Dialects, a fossil and nothing in between

W&VN.jpgIn yesterday’s blogpost about Vietnamese, I wrote that the abyss between the formal written language and the informal spoken language is particularly wide, and that I had heard this claimed also about Welsh. In response to this latter observation I received two comments which deserve to be rescued from the obscurity of the comments section to the full light of a proper blogpost. (I’ve shortened them very slightly.)

Number one was by Siôn Williams, who wrote that my aside about Welsh “is indeed true“, and continued:

“Consider the following in descending levels of formality for ‘I am’ ( > ‘I’m’): yr wyf,  yr wyf i, rwyf, rwyf fi, rydw i, rwy i, dw i andw i. 

Then you have the ‘other’ verbs – which have two forms: the periphrastic form (with the auxiliary verb), which is preferred in speech, and the short written form, which is used in the formal literary language. Let’s take the verbal-noun (the ‘true’ form of the Welsh verb, as there is no infinitive), canu (‘singing’).

Canaf = I sing / I will sing (present-future tense)
Dw i’n canu = I sing / I am singing pPresent tense)

Canasent = They had sung (past perfect tense)
Maen nhw wedi canu = They are after singing ( = They had sung) (past perfect tense)

Native speakers (and learners) only ‘learn’ the short forms, almost like a second or foreign language, once they have mastered the periphrastic forms, which are more common in speech. 

Why is the formal (written) so different and difficult compared to the informal (spoken) language? Many reasons, I guess – including that the written forms hark back to the translation of the Bible in 1588 (making Wales officially a Protestant nation under Queen Elizabeth I of England) – a book which did so much in ensuring the language’s survival after the subordinating of it under the “Act of Union” of 1535. Further, and also as a result of this “Act of Union” and subsequent English and British State policy in imposing the English language and driving the Welsh language out of the classroom, subsequent generations of Welshpeople became illiterate in their mother tongue and could not write it. My great-grandmother (d. 1947) was illiterate all her life (in both Welsh and English; her will is signed with an X), and my own mother (b. 1925) has never felt at ease in writing or indeed reading Welsh – and will always look up English versions of forms etc. before she signs anything.

A good many of my compatriots then would not be able to ‘unpackage’ such forms as canasent (see above), yet would quite accurately and without as much as a blush be able to use the form mae nhw wedi canu in order to explain a concept of ‘a past-in-the past’ for 3rd person plural.

To this was added to by Iwan Standley, who wrote, “I think one of the reasons formal Welsh is still in use is that there are many dialects of informal Welsh, some with significant differences. I have a Swedish relative who’s learnt some Welsh, and she’s remarked that Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are far more similar to each other than the dialects of north and south Welsh are.

Historically this was because the regions of Wales are fairly isolated from each other due to the terrain. It’s really only been since the 1960s that a national Welsh-language press and media have arisen, and public bodies have started using Welsh in official documents; public affairs were conducted in English previously.

So the question they face is, which version should they use? They would obviously like to be widely-understood, but if they use an informal register it would mean picking a geographical dialect – which could be seen to be favouring one area over another (not a good look for a national public body).

So they generally play it safe and use a somewhat-fossilised formal language, which is seen as being neutral (because nobody speaks it) at the cost of being removed from everyone’s day-to-day language. This formal, literary Welsh has now become the ‘standard’ even though no-one actually speaks it. It’s a sort of lingua franca I suppose, but one that very few are entirely comfortable with – the example you give of perfectly intelligent people being unsure if they can write a letter sounds very familiar.

A brief look at Quora and Wikipedia suggests Vietnames also has several very different dialects. I wonder if their use of formal language is for the same reason, then?

That is a very good suggestion, because it’s perfectly correct that speakers of some dialects have trouble understanding each other. Only yesterday did I hear a story about a Vietnamese from the North who couldn’t make head nor tail of the information a hotel receptionist in the Central City of Huê was giving her. After asking five times to repeat what she had said, the guest gave up. Perhaps she should have asked her to write it down!

1 thought on “Dialects, a fossil and nothing in between

  1. Thank you for revisiting both my comments and Iwan’s. (I don’t think either of us know each other in real life, by the way.)

    I agree that geography has some part to play in the differences in lexicon, syntax, pronunciation and grammar of the different types of Welsh and the historical summary he gives with regard to the status of the language post-1962. (He’ll know why I choose this year specifically!) The differences have been exaggerated however – usually by less-friendly linguists and others, and I do feel that strides are being made to provide e.g. translations and teaching materials which are more approachable and/or aimed at the locality of the target audience and language learner. (Within Wales, that is. Outside, You go with what your teacher has/knows if applicable or you guide yourself to what you think is the ‘right’ Welsh for you. Hopefully, not the formal, literary language as detailed previously if you’re a Beginner, nor – saints preserve us – Cymraeg Byw/Living Welsh, which *no one* speaks either, and is the subject of another discussion.)

    What concerns me however, and I’m sure Iwan sees this, too, is his point regarding the intelligibility between the Swedes, the Danes and Norwegians (and indeed amongst themselves. Thus, an inhabitant of Tromsø can (usually) understand someone from Oslo *as well as* someone from Stockholm and Copenhagen. (Apologies for using the English names). Now, the geography of these Nordic countries can be particularly bleak (with higher, more rugged mountains and deeper valleys than Wales) and ‘isolating’ (within their own countries and between NOR, SWE and DK. How then does this ‘mutual inteligibilty’ work when the Welsh entre eux could/can not understand their fellow-Cymry? Part of the answer must surely be that there is a jjoint-history amongst the Nordics for ruling each others’ countries and picking up the other’s/others’ language(s) in the process. (This never really happened in the British context as all languages were subsumed, although not completely made extinct by the all-powerful steamroller of English and the promotion of that language (alone) by the State. A similar, but more complete homogenising and centralising project was and is still visible in the French State …)

    Finally, please acknowledge my apologies for a few typos in my initial comment – such as failing to close brackets. More importantly, the text “Mae nhw … ” should, of course, read, “Maen nhw …”

    Diolch Gaston for your blog and book – I look forward to seeing your next volume.

    Liked by 1 person

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