Planet Platform

Karin Davies examines the various ways to say ‘I had’ in Welsh, and the contested ideas around what ‘standard’ forms of the language should be taught Wales-wide, as a starting point to look more broadly at what being Welsh means to different people, and what place the language has within national identity.

This feature is published as part of Aberystwyth University’s Ambassadorship scheme and hosting partnership with Planet.

  Aberystwyth University
Graffiti near the Elan Valley dam © Karin Davies

Graffiti near the Elan Valley dam © Karin Davies

The original starting point for this article was to look at the various ways to say ‘I had’ in Welsh, with Ces i/ Ges i nowadays being the most common variants. These two approaches are sometimes presented (as in my Welsh learner course book) as ‘southern’ and ‘northern’ respectively – as you can see in the chart below. To make the scenario even more complex, Duolingo’s tips for learners state that ‘in parts of mid- and north Wales [the simple past conjugation of ‘cael’ is] often used and taught with a preceding particle mi and a soft mutation. For example: mi gaethon nhw’. However, ‘ces i’ is also presented as ‘standard’, and ‘ges i’ as ‘colloquial’. As a Welsh learner from south Wales, I have always followed the southern dialect of the Welsh language. There has often been discussion about how Welsh course providers have sought to introduce a more unified, wholly ‘national’ version of the language, the definition of which has often been contested – with some southern ways of speaking being taught over their northern counterparts and vice versa. Likewise whether a more ‘colloquial’ or a more ‘standard’ form of Welsh should form the basis to the introduction to the language.

To have
Ces iGes i - (I had)
Cest tiGest ti
Cafodd hi/eGaeth hi/e
Cawson niGaethoch chi
Cawsoch chiGaethon ni
Cawson nhwGaethon nhw

This was to lead into a discussion around the impact having a more ‘national’ language would have on Welsh identity as well as what it would mean for those trying to learn Welsh. However, as often happens with the best laid plans, things went slightly awry.

When gathering my thoughts about how best to present my argument around Ces i/Ges i, I asked two of my daughters (aged sixteen and ten), who are both fluent in Welsh, how they would say the supposedly simple term ‘I was born’. Instead of ges i fy ngeni or ces i fy ngeni, both responded with cefais i fy ngeni. This, it turns out, is a more formal register, being in the preterite tense. This revelation led me away from how geography and one dialect being preferred over another is causing the Welsh language to evolve, and more toward the impact of learned/taught Welsh. From here, I descended into a rabbit hole of potential questions around geography, dialect, learners, fluency and formal vs. informal Welsh – each question just as intriguing as the last. Eventually, I realised that no matter the phrasing, all the questions we essentially asking the same thing: what defines Welshness?

If some native Welsh speakers don’t feel comfortable speaking their mother tongue with someone who is learning the language – because their learned Welsh may be less formal than taught Welsh, or if a learner lacks confidence to practice – for fear of being too formal; and if the opposite scenario can apply too – that learners can lack confidence to use Welsh in many contexts because the language they have learnt is so informal or colloquial, then who can be considered as ‘Welsh’? (Learned Welsh in this context refers to the language being learned at home, through education and social interactions. Taught Welsh refers to the language that is taught through a course.) How does the language, and our use of it, define our level of Welshness? To answer this, I asked a few people what being Welsh meant to them. The answers were varied, to say the least.

Question: What does being Welsh mean to you and does speaking the language make you more or less Welsh?

‘Speaking Welsh, I think, would make me more Welsh, if that makes sense. I only say I’m Welsh because I live here; I’ve always lived here. I support the Welsh rugby team and I celebrate St. David’s Day, but I think the language is an important aspect of what it means to be Welsh.’

Margaret, non-Welsh speaker.

‘Dw i ddim yn gallu dweud fy mod i’n Gymro, dw i’n meddwl. Roedd fy nhad o Gymru yn wreiddiol ond ges i (cyfais i?) fy ngeni a fy magu yn Lloegr. Ond dw i’n teimlo fy mod i gartre yn Sir Gaerfyrddin. Mae’r bobl yma yn garedig iawn. Dw i’n hapus iawn bod gyda ni Lywodraeth sosialaidd yng Nghymru. Mae hynny’n dweud llawer am Gymru, dwi’n meddwl. “Ydy siarad Cymraeg yn gwneud ti’n fwy Cymraeg?” Yn fy marn i, na. Fyddwn i ddim eisiau ddefnyddio’r iaith i arwydd rhinwedd.’

‘I can't say I'm a Welshman, I think. My father was originally from Wales but I was born and raised in England. But I feel I belong in Carmarthenshire. The people here are very kind. I am very happy that we have a socialist government in Wales. That says a lot about Wales, I think. “Does speaking Welsh make you more Welsh?” In my opinion, no. I wouldn't want to use the language to signal virtue.’

Doug, Welsh learner

‘Being Welsh to me is about community, prioritising society over individual gain. Socialism has always been a core part of our history, particularly where I am in south Wales, and I think it shapes who we are as a nation. Very proud to be Welsh.

I’m grateful I can speak Welsh and it's important that it thrives, as language links us to our heritage and culture. I do not think that speaking Welsh makes you more Welsh. I think that’s a dangerous idea that's unfortunately very common. I grew up speaking Wenglish because that was the dialect of our community and that’s as valid as any other dialect in Welsh. Standard Welsh is a very recent development in the language’s history.

We need to use it whatever way we see fit, and that includes being creative with it and adapting to the world around us, which includes contact with English.’

Lowri, Welsh speaker

‘I am very proud to be Welsh and it was my only language until I was ten! I admire those who strive to learn Welsh but you can only claim to be Welsh if you were born here in Wales.

R. G., Welsh Speaker

From these answers alone, it is easy to see that what defines Welshness is almost impossible to pin down. The language, and its relationship with the feeling of Welshness, is fluid and ever changing. As a language – like all languages – Welsh evolves, with dialect, localisation and formality all adding to the evolutionary process.

To bring this article to a close, I wonder, is ‘Welshness’ a concept that we will never reach because individuals, for a variety of reasons, doubt their own Welshness? Or, as I’d prefer it, is Welshness something that is carried around in the heart of every person who identifies with Wales and being Welsh, regardless of lle cawson/gaethon nhw ei geni (where they were born)?

Urdd Eisteddfod, Dinbych, 2022 - celebrating the Welsh language, being Welsh and the children of Wales © Karin Davies

Urdd Eisteddfod, Dinbych, 2022 - celebrating the Welsh language, being Welsh and the children of Wales © Karin Davies

Planet Platform