When I was about 10 years old it was time to decide which secondary school I would go to (the school system in Germany is slightly different than in the UK). It was kind of an easy choice for me as I obviously wanted to go to the same school as all my friends. So one day I went to an interview with my parents and while the headmaster took a look at my grades it was also determined whether I’d choose English or Latin as my first foreign language. “Maybe you should start with Latin”, I was told, “you’re good at maths and a good knowledge of Latin will make it easier to learn most European languages in the future. And it’s needed for some university degrees later on.” Needless to say I chose English, never saw the point in spending all my school years learning a dead language, I wanted a language I could use. (Must have been the adventurer in me, although I added Latin to my curriculum a couple of years later just to make sure I could choose whatever course I wanted at university.)
Turned out to be a good choice as I ended up living in one of those European countries where Latin doesn’t help at all with learning the native language. But then I don’t think anything would help with Welsh really. However, I have discovered my favourite Welsh words so far, which isn’t that difficult considering my whole Welsh vocabulary consists of approximately ten words (you get along with English just fine). “Pili pala” (butterfly) and “popty ping” (everyday slang for microwave) have made it to the top spots (I have read somewhere about “pysgod wibblywobbly”, an informal expression for jellyfish, but I’m not certain it really exists. But if it does it would definitely go on my list of favourites).
Just think about it for a moment. “Popty” means oven and when the microwave made its way into the Welsh world, they just added the distinctive “ping” sound to the word. Genius! It’s just another example of the descriptive nature of the Welsh language or Cymraeg. Many names and place names are a description of the person or the location, for example Betws y Coed – Chapel in the Trees, Aberystwyth – Mouth of the Ystwyth or Rhosllanerchrugog – literally translated as rhos “moor”; llannerch “glade”; grugog “heathery” hence “Moor of the Heathery Glade.” “Welsh”, by the way, is a name given to its speakers by the Anglo-Saxons meaning “foreign speech”, and emerged from the Common Brittonic in the 6th century. The native term for the language is “Cymraeg” being derived from “Cymry” and “Cymru”, the Welsh name for Wales and a descendent of the Brythonic word combrogi, meaning fellow-countrymen.
So Cymraeg might not be the easiest language to learn (and I’m a long way from even thinking about having a conversation in Welsh), it might sound unusual to most of us and reading it doesn’t make any sense at all but then I thought the same when I took my first look at Latin. Maybe there’s still hope for me…