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Besides being a frequent teacher on Cymdeithas Madog Welsh language weeks, Alun Hughes is also our resident grammarian. In this article, Alun explains how to perform the seemingly impossible: how to look up a word in a Welsh - English dictionary. It's a little like playing with fire. But if you follow Alun's tricks, you'll locate that word in next to no time.

How To Find Words In A Welsh Dictionary

How to find words in a Welsh dictionary? Why, what could be easier? You just look them up - they are in alphabetical order after all. If you want the Welsh word for arm you look under 'A' and you find braich, if it's dog you want, you look under 'D' and you find ci, and so on. And it's the same if you have the Welsh word and want the English equivalent. You find the English for braich under 'B' and English for ci under 'C'. What's the big deal? As long as you know your alphabet, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, as everyone who has ever studied Welsh knows, the answer is 'a lot.' There's no problem with the English-Welsh section, but the Welsh-English section is a different matter. Take the English for chwith, for example, or the English for ffenest -- you certainly won't find them under 'C' and 'F.' And neither will you find the meaning of stafell under 'S' - you find it under 'Y.' And as for the English equivalent of nhgeffyl, the last place you should look for it is under 'N' -- try 'C' instead. But then nant you'll find in two places, under 'N' and 'D'! Yet all of these are perfectly normal Welsh words, so what's going on?

What's going on is four things -- alphabetical ordering, syllable loss, inflection, and mutation. Let us examine each one in turn.

1. Alphabetical Ordering

The alphabet -- the Welsh alphabet that is -- is as follows:

a b c ch d dd e f ff g ng h i j l ll m n o p ph r rh s t th u w y

Certain letters in the English alphabet (like 'k,' 'q' and 'x') don't occur in Welsh, and these clearly are no problem to the dictionary user. But the famous double letters (like 'ch,' 'ng' and 'rh') that do occur in Welsh are a problem.

There are seven of these, though only five of them ('ch,' 'ff,' 'll,' 'rh' and 'th') can occur at the beginning of words, at least words in their basic unmutated form. So if you want the meaning of chwith, say, you must look it up in the 'CH' section of the dictionary, not 'C.' Not too much difficulty there. It's when these letters occur inside words that things can get confusing.

Thus you find the word cythlwng, not as you might expect after cytgroes, but after cytunus. The point is that all the words starting with cyt- are listed before those starting cyth-. Similarly, mach comes after macyn, goddaith after godwrdd, hoff after hofran, allafon after alsoddeg, and so on. If you want to know what these words mean, then look them up -- you now know how to find them!

One double letter cause particular problems; this is 'ng,' which occurs not after 'n,' but after 'g,' when placed in alphabetical order. Consider the word cangen. To look this up in the dictionary you go to 'C' obviously, but where do you look under 'C'? You do not look after can-; instead, you must look after cag-, which let's face it takes a little getting used to. It would be nice if, having got used to this, you could rely on it as a general rule. Unfortunately you cannot. Thus the word dangos, for example, is found, yes under 'D,' but after dan-, not dag-. This is because the 'n / g' combination in dangos is actually a combination of the two letters 'n' and 'g' -- it is not the double letter 'ng.'

How can you tell which is which? You can't really, and the only solution when confronted by 'ng' is to gry after g- first (this is the more likely possibility), and if that doesn't work then try after n-. You'll find your word eventually -- guaranteed.

2. Syllable Loss

The second problem that dictionary users face is the loss of syllables. An example is writing ffenest for ffenestr, reflecting the way the word is usually spoken. In this case the loss occurs at the end of the word and has no effect on dictionary use. But it can also occur at the beginning, which can really confuse the unwary. Thus you won't find stafell under 'S'; you find it under 'Y,' since the word is really ystafell. In some dictionaries also (they do vary somewhat in this respect), you have to check ymenyn to learn the meaning of menyn.

Not many words are affected in this way, and most begin with 'y,' which often gets dropped in speech when it occurs at the start of the word. Thus you often hear sbyty for ysbyty, ma for yma, swiriant for yswiriant, and so on. Other examples in words that do not begin with 'y' are da for gyda and goriad for agoriad. Often these abbreviated forms are written with an initial apostrophe (e.g., 'goriad) to indicate that something is missing.

3. Inflection

By inflection, I mean those changes that words undergo to denote variations in grammatical function. Some languages (like Latin) are highly inflected, while others (like English) are not. Welsh falls somewhere in between. The following sequence from English is a simple example: I see, you see, he sees, she sees. In this case, the inflection applies to a verb, and consists simply of the addition of 's' to denote the third person. Another example would be the changing of I see to I saw to denote the past tense. Relatively few inflections remain in modern English, and those that do are fairly simple.

Inflections are much more common in Welsh, however, and occur in situations where they don't in English. Thus, not only do we have the verbal inflection cysgais, cysgaist, cysgodd meaning I slept, you slept, he/she slept, we also have the prepositional inflection arnaf, arnat, arno, arni meaning on me, on you, on him, on her. The problem for the dictionary user is the fact that only the root form of the word (in this case cysgu and ar) is listed, and while this is sufficient to get a sense of what is meant, grasping the full meaning requires a knowledge of the endings.

A complication sometimes encountered is that not only the ending changes, but also some other part of the word. An example is the verb canu, to sing, which in the past tense becomes canais or sometimes cenais, a small change perhaps, but one that could really throw off a dictionary search. More extreme examples are the irregular verbs like mynd, where the inflected forms (e.g., aeth, ewch) bear little or no resemblance to the root. The same problem occurs with many regular verbs in literary Welsh, specifically in the third person singular of the future tense -- who would think, for example, that egyr is related to agor, or geilw to galw? There is no simple solution -- these things just have to be known.

4. Mutation

The final cause of difficulties in looking up Welsh words in a dictionary, probably the most troublesome of all, is mutation. Mutations are those changes that the initial letter of a word can undergo, depending on its function in the sentence, on the word that precedes it, on any number of reasons (though not, contrary to popular belief, including a deliberate plot to confuse the learner).

The Welsh word for horse is ceffyl. My horse is fy ngheffyl, your horse is dy geffyl, and her horse is ei cheffyl, but you will search in vain for ngheffyl, geffyl and cheffyl in the dictionary -- ceffyl is the only form listed. Mutations are very common in Welsh, and despite the increasing tendency for Welsh speakers to forget them, they cannot be ignored, especially when translating written Welsh.

The clue to finding mutated words in the dictionary is knowing one's mutations in the first place and being able to recognize them when they occur. Only nine letters, all consonants, mutate, and the changes fall into three groups, soft mutation, nasal mutation and aspirate mutation:

Welsh Mutations

Radical Form































From the top row of the chart we see that geffyl is an instance of soft mutation, ngheffyl is nasal mutation, and cheffyl is aspirate mutation, and they all 'unmutate' to ceffyl.

The forms in bold type never occur at the beginning of words except as mutations. Thus if you see mhriodas you know that the word has to be priodas and you'll find it in the dictionary under 'P.' The forms in regular type can either be mutated or non-mutated. Thus nant (an example mentioned in the second paragraph of this article) could be the Welsh word for stream, or it could be a mutation of dant, meaing tooth. And dant in turn could mean tooth or it could be a mutation of tant, meaning string. The context will make clear which meaning it is. The forms in italic type can also be mutated or non-mutated, but are almost invariably the former, since relatively few words in Welsh begin with these letters.

Note that all the mutated forms are unique except 'f', which results from the soft mutation of both 'b' and 'm.' Note also that when 'g' is subject to soft mutation it is simply dropped, and no evidence of the mutation exists. So if you've tried everything else and you still can't figure out what a word is, stick a 'g' at the beginning and see if that does the trick!

One final complication worth mentioning is the phenomenon known as aspiration, whereby an 'h' is added at the start of words beginning with a vowel. This occurs, for example, after the possessive pronouns her, our and their. Thus her name is ei henw, but enw is the word you will find in the dictionary.