Welsh Pronunciation (2)

The Myths

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 selection of what you might call Myths About Welsh Pronunciation.

  • “Short A is like the a in fat, while long A is like the a in father.”
    Not really. The sound of A can vary widely in different accents, and indeed the “father” vowel does not exist in most varieties of Welsh, but whether it sounds like fat or father, the difference between the long and short A is one of ‘quantity’ (length) not the ‘quality’ of the sound.
  • “H is never dropped in Welsh.”
    Not true. H is often dropped in parts of South Wales. Listen to the very first lesson of Catchphrase, with Cennard Davies, who is from Treorci (Treorchy) in the Rhondda. This can also affect the H in sounds like RH and NH, which can then sound much like an ordinary R and N.
  • “North Welsh U/Y is pronounced like the French U in sur.”
    Completely untrue. French U is a front high rounded vowel, pronounced with the lips in an ‘oo’ shape and the tongue in the position for ‘ee’. The same sound exists in German, Turkish, etc etc. Some Scottish accents have an ‘oo’ sound that’s getting on that way, though not quite so far forward in the mouth. The Northern U/Y is a difficult sound to explain, but take comfort in the fact that it’s never really necessary for learners. You can get by perfectly well with the I sound of English pit and pillow.
  • “NG is like the ‘ng’ in the English ‘singer’.”
    True, most of the time; but sometimes N and G are in fact separate letters, and in these cases NG is pronounced as in fiNGer, i.e. ng-g or n-g (e.g. Bangor).
  • “The ‘LL’ sound is one of the most difficult for non-Welsh speakers to master.”
    Very debatable. As anyone who has been around Welsh learners soon finds out, sounds like RH, EW and WY are often more problematic than LL.
  • LL is pronounced out of one side of the mouth only.
    I’d love to know where this one comes from. It’s often repeated in more detailed descriptions of Welsh pronunciation. Possibly it originates with John Morris Jones, a very distinguished Welsh grammarian of the early years of the twentieth century, when the science of phonetics was very much in its infancy. To my knowledge (and I would love to be corrected) there has never been any scientific research done on this intriguing subject, though it would be straightforward enough. As far as I can see it is physically impossible to pronounce LL out of one side of the mouth without twisting up your face like Clint Eastwood or someone. Clearly this is not the case.
  • Welsh R is pronounced like ‘the Scottish R’.
    By which they mean that it’s rolled or ‘trilled’, on the tip of the tongue. Quite true, although actually a few Welsh speakers pronounce it at the back of the mouth like a French R. But of course it’s misleading nonsense to imply that R is normally rolled in Scotland. Most Scots pronounce very much the same non-rolled R as speakers of RP (standard British English pronunciation). But then if your idea of a Scottish accent is Willie, the red-headed school groundsman (groundskeeper) from The Simpsons, this one may work fine for you!
  • NGH (the nasal mutation of C) is a voiceless nasal.
    OK, a slightly technical one this but the above is widely asserted in some very serious contexts, perhaps by people who know about phonetics but haven’t heard much Welsh spoken; but it does not stand up to the test of observation. The technical term ‘voiceless nasal’ means simply that the sound emerges only through the nose, not the mouth, and there is no voice (the vocal cords are silent). Thus there would have to be audible friction within the nose, otherwise the result would be silence; it would be a sort of exhaled sniff, like the quick snort down the nose that you might make when something amuses you so briefly you don’t bother to open your mouth and laugh normally. Such a sound is perfectly possible, but unusual in language, and Welsh is not as odd as all that. In fact it’s simply a normal nasal (N, NG or M) followed by an aspirate (H). More advice on NGH here.
  • “With the exception of y, every letter has an invariable value, and is always pronounced.”
    In other words, Welsh spelling is completely logical, so the pronunciation is easy. This might be more kindly described as a convenient benevolent fiction, and it feels cruel to pick holes in such a comforting idea. Most people know that it’s not completely logical, but apart from the letter Y having two distinct pronunciations (sometimes roughly like English hit and sometimes more like hut) they take comfort in the fact that the spelling is pretty straightforward. So it is, more or less, until you start looking more closely at it, and then you realise that the fine detail is actually a lot more complex than you first thought – and there’s really not much advice available for those who want to understand thoroughly. But that’s for another day, and another webpage. . .
For now, let’s restrict ourselves to the basics.

© 1999–2002 Harry Campbell
Page added: September 2002