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Welsh Pronunciation (3)

Basic Difficulties

This page is certainly not intended to be a full guide to how to pronounce Welsh: there are plenty of those out there already (see here). But if you’re struggling with some of the sounds, and they are often not the ones Welsh teachers or manuals are expecting you to have trouble with, here are a few supplementary hints that may help.

So what are these impossibly difficult sounds anyway? By now you must have formed the impression that Welsh is a pretty terrifying language to get your tongue around, and it certainly does have that reputation (see MYTHS ABOUT WELSH). But as usual, the difficulty is greatly exaggerated.

Something English speakers should be familar with is the concept of two letters representing a single sound, just as the English combinations ‘sh’ and ‘th’ usually do. However, unlike English, these combinations (CH, DD, FF, NG, LL, PH, RH, TH) are actually considered as letters in their own right, which has important consequences for the use of dictionaries.

Most people don’t find CH all that difficult. It’s the sound of German CH (achtung) or Spanish J (Guadalajara, with a good throaty rasp as heard in Spain, rather than the softer ‘h’ sound of American Spanish). It’s a bit like the sound of a snarling dog, baring its teeth and deciding whether to bite – but you don’t have to pronounce it as vigorously as that!

The infamous LL sound seems to be a major source of anxiety to learners. It has a page of its own on Gwybodiadur. But despite its fearsome reputation, LL is not actually that hard. Many learners would say that they find RH is harder than LL. Some people are apparently unable to make the R sound, let alone the RH one, though at least they sould be aware of what it sounds like, since rolled R is a very common speech sound, found in Spanish, Italian, Russian etc etc, not to mention “the Scottish accent” as an English person doing amateur dramatics might imagine it. (Back to Willie the groundsman from The Simpsons.)

If you can roll your Rs you shouldn’t have too much trouble with RH. It’s just a breathy version of R, with more air but no voice – the same difference as there is between Z and S. You may find it easier to think of it as HR. Start by saying a normal Welsh R and breathe out sharply through it so it sounds raspy. To continue the theme of ‘pronouncing Welsh through imitating animal noises’, it’s the sound of a cat purring throatily. But if you can’t manage that breathiness, the good news is that much of the time, when it follows a vowel, RH separates into R and H, so that for example y rhai sounds like ‘yr hai’.

MH, NH and especially NGH tend to strike fear into the heart. Unlike CH, DD, FF, NG and so on, they are not letters in their own right but the result of a nasal mutation. Much of the time, they will be found after a vowel, which makes things easier. Simply split the word between the N, NG or M and the H and you realise it’s perfectly straightforward, just like the sequence in English “sing higher!” (NGH) or “I’m happy” (MH). Even when they do not follow a vowel, these are not difficult sounds: just pronounce the N or M as a syllable in its own right, so that nhad (‘my father’) becomes two syllables, ‘n-had’. Think of the ‘n’ in a phrase like “coat’n’hat”.

In fact, many learners seem to have less difficulty with the infamous consonants than with unfamiliar combinations of vowels such as EW and IW. These should be easy: you just take the sound one at a time and run them together. Bear in mind that the spelling is on your side: by and large (no, not always!) it’s extremely logical and straightforward. Most of the time, combinations of letters are just the sum of their parts, so that for example the diphthong (vowel combination) AI is just an A quickly followed by an I, together sounding much like English eye – try it for yourself.

E (as in English bet) plus W (as in boot) makes EW. It sounds rather like a very exaggeratedly posh version of English oh! such as the sound a comedy aristocrat might come out with. It’s also the sound of English ‘ow’ or ‘ou’ in some accents: think of a Lowland Scottish or West Country or maybe Canadian pronunciation of town or house. If you know Spanish, think of the sound in Eugenio or Europa. It’s also similar to the sound Londoners tend to make when they drop the L at the end of a syllable; in fact the L doesn’t so much disappear as turn into an oo sound, so that the English fell could be spelt ‘ffew’ in Welsh. There’s a story of a Londoner who was learning Welsh and tried to sweet-talk a girl he fancied her by telling her rwyt ti’n del iawn (“you’re very pretty” – it should of course have been ddel with a soft mutation but his Welsh wasn’t that good, and anyway that would spoil the story). Unfortunately his London accent betrayed him: he ‘dropped’ the L of del, or rather turned the L into a W, and what he actually said was rwyt ti’n dew iawn (“you’re very fat”).

Likewise I (as in bit) and W make IW, a sound we theoretically don’t have in English, except that you can in fact hear it as a realisation of the English ‘oo’ sound in certain accents if you keep your ears peeled. Or think of that American sound expressing revulsion: “eew, that’s gross!”. Or picture that stage Cockney again, saying filled or field, and you have a sound that might be spelt “ffiwd” in Welsh.

But some diphthongs are more than just the sum of their parts. For example, OE and AE are pronounced as if the E was a U or Y, and so they sound roughly like English oy and aye, rather than an O or A followed quickly by an E.

One sound that many learners have problems with is WY. Of course, in Welsh W is sometimes a straightforward consonant (or more strictly speaking a semi-consonant) just as in English. But sometimes W represents a vowel sound like English “oo”, and then WY is a diphthong.

A diphthong is just a sequence of two vowels run together into one syllable, like ‘a’ and ‘ee’ in the English word by or pie. It might contain the same pair of vowels but sound quite different according to which one is stressed. In the word by you can probably hear that the weight of the word falls on the ‘a’ part, with the ‘ee’ just quickly rounding the thing off. It’s doing the same job in the English words bay and boy, which start with the vowels of bet and bought respectively. Less commonly, a diphthong can be rounded off by the oo sound of boot; in a standard British or American pronounciation of o (boat) is actually a diphthong that ends up in an oo sound. You might think of it as being ‘oh-oo’ spoken rapidly.

But Welsh uses this closing ‘oo’ in plases where it’s totally unfamiliar to English speakers. If you apply this idea to the IW diphthong mentioned above, you can see that IW is just the same sequence as we find in standard English you, but with the stress on the first rather than the second vowel. (Of course, if you say you with a strong Welsh accent, you will be pronouncing it something like IW anyway!)

The sequence GW can be tricky. In saying the Welsh personal name Gwyn, we stress the second vowel, y, spending as little time on the w as possible, just as in English. In fact it sounds like English grin said by someone who can’t pronounce their Rs (“gwin and bear it!”). This is because the w in Gwyn should really be thought of as gw + y rather than g + wy. GW is really a g pronounced with rounded lips, and it can happen before a consonant as well as a vowel, as in gwlad (‘country’), which is not “goo-lad” but a single syllable. When there’s a soft mutation, the G drops and the lip-rounding goes on to affect the next consonant: ei wlad (‘his country’). If it’s a problem to pronounce, the best thing is probably just drop the W: g(w)lad, ei (w)lad.

But. . . put a circumflex (^) over the w (this may not work in your browser, but if it does you’ll see it here: ŵ) and you shift the stress from the y to the w, producing a diphthong that doesn’t exist in English: oo, with a quick ee at the end. Examples include gŵyl (festival) and gŵydd (goose). You get something like it in the English word gooey, but that tends to divide into goo and ey, whereas the Welsh diphthong needs to be spoken as a single syllable. Thus, in stress terms, Welsh WY (‘OOee’) is a sort of opposite of English wee (‘ooEE’), just as IW (‘EEoo’) is the opposite of English you (‘eeOO’).

© 1999–2002 Harry Campbell
Page added: September 2002