Medieval Welsh

A Self-Instruction Course created by Heather Rose Jones

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Unit: 3a

The Verb "To Be" - Imperfect Tense


Mood, Tense, and Aspect of Verbs

It may seem strange that the first verb form I introduce is a past tense, but it is the narrative past tenses that you will encounter most often in Medieval Welsh texts. To begin with, let's look at the tense structure of Welsh verbs and get an overall picture.

Regular verbs in Welsh have three "moods": indicative, subjunctive, and imperative.Indicative is the "normal" mood, used for ordinary statements about what was, is, or will be happening. The subjunctive is used for a variety of "conditional" uses -- talking about things that might happen, or about "what-if" situations. The imperative is used for commands.

In addition to mood, verbs carry two other types of meaning: tense (i.e., whether the action takes place in the past, present, or future) and aspect (i.e., whether the action is on-going or completed). The imperative only has one form. The subjunctive has two: present and an imperfect past (called simply "imperfect"). The indicative mood has four forms. The "present" is actually used for both present and future: "I am" or "I will be". The "imperfect" is used for talking about things in the past that were continuing actions in the context of your statement: "I was being", "He was walking". The "perfect" is sometimes called the "preterite", or "narrative past" because it is the one used in story-telling: "I was", "She knocked on the door." It implies a finished action in the past. The "pluperfect" takes the same reference point in the past as the perfect tense, but talks about some finished action in the past relative to that: "I had been", "After she had gone to sleep". So here are the various forms in a logical arrangement:

Regular Verbs Indicative Subjunctive Imperative
Continuing Action      
Present reference Present/Fututure Present n.a. (only one form)
Past reference Imperfect Imperfect  
Finished Action      
Present reference Perfect/Preterite    
Past reference Pluperfect    

Now, that's the set-up for regular verbs. The verb "to be" (and a small number of other verbs) has a few more bells and whistles. It has a pair of tenses -- both present/future and past -- for habitual actions. (The fancy word is "consuetudinal".) "I (habitually) do such-and-such" or "I (habitually) did such-and-such". However the present/future consuetudinal is the form normally used for the future tense. So for "to be" the set-up looks more like this.

BE Indicative Subjunctive Imperative
Continuing Action      
Present reference Present Present n.a. (only one form)
Past reference Imperfect Imperfect  
Habitual Action (consuetudinal)      
Present reference Future    
Past reference Past    
Finished Action      
Present reference Perfect/Preterite    
Past reference Pluperfect    

(Just to confuse the issue, some irregular verbs, such as "to come", "to go", and "to do", have more than one way of creating some of the forms, especially the Preterite. This will be discussed later when those verbs are introduced.)

But we're going to start with just the imperfect indicative of the verb "to be". To reiterate, this is used when referring to a reference point in the past and talking about something -- an action or a state -- that is still going on at the time of the reference point. There are seven "persons" for which there are verb forms: first person singular (I), second person singular (you), third person singular (he, she), first person plural (we), second person plural (you-all), third person plural (they), and the impersonal. This last will take a little getting used to. The simplest way to translate it is as "one": "One saw them in the forest." However it is often used in ways that English speakers use the passive: "They were seen in the forest."

Because the verb inflections tell you which "person" is involved, the use of pronouns can be optional. In the normal word order, the pronoun will come directly after the verb. (There is no pronoun for the impersonal.) After all that, here are the verb forms and their pronouns.

Number Person Verb form Gloss
Singular First oeddwn i I was
  Second oeddut ti you were
  Third masculine oedd ef he was
  Third feminine oedd hi she was
Plural First oeddem ni we were
  Second oeddewch chwi you were
  Third oeddynt wynt they were
n.a. Impersonal oeddit one was

There are a few patterns to keep in mind for future reference. The first person plural will usually end in "m", the second person plural always ends in "ch", and the third person plural always in "nt" (at least in my standardized forms). The others, unfortunately, aren't as consistant.

Pre-Verbal Particles

The "normal" word order of a Welsh sentence is: <verb> <subject> <object>. (I put "normal" in quotes, because it isn't actually the most common type of sentence in Medieval Welsh texts.) However, the verb itself doesn't usually start the sentence -- usually it is preceded by a little word called a "pre verbal particle". There are a number of these, and they can add shades of meaning (like negation), but the most "neutral" one -- one that adds no extra meaning at all -- is "y(dd)". Like the definite article, it takes different forms depending on whether the following word starts with a vowel (or "h"), or with a consonant. So "I was" could appear either as:


while, for contrast, "I was coming" could appear either as:



Recite and write out the verb paradigm as many times as necessary until you know it by heart. (A "paradigm" is a related set of forms of a word.) There is absolutely no substitute for knowing the verb endings and all the forms of "to be" so that you can recognize them in your sleep. Do not skimp on this step.


According to my regularized spelling, the third singular masculine pronoun should appear as "ev", rather than "ef". However, as with the spelling of "ac" (and), I consider it faintly ridiculous to "regularize" a word to a spelling it simply never appeared in. From the earliest Medieval Welsh records, this word appears in the same spelling as its modern form "ef". Since the regularized spelling doesn't use a single "f" for any other sound, this should not be too confusing.

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