Welsh Idioms
gan/by Alun Hughes

Alun Hughes, a teacher on many Cymdeithas Madog Welsh language weeks, is a frequent contributor, especially in the area of how the Welsh language works. In this article, he introduces a number of useful turns of phrase to help colour the learner's speech.

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Don't be put off by the title, which I guess does sound rather dull, for in reality idioms are anything but dull. Indeed, idioms are fascinating, so read on. Idioms are those peculiarities of expression or phraseology, full of meaning (yet often meaningless when taken literally and commonly untranslateable from one language to another), that give a language colour, flexibility and uniqueness. Some English examples will show what I mean:

He ran as fast as his legs could carry him.

He made an off the cuff remark.

He really put a spanner in the works.

Mastery of idioms is often considered a sign of mastery of a language. Anyone with a basic knowledge of English can come up with he ran as fast as he could, but it is a different matter altogether -- and much more expressive -- to say he ran as fast as his legs could carry him. Welsh is no different from English, and the purpose of this brief article is to introduce some distinctively Welsh idioms (or as they're called in Welsh, idiomau or priod-ddulliau).

Distinctively Welsh, did I say? Perhaps I should qualify that. Many Welsh idioms are indeed quite distinctive, but others are similar or even identical to idioms found in other languages. Consider, for example, three idioms that use the verb berwi, to boil:

Roedd ei waed y berwi ar ôl clywed y newyddion.
(His blood was boiling after hearing the news)
Beth wnaeth i ti ddod? Mae eisiau berwi dy ben.
(What made you come? You need your head boiled / = read.)
Roedd y plentyn yn berwi fel cawl pys.
(The child was boiling like pea soup / = was chattering incessantly.)

The first example is a straight translation of the English (which is not to say that the English came first!), the second is similar to the English, and the third is quite different. This provides us with a simple (if not entirely hard and fast) classification for examining idioms in the Welsh language, so let us begin with some idioms that have exact English counterparts:

Fe wnaeth Twm lyncu'r abwyd ar unwaith.
(Twm swallowed the bait immediately.)
Bu'r taith yn agoriad llygad i'r ferch fach.
(The journey was an eye-opener for the little girl.)
Gwisgodd esgidiau ail-law am ei draed.
(He wore second-hand shoes on his feet.)
Af i'r dre yn fy amser da fy hun.
(I'll go to town in my own good time.)
Roedd y bachgen dan fawd ei dad.
(The boy was under his father's thumb.)
Rydw i allan o'm dyfnder yn fy ngwaith.
(I am out of my depth in my work.)
Bydd rhaid i ni ladd amser cyn i'r trên ddod.
(We'll have to kill time before the train comes.)
Neidiodd o'r badell ffrio i'r tan.
(He jumped from the frying pan into the fire.)
Mae hi'n siarad trwy ei het.
(She is talking through her hat.)

Idioms like these are familiar enough to English speaker, but sometimes you need to be careful lest you misinterpret them. Take for example the saying ail i ddim. Literally translated this is second to none, but the correct meaning is next to nothing, as in the sentence, roedd ganddi ail i ddim ar ôl (She had next to nothing left). Which brings us to the second group, comprising idioms that are similar to English ones yet have a special Welsh flavour:

Cymerwch ofal rhag ofn i chi brynu cath mewn cwd.
(Take care lest you buy a cat in a sack / = pig in a poke.)
Mae hi'n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn / cyllyll a ffyrc.
(It's raining old ladies and sticks / knives and forks / = cats and dogs.)
Roedden nhw'n dynn fel penwaig yn yr halen.
(They were tight like herrings in the salt / = sardines in a tin.)
Mae Ianto ni yn dipyn o aderyn.
(Our Ianto is a bit of a bird / = bit of a lad.)
Cannwyll fy llygad oedd fy mab.
(My son was the candle of my eye / = apple of my eye.)
Agorais y drws a'm calon yn fy ngwddf.
(I opened the door with my heart in my throat / = heart in my mouth.)
Siaradai'r hen wraig pymtheg yn y dwsin bob amser.
(The old woman always talked fifteen in the dozen / = nineteen to the dozen.)
Rydw i'n yfed cwrw ond unwaith yn y pedwar amser.
(I only drink beer once in the four seasons / = once in a blue moon.)
Roedd y ci cyn farwed â hoelen arch.
(The dog was as dead as a coffin nail / = as dead as a doornail.)
Fe godais yn y bore bach.
(I arose in the little morning / = wee hours.)

Finally, we come to the most fascinating class of all, those idioms that (so far as I know!) are uniquely Welsh:

Rhuthrodd ef i'r ty^ 'i wynt yn ei ddwrn.
(He rushed into the house with his breath in his fist / = in a great hurry.)
Rwy'n barod i roi'r ffidil yn y tô.
(I'm ready to put the fiddle in the roof / = to give up.)
Rwy'n teimlo fel tynnu blewyn o'i drwyn.
(I feel like pulling a hair from his nose / = doing something nasty to him.)
Mae fy nhad-cu yn rhydiau'r afon.
(My grandfather's in the fords of the river / = on his death bed.)
Mi rown fy mhen i'w dorri y byddan nhw'n priodi.
(I'll give my head for breaking / = I'm absolutely certain / they'll get married.)
Mae hi'n siarad fel melin bupur.
(She talks like a pepper mill / = talks non-stop.)
Rwy'n edrych ymlaen at gynnu tân ar hen aelwyd.
(I'm looking forward to lighting a fire on an old hearth / = renewing an old love.)
Mae hi yn llygad ei lle yn ei barn.
(She is the eye of her place / = totally correct / in her opinion.)
Roedd y cwbl yn freuddwyd gwrach wrth ei hewyllys.
(It was all the dream of a witch according to her will / = wishful thinking.)
Paid â chodi pais ar ôl piso.
(Don't lift a petticoad after p---ing / = cry over spilt milk; shut the stable door after the horse has gone.)

All these idioms -- even the last one -- appear in Llyfr o Idiomau Cymraeg by R. E. Jones, published by Gwasg John Penry. The same author has also produced a second volume, Ail Lyfr o Idiomau Cymraeg. Two other very useful collections are: Cymraeg Idiomatig by C. P. Cule, published by D. Brown a'i Feibion; and Y Geiriau Bach by Cennard Davies, published by Gwasg Gomer. The latter is aimed specifically at learners, and as the title (The Little Words) hints, groups idioms according to the prepositions (am, ar, at, dros, gan, etc.) that occur in them.

Part of the richness of any language derives from its idioms. In a world language like English, new idioms are being created almost daily -- relatively recent examples are: the bottom line, put on the back burner, and get a handle on. Welsh, like all languages, has a vast store of native idioms, but the process of idiom creation proceeds much more slowly than in English, and there is a real danger that the stock of idioms will become progressively depleted (and the language impoverished) as time goes on. The solution? Learn these expressions, and use them! To quote in translation Thomas Parry's introduction to Llyfr o Idiomau Cymraeg:

"I hope that everyone who uses Welsh seriously in speech and in writing will make room for these sayings in their language, in order to preserve them for our linguistic consciousness as a nation ... There has never been a greater need than there is today for contemplating the words of Emrys ap Iwan: 'As shall be the language, so shall be the man, and so shall be the nation. Good language promotes civilization, and poor language, or language that is not used well, hinders civilization.'"

Draig Cymdeithas Madog

© Cymdeithas Madog
11 Mawrth/March 2000

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