Does the Welsh language steal words?

welsh steals wordsWelsh is sometimes mocked for allegedly possessing a limited lexicon, which apparently means that we rely on weird committees to make up new words for recent inventions, or, failing this, that we just steal the English words and spell them oddly.

It is a strange accusation in many ways. It’s true that new words are constantly being coined in Welsh, but that’s hardly unusual. If there is some sort of formal committee somewhere that is tasked with inventing words for novel concepts, none of us have ever heard of it. Like in most languages, words are coined quite “organically”. If they catch on, they catch on; if they don’t, they don’t, and someone somewhere starts using others ones that do.

It is true that, occasionally, a word will simply be borrowed from another language (which, yes, often means from English). Again, however, this is hardly unique and doesn’t say anything instructive about the inherent value of Welsh. The truth is that every language pillages. For what it’s worth, no language does so more prolifically than English. It is true that English has more recognised words in its vocabulary than any other language, but that hardly means that those words are all Anglo-Saxon in origin. To the contrary, the vast majority have been pinched, from languages from every corner of the globe: not only Latin, Greek and French but also Hungarian, Māori, Malay, Korean, Czech, Hawaiian and, yes, Welsh. English is the ultimate mongrel language, but the whole point is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

So yes, Welsh does include many borrowings (not only from English, but also from Latin, as a result of the Roman occupation; this actually comes in handy sometimes for the Welsh-speaker when learning a Romance language like French). The classic example of a borrowed word in Welsh, which is often used to attack the language’s legitimacy, is “tacsi”. Many people find this a source of much mirth when they see it emblazoned on our taxis. “Ambiwlans” is another, which, as you can probably guess, means “ambulance”. Apparently Welsh is so ill-equipped to deal with these new-fangled concepts that we simply leap for the nearest English word, change it a bit to make it look funny, then think “that’ll do”.

The problem with this assumption, of course, is that both “taxi” and “ambulance” are of Latin origin. Countless languages have adopted these terms in exactly the same way, and adapted them to suit their respective orthographies (the Welsh alphabet doesn’t include “x”, for example). So the convenient transport service that we call a “tacsi” in Welsh is “táxi” in Portuguese, “taksi” in Turkish, “takso” in Estonian, “teksi” in Malay and “такси” in Russian. Similarly, the emergency vehicle that is known in Welsh as an “ambiwlans” in Welsh is “ambulanssi” in Finnish, “ambulanza” in Italian, “ambulanță” in Romanian and “амбуланта” in Macedonian. I’m sure you get the idea.

There is nothing unusual going on here: Welsh is merely doing the exact same thing that every other language does. For some reason, however, this is often held up as a sign of some sort of deficiency in Welsh. You may remember the story about George Bush claiming that the trouble with the French is that they don’t have a word for “entrepreneur”. It isn’t true, as it happens, but it is funny because we can kind of imagine Dubya saying it. We laugh because it’d be a very silly thing indeed to say. The point is that it isn’t all that different to mocking Welsh simply because we’ve adapted the word “taxi” slightly differently to how it’s been done in English.

Dylan Llŷr

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8 thoughts on “Does the Welsh language steal words?

  1. I stumbled on a blog once by an apparently down to earth Englishman who like most folk really knew next to nothing about languages. He went to Wales and was interested to see “Dim Parcio”, amused to see “Dim Smocio” and practically ROTFL when he came across a “Dim Beicio”. By this stage he’d concluded that Welsh was some weird kind of ‘pig Latin’ like kids sometimes make up. “Fenestr” didn’t help either. But then his school textbooks probably told him that Caesar landed in ‘England’. Wel, dach chi’n gweld ei boint …

    Btw you presumably have committees to make up or at least standardise technical terms etc. Otherwise you’d end up like the Irish after independence, when they had about eight different words for ‘helicopter’ even though they didn’t yet have one.

  2. Nicely put. I have been saying the same thing about other languages too – Greek native speakers who tell me that English is full of Greek words, English native speakers on Italian, and so on and so forth. Welsh does seem to be an easy target for this kind of ignorance – perhaps because it is not a well-known language in relative terms. I have had people abroad insist that it is just a dialect of English and doesn’t exist in its own right. I’m always happy to set them straight! And going back to your point, I have written numerous articles about the origins of English words – loans and borrowings are a major feature of any linguistic landscape!

  3. As you probably know, English took on a shed load of French words under Norman rule after 1066, and really wouldn’t be English as we know it without them. They are of course perfectly natural English words by now not the least bit ‘foreign’ or exotic. Something very similar happened a few centuries earlier when the British took on quite a few Latin words during the Roman occupation of Britain. British went on to develop into Welsh, Cornish and Breton which inherited all these words, now completely naturalised citizens. The surprising thing perhaps, given the geography, is how little Welsh has been influenced by English, at least until relatively recently. But the process is entirely natural and only to be expected. Anywhere in the world where two or more languages rub up against each other there is always mutual influence, it’s often a very gradual process but given enough time they slowly grown more similar.

  4. > Otherwise you’d end up like the Irish after independence…

    Luckily, the internet was invented (in Wales, I expect) and reaching consensus on terminology was made much easier.

  5. I take you to task on the statement that English has more words in its vocabulary than any other language – a debate I regularly have with my Russian friends. But they are so much better at borrowing words – Vokzal for station (from Vauxhall station in London), Slon for Elephant from the Turkik – Aslan (Lion!) and the derived Prislonyatscya (to lean – like elephants do when they sleep!)

  6. But isn’t the problem with ‘ambiwlans’ that its pronunciation is basically copied from English? Why couldn’t it be something like ‘ambwlansy’ (which would be actually close to the English spelling)?

    • That would sound like “ambooLANsi” /ambu’lansI/. What pronunciation do you have in mind, the French? /ãbu’lã:s/ Unfortunately Welsh (unlike Breton) doesn’t have nasal vowels. But in any case the point is the word was borrowed through English, not direct from French. Is it even used in French with this meaning?

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