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Wenglish

February 19, 2012

I’ve just returned from a short holiday in Wales, the land of my fathers, or to be strictly accurate of my mother; I took my children to stay with my Uncle Tommy in the Rhondda Valley, or to be more precise on a 1000-foot-high hill called Penrhys overlooking the Rhondda Valley. Spectacular scenery; but what made the strongest impression on me was the wonderful way the Welsh have with the English language. In its accent, grammar and vocabulary Welsh English still bears traces of a foreign language; few people in the South Wales valleys speak Welsh as a first language, but their speech is marked by the Welsh their ancestors spoke.

Welsh English contains sounds that English English simply doesn’t have – for instance the vowel u, as in tulip, isn’t like an English at all; the sound that intrudes between the consonant and the following in English English is absent, and the sound is really more of a diphthong than a vowel: try saying (as in bit) followed immediately by (as in boot) and you have something like it.

In terms of grammar, Welsh English has features which are, I’d guess, direct translations from Welsh, such as the additional prepositions used in where to, rather than English where (a Welsh English-speaker doesn’t say Where is he? but Where’s he to?), and the by which always precedes here. (Here is pronounced yurr – as a child I always assumed that the song Kumbayah must be Welsh in origin, as it sounds so similar to the admonition Come by yurr). There’s also the auxiliary do which is added to verbs to indicate a habitual action: He do come round by yurr every Friday.

Welsh English vocabulary is full of untranslated Welsh words – it’s common to hear someone mutter Duw, duw, duw (pronounced dew, dew, dew but without the intrusive y), which means God, god, god. There is the beautiful word cwtch (pronounced cooch) meaning to snuggle, cuddle or nestle up to (Come and cwtch up by yurr); it can also be used to mean a nook or cubby-hole – my mother always used it for the cupboard under the stairs, and when I was a child I thought this was the normal word in English, until friends looked at me uncomprehendingly when I used it. Dootty (rhymes with sooty, with a slight stop on the double t) means little. 

There are also some new idioms I don’t remember my mother ever using. Dull is used to mean stupid (I knew he was dull, my aunt said of somebody, but not that dull!). Best of all is Beast. On a trip to Porthcawl, my 10-year-old second cousin pointed to a ride in the amusement park and said ‘Thass beast, thaddis’.

‘That’s what it’s called – the Beast?’ I asked.

‘Naw – thass not whaddiss called- thass whaddid is!’

‘What do you mean?’

Beast – it means awesome, like.’

Beast! What a great word. I’m going to start using it. It’s beast.

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One Comment
  1. C. Robshaw permalink

    I’m not sure dull & beast are Welshisms particularly. Dull sounds quite Victorian to me – “Answer me, boy! Are you dull?”, whereas I remember lots of people saying “beast” when I was younger.

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