Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in my company (most people have fled before then) will know that I love grammar. I adore it. In fact, I have the annoying habit of correcting people’s grammar. I can’t help myself, even though an inner voice tells me not to do it and to not be so pedantic, the pedant grammar Nazi voice is always stronger.
I posted a “penblwydd hapus” (Welsh for “happy birthday”) greeting on a friend’s Facebook wall last week. This friend, who is Dutch, but who has lived in Wales, ended up posting the same greeting in Welsh to another non-Welsh speaking mutual friend. I don’t remember the details of what happened next, but the friend asked why the sign into Wales is “Croeso i Gymru” (Welcome to Wales), when the word for Wales is “Cymru”? “Mutations” I replied. “What???” she said.
The wonderful world of mutations
I am hoping someone who knows more about these things can correct this statement – I have deliberately not done my research to back this up, but I believe mutations are unique to the “Celtic” languages. The Celtic languages fall into two groups, the Goedelic ones (Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Manx), and the Brythonic (Welsh, Cornish and Breton).
Again, I don’t know the details of how mutations work in the other Celtic languages, because apart from knowing a few dozen words in Breton, my knowledge of the other Celtic languages is zero. That is something I have always wanted to change, to learn maybe Irish Gaelic or Breton, but there is so much physics and astrophysics I would like to understand better, when am I going to find the time?
In Welsh, there are 9 consonants which mutate. These are “c,p,t,b,d,g,m,ll,rh” (yes, “ll” and “rh” are letters in Welsh, two character letters). The first 3, “c,p,t” can undergo the 3 types of mutations. The second 3, “b,d,g” can undergo 2 of the 3 types, and the last 3, “m,ll,rh” can only undergo one type of mutation.
The three types of mutations are called “soft”, “nasal” and “aspirant”. So, to give a concrete example, going back to my friend’s question about “Cymru” being the name for Wales but the sign saying “Croeso i Gymru”, the letter “c” can change to “g” or “ngh” or “ch”
The letters c,p and t
- Croeso i Gymru = Welcome to Wales (soft mutation)
- Dwi yng Nghymru = I am in Wales (nasal mutation)
- Lloegr a Chymru = England and Wales (aspirant mutation)
The letters b,d and g
If we were to construct three similar sentences with a word which only undergoes two of the three types of mutations, e.g. the letter “b”, we could write for Bangor in north Wales
- Croeso i Fangor = Welcome to Bangor (soft mutation)
- Dwi ym Mangor = I am in Bangor (nasal mutation)
- Lloegr a Bangor = England and Bangor (aspirant mutation – no mutation)
The letters ll,rh and m
Finally, let us choose a letter from the third group, we shall choose “m”, so we could write for Mwnt
- Croeso i Fwnt = Welcome to Mwnt (soft mutation)
- Dwi ym Mwnt = I am in Mwnt (nasal mutation – no mutation)
- Lloegr a Mwnt = England and Mwnt (aspirant mutation – no mutation)
I didn’t really know the rules of mutations until I was about 14. It was just something I did naturally, in a rather ad-hoc manner. But it turned out that I was getting it wrong some of the time. My Welsh teacher, Geraint Davies (or “Dai Welsh” as he was known) gave me a Welsh grammar book and told me to get on with reading it, then he went off for a cigarette. I was the only one in the year doing ‘O’ level Welsh as a first (native) language, he had driven all the other pupils into the 2nd-language (foreign language) group so that he would not have to teach them, but I had refused to go. Dai Welsh was gone long enough (several weeks) for me to master their sometimes complex rules.
Linguistic development in small children
With my own children I distinctly remember thinking with my eldest son that using mutations with him may confuse him. So, for example, I would not bother saying “botel o laeth?” (a bottle of milk?) to him, but rather I’d leave out the mutation and say “botel o llaeth”. This is grammatically incorrect as “llaeth” should mutate with the soft mutation after the preposition “o” (of), but I figured if he was sometimes hearing “llaeth’ and sometimes “laeth” depending on the situation he may get confused.
By the time my third child was small I was too busy with two other children to bother with such simplifications, so just spoke to her with mutations right from when she was a baby. All three are in Welsh-medium education (where all the subjects are taught through the medium of Welsh), and have all gone through the same “primary” school (4-11 years of age). The school found that my youngest daughter’s Welsh was more correct in year 6 (age 11) than my son’s had been at the same age. Although it is a pretty limited experiment, I think what it shows is that it is better for a child’s development of speaking grammatically correctly to speak correctly to them right from the earliest moment, and not to start off with some simplified version of one’s language.
I might attempt to explain some of the rules which dictate when mutations take place in future blogs, although given that whole books are set aside to explaining the rules my attempting to do it on a blog may prove quite a challenge.
I bet you wish you had never asked Priscilla! 🙂