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Review of  Basic Welsh - A Grammar and Workbook

Reviewer: Alan R. King
Book Title: Basic Welsh - A Grammar and Workbook
Book Author: Gareth King
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 7.1046

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Gareth King. Modern Welsh: a comprehensive grammar. London: Routledge, 1993.
Gareth King. Colloquial Welsh: a complete language course. London: Routledge,
Gareth King. Basic Welsh: a grammar and workbook. London: Routledge, 1996.
Gareth King. Intermediate Welsh: a grammar and workbook. London: Routledge,

Reviewed by Alan R. King, Basque Country: [email protected]

Most languages are dramatically underdescribed, and at least one is
dramatically overdescribed. Still other languages are simultaneously
overdescribed and underdescribed. Welsh pertains to the third category.
Two factors explain this: (1) Welsh possesses a long and abundant
grammatical tradition predating, and in some cases resisting, the approaches
of modern linguistics. Predictably that tradition has tended to emphasise
historical interests to the detriment of the synchronic analysis of present-
day usage, e.g. Jones (1931); morphology at the expense of syntax as now
understood; and prescription over description. (2) Welsh boasts an important
literary history of long standing and considerable influence. Again
unsurprisingly, most past and even some recent grammarians, e.g. Williams
(1980) or Jones (1976), have wanted to talk about the formal written language
in preference to colloquial speech, the two meanwhile having diverged enough
to describe the difference as "so great [...] that there are good grounds for
regarding them as separate languages" (Gareth King, _Modern Welsh_, p.3).
To capture the serious social implications of this state of affairs I
can do no better than to quote further from the same introduction: "Literary
Welsh [...] is no-one's native language.[...] Its [...] success as the
medium of a prolific literature has been at the expense of Colloquial Welsh,
neglected and relentlessly disparaged by a powerful (Welsh-speaking) minority
who had much to gain from putting the main means of expression of the
cultural identity out of the reach of the majority. In this way a sense of
inferiority was engendered among ordinary Welsh speakers with regard to their
language - one which persists to this day with native speakers routinely
dismissing their own spoken language as something 'inferior' (i.e. to the
artificial Literary Welsh) and 'not proper Welsh'."
Dialectology has also been cultivated, leading to the documentation
of numerous varieties of local speech through tape recordings and a host of
Masters' theses; an informal overview can be found in Thomas & Thomas (1989).
These activities fulfil a vitally important function, yet documenting
threatened speech patterns is emphatically not the same thing as describing
and analysing the present-day spoken language as a living vehicle for
With the rising practical demand for courses in Welsh as a second
language, the urgent need to teach a form of Welsh approximating to ordinary
speech, rather than the stilted, pedantic diction of formal written texts as
transferred to the oral medium, was fully recognised by educators a
generation ago. They responded - strangely enough, we might now think - by
inventing a *new* linguistic model, known as _Cymraeg Byw_, i.e. "Living
Welsh" (cf. CBAC, 1970; Jones, 1993:224f.), a sort of compromise that
ultimately pleased hardly anybody. Far from resolving the perceived double
bind already existing (for a language with well under a million speakers and
an uncertain future in the lengthening shadow of English) of both multiple
registers and significant geographical variation, _Cymraeg Byw_ threatened to
confuse matters further, not only linguistically by introducing an additional
element into an already complicated (meta)-system in the form of a new
standard, but also sociolinguistically, by demarcating, indeed potentially
ghettoizing, a new breed of Welsh learner being initiated to a non-
traditional norm neither adopted nor accepted by native speakers.
Happily, following the official abandonment of the worst of these
excesses, newer language teachers, while not rejecting the significant
advance it represented over the preceding archaic situation, are progressing
beyond the limitations of the _Cymraeg Byw_ concept and moving closer to
teaching the real spoken language, not by adhering to or attempting to impose
a single rigid pseudo-standard, but through pragmatic acceptance of the
simple, inescapable fact that colloquial Welsh, as a living language, is not
homogeneous, but is nevertheless describable, teachable, and learnable.
Gareth King, an experienced teacher of Welsh to adults, has in the
short space of three years published a comprehensive reference grammar of
spoken Welsh; a lively, up-to-date introductory language course; and now two
further "grammar-workbooks". This impressive opus constitutes a solid, much-
needed and most welcome contribution to the descriptive grammar literature on
modern colloquial Welsh and a considerable achievement. Naturally I do not
wish to imply that until now no serious descriptive studies of ordinary
spoken Welsh had been undertaken: see for example UIGC (1976) for a didactic
grammar based on _Cymraeg Byw_ norms; Jones & Thomas (1977) for a generative
approach to the spoken language; Ball, ed. (1988) for a recent collection of
Welsh sociolinguistic studies; and Jones (1993) for a systematic book-length
study of the relationship between written and spoken Welsh. Nonetheless, as
non-specialized study and reference materials, the volumes under
consideration come closer than earlier works of a comparable type to
presenting the overall system of real spoken Welsh clearly and
systematically. To the extent that one still observes some inevitable
standardization in the language model given, this may genuinely reflect
spontaneous convergence phenomena taking place in present-day usage in Wales
as an inexorable part of modern life, rather than an attempt to impose
uniformity from above on the part of linguist or teacher.
Let us consider a well-worn but fairly indicative illustration of
some of the genuine difficulties involved at the level of grammar. Here is
the paradigm of the present tense of the Welsh copula in affirmative
statements ("I am", "you are"...) in four kinds of Welsh:

(i) (ii) (iii) (iv)
1 yr wyf (i) rydw i dw i wi
2 yr wyt (ti) rwyt ti ti ti
3 m. y mae (ef) mae e mae o mae e, ma' fe
f. y mae (hi) mae hi mae hi mae hi
1 yr ydym (ni) rydyn ni dan ni yn ni
2 yr ydych (chwi) rydych chi dach chi ych chi
3 y maent (hwy) maen nhw maen nhw maen nhw

Paradigm (i) is based on Bowen & Jones (1960:15), a typical pre-
_Cymraeg Byw_ text adhering largely to the conservative literary norm. Items
in this paradigm consist of three discrete parts: a sentence-initial particle
_y(r)_; the irregularly inflected forms of the present-tense copular verb,
_wyf_, _wyt_, _mae_ etc.; and the subject pronouns _i_, _ti_, _ef_, _hi_ etc.
which in fully literary Welsh are optional (pro-drop) but are generaly
required in the colloquial language. Notice also the _yd-_ prefix in two of
the plural forms; within literary Welsh this is strictly optional throughout
the paradigm except in the _m-_ forms (Williams, 1980:92), but the paradigm
given shows the most common distribution of this morph in literary style.
Paradigm (ii), the set of usual _Cymraeg Byw_ forms (cf. CBAC, 1973;
UIGC, 1976), has the initial particle merged with the verb form as _r-_ or
zero. The verb-initial morph _-yd-_ is also found in the first (but not the
second) person singular. The spelling of some personal pronouns is reformed
to conform to genuine colloquial pronunciation.
The forms in (iii) and (iv), on the other hand, are those given by
Gareth King in _Modern Welsh_ (p.146), _Colloquial Welsh_ (p.19) and _Basic
Welsh_ (p.6), and present the most common northern and southern variants
In paradigm (iii), the sentence particle _y(r)_ is simply absent at
least segmentally. The three forms containing _-yd-_ in _Cymraeg Byw_ begin
with _d-_, while in the second-person singular the copula is commonly zero.
Paradigm (iv) differs from (iii) most notably in the absence of initial _d-_.
Books available to beginning Welsh learners thirty years ago (as this
reviewer can testify personally) offered only the standard literary paradigm
beginning _yr wyf_. A few years later this had all changed, and beginners
were being taught the _Cymraeg Byw_ equivalents _rydw i_ etc., which
unfortunately, while indeed differing from the traditional written forms,
were not the spontaneously spoken ones either. Of these forms King says
"most sound affected, some are simply wrong" (_Modern Welsh_ p.147).
It is interesting to note here that while there are noticeable
differences between real northern and southern spoken Welsh, the above
examples suggest that the distance between the literary forms (i) and either
of the genuine colloquial varieties (iii) and (iv) is far greater than that
among the colloquial varieties themselves. But what is perhaps more worrying
is that the same is true of the divergence between so-called "Living Welsh"
and the true colloquial forms.
While morphology is evidently involved here, so apparently is syntax.
That is, it is not at all obvious that literary and spoken Welsh necessarily
share exactly the same grammatical structure, although their structures are
clearly related. A similar point could also be made no doubt with regard to
patterns of discourse and other pragmatic features. For these reasons, I
would argue, there is every justification for learners to be taught spoken
Welsh as a system, and for linguists to be offered a description of that
system per se. And that is precisely what Gareth King's books give us. As
he points out in the aforementioned introduction, while literary Welsh merits
study in its own right, that is the part of the language that is already
overdescribed, and "it would certainly do the user of this book a disservice
to attempt to somehow reconcile what are essentially two differently-based
forms of the language, and try to pass them off as one."
True to its title, _Modern Welsh: a comprehensive grammar_ is both
comprehensive and modern. The chapter organisation is nonetheless
conventional, based mainly on the standard parts of speech: articles, nouns,
adjectives, pronouns etc. The multitude of points of grammar covered, not
all of which are to be found in earlier descriptions, include many of
particular usefulness to language learners because they are difficult or
because they are important for communication. Explanations are clear and
illustrated by an abundance of realistic sentences.
King is breaking some new theoretical ground in undertaking to
portray both systematically and more comprehensively than his predecessors a
hitherto underdescribed form of language. Some of the analyses he gives are,
consequently, innovative and open to discussion. To take one example of
reanalysis, he proposes a generalized rule of initial consonant mutation, the
"grammatical mutation" rule, which he claims is "probably the most important,
and simplest, mutation rule in modern Welsh" (p.22). Presumably intended to
replace several more specific mutation rules found in conventional Welsh
grammars, his generalization is expressed in this book as follows (see also
_Basic Welsh_, p.12):


meaning that "soft" mutation (SM) occurs at the point indicated by the
asterisk. Thus this rule states that the initial consonant of an item
following the subject undergoes SM; for example, the initial sound of the
word _dwy_ "two" is soft-mutated (fricativized) to _ddwy_ in (1) [examples 1,
3 and 5 are Gareth King's (p.23); the others, and all literal glosses, are my

(1) Collodd Sion * ddwy bunt.
lost Sion [SM] two pound
"Sion lost two pounds."

Since cardinal word order in Welsh, as illustrated here, is VSO, this
effectively predicts, at least for cardinal sentences, that direct objects
(of synthetically conjugated verbs) are soft-mutated, which is in fact one of
the standard mutation rules in the "received" grammatical tradition: cf.
Williams (1980:79), Bowen & Jones (1960:81), Jones (1976:125), UIGC
(1976:117), etc. etc.
Why this new formulation in terms of position after the subject? I'm
not sure, but a possible motivation, related to the decision to focus the
description on the internal structure of colloquial Welsh, may be the fact
mentioned earlier that literary Welsh is pro-drop while colloquial Welsh is
not. In literary Welsh it is less useful to attribute mutation to a
preceding subject, given that the subject is regularly omitted, as in (2):

(2) Collodd * ddwy bunt. (literary Welsh)
lost [SM] two pound
"He/She lost two pounds."

But there is trouble ahead when we start looking at alternative sentence
types and marked word orders, and in fact King can only save his
generalization by means of two drastic qualifications (p.23) which I find
confusingly worded and dangerously vague. To cover all the cases he wishes
to account for, the idea of subject must be extended to include cases where:

(a) the subject is not stated but is understood;

(b) the doer of the action is clear in the speaker's mind, even if it is not
technically the grammatical subject of the sentence.

Proviso (a) is needed to account for imperatives where the subject is
implicit, yet the direct object is still mutated:

(3) Rho * ddwy bunt i mi!
give.IMPERATIVE [SM] two pound to me
"Give me two pounds!"

Thus King assumes that the (second person) subject is understood, and
understood furthermore in the cardinal postverbal position. We may indulge
him in this first point, but there is more trouble ahead. For although he
doesn't mention it, there is also SM of the DO when the subject *is* stated
but does not immediately *precede* the DO because of focus movement:

(4) Pwy gollodd * ddwy bunt?
who lost [SM] two pound
"Who lost two pounds?"

Proviso (b) serves to extend the domain of King's rule to instances of
syntactically conditioned SM traditionally covered by rules other than the DO
rule. The problem is that the item that is supposed to trigger the mutation
of _mynd_ "go" in (5) is not a syntactic subject, but a prepositional phrase:

(5) Rhaid i Sion * fynd.
necessity to Sion [SM] go
"Sion has to go."

King's proposed explanation that "Sion" is the *notional* subject is shaky
because it is rather doubtful whether the "notional subject" idea can
justifiably be extended - as it would need to be to make the generalization
worthwhile - to other contexts such as these:

(6) Gad i Sion * fynd.
leave.IMPERATIVE to Sion [SM] go
"Allow Sion to go."
(7) Mae gan Sion * ddwy bunt.
is by Sion [SM] two pound
"Sion has two pounds", lit. "Two pounds are by Sion."
(8) Mae na * ddwy bunt ar y bwrdd.
is there [SM] two pound on the table
"There are two pounds on the table."

While taking issue with King's analysis, the important larger
observation is that there is a whole linguistic system to be described and
analysed here which has been passed over by traditional Welsh scholarship for
the reasons given. I am sympathetic with, as well as fascinated by, the idea
of experimenting in this context with new alternatives for time-honoured
rules that were developed to account for the grammar of the literary
_Basic Welsh_ is a workbook "intended as a grammar-based self-tutor
and self-tester for those in the earlier stages of learning Welsh" (p. vii),
while the companion volume _Intermediate Welsh_ caters for more advanced
students. _Basic Welsh_ consists of forty short chapters covering a variety
of standard grammar points (plurals, the article, adjectives, genitive
constructions, the verb "to be", tenses, auxiliaries, irregular verbs etc.),
language-specific problems that trouble fairly elementary students (e.g.
consonant mutations, uses of _yn_, the prepositions _yn_ and _mewn_,
conjugated prepositions, the non-literary negative marker _mo_, yes-no
answers and tags), and some key semantic areas (modal concepts, possession,
numerals, time expressions).
Explanations are very brief, for despite the subtitle _a grammar and
workbook_, these are workbooks rather than grammars. As regards the
exercises, the author states: "I have aimed at an unashamedly grammatical
approach in drilling the student on the points raised in the unit - this is,
after all, a grammar workbook, and in any case I see no reason to apologize
for grammar..." (_Basic Welsh_, p. vii). I agree that there is no need to
apologize for teaching some grammar: I would be rather surprised to hear any
language teacher seriously arguing that an adult can be taught to speak Welsh
without it. The important issue, it seems to me, is rather whether learning
grammar is enough for the purpose, and if not, what else has to be learnt.
Therefore, even accepting that grammar work is a valid component of language
learning, I do think that some decidedly more communicative exercises to
complement these would have made a welcome addition while involving a
negligible increase in size from the modest 146 pages of the volume.
However, Gareth King is no newcomer to the concept of communicative
exercises, having also written _Colloquial Welsh_. For self-study in
particular, this is as good an introduction as can be found to the spoken
language following modern teaching principles. Like the other volumes under
review, it presents an authentic picture of colloquial usage. Serious
students will also benefit from the accompanying cassettes which provide a
full three hours of listening and practice material. The units of
_Colloquial Welsh_ contain useful comments on salient aspects of Welsh
culture, and the dialogues incorporate some typically Welsh humour too.
There are sixteen units containing conversations, explanations with
examples, and exercises, built around thematic headings such as "meeting
people", "going out" or "shopping". As is shown by some of the later unit
headings, such as "hearing the news", "here are the latest headlines" and
"written Welsh and the media", the book attempts to take the learner beyond
the colloquial register. Given the complexities of literary Welsh, I do
wonder whether this is a sensible objective to include in an introductory
course that is less than three hundred pages long and contains, after all,
the word _colloquial_ in its title. Learners wishing to master more formal
Welsh will in any case need to proceed to more advanced texts and invest
considerable study in them. Indeed, even regarding the colloquial language
which is the book's main focus, I am a little surprised by King's assertion
in the last chapter that "all the main grammatical structures have been
explained, and your main strategy to achieve fluency now [...] will be to
acquire vocabulary." Begging to differ, I rather hoped there might be a
_More Colloquial Welsh_ in the pipeline!
For more than one reason, both the beginner and the professional
linguist alike who approaches spoken Welsh with books such as these to hand
is a far luckier student than were those of my own generation, and Gareth
King is to be thanked. This is really only a beginning: colloquial Welsh is
still the underdescribed poor relation when compared to all we know about the
grammar of literary Welsh. But I am sure that for many people these books
will have had the effect of putting modern spoken Welsh firmly on the map;
let no one underestimate the importance of that. Llongyfarchiadau, Gareth!


Ball, Martin J., ed. (1988). The Use of Welsh: A Contribution to
Sociolinguistics. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Bowen, J.T. & Jones, T.J. Rhys (1960). Welsh. Teach Yourself Books, English
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Cyd-Bwyllgor Addysg Cymreig [CBAC] (1970). Cymraeg Byw, Rhifyn 3. D. Brown
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Cyd-Bwyllgor Addysg Cymreig [CBAC] (1973). Geirfa a Chystrawennau Cymraeg. D.
Brown a'i Feibion.

Jones, Bob Morris (1993). Ar Lafar ac ar Bapur. Aberystwyth.

Jones, J. Morris (1931). A Welsh Grammar Historical and Comparative. Oxford:
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Jones, Morris & Thomas, Alan R. (1977). The Welsh Language: Studies in its
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Jones, Morgan D. (1976). A Guide to Correct Welsh. Gomer Press.

Thomas, Beth & Thomas, Peter Wynn (1989). Cymraeg, Cymrag, Cymreg...:
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(Contemporary Welsh Grammar). C. Brown a'i Feibion.

Williams, Stephen J. (1980). A Welsh Grammar. Cardiff: University of Wales

Alan R. King | EMAIL: [email protected]
Indamendi 13, 7C | [alternative] [email protected]
20800 Zarautz | FAX: +34-43-130396
Euskal Herria / Basque Country (Spain)