Aug 4th 2008
On being a country within a country
“YOU’RE not Welsh,” a stranger sitting next to me on the train insisted when I mentioned that I was heading back to Wales, where I grew up.
My homeland, which has a population of less than 3m, is bilingual. There, my accent is considered to be BBC—people think I’m English when they first hear me speak. But if they listen closely, they’ll hear the South Wales in my voice.
It might be the way I say “yur” rather than “year”, or how I told my family, when they phoned me on the train to Cardiff, that “I'll be there, now, in a minute”.
The dialect I speak is Wenglish—a hybrid of Welsh and English. It is especially prevalent in South Wales, but how to define it?
Well, it has a lilt, with a rise in intonation at the end of a sentence that can sometimes be as screechy as a train putting on its brakes. Vowels are pronounced generously, as though there is a valley to bridge when the voice moves from the consonants before and after them.
It has similarities to the Californian valley girl accent (which I acquired easily while living opposite a sorority in Berkeley, California). Wenglish, though, has a deeper, less shrill, tone.
Word order differs too from English, with the most important word placed first. For example, “You're reading at the moment” becomes “Reading, you are”. If you wanted to speak in an even more Wenglish way, you would say: “Reading, I am, right now”—the phrase “right now” appears as frequently in Wenglish as sheep do on Welsh hillsides.
The more words, the merrier. Sentences, like one sometimes used to mock the Welsh, are soaked with synonyms: “Whose coat is that jacket?”
Then there are the words themselves – terms I have to explain in London. Ach y fi expresses disgust. Mitching means truanting. A cwtsh is a hug. When a Welsh couple married in 2004, they pledged “to have and to cwtch” rather than “to have and to hold”.
Twp, meaning “stupid”, is a favourite Wenglish adjective, its clipped sound echoing the manner in which someone might tell a person off for doing something foolish.
Welsh is often wrongly believed to be derived from English, but French and German are closer to English than the Celtic Welsh language. For centuries, legislation made English the preferred tongue, but a 2001 survey found that 20.8% of the population spoke Welsh fluently.
The Welsh language act of 1993 made it compulsory for pupils in Wales to learn Welsh until the age of 16, with the legislation giving the language equal footing to English in the public sector, meaning all signs in Wales are bilingual.
The longest word in Welsh, easily beating that in any other language, is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, meaning "the church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the rapid whirlpool by St Tysilio's of the red cave". A quirky tourist attraction to some, it is a source of national pride to others.
Many Welsh words are longer than English ones because they are combinations of words, and the Welsh alphabet has more letters than its English counterpart, too—28 in total—even though it doesn't contain the letters j, k, q, v, x or z. Eight are diagraphs, such as dd, a th sound, and ll, where the tongue needs to touch the roof of the mouth as the speaker hisses.
And as for grammar, here's a taster: in Welsh, there is no indefinite article (a) but three definite articles (the). Nouns are masculine or feminine; none are gender neutral, and adjectives follow the noun.
When back in Wales, I avoid speaking Welsh, even though it is a language I love. The last time I did, the person I was with launched into a stream of Welsh back, and I had to explain: “Dim siarad Cymraeg (I don't speak Welsh), but I'm Welsh.”