Welsh is a Celtic language spoken mainly in Wales (Cymru) by about 582,000 people, and in the Welsh colony (y Wladfa) in Patagonia, Argentina (yr Ariannin) by several thousand people. There are also Welsh speakers in England (Lloegr), Scotland (yr Alban), Canada, the USA (yr Unol Daleithiau), Australia (Awstralia) and New Zealand (Seland Newydd).
At the beginning of the 20th century about half of the population of Wales spoke Welsh as an everyday language. Towards the end of the century, the proportion of Welsh speakers had fallen to about 20%. According to the 2001 census 582,368 people can speak Welsh, 659,301 people can either speak, read or write Welsh, and 797,717 people, 28% of the population, claimed to have some knowledge of the language. There are an estimated 5,000 speakers of Welsh in Patagonia [source].
According to a survey carried out by S4C, the Welsh language TV channel, the number of Welsh speakers in Wales is around 750,000, and about 1.5 million people can 'understand' Welsh. In addition there are an estimated 133,000 Welsh-speakers living in England, about 50,000 of them in the Greater London area.
Welsh is conventionally considered a distinct language from the 6th century AD, by which time Welsh speakers, who previously had occupied most of Britain, had been pushed into what is now Wales, north west and south west England and southern Scotland by the Anglo-Saxons. The varieties of Brythonic spoken in different parts of Britain, and by Brythonic-speaking migrants to Brittany, began to develop into separate languages: Welsh in Wales, Cornish in Cornwall, Breton in Brittany and Cumbric in Cumbria.
The earliest known examples of Welsh literature are the poems of Taliesin, which feature Urien of Rheged, a 6th century king in what is now southern Scotland, and Aneirin's Y Gododdin, a description of a battle between Celts and Northumbrians which occurred in about 600 AD, nobody knows for sure when these works were composed or when they were first written down, however the oldest surviving manuscript featuring Y Gododdin dates from the second half of the 12th century. The earliest known example of written Welsh is on a gravestone in Tywyn church and dates from the 8th century AD.
From the mid sixth century to the mid 8th century Welsh was known as Primitive or Archaic Welsh. It is known from place names in Latin texts, and from place names borrowed into English.
The Welsh spoken between the mid 8th century and the mid 12th century is known as Old Welsh. It appears in writing in a number of manuscripts and as glosses on Latin texts.
The Welsh spoken between the mid 12th century and the mid 14th century is known as Middle Welsh. There are numerous texts in this form of Welsh, including poetry, prose, legal texts, religious texts, and medical and scientific works. Middle Welsh is reasonably intelligible to modern Welsh speakers.
The Welsh used from the early 15th century until the end of the 16th century is known as Early Modern Welsh. It is the language of the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym, one of the leading Welsh poets of the Middle Ages.
William Morgan's 1588 translation of the Bible into Welsh is considered the first work in Late Modern Welsh, and served as a model for literary Welsh.
Modern colloquial Welsh differs in many ways from modern literary Welsh. The former is used mainly in informal speech and writing, and occasionally appears in novels and other literary works. The latter is used mainly in formal writing and literature, and in very formal speech.
Here are some examples of literary and colloquial Welsh:
|Literary Welsh||Colloquial Welsh||English|
|Codaf yn gynnar bob dydd||Dw i'n codi'n gynnar bob dydd||I get up early every day|
|Ni chysgant ond pan fo angen||Byddan nhw yn cysgu dim ond pan fydd angen||They'll sleep only when there's a need|
|Nid wyf yn gwybod||Dydw i ddim yn gwybod
Dw i ddim yn gwybod
Dw i'm yn gwybod
Sa i'n gwybod
Wn i ddim
|I don't know|
Source: Welsh 101
Today there are radio stations and a TV channel, that broadcast entirely or mainly in Welsh. There are also weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines. About 500 books in Welsh are published annually, and there is a thriving Welsh language music scene. There are a number of Welsh language theatre groups, and regular eisteddfodau or cultural festivals are held throughout Wales.
All school pupils in Wales study Welsh as a first or second language for 12 years, from the age of 5 to 16. The first school to use Welsh as the medium of instruction was set up in Aberystwyth in 1939. There are currently over 440 primary schools and over 50 secondary schools in Wales that teach entirely or mainly throught the medium of Welsh. There is also a Welsh-medium school in London. Some courses at Welsh universities and colleges are taught through Welsh, and there are numerous Welsh courses for adults throughout Wales.
Hear the Welsh alphabet:
Hear how to pronounce Welsh:
Welsh has a system of mutations which affects the initial letters of words. This feature is common to all Celtic languages and can make it difficult to find words in dictionaries. The nasal mutation (treiglad trwynol) and aspirate mutation (treiglad llaes) present few difficulties, but there are over 20 different occasions when soft mutation (treiglad meddal) occurs.
Some more examples of mutations:
Genir pawb yn rhydd ac yn gydradd â'i gilydd mewn urddas a hawliau. Fe'u cynysgaeddir â rheswm a chydwybod, a dylai pawb ymddwyn y naill at y llall mewn ysbryd cymodlon.
(Datganiad Cyffredinol O Hawliau Dynol)
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
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Page last modified: 23.04.21
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