Colloquial Welsh morphology
The morphology of the Welsh language has many characteristics likely to be unfamiliar to speakers of English or continental European languages like French or German, but has much in common with the other modern Insular Celtic languages: Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, and Breton. Welsh is a moderately inflected language. Verbs inflect for person, tense, and mood with affirmative, interrogative, and negative conjugations of some verbs. There is no case inflection in Modern Welsh.
Modern Welsh can be written in two varieties — Colloquial Welsh or Literary Welsh. The grammar described on this page is for Colloquial Welsh, which is used for speech and informal writing. Literary Welsh is closer to the form of Welsh used in the 1588 translation of the Bible and can be seen in formal writing.
- 1 Initial consonant mutation
- 2 The article
- 3 Nouns
- 4 Adjectives
- 5 Pronouns
- 6 Verbs
- 7 Prepositions
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
Initial consonant mutation
Initial consonant mutation is a phenomenon common to all Insular Celtic languages, although there is no evidence of it in the ancient Continental Celtic languages of the early first millennium. The first consonant of a word in Welsh may change when preceded by certain words (e.g. i, yn, and a), or because of some other grammatical context (such as when the grammatical object directly follows the grammatical subject). Welsh has three mutations: the soft mutation, the nasal mutation, and the aspirate mutation. These are also represented in writing:
Radical Soft Nasal Aspirate p /p/ b /b/ mh /m̥/ ph /f/ t /t/ d /d/ nh /n̥/ th /θ/ c /k/ g /ɡ/ ngh /ŋ̊/ ch /χ/ b /b/ f /v/ m /m/ d /d/ dd /ð/ n /n/ g /ɡ/ ∅* ng /ŋ/ m /m/ f /v/ ll /ɬ/ l /l/ rh /r̥/ r /r/
*Soft mutation causes initial /ɡ/ to be deleted. For example, gardd "garden" becomes yr ardd "the garden".
A blank cell indicates no change.
For example, the word for "stone" is carreg, but "the stone" is y garreg (soft mutation), "my stone" is fy ngharreg (nasal mutation) and "her stone" is ei charreg (aspirate mutation). These examples represent usage in the standard language; there is some regional and idiolectal variation in colloquial usage. In particular, the soft mutation is often used where nasal or aspirate mutation might be expected on the basis of these examples.
Mutation is not triggered by the form of the preceding word; the meaning and grammatical function of the word are also relevant. For example, while yn meaning "in" triggers nasal mutation, homonyms of yn do not. For example:
- In the sentence Mae plastig yn nhrwyn Siaco ("There is plastic in Siaco's nose") trwyn has undergone nasal mutation.
- In the sentence Mae trwyn Siaco yn blastig ("Siaco's nose is plastic" ) plastig has undergone soft mutation, not nasal mutation.
- In the sentence Mae trwyn Siaco yn cynnwys plastig ("Siaco's nose contains plastic") cynnwys is not mutated.
The soft mutation (Welsh: treiglad meddal) is by far the most common mutation in Welsh. When words undergo soft mutation, the general pattern is that unvoiced plosives become voiced plosives, and voiced plosives become fricatives or disappear; some fricatives also change, and the full list is shown in the above table.
In some cases a limited soft mutation takes place. This differs from the full soft mutation in that words beginning with rh and ll do not mutate.
Common situations where the limited soft mutation occurs are as follows – note that this list is by no means exhaustive.
- feminine singular nouns with the definite article or the number one (un)
- nouns or adjectives used predicatively or adverbially after yn
- adjectives following mor ("so"), rhy ("too") or pur ("fairly, very")
Common situations where the full soft mutation occurs are as follows – note that this list is by no means exhaustive:
- adjectives (and nouns used genitively as adjectives) qualifying feminine singular nouns
- words immediately following the prepositions am ("for"), ar ("on"), at ("to"), dan ("under"), dros ("over"), trwy ("through"), heb ("without"), hyd ("until"), gan ("by"), wrth ("from"), i ("to"), o ("of") - note that this does not mean there is a one-to-one correspondence between Welsh and English prepositions!
- nouns used with the number two (dau / dwy)
- nouns following adjectives (N.B. most adjectives follow the noun)
- nouns after the possessives dy (informal your) and ei (when it means his)
- an object immediately following the subject (typically after conjugated verbs)
- the second element in many compound words
- verb infinitives following an indirect object (e.g. rhaid i mi fynd - it is necessary to me to go)
- inflected verbs in the interrogative and negative (also frequently, in the spoken language, the affirmative)
The occurrence of the soft mutation often obscures the origin of placenames to non-Welsh-speaking visitors. For example, Llanfair is the church of Mair (Mary), and Pontardawe is the bridge on the Tawe.
The nasal mutation (Welsh: treiglad trwynol) normally occurs:
- after fy – generally pronounced as if spelt y(n) – ("my") e.g. gwely ("a bed"), fy ngwely ("my bed"), pronounced yngwely
- after the locative preposition yn ("in") e.g. Tywyn ("Tywyn"), yn Nhywyn ("in Tywyn")
- after the negating prefix an- ("un-") e.g. teg ("fair"), annheg ("unfair").
1. The preposition yn becomes ym if the following noun (mutated or not) begins with m, and becomes yng if the following noun begins with ng. E.g. Bangor ("Bangor"), ym Mangor ("in Bangor") Caerdydd ("Cardiff"), yng Nghaerdydd ("in Cardiff").
2. In words beginning with an-, the n is dropped before the mutated consonant (except if the resultant mutation allows for a double n), e.g. an + personol → amhersonol (although it would be retained before a non-mutating consonant, e.g. an + sicr → ansicr).
3. In some dialects the soft mutation is often substituted after yn giving forms like yn Gaerdydd for "in Cardiff", or it is even lost altogether, especially with place names, giving yn Caerdydd. This would be considered incorrect in formal registers.
Under nasal mutation, voiced plosives become nasals, and unvoiced plosives become aspirated nasals. A non-standard mutation also occurs in some parts of north Wales whereby m becomes mh and n becomes nh, e.g. fy mham ("my mother"; standard: fy mam). This may also occur (unlike the ordinary nasal mutation) after ei ("her"): e.g. ei nhain hi ("her grandmother", standard ei nain hi).
Under aspirate mutation (Welsh: treiglad llaes), unvoiced plosives become aspirated fricatives.[clarification needed] In spelling this is always represented by the addition of an h after the original initial consonant (c, p, t → ch, ph, th), but the resultant forms are pronounced as single phonemes.
The aspirate mutation occurs:
- after the possessive ei when it means "her"
- after a ("and")
- after â ("with")
- after gyda ("with")
- for masculine nouns after the number three (tri)
- after the number six (chwech, written before the noun as chwe)
The aspirate mutation is the least used of all the mutations in colloquial Welsh. The only word that it always follows in everyday language is ei ("her") and it is also found in set phrases, e.g. mwy na thebyg ("more than likely"). Its occurrence is unusual in the colloquial Southern phrase dyna pham ("that's why") as dyna causes a soft, not aspirate, mutation.
A mixed mutation occurs when negating conjugated verbs. Initial consonants undergo aspirate mutation if subject to it, and soft mutation if not. For example, clywais i ("I heard") and dwedais i ("I said") are negated as chlywais i ddim ("I heard nothing") and ddwedais i ddim ("I said nothing"). In practice, soft mutation is often used even when aspirate mutation would be possible (e.g. glywais i ddim); this reflects the fact that aspirate mutation is in general infrequent in the colloquial language (see above).
Initial addition of /h/
Under some circumstances /h/ is added to the beginning of words that begin with vowels. This occurs after the possessive pronouns ei ("her"), ein ("our") and eu ("their"), e.g. oedran ("age"), ei hoedran hi ("her age"). It also occurs with ugain ("twenty") after ar ("on") in the traditional counting system, e.g. un ar hugain ("twenty-one", literally "one on twenty").
Although aspirate mutation also involves the addition of an h in spelling, the environments for aspirate mutation and initial /h/ addition do not overlap except for ei ("her").
Welsh has no indefinite article. The definite article, which precedes the words it modifies and whose usage differs little from that of English, has the forms y, yr, and ’r. The rules governing their usage are:
- When the previous word ends in a vowel, regardless of the quality of the word following, ’r is used, e.g. mae'r gath tu allan ("the cat is outside"). This rule takes precedence over the other two.
- When the word begins with a vowel, yr is used, e.g. yr ardd ("the garden").
- In all other places, y is used, e.g. y bachgen ("the boy").
The article triggers the soft mutation when it is used with feminine singular nouns, e.g. tywysoges "(a) princess" but y dywysoges ("the princess").
Like most other Indo-European languages, all nouns belong to a certain grammatical gender; the genders in Welsh are masculine and feminine. A noun's gender conforms to its referent's natural gender when it has one (e.g. mam "mother" is feminine), but otherwise there is no pattern, and gender must simply be learnt.
Welsh has two systems of grammatical number. Singular/plural nouns correspond to the singular/plural number system of English, although unlike English, Welsh noun plurals are unpredictable and formed in several ways. Some nouns form the plural with an ending (usually -au), e.g. tad and tadau. Others form the plural through vowel change, e.g. bachgen and bechgyn. Still others form their plurals through some combination of the two, e.g. chwaer and chwiorydd.
A few nouns also display a dual number, e.g. llaw, "hand", dwylo, "(two) hands".
The other system of number is the collective/unit system. The nouns in this system form the singular by adding the suffix -yn (for masculine nouns) or -en (for feminine nouns) to the plural. Most nouns which belong in this system are frequently found in groups, for example, plant "children" and plentyn "a child", or coed "forest" and coeden "a tree". In dictionaries, the plural is often given first.
Adjectives normally follow the noun they qualify, while a few, such as hen, pob, annwyl, and holl ("old", "every", "dear", "whole") precede it. For the most part, adjectives are uninflected, though there are a few with distinct masculine/feminine or singular/plural forms. After feminine singular nouns, adjectives receive the soft mutation.
Adjective comparison in Welsh is fairly similar to the English system. Adjectives with one or two syllables receive the endings -ach "-er" and -a(f) "-est", which change final b, d, g into p, t, c by provection, e. g. teg "fair", tecach "fairer", teca(f) "fairest". Adjectives with two or more syllables use the words mwy "more" and mwya "most", e. g. teimladwy "sensitive", mwy teimladwy "more sensitive", mwya teimladwy "most sensitive". Adjectives with two syllables can go either way. There is an additional degree of comparison, the equative, meaning "as ... as ...".
These are the possessive adjectives:
Singular Plural First Person fy (n) ein Second Person dy (s) eich Third Person Masculine ei (s) eu Feminine ei (a)
The possessive adjectives precede the noun they qualify, which is often followed by the corresponding form of the personal pronoun, e.g. fy mara i "my bread", dy fara di "your bread", ei fara fe "his bread", etc.
The demonstrative adjectives are 'ma "this"' and 'na "that" (this usage derives from their original function as adverbs meaning "here" and "there" respectively). They follow the noun they qualify, which also takes the article. For example, y llyfr "the book", y llyfr 'ma "this book", y llyfr 'na "that book".
The Welsh personal pronouns are:
Singular Plural First Person (f)i, mi ni Second Person ti, di chi Third Person Masculine (f)e, (f)o nhw Feminine hi
The Welsh masculine-feminine gender distinction is reflected in the pronouns. There is, consequently, no word corresponding to English "it", and the choice of e/o (south and north Welsh respectively) or hi depends on the grammatical gender of the antecedent.
The English dummy or expletive "it" construction in phrases like "it's raining" or "it was cold last night" also exists in Welsh and other Indo-European languages like French, German, and Dutch, but not in Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, or the Slavic languages. Unlike other masculine-feminine languages, which often default to the masculine pronoun in the construction, Welsh uses the feminine singular hi, thus producing sentences like:
- Mae hi'n bwrw glaw.
- It's raining.
- O'dd hi'n oer neithiwr.
- It was cold last night.
Notes on the forms
Third-person masculine singular forms o and fo are heard in North Wales, while e and fe are heard in South Wales.
The pronoun forms i, e, and o are used as subjects after a verb. In the inflected future of the verbs mynd, gwneud, dod, and cael, first-person singular constructions like do fi may be heard. I, e, and o are also used as objects with compound prepositions, for example o flaen o 'in front of him'. Fi, fe, and fo are used after conjunctions and non-inflected prepositions, and also as the object of an inflected verb:
- Weloch chi fo dros y penwythnos?
- Did you see him over the weekend?
Fe and fo exclusively are used as subjects with the inflected conditional:
- Dylai fe brynu un newydd i ti.
- He ought to buy you a new one.
Both i, e, and o and fi, fe, and fo are heard with inflected prepositions, as objects of verbal nouns, and also as following pronouns with their respective possessive adjectives:
- Wyt ti wedi ei weld e/fe heddiw?
- Have you seen him today?
- Alla i ddim dod o hyd i fy allweddi i/fi.
- I can't find my keys.
The use of first-person singular mi is limited in the spoken language, appearing in i mi "to/for me" or as the subject with the verb ddaru, used in a preterite construction.
Ti is found most often as the second-person singular pronoun, however di is used as the subject of inflected future forms, as a reinforcement in the imperative, and as following pronoun to the possessive adjective dy ... "your ..."
Ti vs. chi
Chi, in addition to serving as the second-person plural pronoun, is also used as a singular in formal situations, as is in French and Russian. Conversely, ti can be said to be limited to the informal singular, such as when speaking with a family member, a friend, or a child. This usage corresponds closely to the practice in other European languages. A third form, used almost exclusively in the language's northern varieties, is chdi, which has a value close to ti; as an independent pronoun it occurs especially frequently after a vowel sound at the end of the phrase (e.g. efo chdi, i chdi, wela i chdi, dyna chdi).
The reflexive pronouns are formed with the possessive adjective followed by hun "self". There is variation between North and South forms. The first person singular possessive pronoun fy is usually pronounced as if spelt y(n).
Singular Plural North First Person fy hun ein hun Second Person dy hun eich hun Third Person ei hun eu hun South First Person fy hunan ein hunain Second Person dy hunan eich hunain, eich hunan Third Person ei hunan eu hunain
Note that there is no gender distinction in the third person singular.
Welsh has special emphatic forms of the personal pronouns.
The term 'emphatic pronoun' is in fact misleading since they do not necessarily indicate emphasis. They are perhaps more correctly termed 'connective or distinctive pronouns' since they are used to indicate a connection between or distinction from another nominal element. Full contextual information is necessary to interpret their function in any given sentence.
Less formal variants are given in brackets. Mutation may also, naturally, affect the forms of these pronouns (e.g. minnau may be mutated to finnau)
Singular Plural First Person minnau, innau ninnau Second Person tithau chithau Third Person Masculine yntau (fyntau) hwythau (nhwythau) Feminine hithau
The emphatic pronouns can be used with possessive adjectives in the same way as the simple pronouns are used (with the added function of distinction or connection).
In addition to having masculine and feminine forms of this and that, Welsh also has separate set of this and that for intangible, figurative, or general ideas.
Masculine Feminine Intangible this hwn hon hyn that hwnnw, hwnna honno, honna hynny these y rhain those y rheiny
In certain expressions, hyn may represent "now" and hynny may represent "then".
In Colloquial Welsh, the majority of tenses make use of an auxiliary verb, usually bod "to be". Its conjugation is dealt with in Irregular Verbs below.
There are four periphrastic tenses in Colloquial Welsh which make use of bod: present, imperfect, future, and conditional. The preterite, future, and conditional tenses have a number of periphrastic constructions, but Welsh also maintains inflected forms of these tenses, demonstrated here with talu 'pay'.
Singular Plural Preterite First Person talais talon Second Person talaist taloch Third Person talodd talon Future First Person talaf talwn Second Person tali talwch Third Person talith talan Conditional First Person talwn talen Second Person talet talech Third Person talai talen
- Notes on the preterite:
- First and second singular forms may in less formal registers be written as tales and talest, though there is no difference in pronunciation since there is a basic rule of pronunciation that unstressed final syllables alter the pronunciation of the /aj/ diphthong.
- Word-final -f is rarely heard in Welsh. Thus verbal forms in -af will be pronounced as if they ended in /a/ and they may be written thus in lower registers.
- In some parts of Wales -s- may be inserted between the stem and plural forms.
- In parts of South Wales forms like talws are heard for talodd.
- Notes on the future:
- di is used instead of ti, thus tali di, not *tali ti.
- Forms like taliff may appear instead of talith in some southern parts of Wales.
- Note that the future was formerly also used as an inflected present. A small amount of frozen forms use the future forms as a present habitual: mi godaf i am ddeg o'r gloch bob bore - I get up at ten o' clock every morning
- Notes on the conditional:
- -s- may be inserted between the stem and endings.
In the preterite, questions are formed with the soft mutation on the verb, though increasingly the soft mutation is being used in all situations. Negative forms are expressed with ddim after the pronoun and the mixed mutation, though here the soft mutation is taking over (dales i ddim for thales i ddim).
Bod and compounds
Bod 'to be' is highly irregular. In addition to having inflected forms of the preterite, future, and conditional, it also maintains inflected present and imperfect forms which are used frequently as auxiliaries with other verbs. Bod also distinguishes between affirmative, interrogative, and negative statements for each tense.
The present tense in particular shows a split between the North and the South. Though the situation is undoubtedly more complicated, King (2003) notes the following variations in the present tense as spoken (not as written according to the standard orthography):
Affirmative (I am) Interrogative (Am I?) Negative (I am not) Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural North First Person dw dan ydw? ydan? (dy)dw (dy)dan Second Person —, (r)wyt dach wyt? (y)dach? dwyt (dy)dach Third Person mae maen ydy? ydyn? dydy dydyn South First Person rw, w ŷn, — ydw? ŷn? (d)w ŷn Second Person —, (r)wyt ych wyt? ych? — (ych) Third Person mae maen ydy?, yw? ŷn? dyw ŷn
Affirmative (I am) Interrogative (Am I?) Negative (I am not) Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Preterite First Person bues buon fues? fuon? fues fuon Second Person buest buoch fuest? fuoch? fuest fuoch Third Person buodd buon fuodd? fuon? fuodd fuon Imperfect First Person roeddwn roedden oeddwn? oedden? doeddwn doedden Second Person roeddet roeddech oeddet? oeddech? doeddet doeddech Third Person roedd roeddyn oedd? oeddyn? doedd doeddyn Future First Person bydda byddwn fydda? fyddwn? fydda fyddwn Second Person byddi byddwch fyddi? fyddwch? fyddi fyddwch Third Person bydd byddan fydd? fyddan? fydd fyddan
Bod also has a conditional, for which there are two stems:
Affirmative Interrogative Negative Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural bydd- First Person byddwn bydden fyddwn fydden fyddwn? fydden? Second Person byddet byddech fyddet fyddech fyddet? fyddech? Third Person byddai bydden fyddai fydden fyddai? fydden? bas- First Person baswn basen faswn fasen faswn? fasen? Second Person baset basech faset fasech faset? fasech? Third Person basai basen fasai fasen fasai? fasen?
- ddim ("not") is added after the subject for negative forms of bod.
- There are many dialectal variations of this verb.
- Colloquially the imperfect tense forms are o'n i, o't ti, oedd e/hi, o'n ni, o'ch chi and o'n nhw. These are used for the declarative, interrogative and negative.
- In speech the future and conditional forms often receive the soft mutation in all situations.
- Welsh and other Celtic languages are unusual among the European languages in having no fixed words for "yes" and "no". If a question has a verb at its head, the relevant part of that verb is used in the answer e.g.: Ydych chi'n hoffi coffi? (Are you liking coffee? = Do you like coffee?) then either Ydw (I am = I do = Yes) or Nac ydw (I am not = I do not = No)
A few verbs which have bod in the verbnoun display certain irregular characteristics of bod itself. Gwybod is the most irregular of these. It has preterite and conditional forms, which are often used with present and imperfect meaning, respectively. The present is conjugated irregularly:
Singular Plural First Person gwn gwyddon Second Person gwyddost gwyddoch Third Person gŵyr gwyddon
The common phrase dwn i ddim "I don't know" uses a special negative form of the first person present.
Mynd, gwneud, cael, and dod
The four verbs mynd "to go", gwneud "to do", cael "to get", and dod "to come" are all irregular in similar ways.
mynd gwneud cael dod Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Preterite First Person es aethon nes naethon ces caethon des daethon Second Person est aethoch nest naethoch cest caethoch dest daethoch Third Person aeth aethon naeth naethon caeth caethon daeth daethon Future First Person a awn na nawn ca cawn do down Second Person ei ewch nei newch cei cewch doi dewch Third Person eith ân neith nân ceith cân daw dôn
The forms caeth, caethon, caethoch often appear as cafodd, cawson, cawsoch in writing, and in places in Wales these are also heard in speech.
In the conditional, there is considerable variation between the North and South forms of these four irregular verbs. That is partly because the North form corresponds to the Middle Welsh (and Literary Welsh) imperfect indicative, while the South form corresponds to the Middle Welsh (and Literary Welsh) imperfect subjunctive.
mynd gwneud cael dod Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural North First Person awn aen nawn naen cawn caen down doen Second Person aet aech naet naech caet caech doet doech Third Person âi aen nâi naen câi caen dôi doen South First Person elwn elen nelwn nelen celwn celen delwn delen Second Person elet elech nelet nelech celet celech delet delech Third Person elai elen nelai nelen celai celen delai delen
In Welsh, prepositions frequently change their form when followed by a pronoun. These are known as inflected prepositions. Most of them, such as dan, follow the same basic pattern:
Singular Plural First Person dana i danon ni Second Person danat ti danoch chi Third Person Masculine dano fe/fo danyn nhw Feminine dani hi
There is some dialectal variation, particularly in the first and second person singular forms. In some places one may hear dano i, danot ti, or danach chi.
The majority of prepositions trigger the soft mutation.
- See e.g. King, Gareth. 2003. Modern Welsh: a comprehensive grammar. P.2.: "A distinction must first be made between the Colloquial (or Spoken) Welsh in this grammar and Literary Welsh. The difference between these two is much greater than between the virtually identical colloquial and literary forms of English - so great, in fact, that there are good grounds for regarding them as separate languages"
- For a complete treatment of literary Welsh, see A Grammar of Welsh (1980) by Stephen J. Williams
- King, Gareth. Modern Welsh: A Comprehensive Grammar. Comprehensive Grammars (2 ed.). London: Routledge. p. 15. ISBN 0-203-98706-3.
- Clic Clic Cymraeg (a Welsh course)
- BBC - Catchphrase: Ysbyty Brynaber
- King, G. (2003). Modern Welsh. Oxford: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-28270-5