Two stupid things people say about Welsh

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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”).

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Two stupid things people say about Welsh

  1. Very interesting! Per your request regarding other languages: Hebrew has few vowels–and "optional" written vowels. Vowels are generally omitted in everyday writing as the vowel sounds are implied by the word structure (and sentence structure when there is ambiguity).

  2. @Anonymous(1) There are really a couple questions here, and I think you may be conflating them a bit. The first is whether a vowel *sound* is the basis of the phonemic structure or not. The second is whether the vowel is *written* or not. In your example of Hebrew for example, my understanding is that most of the time the vowel *sounds* are there, it's just that the vowel *letters* aren't written, and they're implicit.

  3. Yes. It's an important distinction to keep clear. Vowels and consonants are primarily phonetic and phonological entities. The terms can only secondarily be applied to writing, and then somewhat unhappily. Take for example the letter Y in English. People sometimes debate whether or not it's a vowel or a consonant, occasionally resorting to calling it a half-vowel. This is on its way to being nonsense. Y is neither a vowel nor a consonant; it's a letter that sometimes represents vowels and sometimes represents consonants. I'm not sure if Anonymous is really conflating the two things, however. S/he distinguishes between vowels and written vowels in the comment. And there are indeed relatively few vowel phonemes in Hebrew. It's also notable that the language (as are other semitic languages) is structured in such a way that symbols representing vowels can be omitted in writing. The point about Hebrew wasn't quite what I was asking for, however (though thanks for the comment!). I was really interested in this post in stupid things people say about languages, rather than interesting facts about languages.

  4. Don't worry about what commedians say. They are always having a pop at someone, notherners, Scots and yorkshiremen seem to be interchangable in their not funny at all jokes. Spanish is interesting in that it has only 5 vowels. I don't mean 5 letters for vowels, I mean 5 vowel sounds. Apparently english has got 14, though we only have the 5 letters to express them. Which is why we have to remember how to say rough compared to bough and thorough. At least, that is what I am told.

  5. I think there is a very simple explanation for the claim that welsh has very few vowels. Most other languages that (mostly) use the English alphabet (I'm not sure what the actual name is, but generally starts abc..) have roughly the same vowel structure as English, or each other.Show me a word in Spanish or French or Italian, and I could probably sound it out reasonably close to the proper pronunciation.Show me a word in Hebrew or Arabic or Russian, and I wouldn't know where to start.Show me a word in Welsh, and the characters are basically the same, but ordered in a way that I don't understand.

  6. Speakers of any language can sometimes let the uglier aspects of their regionalism show when describing other languages – there is a powerful tendency to see one's language of first fluency as the "default" and all other languages as weird. But the prejudice can also extend to differences in dialect within one language, especially when the dialects are approaching the point of being mutually unintelligible.Sometimes the "weirdness" of another language can be trotted out to imply (subtly or not) the intellectual or cultural deficits of another group of people. For instance – English speakers marvel at the fact that Japanese uses variable forms of counting numbers based on the shape of the objects being counted. Oh, those wacky Japanese, with their forbidding, dense and strange language.But viewed objectively, there's nothing about tying a descriptive word to the shape of the objects it describes (as a descriptor of quantity) that's any weirder than any other pattern in any other language.Look at our ordinal and cardinal numbers: first versus one, second versus two. If I'm "first in my class" then I'm the "number one student." Doesn't that seem odd, that at some point, English melted down the various words for "1" and "2" that had evolved within the English language's parent dialects, and then saved the seeming inconsistencies while preserving vestiges of otherwise forgotten tongues?And what about the declension of our verbs of existence and motion that we use? These verbs are like smooth river stones that have been polished and shaped by regular heavy use and the march of history, but in their strange irregularity, they commemorate the origins of our language. Am, are, is, was, were, have been, has been, will be, is being, to be, or not to be.And all because the sad refugees from one old devastated Saxon kingdom or another would cling to a few tenses here and there (so pitiful and broken a people that they were not even able to call an entire declension their own anymore!), the words like random keepsakes saved from a burning house – rescued not because of their value, but because they were closest at hand for the inhabitants who were running for their lives.A more polite person doesn't point at someone's language and gape, but remains humble in the face of the difference. Human languages are accreted, not constructed, and they are all as idiosyncratic (heh) as the people who speak them.

  7. Mae heniaith y Cymry mor fyw ag erioed!

  8. English as it's spoken in my neck of the woods (midwestern US) just has one vowel. It's represented by a lot of different letters, but they're all pronounced as a schwa.

  9. I remember in Czech class, my professor said that Czech was the only language in the world that could have a sentence with no vowels – it was kind of a strange sentence, it meant "Poke your finger through your neck", or along those lines. It was something like "Strč prst krk skrz."

  10. As a dysgwr Cymraeg (Welsh learner), I'm always amused by the Welsh-has-no-vowels remark. Welsh has more vowels than English: a, e, i, o, u, w and y.Cymru (a Chymraeg) am byth!

  11. The Bella Coola language is famous for lacking vowels in many words. One example is xɬp̕x̣ʷɬtɬpɬɬskʷc̕ 'he had had a bunchberry plant' with thirteen voiceless obstruents. No sonorants at all.

  12. I never heard the original claim, but your post is funny. You don't give the simplest example, which is the Welsh use of "w" for "oo." As in Welsh "bws" for English "bus." You don't need advanced training in linguistics to make that leap — just look at a bus stop on the street corner in a city.On the other hand, I find it easier to cope with Japanese and Hebrew than Welsh and Gaelic. With completely foreign symbols, I know I have to learn the alphabet over in order to pronounce words. With Roman letters, some part of me expects the word to scan in English pronunciation. It isn't logical, I know.

  13. Pingback: Silly things people say about Welsh II | Garic Gymro

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