February 28, 2007

R. Brinley Jones. ‘A Brief History of the Welsh Language’.


Jones notes that the term, ‘Welsh’, has Saxon origins and comes from a word meaning ‘foreigner’. However, the Welsh word for itself, Cymraeg, means ‘language of the kinsmen’ (18). Cymraeg is a Celtic language in a Indo-European lineage. It belongs to the Isular Celtic languages rather than the Continental Celtic languages and it is, ‘a branch of the Brittonic group’ (akin to Cornish and Breton) rather than Goidelic (referring to Irish, Gaelic and Manx) (18).

The language emerged in the late sixth century when Latin was the language of administration – this was Old Welsh. Later came Middle Welsh ( twelfth to fourteenth century) which was used in literature to tell stories and romances. There were also:
• complicated legal texts;
• ‘mystical, devotional and religious works’;
• ‘histories, grammars, medical texts’;
• ‘copies of earlier poetry and new court poetry’;
• ‘poetry in the cywydd form’;
• and ‘considerable translation from Latin and French’e.g. the tales of Charlemagne (20).

The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries marked the time of the writing of The Mabinogion and the emergence of the poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym. This was the beginning of the Early Modern Welsh which culminated in the publication of the complete Welsh Bible in 1588. It was this Bible edition that, ‘provided a vehicle of expression for prose writers and poets; it crystallised the very best in the Welsh idiom and vocabulary and, in the absence of an Academy, a University and a royal Court, it was the sanction of the highest standard’ (22). Dr John Davies was to publish a grammar in 1621 and dictionary in 1620 and these became, ‘ a permanent model of the best Welsh’ (22).

There were some modification to the language though. For example, ‘colloquialisms of the free metre popular poetry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, , in the form of carols, folk-poetry, ballads, versified drama, found their way, through the printed word, into the language of all Wales’ (22). Significant writers were: Morgan Lwyd, Ellis Wynne, William Williams Pantycelyn, Goronwy Owen and Daniel Owen.

The nineteenth century brought purists like John Morris-Jones who, ‘rescued the language from some of the extravagances which had appeared’ (23).

The revived national consciousness at the turn of the century coincided with the beginning of a period of outstanding Welsh scholarship during which a substantial amount of earlier prose and poetry has been edited… and the copiousness of the language has been revealed. This national consciousness has also created an interest in learning the language and, fro this purpose, attempts have also been made to standardize the an acceptable spoken Welsh as an interim model; such a model is called Cymraeg Byw (Living Welsh) and it meets the demands of the new audio-visual methods of language teaching. (24)

The vocabulary of the Cymareg has a number of influences:
• Latin e.g. castell (castle)– castellum, ystafell (room) –stabellum, ffenestr (window) –fenestra;
• Christian practice and education e.g. angel – angelus, allor – altare, disgybl (pupil) – disciples, eglwys (church) – ecclesia;
• Irish from immigrants: brechdan (bread and butter) – brechtán, croesan (jester) – crossán;
• Old English: capan (cape) – cappa, cusan (kiss) –cyssan, llidiart (gate)– hlidgeat;
• French: siambr – chambre, tŵr – tur, swrcot – surcot;
• Middle English: awgrym (suggestion) – augrim, dawns – daunce.

In addition to borrowing words, Cymraeg has also borrowed meanings. Often Welsh people were bilingual for religious, clerical jobs and so spoke Welsh and Latin or French: ‘The result was that Welsh borrowings and native words not only translated their Latin, French and English counterparts but very often acquired the semantic range of such words’ (28). E.g. cyfreddin meant ‘common’ in Cymraeg but in Biblical translation it came to mean ‘unclean’ as, ‘it absorbed the semantic range of Latin communis’ (28).

R. Brinley Jones. ‘A Brief History of the Welsh Language’. The Welsh Language Today. Ed. Meic Stephens. Llandysul: Gomer, 1973. 18-31.

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