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Learning Methods

Question: In this kingdom, there are several people who are interested in learning Welsh. I try to include a list of the currently-available tape-and-book courses with some comments on their usefulness when I teach any class on Welsh personas. However, I've been told recently that I learn languages differently from other people, which make me wonder if the comments I have made are at all useful to others. Does anyone have any experiences with the various courses that they'd like to share? Any comments or thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: (This is only my response -- there were others in the original thread.) What sort of language-learning materials work best is going to depend not only on personal styles of learning (which can vary enormously, as you note), but also on the purpose for which you're learning the language. Someone in the SCA who decides, "I want to learn Welsh", might have a number of different purposes in mind. While everyone else has been focusing on resources for learning the current everyday spoken language, I'm going to approach two other possible purposes.

Someone might want to learn Welsh to gain access to research materials or original sources published in the Welsh language. If this is the main purpose, then language courses that are aimed at everyday spoken Welsh are going to be somewhat less useful. There is a fairly significant difference between the formal literary language that you'll find in journal articles or books, and the everyday language that most language courses cover. (Just for some specific examples, literary Welsh doesn't use the extreme contractions, especially around verb forms, that you'll see in colloquial spoken Welsh, and literary Welsh is more likely to use verbal inflections that are considered rather archaic in speech, rather than periphrastic constructions. Especially in academic Welsh, one needs to be very comfortable with the use of the impersonal forms of the verb -- which are much less common in speech.)

Since the focus lately has been very strongly on teaching Welsh "as she is spoke", most current learning materials are focused on those forms of the language. About the only "textbook" type book I can think of that would be useful for learning the literary register is the very first edition of Teach Yourself Welsh, which you may be able to track down in second-hand bookstores -- it's written by J.T. Bowen & T.J. Jones and will probably have a publication date in the '70s, and ISBN 0 340 05829 3.

There are also a number of reference grammars that focus on the literary register. I think Gareth King's books may cover this register. And there are a number of other reference works that can be useful, for example Kathryn Klingebiel's 234 Welsh Verbs which catalogs all the standard forms for the most common (and especially the irregular) verbs -- many of which you aren't likely to learn in a spoken-Welsh course.

Another reason for learning Welsh in the context of the SCA could be to study the language that your persona would actually have used. (And the difference between medieval and modern Welsh -- while not as great as the difference between Middle English and Modern English -- is significant.) In terms of studyable forms of period Welsh, we're primarily talking about two periods of the language -- Medieval Welsh (the language of the Mabinogi and similar texts) and Early Modern Welsh (the language of the first Welsh-language Bible).

While there are a number of excellent materials for learning Medieval Welsh, very few of them are aimed at the independent student who is not a language professional. The usual study materials are D. Simon Evans' A Grammar of Middle Welsh, and the various edited and heavily annotated editions of the medieval Welsh prose tales (the Mabinogi, the Arthurian romances, etc.), most of which include extensive glossaries. But this is very much a "jump into the deep end and learn to swim" approach.

One resource that _is_ aimed at independent students is the web site at:


While much more accessible than the "reference grammar and text" approach, it still gallops along at a fairly good clip, and is a bit skimpy on interactive exercises.

I've started my own self-study Medieval Welsh course, which I am making available as I work on it. I've tried to aim it much more at the novice language-learner -- someone who perhaps has never studied a foreign language before. This has been alpha-tested on some eager volunteers, so I think it's ready for broader exposure.

There tend not to be many materials aimed at Early Modern Welsh in particular, although there are grammars and dictionaries of Welsh published in this period that are available (if not easy to find) in reprint or facsimile. The best approach may be to start from modern literary Welsh (see above) and then simply plunge into some Early Modern texts and start making adjustments. The most accessible Early Modern text is, as mentioned above, the translation of the Bible done by William Morgan in the late 16th century. As with the King James edition of the English Bible, this was THE standard Biblical text in use up through the mid-20th century (when you get movements for "more accessible" versions), and so is still fairly easy to get your hands on.

For the adventurous, 16th century grammars of Welsh include:

Both authors also published dictionaries of Welsh, but these are less useful as learning tools, and more of associational interest. (There is also a late 16th c. grammar of Welsh in Welsh, republished as Welsh Grammar and Other Tracts edited by Griffith Roberts, Revue Celtique, Paris, 1883, but that would also be of less use to a learner!)

And purely for amusement value, there's an article "Andrew Boorde and the Welsh People" by E. Vincent Evans (Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, vol. 29 pp.44-55, 1919) that includes the text of a 16th century "tourist phrasebook" for English speakers traveling in Wales. Since the author was a bit of a satirist with no good opinion of the Welsh, the phrases included are not always practical, but intended for humorous purposes.

Books for Scholars is an excellent source for books on historic Welsh language and literature, although not all of the above-mentioned books are available from them.

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Celtic Language Family

Question: Can you tell me what the structure of the Celtic language family is? I keep hearing people talk about "Welsh Gaelic" and I don't think that's right, but I don't know enough to convince them they're wrong.

Answer: When people mistakenly refer to Welsh as "a Gaelic language", generally what's going on is that they think "Gaelic" and "Celtic" mean exactly the same thing. It isn't entirely astounding that they might have come to this conclusion when you consider that "Celtic music" as a genre pretty much means "folk music of historically Gaelic-speaking cultures", and that "Celtic art" is often thought of in terms of primarily Irish (i.e. "Gaelic") examples. In other words, there's a lot of reinforcement (for the confused) for the use of the word "Celtic" in situations where "Gaelic" would better describe the topic, hence an assumption of synonymy.

The tree structure you quoted is a good starting point, but any simply branching tree is going to miss some of the complexities that current theory is considering. For example, there is one school of thought that divides the Celtic family into "P-Celtic" and "Q-Celtic" depending on the fate of Proto Indo-European *Q -- a division that would place the Brythonic languages in the same superfamily as most of the Continental Celtic languages, and the Goedelic languages in a superfamily with a small handful of Continental examples. The problem is, the distribution and date of the P/Q split suggests that it doesn't represent a major family division, but rather a fairly superficial "toggle switch" that was shifted on several occasions independently. That is, that the Continental Q>P shift may be entirely independent from the Insular Q>P shift.

There are other bases for arguing a close connection between Gaulish and the Brythonic family -- not least the comments of Roman writers that many of the tribes in Britain were branches of Gaulish tribes and spoke the same or a highly similar language. But conversely, there are a number of linguistic features shared by the Brythonic and Goedelic families that are not shared by Gaulish, and that are unlikely to have arisen coincidentally.

In recent linguistic theory, there are the beginnings of a shift away from a "branching tree" model of historical language development, and a shift towards more of a recognition that related languages often form a much more complex continuum, with a language sometimes innovating one feature in common with neighbor X that is not shared with neighbor Y, and yet simultaneously sharing a different innovation with neighbor Y that is not shared by neighbor X. Furthermore, closely-related or neighboring languages can sometimes evolve "in parallel" even after a date when they have clearly diverged into separate languages. (The grammatical mutations in the Insular Celtic languages are a good example of this.)

Once you start trying to map out the continuums and the post-divergence cross-influences, you quickly stop having a simply-branching tree and end up with something a bit more like interwoven crabgrass.

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Question: Would a lady of rank be literate in Wales in the 12th - 14th C? What kind of literacy? i.e. Latin or vernacular?

Answer: There's a wonderful book entitled "Literacy in Medieval Celtic Societies" (edited by Huw Pryce, Cambridge University Press, 1998) which has a dozen or so articles addressing questions like this. -- including one by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan specifically on the topic of women and literacy in medieval Wales ("More written about than writing? Welsh women and the written word").

The details in the article are an excellent example of trying to address a fairly straightforward question for which there is extremely little straightforward evidence. The article doesn't have a convenient short summary of the conclusions, but in general seems to lean towards an opinion that the evidence for literacy as "the norm" for medieval Welsh women is extremely weak, even though there is clear anecdotal evidence for the literacy of individual women. But in this context, the author notes that the literary life of medieval Wales relied heavily on oral transmission, and that "Literature need not require literacy". I think the answer to your question would have to be summed up as "possible, but probably not common". I would venture a personal opinion that, in the 12-14th centuries, it would be extremely uncommon for someone to be literate only in the vernacular and not in Latin, simply due to the cultural context.

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