Welsh Pronunciation (1)

Where to Get Reliable Advice

Pronunciation seems to be one of the most daunting aspects of Welsh for learners. As noted elsewhere, Welsh has the reputation of being a terrifyingly difficult language, involving impossibly hard sounds and combinations of letters. It certainly sounds very different from English and does have some unusual consonants, which make it daunting to some and ridiculous to others. If you’ve ever been on holiday in Wales you’ll have seen those hilarious postcards portraying Welsh as a noisy, silly, impractical language full of harsh, “guttural” consonants and unpronounceable placenames. For other examples of this attitude, see this piece of drivel, or “compelling excerpt” as they term it, from the National Geographic magazine – didn’t that use to be a serious publication?

So where do you go for reliable guidance on how to pronounce Welsh? There aren’t any books for learners specifically on the subject of Welsh pronunciation, though people who know a little about phonetics and can handle dry academic writing might care to explore the sources below. Thorne’s Comprehensive Welsh Grammar has a good section on ‘The Sounds of Welsh’, though it’s currently out of print, and Geiriadur yr Academi has a detailed if rather complicated account of the same subject, but it costs £40 (again, see below). Most coursebooks and dictionaries include some kind of pronunciation guide, and there are many web pages on the subject. Unfortunately, these guides are often not very reliable or helpful. To be honest I’m not sure I can recommend any of them whole-heartedly, though the excellent Cymdeithas Madog website has one that is not bad, while Clwb Malu Cachu’s “cheat-sheet” on the subject adopts a characteristically light-hearted but sound approach.

Part of the problem is that it’s never easy to explain in words how a language is pronounced. The most reliable way to do this would be by using the most widely recognised “phonetic alphabet”, that of the International Phonetic Association, commonly known as IPA, where the same sound is represented by the same symbol the world over; someone who knows IPA can read aloud any language transcribed in it even if they have no idea what it all means. But unfortunately the only people who are already familiar with this system, at least in Britain and America, are people who already have some background in languages or linguistics, and they are the ones who would have the least trouble in the first place. People often devise their own phonetic systems, sometimes in the misguided belief that they can come up with something easier or clearer, and partly because the IPA characters don’t lend themselves well to use in web pages, but in fact it’s very difficult to make Welsh spelling any simpler to read than it already is, and the time you spend learning to understand these systems would probably be better spent in learning to read the Welsh directly.

People often describe the sounds of a foreign language by reference to the reader’s own language, or one s/he might be expected to have some knowledge of (such as French in the case of British people, or Spanish for Americans). For example, “i in Welsh is pronounced as in pick or pique (peek), never as in pike”. Among the problems of this method are the fact that many of the sounds of Welsh are not found in English, and some do not occur in any languge the learner is likely to have come across. Also, you have to specify exactly whose accent you’re talking about. English, the native language of the vast majority of Welsh learners, is a highly unsuitable language to start from, since there are so many different accents to consider. Suppose you read that the Welsh letter O sounds like the vowel of the English words bought or born or boat – just picture a Scot, a Yorshireman, a Cockney, an American and an Australian each saying those words and you’ll see how unreliable it can be. And the spelling is absurdly variable: look at the range of different sounds represented by the letters ‘ough’ in bough, cough, tough, through, though, thought, borough and so on.

Furthermore, the people writing these “how to pronounce Welsh” guides, even if they are native Welsh speakers, are not necessarily all that well-informed themselves about the sounds of Welsh, or how to communicate them to others: just because you can pronounce a sound doesn’t mean you understand what you’re doing. Much of the information you see on the Web is misleading or simply wrong. You really need to be very careful with written descriptions of pronunciation. Even if the writer was right in what they were trying to get across, you may easily get the wrong idea, and pick up misconceptions which you will have to unlearn later.

Until recently there was no learner’s dictionary that showed the pronunciation of each word, as opposed to just having a general pronunciation guide at the beginning. Heini Gruffudd’s Welsh Learner’s Dictionary (1998) is the only one to do so, but unfortunately his transcription system is really too random and approximate to be much use (see detailed review). You’re probably better off with Gareth King’s Pocket Modern Welsh Dictionary, which only comments on the pronunciation of a word when it is unpredictable (here’s an example).

Cassette tapes have been available for years, though not so easily accessible to Welsh learners outside the UK. See COURSES for details of which books have cassettes to accompany them. In America, the Welsh society Cymdeithas Madog have made a tape “designed to help you with the basics of Welsh language pronunciation”: the New Cymdeithas Madog Guide to Welsh Pronunciation costs $7 (I haven’t heard it myself so can’t comment). CD-ROMs have taken things a stage further: for example, TalkNow! claims to have a “unique recording feature. This allows you to hear and compare your voice with a variety of native speakers”, whatever that means exactly. But not only has the Internet made it easier to buy such things wherever you are in the world, it has made sounds available at the click of a mouse in the form of sound files (mp3, .wav, .ra or whatever), though the quality is not usually hi-fi. Good examples of this kind of material include Coleg Menai’s free online course Clic Clic Cymraeg which has a sound file for every item of vocabulary they introduce, as well as the famous Catchphrase materials from the BBC. For a lighter touch, you might try where clicking on the picture of each animal plays the sound file of its name (warning: unless you have a high-speed connection, the page takes forever to load).

Of course, the best thing is to learn the sounds of Welsh by listening to a Welsh native speaker; but of course not everyone has that opportunity. Then again, if you are really expecting to speak Welsh, as opposed to reading and writing it, you presumably will have access to someone who will be able to show you how exactly sounds are pronounced.

To get a general feel for the sound of the language some people listen to Welsh-language music, and why not, especially if an interest in Welsh music helps to stimulate your interest in the language, as is the case for many people. But of course you’re not likely to get a very clear impression of the sounds that way. Perhaps the best source of of spoken Welsh in copious amounts (and all for free!) is the BBC’s Welsh-language station Radio Cymru, which you can listen to online at The Clwb Malu Cachu site offers several downloadable mp3 files of connected speech, in the form of little stories about a cat called Fflwff. They’re read in a slow, careful style that will be much less daunting for beginners than the BBC news. Remember, the more you listen, the more familiar the sounds of the language will become, and the more your imitation of them will improve.

If you enjoy listening to the sounds of Welsh for their own sake, you can find a sound file of a seventh-century Welsh nursery-rhyme at Yes, those words are coming down the ages at you, in more or less recognisable form, from the seventh century AD.

So, to sum up, what should your approach be to learning to pronounce Welsh? Here are my suggestions.

  • Don’t worry. Stress will not improve your performance. It’s not as hard as you may think, and anyway your accent doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be understood.
  • Read as many different explanations as you like to get a clearer idea, but don’t depend on written advice alone or take Web pages as gospel.
  • Listen to as much Welsh as possible, on the radio or TV or online.
  • Read aloud and talk to yourself as much as possible. You could even try recording yourself for practice. Above all, don’t worry about sounding silly.

So, there’s no shortage of advice on how to pronounce Welsh, though not all of it is good, and some is positively wrong. Here is a page of what you might call Myths About Welsh Pronunciation.

Further Reading

Ball, Martyn J. and Glyn E. Jones, eds. (1984) Welsh Phonology: Selected Readings. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, ISBN 0-7083-0861-9, approx. £20? h/b.

Ball, Martyn J. (1988) ‘The Study of Pronunciation Patterns’ in Ball, ed. The Use of Welsh: A Contribution to Sociolinguistics. Clevedon, UK/Philadelphia USA: Multilingual Matters, ISBN 0-905028-99-6, o/p?

More accessible:

Thorne, David A. (1993) A Comprehensive Welsh Grammar. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, ISBN 0-631-16408-1, £16.50 p/b, o/p.

Griffiths, Bruce (ed.) and Dafydd Glyn Jones (assoc. ed.) (1995) Geiriadur yr Academi: The Welsh Academy English–Welsh Dictionary. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, ISBN 0-7083-1186-5, £40.00 h/b.

© 1999–2002 Harry Campbell
Page added: September 2002