The Welsh Language: A Beginner’s Guide

The Welsh language has soared in popularity in recent years, with over a million people currently learning it. But what exactly is the Welsh language, why do people learn it, and how can you go about starting on your Welsh-speaking journey? Let’s have a look.

What is Welsh?

The Welsh language has gained popularity in recent years, with Duolingo and Say Something in Welsh being some of the apps that have raised awareness – for example, in the polyglot community – about its existence.

The similarity of Welsh to the Elvish language in Lord of the Rings has been another draw – and it is true that Tolkien loved the Welsh language and was inspired by it in his writing.

Those who have never ventured into Wales are sometimes surprised to discover that Welsh is even a language at all – they ask “is that just a dialect of English?” and the answer is a definite no.

Welsh is a Celtic language; more specifically, it is from the Brittonic subgroup of the Celtic language family, as are Breton (spoken in Brittany, France) and Cornish (spoken in Cornwall, England, although now spoked as a revived language).

On the other hand, Irish (Gaelic), Scottish Gaelic, and Manx are part of the Goidelic subgroup of Celtic languages.

While there are many similarities in the underlying grammatic structures and phonemes among Celtic languages, for example, the concept of “treiglo” (mutation), but as a Welsh-speaker, I personally can’t understand any of the other Celtic languages apart from the odd word here and there.

English, on the other hand, is a West Germanic language that originated from Anglo-Frisian languages – brought over by Anglo-Saxon migrants to Britain in the 5th-7th centuries AD.

The first known example of Welsh being recorded in a recognisable form comes from Y Gododdin, a poem written by Aneurin, which details a battle in Catraeth, thought to be modern-day Catterick, North Yorkshire, in around AD 600.

The poem itself is dated between the 7th and early 11th centuries. Some Welsh historians will tell you that the origins of the Welsh language itself are potentially 4000 years old, although they seem to be referring to Proto-Celtic – the language from which all other Celtic languages evolved – thought to have been spoken from around 1300 BC.

It is important to note that Welsh has been influenced by Latin over the years – for example, you will find words such as “pont” (bridge), “eglwys” (church) or “Pasg” (Easter), which you might recognise as similar to those found in other Romance languages such as French, Italian or Spanish.

Today, there are also a lot of influences from the English language, which is inevitable as the majority of Welsh people spend a lot of time conversing or consuming media in English.

Who speaks Welsh?

The Welsh language is spoken primarily within Wales, with the UK’s 2020 Annual Population Survey finding that 861,700 people, or 28.5% of people in Wales aged three and up, claim to be able to speak Welsh (source).

Although down a little in the last year or so, the language saw a big resurgence in the 1960s after the 1961 census caused fear that the language would soon become extinct.

Plaid Cymru, the Welsh political party, was quite instrumental in stirring up patriotism and pride in the language – and the Welsh Language Act of 1993 helped to cement the language’s official status within Wales.

Some parts of Wales are far more densely populated with Welsh speakers than others – it is particularly widely spoken in North West Wales, for example: in Gwynedd, 76% of the population speak Welsh, and there are still plenty of towns and villages where you will hear Welsh being spoken happily in shops, restaurants, and pubs.

On the other hand, in some parts of Wales the percentage of Welsh speakers is as low as 16.6% (Torfaen – see the stats here).

You may be surprised to know that the primary language of instruction in primary and secondary schools is Welsh in many schools (including mine), although by 6th form things usually start to shift into English.

Another fun fact – there is a part of Patagonia, Argentina, where Welsh is spoken. It is called « Y Wladfa » (which means “The Colony”) and the reason that people there speak Welsh is that a small band of settlers moved there around 1865 with the hopes of being able to create a Welsh community where the language wasn’t under threat. There are thought to be between 1,500 and 5000 Welsh speakers there.

Why do people learn Welsh?

People learn Welsh for all kinds of reasons – to reconnect with their heritage, to be able to blend in with the locals when they go on holiday, or because they love the sound of it.

It is true that pretty much every Welsh speaker, with the possible expectation of a few elderly people on the far reaches of the Lleyn Peninsula, can speak English fluently, so there is never really a “need” to master the language.

However, some official government positions do require their staff to be able to speak in both Welsh and English, so if you are living in Wales it could give you a big advantage in the job market.

Speaking Welsh can also help you to fit in with the locals, depending on where you are.

From my experience growing up in a Lleyn Peninsula village, I can tell you that you will win some respect points just for trying to say a few things in Welsh – even if you are only able to pronounce a couple of village names.

Welsh is also known as a beautiful, melodic language – listen to some Welsh poems or songs, and you might start to understand why people become enchanted by it.

To get a glimpse of Welsh culture, see these articles on Welsh girl names and Welsh boy names.

The Easiest and Hardest Things about Learning Welsh

I’ve been teaching Welsh to complete beginners for a few years, so I can tell you that the language comes with its pros and cons.

First – the difficult parts. The pronunciation of Welsh is quite a challenge for people who aren’t used to sounds like the throaty “ch” (like in Loch), the rolled “r” or the “ll”, which I can only describe here as the way Daffy Duck pronounces an “s”!

I suggest having a look at some pronunciation videos to hear what I mean. Speakers of other European languages don’t usually struggle too much, but I find that those raised with nothing but English find it hard to pronounce these new sounds.

However, there’s a plus point – once you know how each letter is pronounced, you’ll be able to look at a brand-new Welsh word and know exactly how to say it.

That is because in Welsh, we don’t have confusing discrepancies between spelling and pronunciation as does English with its “though”, “cough” and “through” – the emphasis in a word will always be on the penultimate syllable, and a “c” will always make the same sound (which is a “k”, by the way).

Some other useful tips:

Welsh pronunciation also involves a linguistic phenomenon called a mutation. This is where the first letter of a word changes depending on how it’s used in a sentence – for example, the word “cath” (cat) can be:

While this linguistic phenomenon can seem intimidating to beginners, I can tell you that we were never taught the rules at school and came to a gut feeling of what sounded right and wrong from lots of exposure to the language.

Another particularly vexing thing for beginners is that Welsh contains multiple ways to say “yes” and “no”. This is because, instead of directly saying yes and no, we respond to questions with things such as “I do”, “she did” or “we can”!

It takes a while to get used to this, but nobody is going to be confused if you use the wrong one – they will, at least, know whether you are answering in the affirmative or not because every “no” answer starts with “na” or “nac”!

On the other hand, there are lots of things that make Welsh relatively easy to learn, at least to a basic conversational level. One of those is the number of English words that we use casually; when a Welsh speaker can’t think of the Welsh word, we pretty much always throw in the English word in a Welsh accent.

There are lots of words in everyday use that have derived from English, even when there is a perfectly acceptable Welsh word in our lexicon – for example, you might hear “fflio” (to fly), “sgio” (to ski) or “enjoio” (to enjoy), even if they make some Welsh speakers cringe.

While Welsh has a sophisticated grammatical structure, there are also ‘shortcuts’ that the majority of people use when speaking that make it quite easy to start putting sentences together once you know a few words.

We do this partly through “verb nouns” that don’t conjugate based on the person doing the action or the tense (although, rest assured, these verbs do have all of those conjugations available, too!).

For example, let’s look at some Welsh verbs:

And here are some simple Welsh phrases using these verbs:

For more Welsh phrases, see these articles on basic Welsh phrases for beginners and Welsh Compliments & love phrases.

Other important things beginners should know before starting to learn Welsh

Before starting to learn Welsh, beginners need to decide on the dialect – will it be North Wales or South Wales Welsh?

The differences may not seem any greater than the differences between different dialects of English, and yet the Welsh give such importance to this distinction that most training programs and courses offer the option.

It’s true that there are several distinctions in both vocabulary and grammar between the two Welsh dialects, although people are generally likely to understand each other (give or take a few words).

Which one you choose depends on your reasons for learning Welsh. Where will you be visiting? What will you be doing?

The majority of Welsh TV and film seemed to be in the South dialect for a while, but this is changing. I recommend that beginners listen to both Welsh dialects and decide which one sounds most appealing to them.

There is also a wide gap between written or literary Welsh and spoken/oral Welsh. (related article: How to write an email or letter in Welsh )

People who learn Welsh from books often find that they have no idea what people are saying when they walk into a Welsh pub, so it is important to make sure you practice speaking and listening as early as you can in your learning journey.

Getting the pronunciation right – or as close to right as you can – is the most important thing (in my opinion).

Welsh people are not as used to hearing their language spoken by foreigners as we are with English, so people might genuinely have no idea what you’re saying if you are not pronouncing things correctly. That’s why having a teacher who can give you feedback is so important – language learning apps can sometimes offer this feature, too.

Finally, keep in mind that Welsh is primarily a language that people learn for love – because they love its beauty, its poetry, or something in it captivates them. You will almost never find yourself in a situation where you can't default back to English if you get stuck, so try not to pressure yourself to be perfect – enjoy the journey!

Locals will appreciate that you are making the effort, although if you take too long to get a sentence out and they switch to English, don’t take it personally – they are just trying to help. « Mwynhewch eich siwrna » – enjoy your journey.