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Besides being a frequent teacher on Cymdeithas Madog Welsh language weeks, Alun Hughes is also our resident grammarian. In this article, Alun explains how to perform the seemingly impossible: how to look up a word in a Welsh - English dictionary. It's a little like playing with fire. But if you follow Alun's tricks, you'll locate that word in next to no time.

How To Find Words In A Welsh Dictionary

How to find words in a Welsh dictionary? Why, what could be easier? You just look them up - they are in alphabetical order after all. If you want the Welsh word for arm you look under 'A' and you find braich, if it's dog you want, you look under 'D' and you find ci, and so on. And it's the same if you have the Welsh word and want the English equivalent. You find the English for braich under 'B' and English for ci under 'C'. What's the big deal? As long as you know your alphabet, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, as everyone who has ever studied Welsh knows, the answer is 'a lot.' There's no problem with the English-Welsh section, but the Welsh-English section is a different matter. Take the English for chwith, for example, or the English for ffenest -- you certainly won't find them under 'C' and 'F.' And neither will you find the meaning of stafell under 'S' - you find it under 'Y.' And as for the English equivalent of nhgeffyl, the last place you should look for it is under 'N' -- try 'C' instead. But then nant you'll find in two places, under 'N' and 'D'! Yet all of these are perfectly normal Welsh words, so what's going on?

What's going on is four things -- alphabetical ordering, syllable loss, inflection, and mutation. Let us examine each one in turn.

1. Alphabetical Ordering

The alphabet -- the Welsh alphabet that is -- is as follows:

a b c ch d dd e f ff g ng h i j l ll m n o p ph r rh s t th u w y

Certain letters in the English alphabet (like 'k,' 'q' and 'x') don't occur in Welsh, and these clearly are no problem to the dictionary user. But the famous double letters (like 'ch,' 'ng' and 'rh') that do occur in Welsh are a problem.

There are seven of these, though only five of them ('ch,' 'ff,' 'll,' 'rh' and 'th') can occur at the beginning of words, at least words in their basic unmutated form. So if you want the meaning of chwith, say, you must look it up in the 'CH' section of the dictionary, not 'C.' Not too much difficulty there. It's when these letters occur inside words that things can get confusing.

Thus you find the word cythlwng, not as you might expect after cytgroes, but after cytunus. The point is that all the words starting with cyt- are listed before those starting cyth-. Similarly, mach comes after macyn, goddaith after godwrdd, hoff after hofran, allafon after alsoddeg, and so on. If you want to know what these words mean, then look them up -- you now know how to find them!

One double letter cause particular problems; this is 'ng,' which occurs not after 'n,' but after 'g,' when placed in alphabetical order. Consider the word cangen. To look this up in the dictionary you go to 'C' obviously, but where do you look under 'C'? You do not look after can-; instead, you must look after cag-, which let's face it takes a little getting used to. It would be nice if, having got used to this, you could rely on it as a general rule. Unfortunately you cannot. Thus the word dangos, for example, is found, yes under 'D,' but after dan-, not dag-. This is because the 'n / g' combination in dangos is actually a combination of the two letters 'n' and 'g' -- it is not the double letter 'ng.'

How can you tell which is which? You can't really, and the only solution when confronted by 'ng' is to gry after g- first (this is the more likely possibility), and if that doesn't work then try after n-. You'll find your word eventually -- guaranteed.

2. Syllable Loss

The second problem that dictionary users face is the loss of syllables. An example is writing ffenest for ffenestr, reflecting the way the word is usually spoken. In this case the loss occurs at the end of the word and has no effect on dictionary use. But it can also occur at the beginning, which can really confuse the unwary. Thus you won't find stafell under 'S'; you find it under 'Y,' since the word is really ystafell. In some dictionaries also (they do vary somewhat in this respect), you have to check ymenyn to learn the meaning of menyn.

Not many words are affected in this way, and most begin with 'y,' which often gets dropped in speech when it occurs at the start of the word. Thus you often hear sbyty for ysbyty, ma for yma, swiriant for yswiriant, and so on. Other examples in words that do not begin with 'y' are da for gyda and goriad for agoriad. Often these abbreviated forms are written with an initial apostrophe (e.g., 'goriad) to indicate that something is missing.

3. Inflection

By inflection, I mean those changes that words undergo to denote variations in grammatical function. Some languages (like Latin) are highly inflected, while others (like English) are not. Welsh falls somewhere in between. The following sequence from English is a simple example: I see, you see, he sees, she sees. In this case, the inflection applies to a verb, and consists simply of the addition of 's' to denote the third person. Another example would be the changing of I see to I saw to denote the past tense. Relatively few inflections remain in modern English, and those that do are fairly simple.

Inflections are much more common in Welsh, however, and occur in situations where they don't in English. Thus, not only do we have the verbal inflection cysgais, cysgaist, cysgodd meaning I slept, you slept, he/she slept, we also have the prepositional inflection arnaf, arnat, arno, arni meaning on me, on you, on him, on her. The problem for the dictionary user is the fact that only the root form of the word (in this case cysgu and ar) is listed, and while this is sufficient to get a sense of what is meant, grasping the full meaning requires a knowledge of the endings.

A complication sometimes encountered is that not only the ending changes, but also some other part of the word. An example is the verb canu, to sing, which in the past tense becomes canais or sometimes cenais, a small change perhaps, but one that could really throw off a dictionary search. More extreme examples are the irregular verbs like mynd, where the inflected forms (e.g., aeth, ewch) bear little or no resemblance to the root. The same problem occurs with many regular verbs in literary Welsh, specifically in the third person singular of the future tense -- who would think, for example, that egyr is related to agor, or geilw to galw? There is no simple solution -- these things just have to be known.

4. Mutation

The final cause of difficulties in looking up Welsh words in a dictionary, probably the most troublesome of all, is mutation. Mutations are those changes that the initial letter of a word can undergo, depending on its function in the sentence, on the word that precedes it, on any number of reasons (though not, contrary to popular belief, including a deliberate plot to confuse the learner).

The Welsh word for horse is ceffyl. My horse is fy ngheffyl, your horse is dy geffyl, and her horse is ei cheffyl, but you will search in vain for ngheffyl, geffyl and cheffyl in the dictionary -- ceffyl is the only form listed. Mutations are very common in Welsh, and despite the increasing tendency for Welsh speakers to forget them, they cannot be ignored, especially when translating written Welsh.

The clue to finding mutated words in the dictionary is knowing one's mutations in the first place and being able to recognize them when they occur. Only nine letters, all consonants, mutate, and the changes fall into three groups, soft mutation, nasal mutation and aspirate mutation:

Welsh Mutations

Radical Form































From the top row of the chart we see that geffyl is an instance of soft mutation, ngheffyl is nasal mutation, and cheffyl is aspirate mutation, and they all 'unmutate' to ceffyl.

The forms in bold type never occur at the beginning of words except as mutations. Thus if you see mhriodas you know that the word has to be priodas and you'll find it in the dictionary under 'P.' The forms in regular type can either be mutated or non-mutated. Thus nant (an example mentioned in the second paragraph of this article) could be the Welsh word for stream, or it could be a mutation of dant, meaing tooth. And dant in turn could mean tooth or it could be a mutation of tant, meaning string. The context will make clear which meaning it is. The forms in italic type can also be mutated or non-mutated, but are almost invariably the former, since relatively few words in Welsh begin with these letters.

Note that all the mutated forms are unique except 'f', which results from the soft mutation of both 'b' and 'm.' Note also that when 'g' is subject to soft mutation it is simply dropped, and no evidence of the mutation exists. So if you've tried everything else and you still can't figure out what a word is, stick a 'g' at the beginning and see if that does the trick!

One final complication worth mentioning is the phenomenon known as aspiration, whereby an 'h' is added at the start of words beginning with a vowel. This occurs, for example, after the possessive pronouns her, our and their. Thus her name is ei henw, but enw is the word you will find in the dictionary.

Many people with Welsh roots have attended a Gymanfa Ganu (a Welsh hymn singing festival). In this article, Alun Hughes, one of Cymdeithas Madog's longest serving teachers and frequent contributer on grammatical matters, has a look at gymanfas, cymanfaoedd and all sorts of other strange animals.

The Origin Of The Species "Gymanfa Ganu" And Its Variants

"You say tomayto, and I say tomahto, you say potayto and I say potahto." You know the problem. We Welsh have our own version, which goes, "You say gymanfa and I say cymanfa, you say gymanfas and I say cymanfaoedd." It doesn't scan too well, and it's more than just a matter of pronunciation, but it's the same sort of thing.

So which is it, gymanfa or cymanfa? Well the basic word, meaning assembly, congregation, meeting, convocation, etc., is cymanfa -- you find it under c, not g, in the dictionary. Often, of course, it's seen with ganu following, i.e., cymanfa ganu, meaning a singing meeting or songfest. And ganu is really canu, which is also found under c in the dictionary. Okay so far? Good, for the form we see most often of all of course is gymanfa ganu, which you won't find anywhere in the dictionary. You never see cymanfa canu (well you do, but only when people don't know better), though you do see cymanfaoedd (the plural) canu. You also sometimes see Cymanfaoedd ganu and even gymanfaoedd ganu, even though you really shouldn't see either. Still with me? You are? I'm impressed, because I'm lost. Perhaps we should call the whole thing off.

No let's not, let's go back to square one, and approach this conundrum (see under c, not g, in the dictionary) the only sensible way -- grammatically (see under g -- oh never mind...).

The basic word is cymanfa. Nouns in Welsh are either masculine or feminine, and cymanfa is feminine, and that is the root of the problem. If it were masculine there would be no complications -- this may sound sexist, but that's how it is (don't blame me, I didn't invent the language). And the complications are all related to those darn mutations, the changes that the initial letters of Welsh words undergo when... well, many learners seem to think it's when they feel like it. Rules do exist, however, and at the risk of sounding sexist again I have to say that the rules decree that the feminine gender is predisposed to much greater changeability than the masculine (I repeat, I didn't invent the language -- if I had, I would have shared out the mutations 50-50, as any progressive, right-thinking person would have done).

Anyway, the word cymanfa by itself means an assembly (there is no indefinate article in Welsh, so the "an" is understood). To say the assembly we have to use the definite article y. Since cymanfa is feminine, it undergoes soft mutation: the c becomes g, giving y gymanfa.

The same sort of thing happens when we add canu. Adjectives describing feminine nouns also undergo soft mutation, and so we have cymanfa ganu (a songfest) and y gymanfa ganu (the songfest). The songs of course are always hymns (for songfest read hymnfest), but being Welsh that's taken for granted.

What could be simpler? Well actually the plural is simpler, because though the plural form cymanfaoedd is longer and harder to pronounce, the mutations are absent. So when we add y and canu, that's all we do, add y and canu, giving y cymanfaoedd, cymanfaoedd canu and y cymanfaoedd canu.

When speaking Welsh, these words are always used according to the rules, i.e., cymanfa to mean an assembly, y gymanfa to mean the assembly, and so on. It's only when they are transferred to English that inconsistencies arise, but ironically enough these inconsistencies are perfectly logical.

Of the various possible forms (cymanfa, y gymanfa, cymanfaoedd, y cymanfaoedd -- with or without the adjective canu), the commonest by far are y gymanfa and y gymanfa ganu. This is because we usually refer to just one of these events at a time (hence the singular), and we usually have a specific one in mind (hence the definite article).

English has no proper equivalent for y gymanfa (at least not in the sense of hymnfest, which is what we usually mean by the word). When we want to say this in English therefore, what could be more natural than to keep the Welsh and simply substitute the for y, giving the gymanfa and the gymanfa ganu. Since we use the g-word so often, gymanfa then becomes the English norm, and it makes perfect sense to go one step further and say a gymanfa ganu. It also makes sense, though it sounds really jarring to Welsh ears, to make the plurals gymanfas and gymanfa ganus. In effect, gymanfa becomes and English word, just like thousands of other loan words before it, and it must therefore obey the rules of English grammar.

Where does all this leave us? Well for one thing perhaps, better able to sleep nights, now that a major mystery has been explained (??). As to which forms should be used when, that's not so easy. In Welsh it's straightforward, but in English we have a choice. We can try to be purists and use the proper Welsh forms (awkward though this sometimes is), we can take the easy way out and fall back exclusivelyon the g-words, or we can mix 'n' match. There's no simple answer, but my advice is this: whatever you do be consistent, and never ever use any of the following -- gymanfa canu, cymanfa canu, cymanfaoedd ganu, and gymanfaoedd ganu -- because they don't exist in any language.