Thursday, 16 August 2012

Challenge Number 39 - Learn to count to 100 in Welsh (and three swear words)

My dad set me this challenge, to tie in with "conquering" Snowdon. My friend Sarah also set me the challenge to learn some swearwords in a foreign language, so I combined the two.

When I was a teenager, it slowly dawned on me that I was quite good at learning languages.  I never had a problem memorising vocab or verb endings, could mimic accents, and always seemed to do well in exams without even trying. I did a school exchange to Germany and realised how quickly I was absorbing the new words and phrases around me, and that I wanted more, more, more. I'm not quite sure who I inherited the skill from - it must have skipped a generation somewhere. My parents only took me on holidays abroad once I hit adolescence so I could do all the talking for them. Not that Little Miss Stroppy Teen was willing to oblige, of course. I also benefited from having a couple of particularly good teachers at school. My A Level French Literature teacher was somewhat eccentric, immensely talented and intolerant of fools, which made her both terrifying and awe-inspiring. She owned a battered old farmhouse in Provence long before Peter Mayle made it fashionable, and spent every summer there, studying Impressionist art and pottering about with the locals. She was as passionate about Star Trek as she was Maupassant and her classes on Racine's Phedre made me go home and try to write French poetry in rhyming couplets. How on earth did she do that? It's true what the adverts say - no one ever forgets a good teacher. (You don't forget a bad one either.)

I set myself the typically rational teenage ambition of learning every single language in the world and decided that one day I would be in interpreter at the United Nations. It's quite depressing to see how far off the mark I've ended up. It doesn't help that I didn't end up completing a degree in modern languages - I started one at the University of Sheffield in 1992 but left after six months because it was - not to put too fine a point on it - crap. I chose Sheffield because the course would enable me to study four languages at once and because my boyfriend at the time told me not to go there. But the course ended up being rather different to the one described in the prospectus - all the literature and history classes were taught in English and when we did get to speak some French and German (about once a week), most of my fellow students could barely string a sentence together. I suddenly realised how good the language teaching at my school must have been. I ended up taking myself off to Germany to go to university in Heidelberg for a year in a bid to get the German fluency I craved. I then came home to do a degree in Linguistics at the University of York. I loved Linguistics, but it didn't set me up for a job at the United Nations, alas. My degree did involve a year and a half of Mandarin Chinese, which is as exotically near to my teenage ambition as I've got so far. Otherwise, I've only managed reasonable French and German, GCSE level Italian, a few words of Polish picked up when I taught English at a summer school on the Baltic coast and a bit of Danish from a couple of extended holidays there and watching too many episodes of The Killing. Regretfully, all my languages are horribly rusty now, as I never get a chance to use them. I also tried to learn Spanish when we moved to York through the university's Languages For All scheme, but I just got it muddled up with Italian. I also didn't get on with the class at all, as the teacher was desperately trying to make it "fun" for a bunch of disinterested 18 year olds. I was the annoying one in the corner tutting "Stop making me sing pop songs and tell me how to form the pluperfect tense instead." Get rid of the games and bring back grammar, I tell you! (That is the short version of my treatise on foreign language teaching in this country.)

So Welsh, eh? Well, I'd never had a go at any of the Celtic language either, only laughed at them on signposts. Here we go. I promise you I am writing all of this out from memory and haven't just copied and pasted it in from the Internet:

1 = un (pronounced een)
2 = dau (pron. die)
3 = tri (pron. tree)
4 = pedwar
5 = pump (pron. pimp)
6 = chwech (pron. [x]wear[x] where [x] is a voiceless velar fricative like in Scottish loch)
7 = saith (pron. sigh-th)
8 = wyth (pron. oith)
9 = naw (pron. now)
10 = deg (pron. day-g, though the vowel is more like Cardinal 2 [e] for you phoneticians out there...)
11 = un deg un
12 = un deg dau
13 = un deg tri
14 = un deg pedwar
15 = un deg pump
16 = un deg chwech
17 = un deg saith
18 = un deg wyth
19 = un deg naw
20 = dau ddeg (the dd is a voiced alveolar fricative, like at the beginning of that)
21 = dau ddeg un
22 = dau ddeg dau
23 = dau ddeg tri
24 = dau ddeg pedwar
25 = dau ddeg pump
26 = dau ddeg chwech
27 = dau ddeg saith
28 = dau ddeg wyth
29 = dau ddeg naw
30 = tri deg
31 = tri deg un
32 = tri deg dau
33 = tri deg tri
34 = tri deg pedwar
35 = tri deg pump
36 = tri deg chwech
37 = tri deg saith
38 = tri deg wyth
39 = tri deg naw
40 = pedwar deg
41 = pedwar deg un
42 = pedwar deg dau
43 = pedwar deg tri
44 = pedwar deg pedwar
45 = pedwar deg pump
46 = pedwar deg chwech
47 = pedwar deg saith
48 = pedwar deg wyth
49 = pedwar deg naw
50 = pum deg
51 = pum deg un
52 = pum deg dau
53 = pum deg tri
54 = pum deg pedwar
55 = pum deg pump
56 = pum deg chwech
57 = pum deg saith
58 = pum deg wyth
59 = pum deg naw
60 = chwe deg
61 = chwe deg un
62 = chwe deg dau
63 = chwe deg tri
64 = chwe deg pedwar
65 = chwe deg pump
66 = chwe deg chwech
67 = chwe deg saith
68 = chwe deg wyth
69 = chwe deg naw
70 = saith deg
71 = saith deg un
72 = saith deg dau
73 = saith deg tri
74 = saith deg pedwar
75 = saith deg pump
76 = saith deg chwech
77 = saith deg saith
78 = saith deg wyth
79 = saith deg naw
80 = wyth deg
81 = wyth deg un
82 = wyth deg dau
83 = wyth deg tri
84 = wyth deg pedwar
85 = wyth deg pump
86 = wyth deg chwech
87 = wyth deg saith
88 = wyth deg wyth
89 = wyth deg naw
90 = naw deg
91 = naw deg un
92 = naw deg dau
93 = naw deg tri
94 = naw deg pedwar
95 = naw deg pump
96 = naw deg chwech
97= naw deg saith
98 = naw deg wyth
99 = naw deg naw
100 = cant

Phew! Now, even though I can't pick up languages as easily as I used to, this all struck me as surprisingly logical. Which isn't what you'd expect from a language that has mutating nouns, starts every sentence with a verb and thinks Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is a sensible village name. Unfortunately, it turns out this logic is deliberate. These are the new decimal Welsh numbers, devised after Welsh language schools became widespread and they needed an easy way to do maths. The original Welsh numbers were on a vigesimal system, which is apparently still used in telling the time and in counting money, and by older speakers of the language. A vigesimal system has a base of 20 rather than of 10. You see remnants of one in French, where 99 is quatre-vingt-dix-neuf, literally "four twenty nineteen", or in traditional English phrases such as "four score years and three", meaning 83. (Incidentally, the French-speaking Swiss have wiped out the vigesimal in their numbers too - 70, 80 and 90 are septante, octante (or huitante in some cantons) and nonante.)

So this meant that I had to learn a whole other way to count to 100 too. I'd like to think my dad knew this and was deliberately setting me a really hard challenge, but no. He just got lucky.

1-10 are the same as above.

11 = un ar ddeg (so we're more old-fashioned here, literally "one and ten")
12 = deuddeg
13 = tri ar ddeg
14 = pedwar ar ddeg
15 = pymtheg
16 = un ar bymtheg (one and fifteen and look, that noun just mutated at the beginning)
17 = dau ar bymtheg
18 = deunaw (two nines)
19 = pedwar ar bymtheg
20 = ugain
21 = un ar hugain
22 = dau ar hugain
23 = tri ar hugain
24 = pedwar ar hugain
25 = pump ar hugain
26 = chwech ar hugain
27 = saith ar hugain
28 = wyth ar hugain
29 = naw ar hugain
30 = deg ar hugain (ten and twenty)
31 = un ar ddeg ar hugain (eleven and twenty)
32 = deuddeg ar hugain
33 = tri ar ddeg ar hugain
34 = pedwar ar ddeg ar hugain
35 = pymtheg ar hugain
36 = un ar bymtheg ar hugain
37 = dau ar bymtheg ar hugain
38 = deunaw ar hugain (eighteen and twenty)
39 = pedwar ar bymtheg ar hugain
40 = deugain (two twenties)
41 = un ar deugain
42 = dau ar deugain
43 = tri ar deugain
44 = pedwar ar deugain
45 = pump ar deugain
46 = chwech ar deugain
47 = saith ar deugain
48 = wyth ar deugain
49 = naw ar deugain
50 = hanner cant (half a hundred) when on its own, otherwise deg ar deugain
51 = un ar ddeg ar deugain
52 = deuddeg ar deugain
53 = tri ar ddeg ar deugain
54 = pedwar ar ddeg ar deugain
55 = pymtheg ar deugain
56 = un ar bymtheg ar deugain
57 = dau ar bymtheg ar deugain
58 = deunaw ar deugain
59 = pedwar ar bymtheg ar deugain
60 = trigain (three twenties)
61 = un ar trigain
62 = dau ar trigain
63 = tri ar trigain
64 = pedwar ar trigain
65 = pump ar trigain
66 = chwech ar trigain
67 = saith ar trigain
68 = wyth ar trigain
69 = naw ar trigain
70 = deg ar trigain
71 = un ar ddeg ar trigain
72 = deuddeg ar trigain
73 = tri ar ddeg ar trigain
74 = pedwar ar ddeg ar trigain
75 = pymtheg ar trigain
76 = un ar bymtheg ar trigain
77 = dau ar bymtheg ar trigain
78 = deunaw ar trigain
79 = pedwar ar bymtheg ar trigain
80 = pedwar ugain (four twenties)
81 = un ar pedwar ugain
82 = dau ar pedwar ugain
83 = tri ar pedwar ugain
84 = pedwar ar pedwar ugain
85 = pump ar pedwar ugain
86 = chwech ar pedwar ugain
87 = saith ar pedwar ugain
88 = wyth ar pedwar ugain
89 = naw ar pedwar ugain
90 = deg ar pedwar ugain
91 = un ar ddeg ar pedwar ugain
92 = deuddeg ar pedwar ugain
93 = tri ar ddeg ar pedwar ugain
94 = pedwar ar ddeg ar pedwar ugain
95 = pymtheg ar pedwar ugain
96 = un ar bymtheg ar pedwar ugain
97 = dau ar bymtheg ar pedwar ugain
98 = deunaw ar pedwar ugain
99 = pedwar ar bymtheg ar pedwar ugain
100 = cant (same as above)

And now the swear words. My pronunciation guide on the numbers was a six year old girl, so obviously I couldn't ask her about the rude stuff. And somewhat disappointingly, despite being called Street Welsh, my phrase book didn't contain any swearwords. But unsurprisingly, there's plenty of websites devoted to the subject. Scouring through them, I picked three insults that were spelled consistently across pages and which would keep their English translations free of f-words. This also probably makes them more authentically Welsh:

1. Cer i grafu (pron. kerry-graffy) = go and scratch

2. T'in coc oen = (tin cock-oin) you are a lamb's male appendage

3. Dos i chwarae efo dy nain (dossy [x]wa-ray efo dee nine) = go and play with your grandmother

I'm still a long way from the United Nations, though if a Plaid Cymru member who can only speak like a Numtum with Tourette's ever ends up on the Security Council, I'm sure I'll be the first person they call.


  1. What a fascinating post!

    LLongyfarchiadau, ar mae fy hofrenfad yn llawn llyswennod.

  2. Can you say that in every language, Damien?

  3. Wow! This is so interesting. (And your Dad came up with a doozy!) My aged friend Scotty swears in Welsh a fair bit--she grew up in Wales and Glasgow during The War. She's popular with the workmen in her building here in Virginia because she taught them to say "F you" in Welsh, Somali and Igbo. She also spent years in Africa working for the foreign service, where she loved nothing better than insulting someone with a smile on her face, knowing they won't understand a word of Welsh. I hope you find this skill as useful as she did! I love your 30 Steps challenge and I'm thinking about what my own list is. I love following your progress.