Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau – On the Search for Welsh false friends

Earlier this year it was revealed that the second-most spoken language in England is Polish. There are 546,000 Polish speakers in the UK, roughly equating to 1% of the population.

Contrast this with the 300,000 people who claim to be fluent in Welsh and you can understand why, in one of its last statements before being disbanded, the Welsh Language Board said the Welsh language was dying. They argued the number of people learning the language was failing to offset the number of Welsh speakers dying or moving away – resulting in a drop of around 3,000 speakers per year.

And this is despite the 1993 Welsh Language Act, making Welsh compulsory in Welsh schools to 16.

It is hard for me to think that such a beautiful, evocative-sounding language, one of our island’s native tongues, could be facing extinction.

As Jude Rogers had it in her passionate 2012 plea in the Independent, The Welsh language is too precious to be allowed to disappear: “It rolls, it lilts, it rasps. It begins in the back of the throat, turns around the mouth, then it sings.”

Perhaps my feelings stem from the subliminal power of hearing Ar Hyd y Nos for several hours every night as a babe in arms while my Dad sang and paced in an always-unsuccessful battle against colic (something I can’t remember, but must have registered on some level).

Or perhaps the Welsh language is simply something ALL the residents of the British Isles should be treasuring far more than we do?

With this in mind, the fan-fare about S4C’s dual language experiment Y Gwyll/ Hinterland seems a little over-egged. Sure, the “branding” (titles) are bi-lingual, but the programme was filmed (and will be shown) in two versions for its audiences; Welsh on S4C, English on the BBC. Surely, as Maggie Brown argues in her May 2013 Guardian column, “Hinterland/ Y Gwyll should be shown in one version, a mix of Welsh and English, to suit the new reality. Except that no one yet has the confidence to make it that way.”

This lack of confidence is extraordinary really.

Given the show will air in England on BBC4, it is hard to imagine that part-subtitled drama would pose a significant turn-off for its expected audience. The Danish broadcaster behind “The Killing” DR has brought into the programme, so why do the English seem so reticent?

The stark contrast between the English and Welsh languages makes Welsh an intimidating prospect for would be learners. and yet it also makes for a fascinating linguistic story: the fact the two languages could exist so closely geographically and yet the linguistic gulf between them be so very wide!

I think this makes the few false friends that exist between Welsh and English so unlikely to mean the same thing that I wonder if you can call them false freinds at all?

The pronunciation and spelling of Welsh means that the false friends that appear in written language are unlikely to appear to be interpreted as friends once spoken. Take dryll for instance, looks like drill, sounds completely un-English, means gun (a rifle).

Likewise, words which sound like English words, often could not be mistaken for English when read:
Moch (sounds like mock) means pig.
Coch (sounds like cock) means red.
Llan (sounds like clan) means church.
Ffordd (sounds like forth) means way, road, manner or recipe.
(sounds like tea) means house.

A few words are true false friends in that they look like and sound like English words:
Hen / old.
Pen / head or end.
Dim / none.

But they are few and far between. To be honest I find the French influences on the language far more confusing, because I don’t expect them to mean what I think they ought to (and yet they do!):
Eglwys does mean church.
Pont is a bridge.

It doesn’t work with German though – unless your audience (Publikum) really is made up of people from the valley (Pobol y Cwm).

What do you think? Fancy learning Welsh? Share your thoughts!

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