numbers of Welsh speakers. Since the introduction of the Welsh Language Act 1993, giving Welsh equal status with English in the public sector in Wales, the Welsh language has enjoyed a revival.

The results of the "2004 Welsh Language Use Survey" indicate that there are 611,000 Welsh speakers in Wales (21.7% of the population living in households, a lower figure of 19.7% is given in the same paper), 62% claim to speak Welsh daily, and 88% of those fluent in the language speak it daily.

The 2004 and 2001 figures both suggest that around 14% of the Welsh population claim to speak Welsh daily. It is notable that the figures are from a survey and so fluency was not tested, however fluency in the 2004 survey (versus a 1992 survey) was only greater in the 3-15 years age group (p.9) and that most of this increase came in the South East (p.10), in all other groups numbers of fluent speakers had declined.

See Welsh English, known as "Wenglish", for the English language as spoken in Wales. Officially, the English and Welsh languages have equal status in Wales.


Welsh as a distinct language emerged in the 6th century from Brythonic, the common ancestor of Welsh, Cumbric (extinct), Breton, and Cornish.

Like most languages, there are identifiable periods within the history of Welsh, although the boundaries between these are often indistinct.


The 2004 Welsh Language Use Survey shows 21.7% of the population of Wales are Welsh speakers. This is an increase from 20.5% in the 2001 census, and from 18.5% in 1991. The 2001 census also shows that about 25% of Welsh residents were born outside Wales. The number of Welsh speakers in the rest of Britain is unknown. In 1993, S4C, the Welsh-language TV channel, published the results of a survey into the numbers of people who speak or understand Welsh, and this estimated that there were some 133,000 Welsh-speakers living in England, about 50,000 of them in the Greater London area and border towns and villages in the Welsh Marches such as Oswestry.

Historically, large numbers of Welsh people spoke only Welsh, but monoglot Welsh speakers are now virtually non-existent, at least above school age. Almost without exception, Welsh speakers in Wales also speak English (or Spanish in Chubut Province, Argentina, see Welsh settlement in Argentina). However, a large number of Welsh speakers are more comfortable expressing themselves in Welsh than in English. A speaker's choice of language can vary according to the subject domain and the social context, even within a single discourse (known in linguistics as code-switching).

Although Welsh is a minority language, support for the language grew during the second half of the 20th century, along with the rise of organisations such as the nationalist political party Plaid Cymru from 1925 and the Welsh Language Society, Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg from 1962.

Welsh as a first language is largely concentrated in the less urban north and west of Wales, principally Gwynedd, Conwy, Denbighshire (Sir Ddinbych), Anglesey (Ynys Môn), Carmarthenshire (Sir Gaerfyrddin), north Pembrokeshire (Sir Benfro), Ceredigion, parts of west Glamorgan (Morgannwg), north-west and extreme south-west Powys, although first-language and other fluent speakers can be found throughout Wales.

Welsh is a living language, used in conversation by thousands and seen throughout Wales. The Welsh Language Act 1993 and the Government of Wales Act 1998 provide that the Welsh and English languages should be treated equally in the public sector, so far as is reasonable and practicable. Public bodies are required to prepare for approval a Welsh Language Scheme, which indicates their commitment to the equality of treatment principle. This is sent out in draft form for public consultation for a 3 month period, whereupon comments on it may be incorporated into a final version. It requires the final approval of the Welsh Language Board (Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg). Thereafter, the public body is charged with implementing and fulfilling its obligations under the Welsh Language Scheme. The list of other public bodies which have to prepare Schemes could be added to by initially the Secretary of State for Wales, from 1993–1997, by way of Statutory Instrument. Subsequent to the forming of the National Assembly for Wales in 1997, the Government Minister responsible for the Welsh language can and has passed Statutory Instruments naming public bodies who have to prepare Schemes. Neither 1993 Act nor secondary legislation made under it cover the private sector, although some organisations, notably banks and some railway companies, provide some of their literature through the medium of Welsh.

Local councils and the National Assembly for Wales use Welsh as a quasi-official language, issuing their literature and publicity in Welsh versions (e.g. letters to parents from schools, library information, and council information) and most road signs in Wales are in English and Welsh, including the Welsh versions of placenames. However, some references to English destinations are still given in English only.

Since 2000, the teaching of Welsh has been compulsory in all schools in Wales up to age 16, and that has had a major effect in stabilising and to some extent reversing the decline in the language. It means, for example, that even the children of English monoglot migrants to Wales grow up with some knowledge of the language. However, the vast majority of people in the main population centres of South Wales do not use the language in daily life.

Although most road signs throughout Wales are bilingual, the wording on money is in English only (This is apart from the legend on Welsh pound coins dated 1985 and 1990, which are valid currency in all parts of the UK: Pleidiol wyf i'm gwlad, which means, "True am I to my country"), and derives from the Welsh National Anthem. The new British coinage from 2008 will not bear any Welsh language at all, despite being designed by a resident of North Wales and being minted at the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, South Wales. Although many shops employ bilingual signage, Welsh rarely appears on product packaging or instructions.

The UK government has ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect of Welsh.

The language has greatly increased its prominence since the creation of the television channel S4C (and subsequently S4/C, S4/C2) in November 1982, which broadcasts 70% of Channel4's programming along with a majority of Welsh language shows during peak viewing hours. Additionally, there is an all-Welsh language digital station available throughout Europe on satellite called S4/C2, in existence since 1998. The main evening television news provided by the BBC in Welsh is available for download. There is also a Welsh language radio station, BBC Radio Cymru, which was launched in 1977.

There is, however, no daily newspaper in Welsh, the only Welsh language national newspaper Y Cymro ("The Welshman") being published once a week. A daily newspaper called Y Byd ("The World") was scheduled to be launched on 3 March 2008 but has been scrapped, owing to low sales of subscriptions and insufficient funds being made available from the Welsh Assembly Government.

Since December 2001 the British Government has planned to ensure that all immigrants know English. It remains to be seen if Welsh will be considered a separate case. At present, a knowledge of either Welsh, English or Scottish Gaelic is sufficient for naturalisation purposes and it is believed that this policy will be continued in any proposed changes to the law.


Welsh vocabulary draws mainly from original Brythonic words (ŵy "egg", carreg "stone") and loans from Latin (ffenest "window" < Latin fenestra, gwin "wine" < Latin vinum) and English (sicr "sure" < Middle English siker, fideo "video").


Welsh is written in a version of the Latin alphabet traditionally consisting of 28 letters, of which eight are digraphs treated as single letters for collation:

a, b, c, ch, d, dd, e, f, ff, g, ng, h, i, (j), l, ll, m, n, o, p, ph, r, rh, s, t, th, u, w, y

The letter "j" is now often included in the alphabet, between "i" and "l", due to its use in several loanwords from English (especially the common surname Jones). The letters "k", "q", "v", "x" and "z" are used in some technical terms, like kilogram, volt, xeroser and zero, but in all cases can be, and often are, replaced by Welsh letters: cilogram, folt, seroser and sero. The letter "k" was in common use until the sixteenth century, but was dropped at the time of the publication of the New Testament in Welsh, as William Salesbury explained: "C for K, because the printers have not so many as the Welsh requireth". This change was not popular at the time

The most common diacritic is the circumflex, which is used in some cases to mark a long vowel.



The phonology of Welsh is characterised by a number of sounds that do not occur in English and are typologically rare in European languages, specifically voiceless sonorants such as the voiceless lateral fricative [ɬ], voiceless nasal consonants [ṃ] and [ṇ], and voiceless rhotic [ṛ]. Stress usually falls on the penultimate syllable in polysyllabic words, while the word-final unstressed syllable receives a higher pitch than the stressed syllable.


Welsh morphology has much in common with that of the other modern Insular Celtic languages, such as the use of initial consonant mutations, and the use of so-called "conjugated prepositions" (prepositions that fuse with the personal pronouns that are their object). Welsh nouns belong to one of two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine, but are not inflected for case. Welsh has a variety of different endings to indicate the plural, and two endings to indicate the singular of some nouns. In spoken Welsh, verb inflection is indicated primarily by the use of auxiliary verbs, rather than by the inflection of the main verb. In literary Welsh, on the other hand, inflection of the main verb is usual.

Other features of Welsh grammar

Possessives as object pronouns

The Welsh for "I like Rhodri" is Rydw i'n hoffi Rhodri ("I am liking [of] Rhodri"), but "I like him" is Rydw i'n ei hoffi — literally, "I am his liking him" —; "I like you" is Rydw i'n dy hoffi di ("I am your liking you"), etc.

Significant use of auxiliary verbs

While English can either use verbs directly (e.g. "I go") or with the aid of an auxiliary verb ("I am going", here using "to be" as the auxiliary), non-literary Welsh inclines very strongly towards the latter use. In the present tense, all verbs are used with the auxiliary bod (to be), so dw i'n mynd is literally "I am going", but also means simply "I go". In the past and future tenses, there are inflected forms of all verbs (which are invariably used in the written language), but it is more common nowadays in speech to use the verbal noun (berfenw, loosely equal to the infinitive in English) together with the inflected form of gwneud (to do), so "I went" can be mi es i or mi wnes i fynd and "I will go" can be mi a' i or mi wna i fynd. There is also a future form using the auxiliary bod, giving fydda i'n mynd (perhaps best translated as "I will be going") and an imperfect tense (a continuous/habitual past tense) also using bod, with roeddwn i'n mynd meaning "I used to go/I was going".

Affirmative markers

Mi or fe is often placed before inflected verbs to show that they are declarative. In the present and imperfect of the verb bod (to be), yr is used instead. Mi is mainly restricted to colloquial Northern Welsh, with fe predominating in the South and in the formal or literary register. Such marking of the declarative is, in any case, rather less common in higher registers.

Counting system

The traditional counting system used by the Welsh language is vigesimal, which is to say it is based on twenties, as in standard French numbers 70 (soixante-dix, literally "sixty-ten") through 99 (quatre-vingt-dix-neuf, literally "four twenties nineteen"). Welsh numbers from 11 through 14 are "x on ten", 16 through 19 are "x on fifteen" (though 18 is more usually "two nines"); numbers from 21 through 39 are "1–19 on twenty", 40 is "two twenties", 60 is "three twenties", etc.

There is also a decimal counting system, which appears to be commonly used in Patagonian Welsh, where numbers are "x ten y", e.g. thirty-five in decimal is tri deg pump (three ten five) while in vigesimal it is pymtheg ar hugain (fifteen – itself "five-ten" – on twenty).

While there is only one word for "one" (un), it triggers the soft mutation (treiglad meddal) of feminine nouns, other than those beginning with "ll" and "rh". There are separate masculine and feminine forms of the numbers "two" (dau and dwy), "three" (tri and tair) and "four" (pedwar and pedair), which must agree with the grammatical gender of the objects being counted.


Dialectal differences are very pronounced in the spoken and, to a lesser extent, the written language. A convenient, if slightly simplistic, classification is into North Walian and South Walian forms (or Gog and Hwntw based on the word for North, gogledd, and the South Walian word for "them over there"). The differences between dialects encompass vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar, although particularly in the last regard they are in fact fairly minor.

An example of the difference between North and South Walian usage would be the question "Do you want a cup (of tea)?" In the north this would typically be Dach chi isio panad? while in the south the question Dych chi moyn dishgled? would be more likely. An example of a pronunciation difference between Northern and Southern Welsh is the tendency in southern dialects to "lisp" the letter "s", e.g. mis (month), would tend to be pronounced [miːs] in the north, and [miːʃ] in the south. This normally occurs next to a high front vowel like /i/, although exceptions include the pronunciation of sut "how" as [ʃʊd] in the south (compared with northern [sɨt]). This is most likely the result of a change in the vowel quality.

Much more fine-grained classifications exist beyond north and south: the book Cymraeg, Cymrâg, Cymrêg: cyflwyno'r tafodieithoedd, about Welsh dialects was accompanied by a cassette containing recordings of fourteen different speakers demonstrating aspects of different dialects. The book refers to the earlier Linguistic Geography of Wales as describing six different regions which could be identified as having words specific to those regions. Another dialect is Patagonian Welsh, which has developed since the start of the Welsh settlement in Argentina in 1865; it includes Spanish loanwords and terms for local features, but a survey in the 1970s showed that the language in Patagonia is consistent throughout the lower Chubut valley and in the Andes and is basically the northern Welsh dialect (which is a little surprising as the majority of settlers came from the south , but the northern pronunciation seems to have been preferred — one settler recounted in his memoirs how he was marked down at the eisteddfod as a child for using southern diction).


Modern Welsh can be written in two styles — Colloquial Welsh (Cymraeg llafar) or Literary Welsh (Cymraeg llenyddol). The grammar described on this page is that of Colloquial Welsh, which is used for speech and informal writing. Literary Welsh is closer to the form of Welsh used in the 1588 translation of the Bible and is found in official documents and other formal registers, including much literature. As a standardised form, literary Welsh shows little if any of the dialectal variation found in colloquial Welsh. Some differences include:

Literary Welsh Colloquial Welsh
Can omit subject pronouns (pro-drop) Subject pronouns rarely omitted
Extensive use of simple verb forms Extensive use of periphrastic verb forms
No distinction between simple present and future
(e.g. gwelaf "I see"/"I shall see")
Simple form expresses only future
(e.g. gwela i "I'll see")
Subjunctive verb forms Subjunctive in fixed idioms ending –nt ending –n

Amongst the characteristics of the literary, as against the spoken, language are a higher dependence on inflected verb forms, a shift in the usage of some of the tenses, a reduction in the explicit use of pronouns (since the information is usually conveyed in the verb/preposition inflections) and a greatly reduced tendency to substitute English loanwords for native Welsh words. In addition, more archaic pronouns and forms of mutation may be observed in Literary Welsh.

Examples of sentences in literary and colloquial Welsh

English Literary Welsh Colloquial Welsh
I get up early every day. Codaf yn gynnar bob dydd. Dwi'n codi'n gynnar bob dydd.
I'll get up early tomorrow. Codaf yn gynnar yfory. Coda i'n gynnar fory/Na'i godi'n gynnar fory
He had not stood there long. Ni safasai yno'n hir. Doedd o ddim wedi sefyll yno'n hir.
They'll sleep only when there's a need. Ni chysgant ond pan fo angen. Fyddan nhw ddim ond yn cysgu pan fydd angen.

In fact, the differences between dialects of modern spoken Welsh pale into insignificance compared to the difference between the spoken and literary languages. The latter is considerably more conservative and is the language used in Welsh translations of the Bible, amongst other things (although the Beibl Cymraeg Newydd — New Welsh Bible — is significantly less formal than the traditional 1588 Bible). Gareth King, author of a Welsh grammar, observes that "The difference between these two is much greater than between the virtually identical colloquial and literary forms of English" and goes so far as to state "that there are good grounds for regarding them as separate languages". He comments that whilst colloquial Welsh is a mother tongue requiring no special learning to acquire, literary Welsh is the mother tongue of no-one, and must be taught to people. A complete grammar of Literary Welsh can be found in A Grammar of Welsh (1980) by Stephen J. Williams.

Most Welsh writing, especially that found on the Internet or in magazines, is closer to the colloquial form. This is also becoming more common in artistic literature.

Welsh in education

The decade around 1840 was a period of great social upheaval in Wales, manifested in the Chartist movement, which culminated in 20,000 people marching on Newport in 1839 resulting in a riot when 20 people were killed by soldiers defending the Westgate Hotel, and the Rebecca Riots when tollbooths on turnpikes were systematically destroyed. This unrest brought the state of education in Wales to the attention of the English establishment, as social reformers of the time considered education as a means of dealing with social ills. The Times newspaper was prominent among those who considered that the lack of education of the Welsh people was the root cause of most of the problems, although the population was generally literate in Welsh because of the activities of Sunday Schools and the need to read the Bible. In July 1846, three commissioners, R. R. W. Lingen, Jellynger C. Symons and H. R. Vaughan Johnson, were appointed to inquire into the state of education in Wales; the Commissioners were all Anglicans, and hence unsympathetic to the Non-conformist majority in Wales, and were monoglot English-speakers.

The Commissioners presented their report to the Government on 1 July 1847 in three large blue-bound volumes. This report quickly became known as Brad y Llyfrau Gleision (The Treachery of the Blue Books) as, apart from documenting the state of education in Wales, the Commissioners were also free with their comments disparaging the language, Non-conformity, and the morals of the Welsh people in general. An immediate effect of the report was for a belief to take root in the minds of ordinary people that the only way for Welsh people to get on in the world was through the medium of English, and an inferiority complex developed about the Welsh language whose effects have not yet been completely eradicated. The historian Professor Kenneth O. Morgan referred to the significance of the report and its consequences as "the Glencoe and the Amritsar of Welsh history".

In the later 19th century virtually all teaching in the schools of Wales was in English, even in areas where the pupils barely understood English. Some schools used the Welsh Not, a piece of wood, often bearing the letters "WN", which was hung around the neck of any pupil caught speaking Welsh. The pupil could pass it on to any schoolmate heard speaking Welsh, with the pupil wearing it at the end of the day being given a beating.

Many of the Welsh tried in vain to have the rules changed.

One of the most famous Welsh born pioneers of higher education in Wales was Sir Hugh Owen. He made great progress in the cause of education, and more especially the University College of Wales (Aberystwyth), of which he was chief founder. He was responsible for The Welsh Intermediate Education Act of 1889 after which several new Welsh Schools were built, the first of these being Ysgol Syr Hugh Owen in 1894.

Towards the beginning of the 20th century this policy slowly began to change, partly owing to the efforts of Owen Morgan Edwards when he became chief inspector of schools for Wales in 1907.

The Aberystwyth Welsh School (Ysgol Gymraeg Aberystwyth) was founded in 1939 by Sir Ifan ap Owen Edwards, the son of O.M. Edwards as the first Welsh Primary School. The headteacher was Norah Isaac. Ysgol Gymraeg is still a very successful school and now there are Welsh language primary schools all over the country. Ysgol Glan Clwyd was established in Rhyl in 1955 as the first Welsh language school to teach to a secondary level.

Welsh is now widely used in education. All Welsh universities teach some courses in Welsh (most notably Bangor University and Aberystwyth University), but are primarily English language. Under the National Curriculum, schoolchildren in Wales must study Welsh up to the age of 16 and many chose to continue with it in their A levels and college years. All Local Education Authorities in Wales have schools providing bilingual or Welsh-medium education. The remainder study Welsh as a second language in English-medium schools. Specialist teachers of Welsh called Athrawon Bro support the teaching of Welsh in the National Curriculum. Welsh is also taught in adult education classes. The ability to speak Welsh or to have Welsh as a qualification is essential or desirable for certain career choices in Wales, such as teaching or customer service.

Welsh in information technology

Welsh has a substantial presence on the Internet, ranging from formal lists of terminology in a variety of fields to Welsh language interfaces for parts of Microsoft Windows XP, a variety of Linux distributions, and some online services to blogs kept in Welsh.

There is a campaign for a new .cym TLD for Welsh-language websites, and websites that are of Welsh interest. A petition has been set up to gather support for the domain.

Welsh in warfare

Secure communications are often difficult to achieve in wartime. Cryptography can be used to protect messages, but codes can be broken. Therefore, little-known languages are sometimes encoded, so that even if the code is broken, the message is still in a language few people know. For example, Navajo code talkers were used by the United States military during World War II. Similarly, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a Welsh regiment serving in Bosnia, used Welsh for emergency communications that needed to be secure. Famously David Lloyd George (the British Prime Minister during the First World War, and the only ever Welsh prime minister) spoke Welsh to confuse German eavesdroppers when calling London from visits to the Western Front in France.

See also



  • J.W.Aitchison and H.Carter. Language,Economy and Society. The changing fortunes of the Welsh Language in the Twentieth Century. Cardiff. University of Wales Press. 2000.
  • J.W.Aitchison and H.Carter. Spreading the Word. The Welsh Language 2001. Y Lolfa. 2004

External links

Statistical data

About the language


Learning the language

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