Welsh is a modern European language with a long, rich history. It started to emerge as a distinct language between 400-700AD, known as primitive Welsh.
Somewhat more is known about the next main period of Welsh, Old Welsh (Hen Gymraeg). This was heard around the 9-11th centuries, across Wales and even up through Scotland. It was around this time, with the colonisation of Britain by Germanic and Gaelic speakers continuing, that Welsh, Cornish and Cumbric were separated. Canu Aneirin (the Book of Aneirin) and Canu Taliesin (the Book of Taliesin) are both collections of works that are mainly in Old Welsh.
The next period of Welsh is known as Middle Welsh (Cymraeg Canol) which is heard around the 12-14th centuries. It's the earliest time period we have the most evidence for, and is fairly intelligible with modern Welsh (albeit some amount of work and understanding). Middle Welsh is also the language of the earliest existing Welsh law manuscripts, as well as the earliest examples in writing we have of the (already old then!) manuscripts of the Mabinogion. From this time period we also have a nice example of how strong the Welsh language, and it's people, are. Gerallt Gymro (Gerald of Wales), a famous cleric, liked to tell the story of King Henry II speaking to an old man, Pencader from Carmarthenshire, about whether he thought the Welsh language would survive.
- "Whatever else may come to pass, I do not think that on the Day of Direst Judgement any race other than the Welsh, or any other language, will give answer to the Supreme Judge of all for this small corner of the earth"
This brings us to Early Modern Welsh, heard from the early 15th century to the end of the 16th century. Henry VIIIs Act of the Union banned Welsh from being used in court, and Welsh only speakers weren't allowed to hold government office. This change saw that Welsh was viewed as the language of the lower classes, and wouldn't be repealed until 1993 with the passing of the Welsh language act.
Modern Welsh & Usage
Late Modern Welsh started with the translation of The Bible into Welsh, by William Morgan, in the late 1500s. There have been some changes to Welsh in the mean time, but a fluent speaker would be able to read things as far back as this without too much trouble.
The Welsh language had started to see a decline in the 1800s, and by 1911 was spoken by less than 50% of the population. From a concerted effort by groups such as Urdd Gobaith Cymru (Welsh League of Hope) and Urdd Y Seren Fore (League of the Morning Star), as well as a resurgence in Welsh-medium education and general national pride, we have started to see a growth in the number of Welsh speakers starting in the early 2000s.
As of the 2021 Annual Population Survey, approximately 29% of people in Wales aged 3 or over were able to speak Welsh. There are Welsh speakers all over Wales, although the overall percentage of speakers in each area is a lot higher in the so named "heartlands". Some areas of Wales, such as Gwynedd, have a 75% Welsh speaking population. If you look at specific towns and villages, many have an 80%+ Welsh speaking population.
Despite the decline in percentages, the actual number of Welsh speakers alive today is close to the peak number of Welsh speakers ever alive (again, during 1911!), so Welsh is by no means going anywhere any time soon.
You will often see the dialects of Welsh simplified as either northern (Gogledd) and southern (De). There are, however, four traditional dialects (as well as a bonus dialect).
- Y Wyndodeg, the Gwynedd dialect
- Y Bowyseg, the Powys dialect
- Y Ddyfedeg, the Dyfed dialect
- Y Wenhwyseg, the dialect of Gwent and Morgannwg
- Cymraeg y Wladfa, the dialect of Patagonia (our bonus dialect)
Within these dialects, there will still be differences in words, spellings, and pronunciation. Some of these difference can be seen between neighbouring villages even. Some learners see this as daunting, but the similarities are really a lot greater than the differences. Everybody in Wales understands each other's Welsh just fine. It's nothing something for a beginner to worry over, just something to be aware of.
How to pick your dialect?
This really comes down to personal preference and what suits you best. Are you planning to spend time in certain spots of Wales? If you plan to spend more time up north, choose the Gogledd version of a course where available. If you plan to spend more time down south, choose the De version of a course where available. Learning one won't hold you back from speaking to someone who knows the other!
Otherwise, it could be as simple a decision as listening to videos of Welsh people speaking and choosing what you like the sound of best.
For a more extensive list, please see our full resources page.
LearnWelsh - Government lead course, based on these free textbooks which are used in conjunction with these digital resources. In person and virtual lessons are available here. You will find northern and southern versions of all resources.
SaySomethingInWelsh - A very successful "talking" course, based on colloquial and spoken Welsh. Requires login, but the old version of the course and part of the new version of the course is free. Access to the next levels of the course, as well as more advanced material, requires a subscription. It's a flat rate of £10/month. You can download each lessons audio file very easily for offline use, as well as a free app on both iOS and Android. You will find a northern and a southern version of the course.
Duolingo - A good introduction to Welsh, and good for learners who prefer more interactive learning. The course content is based on the content of the learnwelsh course, so works very well in conjunction with this course. Duolingo teaches both dialect as it goes along, including lessons specifically dedicated to vocabulary differences. The course also includes very good notes when using the desktop website.
Geiriadur UWTSD - The online dictionary for the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. A good dictionary that includes some audio files for more popular search terms. Doesn't include definitions, just a straight Welsh-English / English-Welsh translation dictionary.
Duolingo Welsh Dictionary - Not a very extensive dictionary but it includes many example sentences as well as audio for everything included.
Geiriadur Bangor - An online version of Cysgair and the Termiadur Addysg by the University of Bangor.
GPC - Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru - A dicitonary of the Welsh Language from the University of Wales. It's the only historical dictionary of Welsh, and gives definitions in both Welsh and English. It also gives historical examples, variant spellings/forms, collocations, and etymology.
Open Celtic Dictionary - Open source dictionary with conjugations. Originally made for Welsh.
Termau Cymru - A searchable dictionary of specialised terminology, from the University of Bangor. This includes a list of specific terminology dictionaries.
Colloquial Welsh - This book from Gareth King is in of itself a course, but is also a very good resource for those learning Welsh from a more "standard" course who wants to strengthen their colloquial knowledge.
Modern Welsh: A Comprehensive Grammar - Another book from Gareth King. This is a very, very extensive book on the finer points of grammar within the Welsh language. If you need to know every little rule about grammar when learning a language, this is the book for you.
Urdd Gobaith Cymru - Urdd is a national organisation dedicated to the promotion of Welsh is people under the age of 25. If you live in Wales and are under 25, find information for your local area here.