SSi Forum

Yet another way of forming the past tense


This is a bit of an esoteric question, so I am probably calling @garethrking here.

I have been reading a YA novel yn y Gymraeg that has introduced me to a second type of short form past tense where (for example) the third person singular form ends in ai rather than odd.

I have done a bit of digging and as I understand it, this is used for:

  1. Incomplete events in the past (where in English we would say ‘was doing something’.
    E.g. Sefai yn y drws pan clywodd hi hynna. (She was standing in the doorway when she heard that.)

  2. Habitual events in the past (where in English we would say, ‘used to do something’)
    e.g. Gwisgai hi ddillad goch yn y gaeaf. (She used to where red clothes in the winter)

  3. The future perfect (ie the past tense of ‘will do’, which in English is ‘would do’
    Temlai hi’n wahangol yn y bore. (She would feel different in the morning.)

So - my questions:

  1. Errors of spelling, mutation etc apart, have I got this broadly right?
  2. Are the first two straight short-form equivalents of ‘oedd hi / oedd hi’n arfer + verbnoun’ or is there a more subtle distinction here?
  3. For the third one, could you also say ‘byddai hi’n teimlo yn wahangol yn y bore’ or does that not work for the future perfect in Welsh?

Thank you from a self-confessed grammar nerd.


Yes , they’re using Literary Welsh there, I’m afraid Catriona :confused:

What in the modern language is the unreality ending (like basai or dylai), in LW is the imperfect. No living person would say Sefai yn y drws, they would all say Roedd hi’n sefyll yn y drws. No living person would ever say Gwisgai hi ddillad goch - they would say Roedd hi’n arfer gwisgo dillad goch. No living person would say Teimlai hi’n wahanol yn y bore, they would say Byddai hi’n teimlo’n wahanol yn y bore.

So my guess is that this YA author is on a crusade to promote LW rather than real Welsh, I’m afraid. Please don’t ever imitate this when you’re speaking. :confused:


Thank you very much! Helpful both comprehension-wise and usage-wise.


I’ve seen quite a few of these in the book I’m reading at the moment, so this is really useful! :grinning:


Glad to be of service.

These writers are doing the language NO service at all in pushing these unrealistic and (for the spoken language, and increasingly for the everyday written language) inauthentic forms, I’m afraid.


Hmm… Certainly I’ve read some YA fiction where there is a clear distinction between the narrative authorial voice (mostly colloquial, but with some definite nods in the direction of Literary Welsh) and the characters’ speech and internal monologues (wholly colloquial with not a hint of Literary). I wondered when I first encountered it what effect it would have on, say, a mamiaith teenage audience, but for me it just felt like the authors were navigating their own compromise course through the minefield of “how you’re ‘supposed’ to write Welsh”, rather than embarking on their own little crusade.

Novels that I’ve noticed that don’t do this at all have been ones like, say Prism or Pluen, where Manon Steffan Ros uses one of the characters as a first-person narrator; but there are others, even by the same authors, that have a third-person narrative voice with slightly more Literary forms.

So, just from what I’ve got readily to hand, we can find things like:
…a gwisgai het henffasiwn oren ar ei ben. (…and he was wearing an old-fashioned orange hat on his head) - Manon Steffan Ros in Trwy’r Darlun, aimed at 9-13 year-olds.
Ni feiddiai Gwawr anadlu… (Gwawr didn’t dare breathe…) - Lleucu Roberts, in Afallon, the third volume of her trilogy Yma aimed at older teenagers.
And Bethan Gwanas, praised at the Parti 10 for writing in colloquial Welsh and deliberately eschewing Literary, in her adaptation of The Owl Service, Llestri’r Dylluan, not only has forms like edrychai (looked) and teimlai (felt) but also prepositional forms like drostynt (across them) rather than drostyn nhw.

So I understand your pleas to everyone not to speak like this – at one stage, long pre-SSiW, if you’d asked me if I spoke Welsh I’d have replied Ni siaradaf Cymraeg, which would have been self-referential enough to count as a performative speech-act. But I would nonetheless argue that these writers are much more likely innocent bystanders caught up in the norm-wars, than fifth-columnist foot-soldiers for the forces of prescriptivism.

And I do still wonder what it feels like to be a mamiaith teen, and have the adventures of people who talk like you set within the matrix of a narrative that’s effectively all “forsooth” and “whither goest thou?” and “prithee”…


And yet, to use one of your examples Richard, Ni feiddiai Gwawr… is so alien to any natural speech pattern as to be seen surely as a very deliberate departure from the actual Welsh formulation Feiddiodd Gwawr ddim…. The latter is what everybody says, and the author has deliberately rejected it. I think there must be a motive to that.


Yes, but that still begs the question as to what the motive must be. I’m reminded of a blog post I saw a while back, an American father talking about his son doing his homework, that referenced the same kind of diglossia in English. The son had written “Scott and I went to the mall…” and checked it with his father – “That’s how you spell ‘Me and Scott went to the mall,’ isn’t it, Dad?”

[ETA: tl;dr version – The question is whether the writer is doing it because she thinks everyone should, or because everyone (for certain values of everyone) thinks she should. I feel like you’re asserting the former, and I’ve been presuming the latter, when the truth is probably somewhere between the two.]

So I suppose I was just assuming that the sheer weight of established opinion about how one ‘ought’ to write Welsh – that you have very clearly described having run up against in the whole business of daring to publish a descriptive grammar – is something hard for writers to shrug off. Even as a learner I’ve sometimes felt slightly abashed at sending someone a very ar lafar email, and getting a response back full of rydym and gennym with barely a pronoun in sight: there’s a real solidity and depth to the feeling that that’s somehow ‘better’ Welsh.

But I wonder if anyone here knows Lleucu Roberts well enough to ask why she feels that the correct way to spell Feiddiodd hi ddim in the narrator’s voice is **Ni feiddiodd – p’raps if she does a signing at Palas Print we could persuade someone to buttonhole her…


Personally as someone who switches to a very different style of writing in English, while at work - scientific reports etc, I find it useful to have that distinctly formal and non-colloquial, impersonal standard to follow. I view literary Welsh as something that fulfills that role in Welsh.

I think children getting some exposure to that sort of thing in written forms to be a natural thing and I anticipate they will be able to discern that it is different.

I have a bigger problem with standardisation of colloquial - I saw a PowerPoint presentation from the exam board WJEC stating that “rydw i” is the correct colloquial form and stating a few other rules like that for teachers. As someone with kids in WM schools, I noticed a shift in speech to using these forms and standard pronunciations etc on moving from nursery and reception into Year 1 - corresponding to learning to read and write perhaps. The use of things like fi filli etc and natural spoken things and pronounciations tended to disappear and I did find that a bit disappointing to be honest.


I agree with what you say about using different registers depending on context. There is an elegance to the literary short forms that constantly repeating “wnaeth o/hi” or “Roedd o/hi” lacks. Using them in the narrative (if the narrator is separate from the characters) makes sense.

There is also the question of keeping the older works of Welsh literature accessible. We shouldn’t assume that readers, whether young people or mature adults, are not capable of learning the extra forms. They may also want to read Welsh classics and I don’t think we should be advocating that formal Welsh is learned as a separate language, like learning Middle English to enjoy the Canterbury Tales in the original.

There is surely a balance to be struck between reflecting how people actually speak in the real world and dumbing down to the lowest common denominator.


The trouble with that is that the situation in Welsh is not like the situation in English, where the formal style is very close to the informal and colloquial. The language in the Daily Telegraph is essentially the same as spoken language in its structures. In Welsh, however, the LW structures are radically different for the verb at least - and that’s why I made the point that nobody (but NOBODY) says or would ever say (for example) Gwisgai siwmper goch, they would ALL say (roughly) Roedd hi’n gwisgo siwmper goch. There is no other way to say She was wearing a red jumper in the living language. Similarly, negating verbs with Ni - completely alien to the spoken language, and we can note that in the Daily Telegraph verbs are negated in exactly the same way as people on the High Street in Faversham negate their verbs.

So to my mind, the problem with this ‘formal’ register of Welsh is that it’s ludicrously (and deliberately) different from spoken usage. I constantly see the -nt 3rd plural ending used on both verbs and prepositions, and I sometimes even hear it on the media: iddynt for iddyn nhw, byddent for bydden nhw - this ending disappeared from Welsh many hundreds of years ago, yet there does seem to be a push from some circles to reinstate it - for what earthly reason I cannot imagine. But it reinfores the (erroneous but still widespread) idea, which I expect we have all here encountered with ordinary native speakers, that native speech patterns are somehow ‘not proper Welsh’.

I’m not trying to deny the existence of Lit Welsh, of course - it exists, and that’s that, and I included plenty in the latter stages of the Welsh Reader. But it IS artificial (at least in the verb system, which is crucial anyway), and we surely shouldn’t let an artificial version of the language encroach on what is still a wonderfully vibrant language in its spoken and natural forms.


Yes, that’s the trouble, isn’t it? The teachers are instructed by the civil servants and the language police to disseminate and promote things that are actually felt to be unnatural by native speakers (I can clearly remember rydw i being widely mocked by native Welsh speakers in social situations in the eighties, and laughingly imitated), because 1) the civil servants/language police look down on the native speakers, and 2) they calculate that these unnatural forms will eventually be accepted, so it’s OK. Same thing has been happening for a long time with Breton as well, incidentally.

I have always (gently!) corrected students who said rydw i for a simple reason: I want to get them speaking Welsh, not learner-Welsh.


What the situation with roedd vs oedd?

I noticed that.the old course (N) taught roedd but the new one teaches oedd. I’ve been assuming that oedd is the general usage in spoken Welsh, but roedd would be preferred in written usage?


was it ever spoken? I ask because the well educated scribes of the past, would have learned Latin, Greek etc and I’m wondering if they formulated a form of Welsh that would aspire to have the prestige of those classics?


My disappointment was hearing my kids speaking natural Welsh in meithrin/nursery, simply by picking up what was heard and telling toys to cer I ware etc, talking nine to the dozen in Welsh and then changing and starting to talk like a learner - rydych chi angen chwarae and not being that bothered talking Welsh anymore.


I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there, at least as regards many aspects of the literary language. I think they noticed the similarity of the Middle Welsh verb system to Latin (in its arrangements and forms - Romance and Celtic are particularly close relatives) and set about remodelling the modern language to recall the perceived glories of the past. But be careful, @Toffidil - don’t say these heresies too loud in the wrong company, or you’ll start getting the flak. Believe me. :slight_smile:


Yes @Catriona ! Even informal written Welsh (like in Golwg, say) tends to stick to the neat Roedd/Oedd?/Doedd dim pattern, while most spoken varieties seem to go for Oedd in all three, and further contracts in the other persons, so for example Oeddwn i then becomes O’n i, which I would certainly want my students to say. So we have (for example) O’n i I was, O’n i? Was I? O’n i ddim I wasn’t. These three all sound perfectly natural and correct - honest! Yet I got unbelievable heavy flak (from the you-know-whos) for saying so at the time. :slight_smile:


This is a most interesting thread, though I am not quite clear as to whether Gareth would like to see an end to literary Welsh full stop or whether he just feels it needs to be kept well away from learners. I am wondering in particular what the implications of all this are for Welsh poetry, which I am just trying to get a handle on. Is there now (or perhaps there has always been) a tension between those who would like to see the language of poetry closer to the living spoken language and those who adhere to more traditional registers remote from this? Of course, we have a great range of registers in English poetry, but somehow English poetry manages to accommodate them. So on the one hand you have a great poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins whose language can be, to put it mildly, high-flown: ‘I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon’, which is one way of saying you saw a kestrel, and on the other a great poet like Robert Frost who achieves his effects with lines that you feel anyone might actually say: ‘Whose woods these are I think I know./His house is in the village though;/He will not see me stopping here/To watch his woods fill up with snow.’ As an avid reader of English poetry I have no trouble moving between these registers: bring it on, whatever works. But it sounds as if the situation with Welsh poetry could be rather different and more extreme, possibly as if contemporary English poets were still given to using forms like ‘Thou wert’, or is this unfair? If anyone can point me to a discussion of these issues, or recommend a Welsh poet rather more of the Frost than the Hopkins kind (yes, I could just take the plunge, but perhaps with poetry it’s best to start simple and work your way in!), I would be most grateful.


No indeed @Davids , I accept the existence of Literary Welsh and would certainly NOT go down the (absurd) route of ‘rewriting’ Welsh literature. And you’ll find plenty of LitWelsh in the latter half of the Welsh Reader. But I DO think that it should be kept in its place as a partly artificial (nothing wrong with that, of course - Classical Latin and most other ancient literary languages were in a very important sense artificial constructs) vehicle of literature, and NOT promoted as the living language to the detriment of the actual living language, which is the native speech of today.

You make the perfectly valid point about expressions in archaic modern English like thou wert, but I again mention that the difference between archaic and modern English is minute compared to the gulf between LitWelsh and modern spoken and standard Welsh. Look at these pairs in the two languages:

I knew not that thou hadst seen him (archaic modern English)
I did not know that you had seen him (modern English)
And the same in Welsh:
Ni wyddwn y’i gwelasech (LitWelsh)
O’n i ddim yn gwybod bod chi wedi’i weld e (ModWelsh)


Thank you, @garethrking. Just to be perfectly clear, are we saying that literary Welsh, at least as far as its verb system goes, not just is but always has been an artificial construct: it’s not just that no one now says things like ‘Ni wyddwn y’i gwelasech ’, it’s that no one has EVER said them? If so, then this is a difference from English not just in degree but in kind, and my ‘Thou wert’ analogy is inadequate. I mean, when Ben Jonson in his beautiful poem in memory of his dead son says ‘Seven years thou wert lent to me’, that would have been how he actually spoke, even if by the time Percy Shelley came along with his funny ideas about skylarks (‘Bird thou never wert’), he would have been engaging in poetic archaism. But literary Welsh would be not so much archaic, more like the sacred language of a priesthood?