The morphology of the Welsh language has many characteristics likely to be unfamiliar to speakers of English or continental European languages like French or German, but has much in common with the other modern Insular Celtic languages: Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, and Breton. Welsh is a moderately inflected language. Verbs inflect for person, tense, and mood with affirmative, interrogative, and negative conjugations of some verbs. There is no case inflection in Modern Welsh.
Modern Welsh can be written in two varieties — Colloquial Welsh or Literary Welsh. The grammar described on this page is for Colloquial Welsh, which is used for speech and informal writing. Literary Welsh is closer to the form of Welsh used in the 1588 translation of the Bible and can be seen in formal writing.
Initial consonant mutation is a phenomenon common to all Insular Celtic languages, although there is no evidence of it in the ancient Continental Celtic languages of the early first millennium. The first consonant of a word in Welsh may change when preceded by certain words (e.g. i, yn, and a), or because of some other grammatical context (such as when the grammatical object directly follows the grammatical subject). Welsh has three mutations: the soft mutation, the nasal mutation, and the aspirate mutation. These are also represented in writing:
*Soft mutation causes initial /ɡ/ to be deleted. For example, gardd “garden” becomes yr ardd “the garden”.
A blank cell indicates no change.
For example, the word for “stone” is carreg, but “the stone” is y garreg (soft mutation), “my stone” is fy ngharreg (nasal mutation) and “her stone” is ei charreg (aspirate mutation). These examples represent usage in the standard language; there is some regional and idiolectal variation in colloquial usage. In particular, the soft mutation is often used where nasal or aspirate mutation might be expected on the basis of these examples.
Mutation is not triggered by the form of the preceding word; the meaning and grammatical function of the word are also relevant. For example, while yn meaning “in” triggers nasal mutation, homonyms of yn do not. For example:
The soft mutation (Welsh: treiglad meddal) is by far the most common mutation in Welsh. When words undergo soft mutation, the general pattern is that unvoiced plosives become voiced plosives, and voiced plosives become fricatives or disappear; some fricatives also change, and the full list is shown in the above table.
In some cases a limited soft mutation takes place. This differs from the full soft mutation in that words beginning with rh and ll do not mutate.
Common situations where the limited soft mutation occurs are as follows – note that this list is by no means exhaustive.
Common situations where the full soft mutation occurs are as follows – note that this list is by no means exhaustive:
The occurrence of the soft mutation often obscures the origin of placenames to non-Welsh-speaking visitors. For example, Llanfair is the church of Mair (Mary), and Pontardawe is the bridge on the Tawe.
The nasal mutation (Welsh: treiglad trwynol) normally occurs:
1. The preposition yn becomes ym if the following noun (mutated or not) begins with m, and becomes yng if the following noun begins with ng. E.g. Bangor (“Bangor”), ym Mangor (“in Bangor”) Caerdydd (“Cardiff”), yng Nghaerdydd (“in Cardiff”).
2. In words beginning with an-, the n is dropped before the mutated consonant (except if the resultant mutation allows for a double n), e.g. an + personol → amhersonol (although it would be retained before a non-mutating consonant, e.g. an + sicr → ansicr).
3. In some dialects the soft mutation is often substituted after yn giving forms like yn Gaerdydd for “in Cardiff”, or it is even lost altogether, especially with place names, giving yn Caerdydd. This would be considered incorrect in formal registers.
Under nasal mutation, voiced plosives become nasals, and unvoiced plosives become aspirated nasals. A non-standard mutation also occurs in some parts of north Wales whereby m becomes mh and n becomes nh, e.g. fy mham (“my mother”; standard: fy mam). This may also occur (unlike the ordinary nasal mutation) after ei (“her”): e.g. ei nhain hi (“her grandmother”, standard ei nain hi).
Under aspirate mutation (Welsh: treiglad llaes), unvoiced plosives become aspirated fricatives. In spelling this is always represented by the addition of an h after the original initial consonant (c, p, t → ch, ph, th), but the resultant forms are pronounced as single phonemes.
The aspirate mutation occurs:
The aspirate mutation is the least used of all the mutations in colloquial Welsh. The only word that it always follows in everyday language is ei (“her”) and it is also found in set phrases, e.g. mwy na thebyg (“more than likely”). Its occurrence is unusual in the colloquial Southern phrase dyna pham (“that’s why”) as dyna causes a soft, not aspirate, mutation
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A mixed mutation occurs when negating conjugated verbs. Initial consonants undergo aspirate mutation if subject to it, and soft mutation if not. For example, clywais i (“I heard”) and dwedais i (“I said”) are negated as chlywais i ddim (“I heard nothing”) and ddwedais i ddim (“I said nothing”). In practice, soft mutation is often used even when aspirate mutation would be possible (e.g. glywais i ddim); this reflects the fact that aspirate mutation is in general infrequent in the colloquial language (see above).
Under some circumstances /h/ is added to the beginning of words that begin with vowels. This occurs after the possessive pronouns ei (“her”), ein (“our”) and eu (“their”), e.g. oedran (“age”), ei hoedran hi (“her age”). It also occurs with ugain (“twenty”) after ar (“on”) in the traditional counting system, e.g. un ar hugain (“twenty-one”, literally “one on twenty”).
Although aspirate mutation also involves the addition of an h in spelling, the environments for aspirate mutation and initial /h/ addition do not overlap except for ei (“her”).
Welsh has no indefinite article. The definite article, which precedes the words it modifies and whose usage differs little from that of English, has the forms y, yr, and ’r. The rules governing their usage are:
The article triggers the soft mutation when it is used with feminine singular nouns, e.g. tywysoges “(a) princess” but y dywysoges (“the princess”).
As in most other Indo-European languages, all nouns belong to a certain grammatical gender; the genders in Welsh are masculine and feminine. A noun’s gender usually conforms to its referent’s natural gender when it has one (e.g. mam “mother” is feminine), but otherwise there are no major patterns (except that, as in many languages, certain noun terminations show a consistent gender, as sometimes do nouns referring to certain classes of thing, e.g. all months of the year in Welsh are masculine) and gender must simply be learnt.
Welsh has two systems of grammatical number. Singular/plural nouns correspond to the singular/plural number system of English, although unlike English, Welsh noun plurals are unpredictable and formed in several ways. Most nouns form the plural with an ending (usually -au), e.g. tad and tadau. Others form the plural through vowel change, e.g. bachgen and bechgyn. Still others form their plurals through some combination of the two, e.g. chwaer and chwiorydd.
A few nouns also display a dual number, e.g. llaw, “hand”, dwylo, “(two) hands”.
The other system of number is the collective/unit system. The nouns in this system form the singular by adding the suffix -yn (for masculine nouns) or -en (for feminine nouns) to the plural. Most nouns which belong in this system are frequently found in groups, for example, plant “children” and plentyn “a child”, or coed “forest” and coeden “a tree”. In dictionaries, the plural is often given first.
Adjectives normally follow the noun they qualify, while a few, such as hen, pob, annwyl, and holl (“old”, “every”, “dear”, “whole”) precede it. For the most part, adjectives are uninflected, though there are a few with distinct masculine/feminine or singular/plural forms. After feminine singular nouns, adjectives receive the soft mutation.
Adjective comparison in Welsh is fairly similar to the English system. Adjectives with one or two syllables receive the endings -ach “-er” and -a(f) “-est”, which change final b, d, g into p, t, c by provection, e. g. teg “fair”, tecach “fairer”, teca(f) “fairest”. Adjectives with two or more syllables use the words mwy “more” and mwya “most”, e. g. teimladwy “sensitive”, mwy teimladwy “more sensitive”, mwya teimladwy “most sensitive”. Adjectives with two syllables can go either way. There is an additional degree of comparison, the equative, meaning “as … as …”.
These are the possessive adjectives:
The possessive adjectives precede the noun they qualify, which is often followed by the corresponding form of the personal pronoun, e.g. fy mara i “my bread”, dy fara di “your bread”
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, ei fara fe “his bread”, etc.
The demonstrative adjectives are ‘ma “this”‘ and ‘na “that” (this usage derives from their original function as adverbs meaning “here” and “there” respectively). They follow the noun they qualify, which also takes the article. For example, y llyfr “the book”, y llyfr ‘ma “this book”, y llyfr ‘na “that book”.
The Welsh personal pronouns are:
The Welsh masculine-feminine gender distinction is reflected in the pronouns. There is, consequently, no word corresponding to English “it”, and the choice of e/o (south and north Welsh respectively) or hi depends on the grammatical gender of the antecedent.
The English dummy or expletive “it” construction in phrases like “it’s raining” or “it was cold last night” also exists in Welsh and other Indo-European languages like French, German, and Dutch, but not in Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, or the Slavic languages. Unlike other masculine-feminine languages, which often default to the masculine pronoun in the construction, Welsh uses the feminine singular hi, thus producing sentences like:
Third-person masculine singular forms o and fo are heard in North Wales, while e and fe are heard in South Wales.
The pronoun forms i, e, and o are used as subjects after a verb. In the inflected future of the verbs mynd, gwneud, dod, and cael, first-person singular constructions like do fi may be heard. I, e, and o are also used as objects with compound prepositions, for example o flaen o ‘in front of him’. Fi, fe, and fo are used after conjunctions and non-inflected prepositions, and also as the object of an inflected verb:
Fe and fo exclusively are used as subjects with the inflected conditional:
Both i, e, and o and fi, fe, and fo are heard with inflected prepositions, as objects of verbal nouns, and also as following pronouns with their respective possessive adjectives:
The use of first-person singular mi is limited in the spoken language, appearing in i mi “to/for me” or as the subject with the verb ddaru, used in a preterite construction.
Ti is found most often as the second-person singular pronoun, however di is used as the subject of inflected future forms, as a reinforcement in the imperative, and as following pronoun to the possessive adjective dy … “your …”
Chi, in addition to serving as the second-person plural pronoun, is also used as a singular in formal situations, as is in French and Russian. Conversely, ti can be said to be limited to the informal singular, such as when speaking with a family member, a friend, or a child. This usage corresponds closely to the practice in other European languages. A third form, used almost exclusively in the language’s northern varieties, is chdi, which has a value close to ti; as an independent pronoun it occurs especially frequently after a vowel sound at the end of the phrase (e.g. efo chdi, i chdi, wela i chdi, dyna chdi).
The reflexive pronouns are formed with the possessive adjective followed by hun “self”. There is variation between North and South forms. The first person singular possessive pronoun fy is usually pronounced as if spelt y(n).
Note that there is no gender distinction in the third person singular.
Welsh has special emphatic forms of the personal pronouns.
The term ’emphatic pronoun’ is in fact misleading since they do not necessarily indicate emphasis. They are perhaps more correctly termed ‘connective or distinctive pronouns’ since they are used to indicate a connection between or distinction from another nominal element. Full contextual information is necessary to interpret their function in any given sentence.
Less formal variants are given in brackets. Mutation may also, naturally, affect the forms of these pronouns (e.g. minnau may be mutated to finnau)
The emphatic pronouns can be used with possessive adjectives in the same way as the simple pronouns are used (with the added function of distinction or connection).
In addition to having masculine and feminine forms of this and that, Welsh also has separate set of this and that for intangible, figurative, or general ideas.
In certain expressions, hyn may represent “now” and hynny may represent “then”.
In Colloquial Welsh, the majority of tenses make use of an auxiliary verb, usually bod “to be” or gwneud. The conjugation of bod is dealt with in Irregular Verbs below.
There are four periphrastic tenses in Colloquial Welsh which make use of bod: present, imperfect, future, and conditional. The preterite, future, and conditional tenses have a number of periphrastic constructions, but Welsh also maintains inflected forms of these tenses, demonstrated here with talu ‘pay’.
In the preterite, questions are formed with the soft mutation on the verb, though increasingly the soft mutation is being used in all situations. Negative forms are expressed with ddim after the pronoun and the mixed mutation Heart Dangle Bracelet, though here the soft mutation is taking over (dales i ddim for thales i ddim).
Bod ‘to be’ is highly irregular. In addition to having inflected forms of the preterite, future, and conditional, it also maintains inflected present and imperfect forms which are used frequently as auxiliaries with other verbs. Bod also distinguishes between affirmative, interrogative, and negative statements for each tense.
The present tense in particular shows a split between the North and the South. Though the situation is undoubtedly more complicated, King (2003) notes the following variations in the present tense as spoken (not as written according to the standard orthography):
Bod also has a conditional, for which there are two stems:
A few verbs which have bod in the verbnoun display certain irregular characteristics of bod itself. Gwybod is the most irregular of these. It has preterite and conditional forms, which are often used with present and imperfect meaning, respectively. The present is conjugated irregularly:
The common phrase dwn i ddim “I don’t know” uses a special negative form of the first person present.
The four verbs mynd “to go”, gwneud “to do”, cael “to get”, and dod “to come” are all irregular in similar ways.
The forms caeth, caethon, caethoch often appear as cafodd, cawson, cawsoch in writing, and in places in Wales these are also heard in speech.
In the conditional, there is considerable variation between the North and South forms of these four irregular verbs. That is partly because the North form corresponds to the Middle Welsh (and Literary Welsh) imperfect indicative, while the South form corresponds to the Middle Welsh (and Literary Welsh) imperfect subjunctive.
In Welsh, prepositions frequently change their form when followed by a pronoun. These are known as inflected prepositions. Most of them, such as dan, follow the same basic pattern:
There is some dialectal variation, particularly in the first and second person singular forms. In some places one may hear dano i, danot ti, or danach chi.
The majority of prepositions trigger the soft mutation.