“Music in your blood and poetry in your soul”: the beauty of Welsh English
By Bethan Tovey
To be born Welsh requires the genes of a chameleon. You must be a geographer (how many maps have I drawn to explain to anyone not from our little island the difference between “Britain” and “England”?), a musician (try singing “Bread of Heaven” in a Welsh pub: I give you two bars before you’re accompanied by full four-part harmony), a diplomat (not punching the hundred-and-first person to make a sheep joke takes some restraint), and above all, a linguist. The Welsh have a way with words. We’ve taken standard English, performed a little alchemy, and we offer it back to you in full expectation that you’ll love our improvements. Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to present to you… Wenglish.
Now and again
My boyfriend in my University days was from Kidderminster, and at first we had an awful lot of conversations that went like this:
Him: “Have you made a shopping list?”
Me: “No, I’ll do it now.”
Fifteen minutes later would come a slightly exasperated enquiry after the shopping list, and the answer “I said, I’ll do it now!” It took about a year of this before I realised that “now” means something completely different in Swansea from what it means in Brum. In Wenglish, to do something “now” means to do it relatively soon, in the next while. “Now” may be qualified with something more specific (“I’ll do it now when I’ve eaten”) but if you’re unlucky enough to hear “I’ll do it in a while, now”, prepare yourself for a long wait. More recently, I discovered that what I mean by “again” is not what the rest of the UK means. Let’s say that you’re lending me a book, but you’ve forgotten to bring it with you. I’m likely to tell you “don’t worry, I’ll have it from you again”, meaning that you can give it to me on another occasion.
The Welshman and her Wife
Shakespeare’s Fluellen is one of the first speakers of Welsh English in the literary canon, and he is part of a long and ignoble seventeenth-century tradition. These Welsh men and women have ridiculous names, bizarre pronunciation, and regularly refer to themselves and others, regardless of gender, as “her”. One 1641 text is the tale of “William Morgan” and “her wife”, while another of the same year calls itself “The Welch-mans life, teath and periall” (“life, death and burial”). The harder consonants of the Welsh accent (now mainly heard in North Wales) are interpreted by the English ear as a mispronunciation, of d as t, for example, which is what gives us the name Taffy for a Welshman, a corruption of the Welsh name “Dafydd”.
In fact, it’s the Saeson (“English”: the name is derived, like Scottish Sassenach, from “Saxons”) who really have the pronunciation difficulties. Fluellen’s name is actually Llewelyn, with the initial “ll” indicating a sound that leads to tongue dislocation if you’re not Welsh. The (rather poor) approximation “fl” is also found in the English word flummery (from Welsh llymru), originally a type of porridge, and later referring to flattery and nonsense.
Apart from Taffy, if you think of a Welshman, you probably expect him to be called Evans, Jones, or Morgan. Thanks to the Welsh patronymic tradition, these names, derived from male first names, are abundantly common in the phonebook, which is what led to the practice of giving people an informal extra name based on their profession. Jones the Shop, Dai Butcher, and Williams the Milk are still alive and well in the Welsh valleys. (My friend’s father, an English immigrant and professor of ancient Greek, aspires to be known as “John the Classics”, but just isn’t integrated enough yet.) The patronymic custom was obviously quite comic to Shakespeare’s near-contemporaries: the above-mentioned William Morgan is surnamed “ap Renald, ap Hugh, ap Richard, ap Thomas, ap Evan, ap Rice”. Ap, “son of”, is not as common in Wales as it once was, but it survives in names like Pritchard and Preece, originally ap Richard and ap Reece. The idea that we enshrine our histories in our surnames perhaps contributed to the term “Welsh pedigree” to refer to something long and hyperbolic.
While the much-maligned sheep may be the traditional Welsh animal, cows are more interesting for their linguistic contribution. Like the French vachement (“cow-ly”), cowing in Wenglish means “extremely”, so something truly excellent is “cowin’ fab’luss”, or “cowin’ lush”. Elsewhere in the animal kingdom we have the penguin (apparently from Welsh pen gwyn, “white head”), a bird which might well appreciate the use of the cock-a-bondy, which is not a fellow avian but rather an aid to fishing (from the Welsh coch a bon ddu, “red with a black stem”, a type of fishing fly.) The most famous Welsh animals are probably those belonging to the Queen of England: the word corgi is from the Welsh cor (“dwarf”) and ci (“dog”). And of course we’re one of only two countries to be blessed with a dragon on our national flag. Woe betide you if you cross a Welsh Dragon!
If you do, you may find yourself tempted to employ language (the Wenglish term for swear words). Using language is traditionally frowned upon, and your dad might well “fetch you one” if he caught you at it. Unlike the English, the Welsh tend not to reach for anatomical terms when they want to express extreme annoyance; most of our cursing is done using blasphemy, and there’s really nothing with the same offensive impact as the strongest of the English swearwords. Where an Englishman might use “F**k!”, for example, my family’s exclamation of choice is Jawch annwl eriôd! (“Dear Devil ever.” It loses something in translation.) This relative mildness, though, doesn’t mean that our curse words don’t get us into trouble now and then. A good example is the multi-purpose exclamation “Jiw”, which is a corruption of “Duw” (“God”), and is pronounced “Jew”. So notwithstanding the traditional theory that the Welsh are the lost thirteenth tribe of Israel, the tendency to exclaim “Well, Jew Jew!”, or “Jew, it’s cold!” can cause misunderstandings. Talking of misunderstandings, it turns out that the English think “bad in bed” is rather an insult. In south Wales, however, it’s a state of poorliness, somewhat worse than just “bad”, but not as serious as “bad in bed under the doctor”. So if you enquire after someone’s health in Wales, don’t be alarmed if the answer is “I’ve been bad.”
There are plenty of Welsh words that remain untranslated in the English of Wales. Some, like hwyl (a mixture of excitement, enthusiasm, and energy) and hiraeth (a kind of longing and homesickness that we firmly believe is not experienced by other nations) are simply untranslatable. Others, like bach (“dear”), have English alternatives, but are just too ingrained to be replaced. Cwtch is another example, used most commonly to mean “cuddle”, though a cwtch dan stâr (“cwtch under the stairs”) is the other sense of cwtch, a cupboard, rather than an illicit embrace.
More confusing, perhaps, are the English words which are used as though they had the same range of meaning as a Welsh word. The Welsh perthyn means both “to belong” and “to be related to”, so the query “does William belong to you?” signifies not the survival of indentured servitude in darkest Wales, but a query about family relationships. One of my clearest memories of my grandpa is that he would always say “catch my hand” before we crossed the road: dal, the Welsh word for “to catch”, also means “to hold”.
It isn’t just individual words which benefit from this cross-pollination; Welsh syntax and idiom also plays its role in Wenglish. Wenglish word order, like that of Welsh, is generally looser than it is in standard English, which means it’s an awful lot easier to be emphatic in the English of Wales. A statement like “old I am, not soft!” surely has a rhetorical edge over “I’m old, not stupid”, and “there’s cold it is” has much more feeling to it than merely “it’s cold”. Maybe this is why the Welsh have a reputation for being verbose. I prefer to think that it shows our affinity for a poetic turn of phrase.
Bethan Tovey is a Senior Assistant Researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary, and wishes to apologise to the Gogs for the southern bias of this article. This article first appeared on the OxfordWords blog. Oxford Dictionaries Online is a free site offering a comprehensive dictionary, grammar guidance, puzzles and games, and a language blog.