Welcome to the World of Welsh!

The Celtic tattoo handbook family has a new member! Here’s a big Irish fáilte to The Welsh Tattoo Handbook!

(Grumble grumble…this is my first time using the new WordPress editor, and I’m not a fan. Come on, WordPress! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!)

Ahem…That said, I have a very happy announcement to make: The Celtic Tattoo Handbook series has a new member! Here’s a big Irish fáilte to the much-anticipated Welsh Tattoo Handbook, the ultimate “think before you ink” guide to using the Welsh language in tattoos, crafts, and jewelry.

Written by fluent Welsh speakers Robert and Meagan Davis and published by Bradan Press of Halifax, Nova Scotia (the same company that publishes The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook and The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook), this book is much more than a glossary of well-vetted Welsh phrases (though it is that as well).

Like its predecessors, it provides a wealth of information about the language and the people who speak it, including its history and interesting linguistic features, folklore and symbolism associated with Wales, and advice on getting a good translation, should you not find the one you’re looking for in the book itself, or should you need to adapt one of the glossary entries.

There is also a chapter showcasing real Welsh tattoos gone wrong (with detailed information as to WHY they’re wrong) and yes — a fully indexed glossary of Welsh phrases you can use with confidence.

Not just for tattoos

Despite the name, you don’t have to be a tattoo seeker to benefit from, and enjoy, this book. The translations can be used for everything from art projects to T-shirts to tombstones — anything for which you might want a Welsh translation.

In addition, reading about the translation process and getting a feel for how phrases from one language may be expressed very differently in another language is invaluable for any language learner. It’s really a must-have for anyone interested in Wales or in the Welsh language.

You can get The Welsh Tattoo Handbook from Amazon (pretty much everywhere) or Barnes & Noble (in the U.S.), as well as from Nimbus or Chapters Indigo (in Canada). Alternatively, you can ask your local bookseller to order it for you, or even to stock it (a great way to support both a minority language and local booksellers!)

On this auspicious occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to talk a little bit about Welsh, for readers who may be less familiar with it, and about the Celtic languages in general.

But first, there’s something you really, really need to know:

It’s “Welsh,” not “Welsh Gaelic”

Please, engrave this on the inside of your eyelids if that’s what it takes. I can’t begin to count the number of times someone’s said something like this to me:

“My cousin speaks Welsh Gaelic.”

“Do you speak Welsh Gaelic?”

“I want to speak Welsh Gaelic!”

No, they don’t. No, I don’t. And no, you can’t. Do you know why?

It’s very simple: Welsh is not a Gaelic language.

Repeating for those in the back:

Welsh is not a Gaelic Language

In other words, there’s no such thing as “Welsh Gaelic.” Welsh is a Celtic language, yes indeed…but not Gaelic.

Celtic does not (necessarily) mean Gaelic

There appears to be a great deal of confusion surrounding the terms “Celtic” and “Gaelic.” Some people think they’re synonyms (they’re not). Some people seem to associate both terms exclusively with Ireland and Scotland (it’s broader than that). So here’s a brief rundown:

We get the word “Celt” from the Greek “Keltoi,” which the Greeks used to define a loosely affiliated group of European tribes that shared similar cultural and linguistic features.

From a linguistic standpoint, “Celtic” refers to a family of Indo-European languages that descended from an ancestor known as “Proto-Celtic” and share similar characteristics. These languages as we currently know them are Irish (Gaeilge), Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig), Manx (Gaelg), Welsh (Cymraeg), Cornish (Kernewek), and Breton (Brezhoneg).

One family, two branches

There are two distinct branches that make up the Insular Celtic language family (that is, the Celtic languages of the islands of Great Britain, Ireland, and Man, and of the Brittany region of France): The Q-Celtic or Goidelic (Gaelic) branch and the P-Celtic or Brythonic (British) branch. Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx belong to the Goidelic branch, and are the only languages that can rightly be called “Gaelic.”

In fact, one term in Irish for an Irish person is Gael.

Welsh, on the other hand, belongs to the Brythonic branch, along with Breton and Cornish.

Family resemblance

I mentioned above that the Celtic languages share similar characteristics. Some of these include a verb-subject-object (VSO) structure, initial mutations (i.e., changes that happen to the beginnings of words in certain grammatical circumstances), and conjugated pronouns.

They also all have a tendency to be more “wordy” than English, which is why short, pithy English sayings are often longer and less punchy when translated.

But similarities do not a single language make, and it doesn’t take a degree in linguistics to see that, while there are similarities, there are also significant differences. Consider the popular tattoo translation request “Dance as if no one is watching” (taken from the respective tattoo handbooks):

Irish: Déan damhsa amhail is nach bhfuil éinne ag féachaint

Welsh: Dawnsier fel pe bai neb yn gwylio

You don’t have to speak either language to figure out that those will sound as different from each other as they look!

The Celtic languages make for fascinating study, and if you’re interested (you’re interested in at least one, or you wouldn’t be reading this blog, right?), a web search will net way more scholarly information than I can provide here. Wikipedia is a good place to start.

So we’ve spoken a bit about what Welsh is NOT. Now let’s talk about something far more interesting: what it IS. Here are some interesting facts about the Welsh language:

A vibrant, living language

Welsh is the most widely spoken Celtic language, with more than 500,000 speakers, and the Welsh government has a goal of one million speakers by the year 2050. It is the only Celtic language not classified as “threatened.”

It is one of the national languages of Wales, and is also spoken by a small number of people in Patagonia, in Argentina, the result of a migration of Welsh people to the region in the 1800s. Patagonian Welsh, though influenced by Spanish, is understandable to Welsh speakers in Wales, and is considered a distinct dialect of the Welsh language.

Speaking of dialects, Welsh has two primary dialects: North Walian and South Walian. It also has a formal, literary form that differs significantly from the everyday, spoken form of the language.

And speaking of literature, Welsh has a wealth of it, extending back into the Bardic tradition. Welsh poetry, with its distinctive structure, alliteration, and “vowel harmony” is a particularly rich source for meaningful tattoo translations.

Oh, and another literary note: J.R.R. Tolkien was very taken with Welsh, and based one of his Elvish languages on it (sadly, he wasn’t a fan of Irish, but nobody’s perfect).

While Welsh, like the other Celtic languages, uses the same Latin letters as English does (minus J,K,Q,V, and X), it uses them differently (as do the other Celtic languages), and an English speaker cannot presume to know how a Welsh word is pronounced by applying English phonics.

Another interesting fact about Welsh orthography is that it makes extensive use of the letters “w” and “y” to represent vowel sounds (something that becomes abundantly obvious the more you look at phrases in the language). It also has a number of cases in which a double consonant represents a single sound and is considered to be a single letter.

Buy the book

There is so, so much more to this fascinating, musical language than I can begin to cover here. If you have any interest in the Celtic languages, whether you’re looking for a tattoo translation or not, it belongs in your library.

And if you ARE looking for a Welsh tattoo translation, all I can say is what are you waiting for?

In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/


9 thoughts on “Welcome to the World of Welsh!”

    1. Hi Emma. In my experience it’s mostly Americans with little to no knowledge of the language who say that (I would definitely be shocked if I were to hear that phrase in Wales, unless, once again, it were to come from an American tourist).

      There’s much ignorance about the Celtic languages over here, I’m afraid. For example, I’ve had people just assume that I can understand Welsh because I speak Irish. I’ve also had people ask me about resources for learning “Celtic” (generally equating the word “Celtic” with Irish or Scottish Gaelic). One of the reasons I have this blog is to educate people a bit.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. There are some similar words in Welsh and Irish but they are not the same language. at all. There’s ignorance in Wales too- I remember when I was still teaching, kids were amazed that Ireland had its own language although they were well aware that Wales did as they had Welsh lessons (although they liked to moan about them,, as all children do about compulsory lessons).

        Liked by 1 person

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