A Few Similarities and Differences between Gaelic and Welsh

Well, since I’ll be going to my first Welsh lesson, part of a WEA two-hours-for-five-days crash course, this afternoon, I thought I’d do a post about it.

And yes, I know part of my language policy for this year (which I might get around to typing up and posting at some point) was to not run after every shiny new language which catches my eye, but I’m sure I had a very good reason for enrolling in the Welsh course other than sheer excitement at the possibility of doing so.

Distraction from the woes and trials of student life with a sister leaving home? The ability to finally unleash a long-held desire to learn this strange and different Celtic language which none of my ancestors definitely ever spoke? The fact that the teacher is from Wales and probably won’t come out and hold the course ever again?

Anyway, last year at the Sgoil Nàiseanta, there was a Welsh-speaking girl there. Since we were about the same age, we ended up sharing a room, and we stayed up late on the second night nutting out exactly where the similarities and differences between our two languages lay. Some were expected. Some were more surprising.


The Grammatical Similarities

They’re different languages, but they’re still closely related, and after a comment from one of the teachers at the Sgoil, the first topic of conversation was grammar. Welsh and Gaelic do share grammatical features which English doesn’t have, which is only to be expected.

Like Gaelic, the verb comes first. Unlike Gaelic (but like Irish), it conjugates slightly. Like Gaelic, verbs have different positive, negative, and interrogative forms. The negative interrogative is formed with “nach…?” in Gaelic and “nac…?” in Welsh.

Like Gaelic (and Greek, for that matter), Welsh has no indefinite article. It’s “yr”, though, which bears no resemblance to Gaelic’s “an”.

Like Gaelic, Welsh lenites/aspirates/mutates/smooths initial consonants. Unlike Gaelic, the system is much, much more complex. Welsh, like Gaelic, also has prepositional pronounce, although it calls them “personal forms of prepositions”. This means that a preposition joins with a following pronoun to create a whole new word. I’ll use a preposition which is the same in both languages (but not when conjugated) to demonstrate:

AR                          AIR                         ON
arna                       orm                        on me
arnat                      ort                          on you
arno                       air                          on him
arno                       oirre                      on her
arnon                     oirnn                     on us
arnoch                   oirbh                      on yez
arnyn                    orra                        on them

Okay, that’s not very similar. I will point out, though, that prepositions cause the object to lenite/mutate in both languages.

Numbers, which don’t really bear much similarity to each other, have two systems in both languages – one based on scores, and the other decimal. Welsh’s score-based system is a little more complex and requires multiplication by nine a couple of times.

The Vocabulary Similarities

There is a major shift between the two languages involving the P/B sound in Welsh and the C/G sound in Gaelic. For example, “mac” and “mab” (“son”) or “ceann” and “pen” (“head”). An S-T shift (similar to that between German and English) also pops up occasionally – such as “sron” and “trwyn” (“nose”). On the topic of body parts, “leg” is the same, “càs” and “coes”, but Welsh has a word for “foot”, “droed”, while Gaelic just called that the “bottom leg”.

The word for “year” is similar – “bliadhna” (G) and “blynedd” (W) – while “month” is pronounced identically – “mis” (W) and “mìos” (G). “Week”, however, is completely different (“seachdainn” vs. “wythnos”). “School” is similar – “sgoil” and “ysgol” – but that’s pretty much universal. The names for different levels of school are completely different.

“Water” (“uisge” and “dwr”) is completely different, while the similarity between “fire” (“tèine” and “tan”) is visible only if you squint. “Fish” and “horse” are also completely different, with a clear Latin borrowing in Welsh (“pysgod”, as opposed to “iasg”, and “ceffyl” verses “eich”), while “dog” (“cù” and “ci”) and “pig” (“moc” and “mochyn”), and are the same, and “cow” bears resemblance to the Latin word in both languages (“bò” and “buwch”).

“Big” (“mòr” and “mawr”), “small” (“beag” and “bach”), “old” (“sheann” and “hen”), “new” (“nuadh” and “newydd”), and “bad” (“droch” and “drwg”) are all the same, while “glas” is “green” in Gaelic and “blue” in Welsh. “Black” is also similar, with “dùbh” in Gaelic and “du” in Welsh.


This isn’t strictly relevant, but I find the comparison between various names for places in the Celtic languages quite fascinating.

English   Great Britain           Wales                       Brittany
Gaelic      Breatainn Mhòr     Cuimrigh            Breatainn Bheag
Manx       Bretyn Vooar           Bretyn                       Vritaan
Irish         Breatain              Breatain Bheag        Briotáin
Welsh      Prydain Fawr          Cymru                      Llydaw
Cornish   Breten Veur             Kembra                    Breten Vian
Breton     Breizh-Veur            Kembre                    Breizh

It’s almost worse than the “glas” confusion.

I explained this to my roommate at Sgoil Nàiseanta: “In Manx, they call Wales ‘Bretyn’, and in Irish it’s ‘Breatain Bheag’, which is Gaelic for Brittany, and our word for Wales is ‘Cuimrigh’.”

She grinned and said, “Well, at least you know how to pronounce it!” “Cuimrigh” in Gaelic is pronounced exactly the same as “Cymru” in Welsh.


4 thoughts on “A Few Similarities and Differences between Gaelic and Welsh

  1. There are more similarities between Irish and Welsh than you would think at first, as you have pointed out above. By the way, the word dobhar isn’t used on its own for ‘water’, but it’s quite common in placenames and in compound words in Irish. For example, dobhareach is a water horse, a hippo, and a dobharchú is a water dog, an otter.

    • Rachel says:

      Thanks! Now I think about it, Gaelic has a similar word, “tobar”, meaning “spring” or “well” – I didn’t notice the similarity until you spelt out “dobhar”. A few other words I noticed when I did the course were byw/beò and amser/aimsir/àm. I’m sure there were a few more, too, but I can’t remember them right at the minute.

  2. cynnull says:

    Hi! I found this blog post by accident but I’m glad I did as I found this article most interesting. I’d like to point out that while ‘glas’ is ‘blue’ in most cases (colours of eyes, cars, clothes, paint, the sky etc), ‘glas’ can also mean ‘green’ in Welsh when referring to the green of the countryside. If you describe some land as being ‘glas’, you’re saying that it’s healthily green, lush and fresh-looking. We have a field called ‘cae glas’ on our farm, and that means ‘green field’ (and definitely not blue field!). Also, the first week of uni is called ‘Wythnos y Glas’ – the week of the ‘green’ (as in, the students are new and fresh).

    • Rachel says:

      Thanks for commenting. I was aware that “glas” was used for “green” sometimes in Welsh, and it’s used for “blue” sometimes in Gaelic… as I understand it, neither language had separate words for blue and green until relatively recently and used “glas” for both (“grue”).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s