Welsh - A vanishing language through English loans

Term Paper 2002 13 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The History of the Welsh language

3. The change of the Welsh language through English loans
3.1 English loans in Welsh
3.1.1 Welsh loans in English
3.2 List of Tables

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Intoduction

There is a Welsh proverb which says: “Cenedl heb iaith cenedl heb galon” and which means “A nation without a language [is] a nation without a heart”.

At the beginning of the third millenium Welsh is spoken by around half a milion people in Wales or about 20 percent of the population of 2.7000.000.

This is more than double the number that spoke Welsh in the Middle Ages but around half the number that spoke it at the beginning in the 20th century.

Welsh is understood by about 750.000 people in Wales. Welsh speakers are scattered in equal numbers all over the country. Some areas in the North and West are thought of as the Welsh heartland because the percentage speaking Welsh there is quite high, from 50 to 80 percent! But nummerically, Cardiff and Swansea areas have as many Welah speakers as the counties of north Wales. Welsh has been spoken for 1600 years and the Welsh language survived until today although people – especially the English people- tried more than once to bann it away. The English language has had and still has a strong influence on the Welsh language.

History is one of the main reasons which made the Welsh language vanish.In the first part of my work I will have a look on the History of the Welsh language. What happened in the past that there are only 20 percent of the Welsh population who can speak Welsh left?

In the second part I will examine the process of borrowing words from another language. The Welsh language mainly changed through borrowing words from the English language. As well as the Welsh gentry adopted the English manner and culture it also adopted the English language. In this part I will look in which way both languages borrowed from another and what were the reasons for borrrowing. In the last part I will answer the question if Welsh is a vanishing language and if it is the fault of the English language that Welsh nearly died out.

2. The History of the Welsh language

Welsh, the direct descendant of the Celtic langugae that was spoken througout most of Britain when the Anglo-Saxons invaded, has long been under threat from English.

In 1536, Wales became annected by England. Through the Union of England and Wales English became – until 1900 – the only language of law and administration and state education in Wales and the main language of commerce. Also economically, Wales drew closer to England. Social influences at work, too, were a potential danger to the language. Copying the English manners and being able to speak English has been important for social qualification and has also been an economic necessity for the gentry.

There has been no longer place for Welsh in the schools and Welsh as a literary language was in a state of decline. The growth of printing also ment danger to the Welsh language because books were printed in English and because of that there was a greater circulation of the English language.

The Act of Parliament in 1563 ment a great success for the Welsh language: The Bible and the Book of Common Prayers were translated into Welsh. This act marked a turning point in the history of the Welsh language.

In the early 17th century the Welsh gentry had suddenly turned their backs on their traditional culture. In the middle of this century Welsh had almost lost its former position in the Welsh households.In 1847, the Welsh language was deliberately locked away and far removed from the socio-realities of the day through Foster’s Education Act. In the more isolated parts of Wales a smaller gentry retained a knowledge of the language until the 18th century.

In the 19th century “English was the only language spoken by ladies and gentlemen” (W.Ogwen Williams 1964 :85)

Nevertheless, most people in Wales spoke Welsh at the start of the 20th century.In 1925, the Plaid Genedlaethol Cymry (National Party of Wales) had been established with the aim of saveguarding and promoting the interests of Welsh language and culture.

Since the 1960’s Welsh has seen a resurgence. Welsh is the medium of education in a quarter of Wales’ primary schools and it is now taught as subject in most other schools.There is an all-day radion service and the Welsh television channel is expanding into all-day services.Welsh poetry and prose, which have a traditional dating from around 600 A.D. are flourishing and Welsh culture has been enriched in recent times by popular groups and singers.

Around 200.000 adults atttend classes to learn Welsh annually and knowing Welsh is becoming a valued part of many aspecs of Welsh social, economic, sporting and political life.

3. The change of the Welsh language through English loans

Borrowing is the process used by a certain language to adopt words from another language. These words were made part of the vocabulary of the language which “borrows”. The borrowed word is then a so-called loanword. Any word, which comes etymologically from another language (i.e. which has its origin in a foreign language) can be borrowed. Language can not only borrow words. They can borrow any kind of linguistic material. The language which borrows is called the recipient language (RL) and the language which is borrowed from is called the donor language (DL). There are different reasons why a language borrows from another language. Two main reasons for borrowing are need and prestige. For example, English borrowed a lot of words from French to make their language more elegant.

A loanword has to undergo the process of accomodation before it becomes part of the vocabulary of the RL. The loanword has to be remodelled to fit the phonological and morphological structure of the RL. Loanwords can be identified through phonologiacal clues which means that words which violate the typical phonological patterns are likely to be loans.

The phonological history of a language may help to identify the loan and to establish the direction of borrowing. Also the morphological complexity can help to determine the direction of borrowing because usually the DL is the one which is morphological complex and the RL is the one with the monomorphemic form.

If a certain word can only be found in one language but has legitimate cognates across sister languages the word is suspected to be borrowed. Geographical and ecologiacal clues may also help to determine whether the words are borrowed and what the identity of the DL is. Not only whole words can be borrowed but also sounds, morphological features or syntactic constructions can be borrowed. A language can borrow foreign sounds in two main ways:

At the one hand, a foreign sound can be borowed through areal diffusion and at the other hand through onomatopoeia and expressive symbolism (i.e. certain phonetic traits are used to symbolize affections, hightened expressive value or the speakers attitude).

The conact of one language to another can also cause the elemination of sounds. If a language loans or borrows a word usually borrows something of both, the phonetic form and meaning of the word in the DL is transferred but it is also possible to borrow only the meaning. These instances are called calques or loan translations.

The Welsh language mainly changed or vanished through borrowing words from English. But the Welsh language also had little influence on the English language.

3.1 English loans in Welsh

There is a large number of English words which have been absorbed into the Welsh vocabulary and there is also a common tendency to use English words, but particularly nouns and verbs in Welsh speech.

But also sounds have been borrowed from English.

Example: The consonant /f/ has the sound of English /v/

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Scholars recognize three periods of Welsh: Old (800 – 1100), Middle (1100 – 1500) and Modern Welsh (from 1500). Welsh has borrowed words throughout all these periods from Latin, Anglo Saxon, Norman French and extensively from English.

A number of phonological, lexical, morphological and even syntactic differences ditinguish North Wales from South Wales. The English influence on the Welsh language contributes to stronger differences between North and South Wales because the South is geographically closer to London at the one hand and at the other hand, Englishmen who immigrated to Cardiff, Swansea and Bristol to find work brought the English language to the big Welsh towns.

As well as the Welsh gentry adopted the English manner and culture it also adopted parts of their language.

Many Welsh words have been borrowed from English and they are pronounced similary to the English words, allthough the spelling can be a little different.1

Other words in Welsh are fairly similar to English and are readily understood because of their English roots. More care is needed with other words which sound similar but which have a completely different meaning.

3.2 Welsh loans in English

The social stigma attached to the worth of Celtic languages in British society throughout the last 1000 years seems responsible for the dearth of Celtic loan words in the English language, a language reowned for its borrowing of words from many other languages.

Celtic languages were viewed as inferior and words that have survived are usually words with geographical signifiance and place names.

Adopted words include bucket, car, crochery, noggin, gob, slogan, flannel, truant and gaol.

For the most part, the Welsh influence on the English language is mostly apparent through place names.

A number of names are compounds of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon words.2

1 see: List of Tables 1

2 see: List of Tables 2

Celtic loans generally come from place names where they have survived for centuries, being adopted by each invading group as they arrive, but that also a number of loanwords have connections with religious terms.

For generations the language of the Celts was referred to as “British” – the language of the Britons, the native inhabitants of the land. Some names that survive are the names of rivers such as Thame and the Yare.

English is a language which developed from the confluence of various influences in the Indo-European family but has surprisingly few signs of direct influence from Welsh.

There is some Welsh vocabulary; obvious words like coomb, corade, corgi, cromlech and eisteddfod but also much less obvious ones like gull and car. One may be thinking of the dialect of English spoken in Welsh, sometimes jokingly called Wenglish, which has many idiosynchrasies that can be traced to the grammar or vocabulary of the Welsh language.

3.1.2 List of Tables

1) English loans in Welsh

a) Words which sound similar to English words and which mean the same

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* The /r/ is pronounced and not mute as in English.

b) Welsh words which are fairly similar to English and are readily understood

because of their English roots

illustration not visible in this excerpt

c) Welsh words which sound similar to English but which have a completely

different meaning



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University of Marburg
Welsh English Semantics



Title: Welsh - A vanishing language  through English loans