How the ancient Welsh language helped shape English

Dylan Thomas
Image caption 'Prodnose' and 'moochin' are two of Dylan Thomas' contributions to the OED

From arctic birds to nicknames, the influence of Wales on the English language has been underestimated, says a Celtic Studies expert.

Compilers of the new online version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) say penguin, Taffy and cariad are examples of Welsh words adopted by English.

Poet Dylan Thomas is also responsible for 635 entries, they said.

Prof John Koch of the University of Wales said: "The two languages have lived side-by-side for 1,500 years."

The OED, first published in 1884, this week relaunched itself online.

It claims to be the only English dictionary that tries to trace the first known use of every sense of every word in the English language.

And to prove the point its compilers have pointed to the number of entries that originated from Welsh.

The earliest recorded use of 'penguin' can be traced back to Wales, they said.

Apparently in spite of the fact that most penguins have black heads, the OED's compilers said Welsh coined the term from pen meaning head and gwyn meaning white.

OED quotes the first written citation from 1577: "Infinite were the Numbers of the foule, wch the Welsh men name Pengwin & Maglanus tearmed them Geese." [sic]

According to the OED the word 'Taffy', a nickname for a Welshman, has its roots in the pronunciation of Dafydd, it says.

Image caption Unlike many penguins, the gentoo penguin does have a white patch on its head

'Cariad', a Welsh term of affection, is referenced as far back as the 13th century, from caru, meaning to love or woo.

Edmund Weiner, deputy editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, said Dylan Thomas was one of the most cited authors in the OED Online.

"His rich use of language has resulted in being acknowledged as the source of words and phrases such as 'moochin', a difficult or disagreeable person.

"The term to 'prodnose', meaning to pry or be inquisitive, is taken from Quite Early One Morning."

'Before English'

Prof John Koch of the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth, said the influence of Welsh on the English language is surprising to many, but should not be.

"Before English was there, Welsh was there," he said, "and you cannot say that about any other language that English has had contact with.

"The two languages have lived side-by-side for 1,500 years, so it shouldn't be surprising."

Prof Koch said that the English language behaved in many ways that could not be attributed to other Germanic languages and its contact with Welsh may be the reason.

"There has been an underestimation from the beginning of the Welsh component in English," he said. "It probably isn't massive like that of French or Latin. It's more under the surface."

Prof Koch said there were historical and political reasons behind the lack of credit given to the influence of Welsh.

He explained: "In the universities in which people studied the language most people who compiled the dictionaries in the first place did not know a lot about Wales, so it would not have been something they looked for."

Prof Koch added that many proper names in England came from Wales and most of the names of major rivers in Britain are pre-English.

"That's something that is well-known by experts but tends to be otherwise overlooked, but the influence of Welsh on English may yet come into its own as a subject."

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