Is Welsh the oldest language?

The Black Book of Carmarthen

The Black Book of Carmarthen

This misconception about Welsh is slightly different, in that it tends to be propagated by well-wishers who actually defend the language (you can’t say that this website is entirely one-sided!).

Many supporters, with the best intentions, will often claim that “Welsh is the oldest language in Europe” (or one of). I wish they wouldn’t say this, because it’s untrue. It’s worse than that, in fact, because it’s not even wrong, in the sense that the claim itself doesn’t make sense.

It’s a bit like claiming that your family is older than someone else’s family. All families, and all languages, ultimately share a common ancestor, so really they’re all as old as each other.

Throughout history, parts of one family dynasty or clan have gone on to start another, yet at the time nobody would have noticed the difference. It’s the sort of thing that you can only observe with hindsight (rather like the emergence of new families of species in biological evolution). In the same way, the point at which a modern language is said to have sufficiently developed from its predecessor is rather arbitrary, and an academic convenience more than anything else.

It’s true that the language we know and love today as “Welsh” is said to have emerged from Brythonic at some point during the sixth century. But this hardly means that there was a point at which a parent was suddenly unable to understand her daughter (nor, for that matter, her granddaughter). Nobody going about their business in 550AD Wales (or the Old North up in modern-day Scotland for that matter) would have noticed anything unusual happening. Even though we call it Welsh from that point on, this certainly doesn’t mean that it’s not changed in the 1,450 or so years since.

Academics tend to subdivide its subsequent development into Primitive Welsh, Old Welsh, Middle Welsh, Early Modern and Late Modern Welsh. The gist of Middle Welsh (in which the tales of the Mabinogi were written) can sort of be understood by a modern reader, though not without some struggle. Anything older than that, however, is utterly incomprehensible, and might as well not be called Welsh at all. In practical terms, Old Welsh and Modern Welsh are not the same language.

Welsh is not even remotely a special case in this respect. Old English is said to be contemporaneous with Old Welsh. So is Classical Armenian. Old Swedish isn’t said to emerge until the 13th century, but that doesn’t mean that the Old Norse that was contemporaneous with Old Welsh is linguistically “further away” in any meaningful sense from modern Swedish than Old Welsh is from modern Welsh. These are just handy labels.

A wise man once said that a language is simply a “dialect with an army”. The distinction between two languages is political rather than scientific. Norwegian and Danish are classified as two separate languages even though they are much more similar than the versions of vernacular Arabic spoken in Mauritania and Oman, for example, which we merly call dialects. Again, my point is simply that these labels are mainly social constructs. I’m guessing that many of Europe’s languages claim to be among the continent’s “oldest”. Basque, famously, isn’t closely related to any other language in Europe and is said to be a survivor from the time before the Indo-Europeans arrived. Lithuanian, meanwhile, is sometimes called Europe’s most conservative language since it retains many ancient linguistic elements that others have long lost. Both, it may be conceded, would have a better claim to the “oldest language” title than Welsh, but it wouldn’t really be a linguistically meaningful thing to say in those cases either.

You may, very reasonably, ask whether any of this really matters. But even if it were true (which it isn’t), I would also argue that it isn’t actually a particularly helpful point for the language’s supporters to be making. Do we really want to imply that our language is some sort of curious fossil? Emphasising Welsh’s so-called antiquity plays into the hands of those who seek to dismiss the language as unfit for the modern age. Unfortunately, there are people who say that Welsh is a relic of the past that belongs in a museum. We should avoid making their case for them!

Dylan Llŷr

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22 thoughts on “Is Welsh the oldest language?

  1. I do a little wince when people use terms like ‘ancient language’ for Welsh.

    It’s there in the anthem too, ‘O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau’. It might be too late to amend that one.

  2. Yes, exactly. The “age” of a language is neither here nor there as far as I can see. Even if it were somehow true that Welsh is “the oldest language in Europe”, it’s not clear to me how that would be anything to boast about. I don’t think that the people who say things like this are actually trying to imply that it would make Welsh somehow intrinsically superior or more valuable than other languages, but they come perilously close to sounding that way. All languages are great.

  3. William Salisbury, the pioneer of Welsh publishing was a staunch Protestant who agreed with Martin Luther that the Bible should be available in the Language of the people. During Salisbury’s lifetime Acts of Parliament had declared Welsh to be rude, ignorant and sinister. Even in a Protestant State there was no way that the Holy Word of God could be translated into a rude ignorant and sinister language – to do so would be blasphemy, when blasphemy was a capital crime. So Salisbury tried to prove that Welsh was related to the Latin of the Vulgate, the Greek of the New Testament and the Hebrew of the Old Testament and therefore “worthy” of a translation – it worked and the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and other religious texts were translated into Welsh and have been advantageous to the perseverance of our language.

    What Salisbury claimed about the relationship between Welsh and Hebrew was bullshit, I suspect that, as an accomplished linguist he knew that it was bullshit, but it was bullshit that served a purpose and created a mythology that has helped sustain our language.

    By the 16th century Hebrew was no longer a spoken Language, but Welsh was. If welsh was “related” to Hebrew it was the closest thing to the language spoken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden –it was the Oldest Living Language in the World, one of the few languages that had a trace of what was spoken before the Tower of Babel; indeed it was the closest thing heard on earth to The Language of Heaven (another claim made for Welsh) but most importantly was “worthy” of a translation of the Bible!.

    Is Welsh the oldest language? – No!
    Did Adam and Eve speak a form of Welsh in the Garden of Eden? – No!
    Was Welsh spoken before the Tower of Babel (if such a tower was ever built) – No!
    Is Welsh the Language of Heaven? – Probably!

    Are these myths important to our cultural identity, despite having no basis in the science of linguistics or the academic study of history?

    Too bloody right they are and they shouldn’t be dismissed as nonsense!

  4. I entirely agree with this article, it explains it all very well, and yes the ‘oldest language’ thing does rather annoy. I suppose it’s intended to show that Welsh has a long and noble history, which it does, including much valuable literature. So it would be a defence against those who come to Wales, see the ‘funny’ signs everywhere, many more than there used to be, and so conclude that the whole thing was invented last week by some committee or other 😉

  5. Dangerous Myth – Welsh the ‘Oldest Language in Europe’?

    I first heard an argument along these lines in a different context and more significantly, put a different way. I heard the late and respected Professor Bedwyr Lewis Jones (an outstanding scholar) among friendly company several times indulge in academic ribbing that while modern Welsh was already the language of law, poetry and epic tales, English was “still just a screech in the forests of Schleswig Holstein”.

    The point being made (and, to my knowledge, only ever made to get a laugh) was not an attack on English but a defence of the very long continuity of Welsh language culture and traditions, in the face of derision and belittling from English monoglots, who should know their own history better.

    The claim that Welsh is among the older Modern languages in Europe, and older in comparison to Modern English can be argued. More significantly, it is also a claim for our place in history and a right to assert our rich cultural heritage in the face of many so called authorities, speaking on behalf of the English language and culture, that would deny this continuity and even deny the right for Welsh to exist, falsely asserting English has precedence and inherent primacy.

    Even now, there is a growing band of pseudo-historians attempting to assert that the ancestor of English was spoken here before the Celtic languages arrived and that new ‘evidence’ undermines what has previously been asserted on behalf of the insular celts. We’re well acquainted with those who think that they can prove their academic superiority and shock our naive selves by asserting that there never were any ‘Celts’ and that the dressed up ‘Druids’ are either ignorant that all Welsh ‘traditions’ are the invention of an opium addled scoundrel or devised by clergymen who secretly worship satan.

    This position reminds me of the argument I’ve heard scores of times, even from some Welsh Christians, that the King James Version of the Bible in 16th century English is and will ever be the only divinely inspired and authorised version (you sometimes wonder if they actually understand it is a translation like any other version, except the lost original Hebrew and Koine texts, which themselves admit including translations).

    I would caution against forgetting the internationally significant cultural and academic value of the ancient continuity for Welsh. Any comparison of the reconstructed Pre-Celtic and Indo-European vocabularies will show how many Welsh words, still current in our modern language, reveal relatives close or identical to the most ancient related forms recorded in Sanskrit and its presumed antecedents.

    This makes Welsh a very rewarding language to study, helping throw much needed light on the original forms of Indo-European languages and the comparative study of all languages in Europe. As a Welsh learner, and like many other learners, I first became interested in Welsh as a way to learn more about earlier Celtic languages and culture. In fact, I’m still enthused about it 35 years later. I would argue, as a Welsh learner, that decoding the irregular orthography of the earliest Welsh scripts is far harder than making sense of their language, armed only with knowledge of Modern Welsh. Middle and Early Welsh grammar is far easier to master than the equivalent in English, Irish or French, in my experience.

    We’re only just rediscovering the historic world significance of Wales’ pioneering role in the industrial revolution and our status as the first majority industrial urban population in the world. These sorts of claims only ever have limited truth in strictly historical terms – but they can have powerful value in building the nation’s pride and the respect it wins in return. We shouldn’t take ourselves or these claims too seriously, but it would be a sad day if we feel we’re too grown up and mature to exercise any bragging rights! Myths can prove to be economically powerful – I’d much prefer it if more visitors came to Wales because they hear our language and traditions have outlived the castles built to crush them…

    • I hope you don’t mind my question: I’m an American of Welsh descent with other languages under my belt (more of some, less to little of others). I’ve only just begun study of Welsh, a rank beginner, and will be moving slowly, but was fascinated by some of your comments, specifically those on comparative study of European languages, and something new to me, Wales’ pioneering rule in the industrial revolution. Materials available to me might be very different from those available to you, but as there are university libraries not far distant, perhaps you might have a few thoughts on locating information on earlier forms of Indo-European language? I think, unfortunately–even once I acquire solid Welsh language skills–acquiring more on middle or early Welsh in the western U.S. would not be easy. This is not an area of research I’m familiar with, and if you did have suggestions, any would be helpful. The interest in your comments was contagious!

      • Depends how you want to define ‘indigenous’. If you mean that something (language, culture etc.) including all its antecedent forms always existed in the place where it’s now found, then no human language is ‘indigenous’ to Europe, since modern humans almost certainly already had language before the departed Africa. A more sensible definition might be “developed its main characteristics where it is now found”. Then you could rightly say that Welsh became what we recognise as Welsh mostly in what is now Wales (plus parts of England over the border, the Old North etc.) Likewise Cornish developed its particular character in Cornwall and other parts of the SW, Breton after the Britons migrated to Armorica, Scottish Gaelic in Scotland even though it was originally brought from Ireland, and so on. Each language found itself in a different environment and subject to a different balance of surrounding influences giving rise to its own special ‘personality’.

        Marc @ The fact that Welsh is derived from ancient British and that from Common Celtic doesn’t mean that its anything like these languages, it’s not at all, even though a core of inherited words survive, the sound, grammar and syntax of the language have all changed almost out of recognition. Birds we’re told evolved from dinosaurs, but they’re no longer really dinosaurs except in a very technical (cladistic) sense, they’ve become ‘their own thing’. Likewise Welsh has become ‘it’s own thing’ not simply a survival of British. Many more ingredients have gone into the pot over the centuries and the stew is still bubbling …

  6. In fairness, I think this took hold supporters of Welsh as a reaction to non-Welsh speakers saying things like “Welsh is just a dialect of English” and “Welsh isn’t a real language”… like we made it up sometime during the 20th century. What it seeks to do is to level the playing field perhaps so that it is seen as at least equal to all languages – although it does this by trying to out-rank other languages, which is unfortunate. I agree that it is fairly pointless to rank languages according to age as this is quite impossible. However, I would disagree with the point “Anything older than that [Middle Welsh], however, is utterly incomprehensible, and might as well not be called Welsh at all.” I’m not sure if this is strictly true and seems as false a claim as the “Welsh is the oldest language…” statement. Describing Early Welsh as”…utterly incomprehensible” and “might not be called Welsh at all” implies that there would be no linguistic markers or vaguely familiar root words at all which, I think, is incorrect. The truth is (and the author does touch upon this) that it is really difficult to pigeon hole the evolution of languages and this includes new falsehoods such as anything older than middle Welsh “might not be called Welsh at all”. Statements like this one are damaging because they are exactly the kind of spin that anti-Welsh speakers may pick up on and use to discredit the authenticity and provenance of Welsh, thus perpetuating the ugly cycle of “my language is better/older than yours” because it can, once again, cause Welsh language speakers to create other grandiose statements along the lines of “Welsh is the oldest spoken language in Europe” as a defence. When will it all end..? Never, unless ALL sides stop with the dramatic (and largely false) statements to support their arguments.

    • Sure, there are similarities, but they have to be pointed out to you; they don’t just jump off the page. Old English is about as old as Old Welsh, and it’s possible to construct artificial Old English sentences that are also good Modern English, like “Harold is swift. His hand is strong and his word grim. Late in life he went to his wife in Rome.” But more realistically you get passages like this: “Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum, si þin nama gehalgod. To becume þin rice, gewurþe ðin willa, on eorðan swa swa on heofonum. Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg, and forgyf us ure gyltas, swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum. And ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele. Soþlice.” If you know that’s the Lord’s Prayer you can pick out the resemblances, but otherwise you’d never get it.

      • As ‘Bones’ might have said of Old Welsh, “It’s Welsh, Jim, but not as we know it!” 🙂

        Unfortunately very little Old Welsh has survived in its original form, although a lot of early Middle Welsh verse is believed to have been first composed as OW. I may be wrong, but I doubt a modern Welsh speaker would make much sense of it. Middle Welsh prose is however much closer to the modern language, from an English perspective more Shakespeare than Chauser.

  7. Tamil is the oldest of all languages. Its one of the South Indian Dravidian Languages. Its was the language the whole planet spoke before the deluge of Lemur. The oldest literature is Tolkappiyam written in Tamil.

      • What a complete load of cobblers! The Dravidian languages of which Tamil is one, were very likely the main language family in India before the Indoeuropeans arrived in the North bringing Sanskrit, the ancestor of most of the present day northern languages. It has been speculated (but without any definite proof) that the very early Indus Valley Civilisation may have been Dravidian speaking, and it has even been suggested that Elamite could be connected. But this is all speculation. Of course there were other languages around then, probably many more than exist today, including Sumerian, the oldest written language that can be understood today. But please don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because these are the first written languages they are the first language spoken. People have been speaking for much much longer than they’ve been writing.

  8. WELSH and British are the exact same lanuage. To say that WELSH came from ancient British is crap it’s the same just the name has changed in 1860s the British government never called welsh WELSH it was the British lanuage and the only people that spoke British were the welsh and Cornish. In order to destroy the British lanuage they called it welsh. British prime minister asquith at the time said(I will do anything too destroy the British lanuage ie welsh ) why would he say that. The welsh don’t speak welsh they speak British

    • Welsh (Cymraeg) is _a_ British language, along with Cornish (Kernowek) and Breton (Brezhoneg). When people speak of _the_ British Language, they are usually historians and/or linguists and are generally referring to the parent language spoken before, during, and immediately after the Roman occupation of (much of) Britain. This is related to Welsh, Cornish and Breton in much the same way that Latin is related to French, Spanish, Romanian etc etc. If you speak (modern) Welsh, you could no more understand British than a Spaniard could understand Latin, or an Englishman Anglo-Saxon, without special study. Nor could you understand Cornish or Breton although they are equally ‘British’ without study; languages change over time and grow apart.

  9. I suppose a bowed harp like the crwth and jouhikko would be contemporaneous as well, and the basket/skin boat of Wales and Finland, and mounds, and stone circles…just signs of all ancient Europe, I guess…unless Doggerland proved a significant central meeting place in the north.

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