Just a rant today about stupid claims about Welsh. These are mostly made by non-Welsh-speaking English speakers, but presumably you also find them among other people who’ve encountered Welsh. Maybe they’re common among non-Welsh speakers in the Chubut valley too. Anyway, people say lots of stupid things about Welsh, but here are two depressingly common ones you hear a lot in Britain.
- No words for modern things. Welsh, apparently, lacks words for things like computers and aeroplanes. This is a stupid comment for two reasons:
- It doesn’t;
- 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.
- No vowels. The essential claim is that many words in Welsh contain no vowels; or even that the language is generally deficient in them. This is not entirely stupid (though it is a bit): languages vary in how many vowels tend to be used in them; and some languages allow syllables whose nucleus is not a vowel, but a sonorant (a sound like /l r m n/). As it happens, one of these languages is English, in which the final syllable of words like “table” and “fashion” is standardly pronounced with a syllabic consonant rather than a vowel as the nucleus of the syllable. In English, however, this tends to occur only in polysyllabic words; in other languages, it can occur in monosyllablic words, so that a word might contain no vowel at all. Croatian, for example, contains a word for garden spelt vrt; and I’m reliably informed it tends to be pronounced without an inserted vowel (unlike the Slovene cognate, which tends to be pronounced with a schwa).
The thing is, Welsh is in neither group. Not only does Welsh have no words without vowels, it’s much rarer in general for consonants to form the nucleus of a syllable in Welsh. English, in other words, is more inclined towards vowellessness than Welsh.
So what do people mean? Incredible as it may seem to you intelligent readers, what people mean when they say this is that there are Welsh words that aren’t spelt using the letters a, e, i, o, or u. Yes, that’s right. Now I won’t go into why it doesn’t make much sense to refer to letters rather than sounds as ‘vowels’ or ‘consonants’; suffice it to say that both English and Welsh have considerably more than five vowels at their disposal, and that y and w are often used to represent vowels in Welsh spelling. The first is pretty frequently used to represent vowels in English too, come to think of it.
One other thing that might be relevant is that sometimes letters are doubled in Welsh spelling to represent distinct sounds. ff, for example, represents /f/, while f represents /v/. Which might make it look to some observers that a word has more consonants than it does. But when this comes from people who spell /rait/ right, it’s hard not to laugh.
OK, so granted, the people who say these things aren’t necessarily serious. But I remain unconvinced that they don’t at least half believe what they’re saying. And when you hear people say this kind of thing on QI or The News Quiz (as I have), you want to strangle the supposed comedians and make them be original or just a tiny bit better informed.
So do people have nice examples of this kind of thing from their own languages? What about English? Have you ever been irritated by stupid claims people make about it? (e.g. “English has no rules”).