Selective attention

The other day an English guy who has lived in Wales for many years and who doesn’t speak Welsh told me that when he listens to people speaking Welsh, he hears lots of English words, words derived from English, and words from French or Latin, so he believes that Welsh is made up mainly of such words.

I suggested that such words just seemed to be prominent and ubiquitous because they are the only ones he understands, and that the majority of Welsh words are completely different, though they share the same ultimate roots as words in most other European languages.

He wasn’t convinced, and when asked for examples, could only think of a few: parcio (parking) and ffenestr (window) and pont (bridge).

I can understand why he’s convinced that there are lots of words of English, French and Latin origin in Welsh – selective attention. It’s like if someone says that you don’t see many yellow cars around, you will start to notice ever yellow car and might become convinced that they are more common than they really are.

Have you any mistaken impressions of languages you don’t know?

When I first heard spoken Irish I thought it was mainly made up of the occasional English word, plus lots of agus (and), and mumbling in an Irish accent. Now I know better.

This entry was posted in French, Irish, Language, Latin, Welsh.

8 Responses to Selective attention

  1. TJ says:

    Maybe in a related topic – writing and reading a language is relatively easier for me than listening and speaking. I find myself faster when I type in a language (other than Arabic or English) like German, but when I speak or try to understand the speaker … it’s not that easy. I think I passed through the same stage with English but that was early in my childhood probably that I don’t remember much of it. I find it hard to pay attention to the spacing between words to differentiate sentences and words – all the talk would sound like one complete non-stopping line.

  2. Roger Bowden says:

    I remember an English electrician lighting the bridge at Llangollen challenging an old school master about all the English words the Welsh had to use like Mr and electricity.
    In reply the schoolmaster said” Oh we do have a welsh word for electricity it’s trydon meaning dry heat. Tell me what’s the English word for electricity”.

  3. David Eger says:

    Indeed. Is ‘parcio’ any less Welsh than ‘to park’ is English? And, come to that, what’s the English for ‘cromlech’?

  4. Kevin says:

    Roger, I take your point and agree entirely with you (and the school master).

    Just for the record, the Welsh word trydan is made up of try- (corresponding to the Classical prefixes dia- and per-) and tân (fire), regularly mutated here to dan. So the literal meaning is something like “through-fire”.

    Electricity (= “amber-ish-ness”, from Greek through Latin) is a much less “transparent” word!

  5. macsen says:

    Simon – your friends is both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. There are many Latin words in Welsh, more than most Welsh people (and he) probably realise. From obvious ones like ffenestr and pont to ones most Welsh people think are thoroughly Welsh – putain (prostitute), braich (arm), ffwrn (oven) etc.

    There is, also, a lot of English words used in Welsh, as Latin words were used by our Brythonic speaking ancestors two thousand years ago. This varies from person to person and situations.

    However, this business of ‘there are no Welsh words for … Insert Latin word used in English’ or, when there is a Welsh word, it’s attacked for inventing words or having made up words or ancient Welsh words which have been adapted. It seems Welsh can’t win. We’re either ridiculed for adapting Latin/Greek/English/French words (parcio, ambiwlans, trên) or we’re accused of verging on neo Nazi purity complexes if we adapt or create new words (cyfrifiadur – computer, cyfrifianell – calculator, gluniadur – laptop)!

    You’re comments about Irish match mine. A lot of words spoken in a lighter sounding language than Welsh with bits of connecting English words like ‘youknow’ and ‘well’ and the a lot of ‘agus’!

    Having been to the Basque Country and not speaking neither Basque nor Spanish then, at first hearing Basque sounded like Spanish. The only way I knew if someone wa speaking Basque not Spanish wad hearing ‘eta’ (and), a lot of words finishing in ‘aren’ and not hearing the Spanish ‘z’.

    Hungarian – words finishing in -al.

    I’m afraid I Cân not differntiate between any of the Slav or Baltic languages (that doesn’t include Estonian). I am none the wiser is somebody would be speaking Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish. Czech, Slovak. I’d maybe hear Russian differently, possibly the South Slav languages, but, by and large, no.

    Portuguese is a lot of ‘sh’, ‘dz’ and very nasal with sounds like -oa, -um.

    Catalan – a thinner Spanish, no ‘th’, no -n, and clear ‘s’.

    German spoken in Austria and Switzerland seem to be German spoken by Welsh speakers.

    Breton – dispute being very similar to Welsh is spoken with s very strong French accent (this is common to all minoritised languages where all speakers are bilingual). My children hear the Breton/French ‘r’ as the Welsh ‘ch’ and I have explain to them that it actually is ‘r’. Breton is recognised by gradually hearing ‘Welsh’ words.

  6. macsen says:

    Sorry, Hungarian, words finishing in -ak (not -al).

  7. Andrew says:

    For what it’s worth, to a native English speaker’s ear, Dutch really does sound like a 50/50 mix of German and English.


  8. David Eger says:

    When I arrived in Latvia in 1997 – then divided roughly down the middle (numerically speaking) between Latvian and Russian speakers, with 99% of Latvian speakers also fluent in Russian and a much smaller percentage of Russian speakers fluent in Latvian – I found it hard to tell whether I was hearing Russian or Latvian. After a year in Latvia, then able to converse freely in Latvian, I struggled to hear any similarity at all between the two languages.

    I still find it difficult to differentiate between the Slavic languages – although I could probably recognise Russian and Polish. (Even having spent 2 years in Latvia, my Russian is still *very* basic – one language at a time was enough for me). Lithuanian, incidentally, despite being most closely related to Latvian, still sounds quite Slavic to me on first hearing, even though I can start to understand some of it, once I am ‘tuned in’ (I found that I could get by in Lithuanian after 2 years in Latvia).

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