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Keltfacts: Welsh

We would love to get you acquainted with the Celtic culture in our series Keltfacts. In this blog we dive into the Welsh language, one of the Celtic languages.

Where does the Welsh language come from?
Welsh is spoken in Wales, a country in the United Kingdom. This Celtic language is related to Breton, Gaelic and Cornish. Around the Bronze or Iron Age, the language came to the land we now know as Great Britain.

Many languages ​​were eradicated after the Romans took over large parts of Europe. The Celts split up and the language changed with it. Continental Celtic languages and insular-Celtic languages emerged. This parting in language types has to do with whether the language has its origins in Great Britain itself or not. Mainland Celtic languages ​​have arrived from what is now Europe. Of these, Gallic is the best preserved. The island languages ​​have their roots in the British Isles themselves, including the Brythonian language, which has grown into Welsh, among others. 

The name Wales and the Welsh come from the Germanic word "Walhaz". This means a stranger and is probably derived from the name of the Celtic tribe the Volcae from southern Gaul, from the second century BC. We come across several derivatives of "Walhaz" in regions in Europe, such as Wallonia and the Walloons, Wallachia and Wallis. The Welsh term for the language is called Cymraeg, the "language of countrymen".

Nowadays Welsh is mainly spoken in Wales and England. In the Argentine Chubut province, a small part also speaks Welsh, because this used to be a colony. In total there are just over a million people who speak Welsh as their mother tongue. Just under half the population in Wales speaks the language and more than one million people master all aspects such as writing, reading and speaking. The map below shows the percentage of people who speak Welsh in Wales.

How does the Welsh language work?
A small "throwback" to grammar lessons in high school. The Welsh alphabet has 29 letters. This also includes the double sounds "ch", "dd", "ff" "ng" "ll", "ph", "rh" and "th" that are not known in Dutch or English. In addition, the "w" and "y" are vowels, just like "a", "e", "i", "o", and "you". This ensures that English speakers can come across special words in Welsh, which appear impossible to pronounce. You say "shwmae" to say hello to someone and say goodbye with "hwyl!". When you tell someone goodbye, you might also give that person a "cwtch": a hug. Real tongue breakers! Did you know that Wales also has a village with the longest name in Europe? Try ‘Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch’.

No "k" in Welsh
Until the sixteenth century, the "k" was widely used in Welsh. A Welsh scholar from that time, William Salesbury, wanted to publish the New Testament in a Welsh translation. This created a challenge for the printers: there were not enough letters "k". These were then replaced with the "c", meaning that the "k" is no longer used in Welsh.

What are important scriptures in Welsh?
Many Welsh myths and legends have been passed on to us thanks to ancient scriptures in Middle Welsh. Two of the most important poets in Welsh history are Taliesin and Aneirin. Aneirin wrote about important battles and wars between, for example, the Saxons and the British. Together his work forms one long poem: Y Gododdin, which is considered one of the oldest Welsh poetic works. In his work, Taliesin praised kings and knights, including King Urien Rheged, who later also played a role in the legends of King Arthur. But that is not the only link with King Arthur. According to later medieval Welsh literature, such as the Welsh story Culhwch and Olwen, it is suggested that Taliesin is part of Arthur's court, as head of all bards. In the Mabinogion you will find many other mythical stories in addition to this Arthurian story. Do you like giants, fierce battles, gods, a magical Other World and dragons, then it is very worthwhile to delve into these Welsh stories. There’s a reason for the current fantasy genre to get inspiration from old medieval literature such as these Welsh stories.

Have you ever read a Welsh story? Or did you come into contact with the language in a different way? Tan y tro nesaf, see you next time!

By Dewi van Zeggelaar

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