BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

29 October 2014
Your Voice

BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Elsewhere on BBCi
BBC Cymru
BBC Vocab
Story of Welsh

In Your Area
What do you think about your local accent?
Talk about Voices in your area

Did You Know?
'Booze' is an anglicised version of the word 'busen', borrowed from the Dutch term meaning to 'drink to excess'.

Page 2 of 2
Welsh today
The history of Welsh

The history of Welsh

Welsh developed from the Celtic language known as Brythonic or Brittonic. The two most closely related languages are Cornish and Breton. Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx are also Celtic languages but are more distantly related.

Our earliest evidence for the Celts comes from the Salzburg area of modern Austria at the beginning of the Iron Age. From there the influence of the Celts spread to include a large area which stretched from Britain, Ireland and Spain in the west to part of modern Turkey in the east.

The Celtic influence can be seen in many present-day place-names, which have developed from earlier Celtic names. One of these is Lyon in France. The Romans called it Lugudunum, a name which they probably took over from the original Celtic inhabitants. The same name, with the elements reversed, is found in north Wales as Dinlleu.

Today we associate Welsh with Wales. But we don't have to look far for evidence that a language similar to Welsh was once spoken in England and parts of Scotland too. Words like aber 'mouth of a river' and caer 'fortress' are found not only in names like Aberystwyth and Caerdydd 'Cardiff' in Wales but also in names like Aberdeen in Scotland and Carlisle in the north of England. And the names of most of the major rivers in England, such as Thames, Severn, and Avon, are also Celtic. Avon is particularly obvious to a Welsh speaker because afon is the Welsh word for 'river'.

To the early English settlers in England, the Celt was a walh, a 'foreigner' or a 'serf'. As well as Wales itself, several names in England such as Walcot, Walton and Wallasey contain walh. These might reflect some of the social differences in the population of early England.

Cymro, the Welsh word for Welshman, means 'someone from the same land'. Cymro was borrowed into English, and is found in several place-names in England, such as Cumberland, Cumberwood and Cumberwell. These might refer to places where a form of Welsh survived a little longer than in most of England.

Apart from a small change in spelling, Cymry 'Welshmen' is exactly the same word as Cymru 'Wales'. To the first Welsh people, then, the people and the land were inseparable.

Like the other European languages, we use the same letters as the Romans used for writing Welsh. This gives written Welsh a particular European identity.

Even though Welsh and English use almost the same Roman letters, the letters don't always represent the same sounds. For example, 'dd' in Welsh stands for the same sound as 'th' in English 'the', and Welsh 'f' conveys the sound which English usually represents with 'v'. Not knowing this has lead many an English speaker to pronounce Dafydd 'David' as though it were 'Daffid' rather than 'Davith'.

Welsh also has a few sounds not found in English. The most famous of these is the Welsh 'll', a rare sound in the languages of the world, which is heard in place names like Llanelli.


About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy