Watch What You Say About Welsh

It does have vowels, it's not the oldest language in Europe, and, yes, it does have words for modern technologies. Welsh, or Cymraeg as we probably ought to call it, is spoken by more than 580,000 people and was one of the 55 Earth languages chosen to represent our global culture on the Golden Record launched with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.

But it's still very much a small language and, to English speakers, a weird-looking one, so it's no surprise that tall tales abound. Garic, an evolutionary linguist and Welshman, is out to change that. He's written a series of posts that debunks pop-culture's worst Welsh fallacies and, along the way, makes some interesting points about the way speakers of common languages view the rare and unique tongues of the world...

No words for modern things. Welsh, apparently, lacks words for things like computers and aeroplanes. This is a stupid comment for two reasons:

1. It doesn't;

2. The arguments for the claim are entirely incoherent.

First of all, the Welsh words for 'computer' and 'aeroplane' are cyfrifiadur and awyren. Some words for other modern inventions are, similarly, based on Celtic roots; others are borrowings, like radio, which means 'radio'.

Secondly, the claim seems to be based on some bizarre assumption that other languages, like English, did not have to invent or borrow words for new inventions. The implication is that our ancestors failed us somehow in not forseeing the invention of the radio. I've actually heard people say that because Welsh "hasn't got words for modern inventions, it has to borrow them or make them up." This is of course true, but the idea that this is not true of any language spoken on the planet is so obviously, staggeringly dense that explanations for why it's stupid are unnecessary.

Thumbnail image courtesy Flickr user Spixey, via CC


  1. I took a bit of Welsh when I was at Cal. Except the sounds being unfamiliar to me as a US English speaker and some of the pronunciations being a bit counterintuitive, I didn’t think it was any weirder than any other language I’ve attempted.

  2. Obviously, you’ve not heard of the unabridged KJV of the bible kept in Westminster Abbey, which has a (very large) appendix consisting of all the words that will ever be needed to describe all of the things for which we don’t yet know we need words, but which god was clearly aware since he knows all. Every time someone thinks of something new, the busy staff at the abbey just consult the appendix for the proper word. That’s why weird languages like Welsh, German and Xhosa have to make up new words and English (gods real language) doesn’t. Duh.

    1. It is every inventors dream to get a look at just one page of this book, so they can simply invent whatever is described.

      1. Sorry Oasisbob, no descriptions, just words. In the chronological order in which they will be needed.

  3. The reputation for weirdness comes in part from the cognitive dissonance English speakers experience upon seeing a word like “cwn”. Once one learns how the orthography and pronunciation line up (such as the “w” acting as a vowel) it seems perfectly sensible. ( And pronounceable.)

  4. Welsh is an awesome language, but looking at it written makes my brain flinch. Of course, that’s one of the things that makes it awesome.

  5. One thing I find annoying is when English speakers complain how French pronunciation makes no sense. Just because you don’t understand the rules doesn’t mean they don’t have internal consistency, and also, talk about glass houses.

  6. Shouldn’t Welsh have something more going for it than not being rubbish if its speakers want more than 580,000 people talking it?

    I’m taking language classes at the moment but I chose something I’m likely to use (Italian) rather than one that appears to be heading for extinction.

  7. Loan words are not a new phenomenon. The Welsh for for “bridge” is “pont”.

    Welsh mutations, on the other hand, are a little odd. To cross the bridge, you “croeswch y bont”.

    Pluralization can be amusing, too. You can have lots of “plant”, but only one “plentyn”.

  8. If you want to learn basic, conversational Welsh for free, try SaySomethingInWelsh – You’ll be having meaningful conversations about the English speaker that’s just walked into the bar within weeks!

    1. Well obviously since English is so ‘cool’ and all other languages are so ‘lame’ it’s ok to make fun of them. I guess Welsh would be ‘lllame’, right?

      Seriously. If you’re going to make fun of a language, make fun of Dutch. Now -that- language is funny.

  9. Welsh is a difficult case; a beautiful language mired in undeserving, spiteful ridicule on the one side and turgid, brainless nationalism on the other. I think the idea that ‘Welsh has no words for modern things’ derives from the English-derived terms like ‘ambwlans’ or ‘tacsi’, and modern English speakers are unlikely to take exception to the fact that the Welsh for ‘polecat’ (fwllbart) is derived from the anglo-saxon (I think) Foulmart (apparently because they smell musky, though germanic languages could easily render ‘Lazy Marten’ – ‘Faulmarder’ which would be equally appropriate to an animal that sleeps 16 hours a day).

    Welsh is not the only language to suffer this, however, and in many languages people tie themselves in all sorts of knots to avoid English derivations; hence in German the mongrel term ‘die Computer’ is often substituted with the pure, aryan ‘der Rechner’, or French fast food is patriotically re-labelled ‘Pret a Manger’.

    1. Except the word ‘der Rechner’ (or rather ‘Rechenmaschine’) was used about computers in Germany even before the word ‘computer’ was even used about a profession in the English language (a profession that was later replaced by machines — computers).

      There are a lot of languages that had words for computers before any existed in English. The early electro-mechanic computers I know of was French, German and Norse(!). I don’t know of any computers built in any English speaking country before the late 1930’s (or 1820’s if you by computer mean mechanical computers/calculators, but by then mechanical computers had already been in continious use and development for more then 200 years).

  10. Gaeilge a labhairt anseo– it’s Irish, but then my parents are of Manx and Irish descent. It good to know any other language besides English. It helps you to speak better English if you can think in another language.

  11. It isn’t just Welsh. Erse, Gaelic, and Kernewek as well, just to stay within the main islands of “Britain”.

    Nevow ylyn!

  12. Ha! This Irish son feels your pain. Gaelic is full of loan words too, but it goes both ways.

    The English word galore comes from the Gaelic word for “plenty”, go leor.
    And brogue comes from a Gaelic word for “shoe”, bróg.
    Glom [onto it] comes from glám, which means “to grab/clutch”.
    Shanty, from seantigh, or “old house”.
    Slew, from the word for “multitude”, slua.

    And of course, not forgetting Whiskey, uisce beatha, or “water of life”, which was itself a direct translation of the Latin, “aqua vita”.

  13. Personally, I’ve always thought that long ago, as the Hawaiian islanders made their crossings from Asia on small rafts (think Kon-Tiki), they encountered a terrible storm which washed most of their consonants overboard. They were later found washed up on the coast of Wales.

  14. What gets me is Japanese, a very big language, and how the words for many modern things are simply transliterated English instead of being formed from Japanese roots. Those roots exist, and they’re used for some modern words, but it’s kind of bizarrely inconsistent — “calculator” is the Japanese-derived “dentaku,” but “computer” is the English-derived “kompyuuta.”

  15. Welsh is awesome! It has voiceless lateral fricatives! Like bunches of Pacific Northwest Native languages! (That’s what that ‘ll’ is: make like you’re going to say English ‘l’ and then let air out [fricative] on the sides of your tongue [lateral] and don’t vibrate your vocal cords [voiceless].) Because Native Americans are the lost tribe of Wales!

  16. Fine, fine, but Mitchell and Webb’s parody of craft shows on BBC Cymru is still hilarious. :p

    Listen, Welsh looks and sounds bizarre to English ears. Laughing at that isn’t *necessarily* insensitive. It can be, but it can also be a knowing indulgence of an amusing hindbrain reaction. Garic’s specific points are fair and interesting, but I’m not going to feel guilty or xenophobic about giggling about his language. The way it was transliterated into the Latin alphabet, in particular, will always deserve a good chuckle.

  17. welsh was one of Tolkiens favourite languages (Along with finish I believe ?).
    Apparently he used to love the look of the welsh words on the coal trains that used to pass by where he lived as a child.
    It turns out that this led me to correctly pronounce most of the words in Lord of The Rings as a child, as I realised that the pronunciation guide in the appendix was very similar to Welsh.

    Oh, and please people. Learn to pronounce my name correctly. Dylan is a very old Welsh name, not pronounced like ‘dillan’. Think more ‘dull-anne’ but with the ‘anne’ part very short and quick and the emphasis on the ‘dull’
    It’s only in welsh speaking areas that I can say my name properly without people staring at me as if I’m insane :)

  18. One of my favorite lines in sci-fi classic, Red Dwarf, was when Rimmer said “broadcast in all known languages and all known frequencies, including welsh”

  19. @danlalan

    I fully expect that to be the basis of the next Dan Brown novel.


    Agreed, it’s the same for most languages. Most european languages have departed to some extent from their written form over the years, which doesn’t help with pronunciation.

    I’ve always rather loved the sound of Welsh. Can’t speak a word of it, but I live in the West Country, and visit from time to time, so hear it a lot.

  20. Ah, I remember my visits to the Welsh language stonghold of Carmarthen. Me and my friend walked into a pub, everyone was chatting away in English. Once I’d got the attention of the barman and ordered with my English accent, he walked over to the other side of the bar, as if I wasn’t there, plus everyone in the pub switched to speaking Welsh. Gotta love the welcome in the Valleys!

    BBC Cymru broadcasts in Welsh here if you want to hear what it sounds like:

    I was heartened to see when I got my FreeSat setup, that the BBC now has a Scots Gael Channel – BBC Alba. Scots Gaelic has a much smaller number of speakers than Welsh, but its good to see it being supported in the 21st C.

  21. Arkizzle,

    That’s why I put it in quotation marks. Mind you, we Brythons were all over the place just as early as the Gaels; and we both minded our Ps and Qs long before the Sawsnek arrived.

  22. No, we English-speakers shouldn’t have to call Welsh ‘Cymraeg’: that is the Welsh word for Welsh! It is quite in order to use the English names for places too, such as Peking, Bombay and Rome. Speakers of other languages are happy to use the names that they have for White Russia for instance, whereas we have to use the barbaric ‘Belarus’.

    1. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

      The “Oxford Guide to Style” has over three pages of rules on where and why which names should be used. It specifically deprecates your example of “Peking”, for example.

      The “Chicago Manual of Style”, on the other hand, confines itself largely to the form and typography to be used when using foreign names.

      Of course, these rules are for the printed word rather than conversation, but leave us be correct, shirley.

  23. donutwallah, I find the inconsistencies intriguing – we seem to do it with some countries more than others, in particular we seem keen to substitute German and Italian city names for Anglicised versions and not so much other Western European countries. The trend is towards reverting, it’s not just a recent thing, like the current usage of Mumbai and Beijing rather than Bombay and Peking, but I think it’s a long time since anyone used Calice instead of Calais.

  24. English had no words for chocolate, ocelot, avocado, or guacamole and had to borrow them all from Nahuatl. Other New-World things with names borrowed from indigenous languages of America include squash (not to be mistaken for the homophonous verb) and woodchuck (reanalyzed into parts that made sense to English speakers).

    English had no word for bicycle and had to make one up out of Latin bits. The same is true of ‘automobile’ (which IINM is a Latin bit AND a Greek bit).

    Honestly, for any English speaker to diss Welsh for borrowings is absurd in the extreme. English is an enormous patchwork of borrowings from practically every language in the world, hung on a framework of fundamentally French syntax and Germanic morphology.

    1. Hey, I’m no Sassenach: I’ve got more Irish blood in me than I do the weak watery stream of the damned Saxons. I’d actually like to learn Welsh one of these days…. at least so I don’t have to look up the insults you’re (jokingly) hurling at me!

    1. Pretty rich complaint coming from English, which coined Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

    2. You know, I have a friend who once showed me the rather incredible name for a town in Wales… and I think that was it.

  25. When you’re Welsh but cannot speak the language most of the Welsh speakers you encounter in life are then like ex-smokers where the urge to throttle them is ever present, smug little valley commandos.
    Listen to home land Welsh radio broadcasts, it’s immensely entertaining as the gobblegook is peppered with “C D R O M”… “M U L T I M E D I A”, where the broadcaster Welshyfies the word by saying it v e r y s l o w l y. Check out the Welsh word for ambulance – what a cop out.

  26. ‘no words for modern things’ is a wonderfully stupid complaint coming from speakers of a language that (paraphrasing pTerry) doesn’t just borrow words from other languages, it follows them down dark alleys and mugs them to steal any useful bits of small grammar and lexicography that might be in their pockets.

    And as for complaining about the written language; well at least it is decently phonetic. What you see is what you say. The consonant softening pont->bont etc is reflected in the written form as well. Unlike English where we have to work out the pronunciation from context and local habit. Let’s all say “the rough bough made me cough in the slough near Slough, thought Jim” etc.

    And it’s all even sillier coming from Americans that speak English.

    1. Silly indeed. I’ve always loved the idea of Shakespeare read in what is now considered a “Southern American” accent.

      I’ve found that various regionalisms applied to English only seem silly or unitelligible to the less intelligent. My Mother (a supremely sweet woman who I love dearly) can’t watch anything out of Britain because she can’t follow the dialogue.

  27. Local people just call the village with the long name “Llanfair” (St. Mary’s) with P.G. tacked on the end if they need to distinguish it from all the other St. Mary’s. The story is that the long name, which is mostly geographical info, was promoted to attract tourists (it’s near the route to the ferry to Dublin)

  28. This story made me remember modern Welsh music. I can’t understand the lyrics, but it’s fun to listen.

    Drygioni, by the Super Furry Animals: http://www

  29. Oldest language? Weird claim. Really, only _Dead_ languages can be ‘older’, since they’re not spoken. Modern Welsh isn’t the language it was 1000 years ago, and neither is English, so which one is ‘older’? Whichever is more similar to the older form – in which case ‘older’ just means ‘has undergone fewer changes’.

    Well, I still think that Mitchell and Webb sketch where they speak mock-Welsh is funny:

    (David Mitchell regards himself as Welsh, btw)

    (Also.. a sketch in mock-Danish.. by Norwegians)

  30. I am interested to know why the new bridge in Newbridge – opened by Joe Calzaghe this week- is called Pont Calzaghe Bridge……….ie Bridge Calzaghe Bridge !?!?!?!

  31. The Welsh are a subject people of the English, as are the Scots, and are here to do the bidding of the English. The Welsh language is a dead language, not used in commerce or international relations. In other words a waste of time. School children in Wales spend hours trying to learn this “Language” when they could be learning something more useful. Millions is spent (wasted) on road signs and many other signs and documents to make them dual language. All this just to please a minority who need to feel “special”
    The English language is not faulted by the fact that it uses foreign words for objects that the English speaking people had no word for. The English thought it was better to use the local word, then the English and the locals would both know what they where talking about.

  32. new words for old languages? not only every living language is continuously creating neologisms, but it also happens in ‘dead languages’, like Latin (in Vatican’s papers), or ‘reborn languages’, like Hebrew. Both these languages have scholars to approve the inclusion of a new [technology] word

  33. As a recovering Welshman who just recently moved to New Zealand, I can honestly say that Welsh (as a language, culture, and country) is a nice theory, but it has poor execution. There are some wonderful things in Wales – Portmeirion, The Hay Book Festival, Brecon Jazz, and (of course) Dr Who.

    But it suffers more from isolation and poverty than any other part of the UK. The cities are ROUGH, and the most Welsh people will see is when they’re on the receiving end of a punch from some nutter from the valleys who’s pumped up on steroids.

    Welsh culture in unheard of outside Wales. Hardly anyone knows anything about it, compared to Scotland or Ireland. The recent drive to make learning the Welsh language compulsory in schools is a misguided attempt to revive national pride in a country that is at an economic and cultural low.

    And to top it all off, you have to pay to enter the country. At least they don’t charge you to leave though…

  34. I’m a Welsh speaker, and it’s not an irrelevant language to me. International commerce is all very well, but I live in Wales.

    To those who say Welsh has no vowels, we actually have seven: a,e,i,o,u,w and y.

    To the person who told the story about everyone in the pub switching to Welsh when he walked in: why on earth would everyone “switch” to their native language? They were speaking it when you went in; you just didn’t notice. That old chestnut just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Welsh speakers don’t converse in English until a foreigner comes along, you know – we converse happily in our own language regardless of who is at the bar.

  35. We Angles have taken words from Welsh too. Who’d have thought the word ‘penguin’ is a welsh word?

  36. Surely you only need to pay if you go over the Severn Bridge, i.e. if you’re driving there from the south of England, not for any other part of the long border between Wales and England?

  37. @Alex_M
    David Mitchell is actually of Scottish descent as shown on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’

  38. Fun Fact: The ‘th’ in Cthulu is apparently supposed to be pronounced as the Welsh ‘th’.

    The ‘l’ is also not pronounced as an English ‘l’.

  39. My mother was criticizing Scottish Gaelic for having to borrow words like “television.” I pointed out that “television” is half Greek and half Latin and therefore is itself borrowed. So what’s the *English* word for television, I asked her. Or for “restaurant” or “cafe” or “parachute”? It had honestly never occurred to her that English is full of loan-words.

  40. Blackadder : Have you ever been to Wales, Baldrick?

    Baldrick : No, but I’ve often thought I’d like to.

    Blackadder : Well don’t, it’s a ghastly place. Huge gangs of tough sinewy men roam the valleys, terrorising people with their close-harmony singing.

  41. who is so stupid to believe that the english language does not borrow words? words like electic/electronic, anatomy, astronomy, philosophy, politic, logic etc surely are not english. every language borrows or invents new words for new concepts.

    as for the oldest spoken language with all repect for the welsh i’d say that greek and chinese are more likely candidates.

  42. Thanks for highlighting this – i have always wondered how better to inform people about how nice and normal welsh is, and that its speakers have the right, like any other person, to communicate with one’s mother tounge. this is especially true in the public sector – where a child has the right to ask her teacher a question in her mother tounge, or an elderly person in care who can no longer express themselves in their second language has a right to a carer who literally understands their needs.

    the language has been subject to propaganda and taboo for the last two hundred years, and, by the looks of things, a lot of people are inhibited by the residues of that taboo – and many people are still blindly credulous of that propaganda. this kind of misinformation was spread initially by her majesty’s education inspectors in the 1800s. they saw wales as any other part of the empire; its populace alien and its inhabitants stripped of their identity and culture through punishment and shame. it is a terrible legacy, and wales’ proximity to england means that baggage otherwise easily shod is brought back up again and again and again by groups trying to make a point about nationality, ethnicity, taxes, bureauocracy, political correctness, county councils, even the BNP.

    all we want, really, is the common human right to use our mother tounge in our own country. to use it to engage in democracy; to pay our bills; to express our opinion; to speak to a doctor or a technician; to have access to information and certainly not to be mocked openly and constantly for being ourselves – only to be ridiculed further for ‘not being able to take a joke’ when we complain.

    there is almost nothing that can be done to stop those who want to villify the welsh in order to feel big and powerful themselves. i see them as blind victims of archaic propaganda, totally unaware of the history around them, or the rich culture they choose to ignore.

    ps: walking into s pub and everyone turning to speak welsh? i’d like, finally, for someone to show me where this (urban) legendary pub is, as i’ve heard about it for years! no-one EVER remembers where it was!

  43. Welsh has a lot going for it. It’s a lovely language with some absolutely super stories. The Mabinogi is lovely reading; you can learn enough Medieval Welsh to read it in about ten weeks. There’s fabulous poetry–Daffyd ap Gwilym is at least as good as Phillip Sidney, though much bawdier. If you don’t want to learn Welsh, there’s a super translation by Patrick Ford; The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. If you want to learn to read it for yourself, go here:

    Nor is Welsh lacking in vocabulary, old or new; the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru: A Dictionary of the Welsh Language is very much the Welsh equivalent of the OED. You can find it online here:

    Lisa L. Spangenberg

  44. Nice article. Hooray for Welsh! (I wish I could say that in Cymraeg but unfortunately, as I’m typically Welsh, I can’t.)

  45. sf wrote: >>Check out the Welsh word for ambulance – what a cop out.<< So the English thought up the word "ambulance" all by their clever little selves, did they? (And didn't copy it AT ALL from the French...?) All that has happened is that English took a French word (ambulance), kept its spelling and altered its pronunciation. Welsh took that (by now) English word, kept its pronunciation and altered its spelling (to ambiwlans)... All languages "borrow" words. Welsh at least has the virtue of consistently spelling its words the way they sound!

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