If You Have To Say "Have"
gan/by Alun Hughes
Alun is a frequent teacher on Cymdeithas Madog's Welsh language
weeks. He also was a member of the Board of Cymdeithas Madog and served as its president for many years.
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I remember once being teased by an English girl about the fact that certain
Welsh words have more than one meaning. Glas was one she picked on, for amongst other things glas
can mean blue, green or grey. 'Are you Taffies colour-blind?' she asked, her eyes of glas (being a Taffy
I couldn't tell which variety, though they weren't brown, which is just as well because the Welsh language lacks
its own word for brown) twinkling merrily. Totally captivated, I was able only to stammer unconvincingly, 'many
languages have words like that, even English,' before blushing deep red and, well, moving on to other things. Which
in retrospect is too bad, for I could have quoted many similar examples from her own language. One of these --
the word 'have,' and how it translates into Welsh -- is the subject of this article.
A quick check of the dictionary reveals over a dozen distinct meanings for
'have,' which makes glas seem positively pallid by comparison (for glas, read grey). Not only that,
several of those meanings are so basic that 'have' is one of the most widely used words in the language (I have
no evidence to prove this claim, but it just has to be true -- in fact I've used the word in different guises
three times in these parentheses alone!). Let us look at how these same meanings are expressed in Welsh, where
the situation is much less straightforward.
One of the most important uses of 'have' is to denote possession, as in
'she has a book,' or indeed 'I have no evidence.' Welsh has its own verb meaning 'to have' -- cael -- but
unfortunately it can't be used in this sense! I shouldn't really say unfortunately, for it implies that Welsh is
somehow deficient which isn't the case at all, though the Welsh way of expressing possession does sound rather
awkward to ears accustomed to English. In Welsh, for 'she has a book' you have to say, 'there is a book with her,'
i.e., mae llyfr gyda hi. Another example is roedd car gyda'r dyn -- 'the man had a car.'
Note the structure of these sentences: verb + noun + preposition + noun/pronoun.
The first noun is the object of the equivalent English sentence, and the noun or pronoun at the end is the subject.
This structure is very commen in Welsh, and to Welsh ears it doesn't sound awkward at all.
And so, when the thing 'possessed' is a quality or attribute rather than
a possession in the normal sense, the same structure is used, albeit with a minor change. Thus, 'the church has
beautiful windows' is mae ffenestri hardd i'r eglwys, literally, 'there are beautiful windows to the church,'
the difference being that the preposition i replaces gyda. In the same fashion, the famous Canadian
current-affairs program 'This Hour Has Seven Days' would have been Mae Saith Diwrnod I'r Awr Hon had it
been produced on S4C in Wales.
The same structure is used to express 'have' in the sense of 'be affected
by' or 'be suffering from.' Thus 'he has a headache' is mae pen tost gyda fe, or 'there is a sick head with
him.' If the ailment in question does not make reference to a specific part of the body, as in 'you have the measles,'
the structure is unchanged but the presposition becomes ar: mae'r frech goch arnat ti, literally (though
none too agreeably) 'the red pox is on you.'
Another 'have' that can be conveyed by the same structure is the 'have'
of obligation or requirement, as in 'I have to.' In Welsh, this is mae rhaid i fi, or 'there is necessity
for me.' Normally, of course, the phrase is followed by whatever it is that has to be done, as in mae rhaid
iddo fe fynd ('he has to go'), and Oes rhaid i ni ganu? ('do we have to sing?'). As can be seen, the
verb denoting the action undergoes soft mutation.
A different sort of 'have' altogether is the one that signifies a past action,
as in 'they have eaten.' The Welsh word for this 'have,' technically known as an aspect marker, is wedi.
And so 'they have eaten' is maen nhw wedi bwyta. This is the perfect tense of the verb, and you may think
of it as being 'derived' from the present tense (mae nhw yn bwyta -- 'they are eating') by replacing one
aspect marker, yn, by another, wedi.
We can of course put almost any verb after wedi, to indicate any
number of past actions, and one of these in fact is the Welsh word for 'to have,' cael, as in rydw i
wedi cael. But what exactly does cael mean in this context? More generally, what meanings of 'have'
does cael convey that have not been covered already?
Well, there are several of these, and I'll just mention two of the most
important ones. The first, a kind of catch-all meaning really, is 'have' in the sense of 'experience,' or 'take,'
or 'receive,' as in 'she'll have a good time,' 'I have lunch at midday,' and 'Twm had a car on his birthday.' In
Welsh these become fe fydd hi'n cael amser da, rydw i'n cael cinio am hanner dydd, and fe gafodd Twm
car ar ei benblwydd (gafodd being a past tense form of cael). If the third of these examples
sounds a little strange to North American ears, it's because this use of 'have' to mean 'receive' is more old world
than new. Combining cael with wedi, as we did in the last paragraph, we can also say things in the
perfect tense, like rydw i wedi cael cinio yn barod, meaning 'I have had lunch already.'
The other use of cael follows on from this example, in that it too
involves the use of cael with wedi. This is to help convey the perfect tense of the passive, as in
'they have been seen.' In Welsh this is maen nhw wedi cael eu gweld, literally, 'they have had their seeing.'
Another example is roedd y ferch wedi cael ei chosbi ('the girl had been punished'). It should be noted
that cael is sometimes present only by implication in this construction, as for example in maen nhw wedi
The English 'have' has other meanings also, as in 'please have this done
at once,' 'I won't have this nonsense,' 'she has a little French,' 'he has him where he wants him,' 'I feel I've
been had,' and "have at you!' But I will have mercy, for I'm sure you've had enough, so I'll have done with
it. Have a nice day, now.