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The Unofficial Guide to Pronouncing Welsh Place Names

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CUHWC goes to Wales four times a year, but so far its members have demonstrated a regrettable lack of interest in the varied and intricate sounds of the country’s ancient and beautiful language. Not only is this a shameful lack of cultural empathy, but it also makes them sound like fools to Welshmen (even if some would argue the feeling’s mutual). Would you be annoyed if a tourist came to Cambridge and cheerily insisted on calling it 'Camm-brid-gee'?

This lack of interest is usually put down to the language being full of sounds that require you to get your tongue stuck between your front teeth, not having nearly enough vowels, and looking as though a bowl of Alphabetti Spaghetti has had an accident with a blender. In actual fact, though, Welsh pronunciation is one heck of a lot easier to learn than English. Gone are the oddities such as cough failing to rhyme with tough, seven with even or show with cow. All you have to do is learn a few rules and a few new sounds and bam, you’re a half-decent Welsh speaker (even if you don’t have a clue what the words mean!)

For those who’re interested, then...

Consonants

  • B, D, FF, H, L, M, N, NG, P, PH and T are said the same as in English.

  • C and G are always 'hard', as in cat and get; NEVER soft as in centre or gem.

  • CH is as in the Scottish loch or the German Bach, NOT as in church.

  • DD is the soft 'th' sound, as in that, NOT as in middle.

  • F is pronounced 'v' as in veil, NOT 'f' as in fail. Our 'f' sound is represented by FF in Welsh.

  • LL is a real peach of a sound, but it’s not all that hard to say. Just put your tongue in the position you would for an L, and blow hard. If you spray the person you’re speaking to with spittle, you may be overdoing it. Learning to put this sound in the middle and ends of words takes a bit of practice, but stick with it.

  • R is rolled. As in Arrrrrrrrr.

  • RH is to R the same way LL is to L; just blow harder and hope for the best.

  • S and TH are always as in bus and bath respectively, NEVER as in does or that. There is also a bit of an oddity in that SI is pronounced SH.

Vowels

  • Vowels can be both short and long, much as in English. This isn’t much to worry about though, since they are only long in single-syllable words, and even then only when 0 or 1 consonants follow the vowel; remember this. The circumflex (e.g. in ê) is also used to show a vowel is long.

  • The short vowels A, E, I, O, U are pronounced as in bat, bet, bit, bot... bit. No that is NOT a typo. U is pronounced the same as I in Welsh. Get used to it.

  • The long vowels A, E, I, O, U are pronounced as in bra, bear, bee, bor, bee. Simples.

  • Y is a bit funny. In the last syllable of a word it makes the short 'i' sound, but elsewhere it makes a neutral 'uh' sound as in butter. Its long vowel sound is as in bee (obviously this only happens in single-syllable words).

  • W is even worse because between consonants it acts as a vowel, whereas next to another vowel it acts as a consonant (making the same 'w' sound as it does in English). Its short and long vowel sounds are 'uh' as in book and 'oo' as in food, respectively.

Vowel combinations

  • AE, AI and AU are all pronounced as in high.

  • AW is pronounced as in cow.

  • EI and EU are pronounced as in bay (the actual Welsh sound is a bit more like an 'uh' and an 'ee' strung together, but this is a reasonable approximation).

  • EW is like running a short 'e' and a long 'oo' together; it’s like nothing in English and learning to stick this sound at the end of words takes a bit of practice. Similarly, IW and UW are like running a short 'i' and a long 'oo' together.

  • I before another vowel; here the I ends up making a Y sound (as in yes) and the other vowel behaves normally. This catches people out.

  • OE is pronounced as in boy.

  • WY is a bit like the sound of gooey, but with the vowels run together more.

  • YW is pretty much as you'd expect (if you've a systematic mind). In the last syllable of a word it sounds like IW and UW; elsewhere it's like running a short 'uh' and a long 'oo' together. It ends up sounding a bit like an English 'oh' if you do it right.

Three final notes...

  • A warning about R; it’s always pronounced (and always rolled). Do not try and pronounce AR, ER, IR, OR, UR or YR as they are in English – just say the short vowel and then stick the R after it. If you aren’t too fussy, ER will come out a bit like English air; IR, UR, YR (final syllables) like in English deer; and YR (non-final syllables) like in English fur.

  • See too many consonants at the end of a word (e.g. cefn)? The Welsh just haven’t bothered to write in the extra vowel that separates the f and the n. Such a vowel is always inserted and always sounds the same as the preceding vowel (or the second part of it, if a combination of vowels). Hence eifl is pronounced 'ay-vil'.

  • Oh, and the small words y, yr and yn are pronounced 'uh', 'uhr' and 'uhn'.

...and one really important rule

  • Stick the stress on the second-to-last syllable.

That really is it; not too bad. Thanks for sticking by, and happy Welshing.

Some examples,

These are the most difficult ones you are likely to see; most place names are a bit simpler than these. They're all from place names you might see on CUHWC trips. In the pronunciation guide vowels are short unless otherwise stated.

  • Aran Fawddwy – 'ARR-an VOWTH-wee' ('th' as in that)
  • Betws-y-Coed – 'BET-uhss uh COYD' (not 'Betsy Co-ed'!)
  • Blaenau Ffestiniog – 'BLYE-nye fest-IN-yog'
  • Bryn Brethynau – 'brrin brreth-UH-nye'
  • Capel Curig – 'CAP-el KIRR-ig'
  • Carneddau – 'carr-NETH-eye' ('th' as in that)
  • Caseg Fraith – 'CASS-eg VRYE-th'
  • Cefn y Dyniewyd - 'KEV-en uh duhn-YE-wid'
  • Crib Goch – 'crreeb gaukh'
  • Cwm Dyli – 'koom DUH-lee'
  • Dolgellau – 'dol-GE-hleye'
  • Fan Brycheiniog – 'van brruh-KHAYN-yog'
  • Moel Cynghorion – 'moyl cuhng-HORR-yon'
  • Moel Eilio – 'moyl AYL-yo'
  • Moel Siabod – 'moyl SHAB-od'
  • Mynydd Mawr – 'MUH-nith mowr' ('th' as in that)
  • Rhyd Ddu – 'hrreed thee' ('th' as in that)
  • Y Lliwedd – 'uh HLI-weth' ('th' as in that)
  • Yr Wyddfa – 'uhrr WUHTH-va' ('th' as in that)
  • Ystradfellte – 'uh-strrad-VE-hl-te'

External links (to prove I'm not lying);

  • http://www.plas-coch.co.uk/soundmap.html
  • http://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/oswebsite/freefun/didyouknow/placenames/welshintro.html

If you've got any queries, comments or corrections, please feel free to comment below.

Author: 
Mark Jackson

Comments

I have a 1960 edition of "Teach Yourself Welsh".

About "y", it says "One of the most difficult letters for beginners, it has the clear sound generally if it occurs in the last syllable of a word or in a monosyllable, otherwise it has the obscure sound. However, "y", "yr" (the), "fy" (my), "dy" (thy) and "yn" (in) have the obscure sound"

The "clear" sound is the sound in bit (although they also give the example "dyn" (a man) which is pronounced like the English word "dean"). It seems when long it is the "ee" sound, when short like the short "i". Unfortunately, although the circumflex accent over a vowel shows that the vowel is long, e.g. tŷ (house) this doesn't seem to be always given.

The "obscure" sound is the same as the vowels in the English word "udder".

About "u", according to the book it isn't always pronounced exactly as "i", it says that in S. Wales it is, but in N. Wales it resembles an "ee" pronounced as far back in the throat as possible (without swallowing it entirely).

Here's another link: BBC Catchphrase which allows you to download any of the 144 episodes of the Catchphrase radio show in order to learn Welsh.

\> B, D, FF, H, L, M, N, NG, P, PH and T are said the same as in English.

L - you can get away with an English L but if you want to sound really welsh, this consonant is quite different. It is almost a vowel. Don't press the tongue upwards as hard as in English. Just barely touch the front of the roof of the mouth and try "singing" it.

NG - this nearly always includes the hard G after it (as in "finger" as opposed to "singer") except at the end of a word obviously. Think of Bangor (BANG-gor) and Moel Cynghorion (kung-GOR-yon).

\> DD is the soft 'th' sound, as in that, NOT as in middle.

Not sure what you mean by "soft" - it is more often called "hard". To be precise, it is in fact a "voiced" TH (i.e. vibrate the vocal chords whilst doing it). DD is always voiced (as in "this" and "that"). TH is always unvoiced (as in "think" and "thrill").

\> F is pronounced 'v' as in veil, NOT 'f' as in fail. Our 'f' sound is represented by FF in Welsh.

And to sound welsh, elongate it and sing it.

\> LL ...Just put your tongue in the position you would for an L, and blow hard.

Except when most people try this, it doesn't work. Since you're here and you're reading this, you might as well spend a few seconds getting it right. Start with your tongue in an L position and push it up even higher so there is a large area of contact between tongue and roof and air can only escape through two narrow gaps (one on each side near your upper wisdom teeth). Now shape the rest of your mouth and lips as if to make the long "eeee" vowel and blow gently NOT hard. The reputation for spitting comes from enthusiastic foreigners failing at this - Welsh people don't spit.

\> R is rolled. As in Arrrrrrrrr.

And some people just can't do this no matter how hard they try. I've found no way of teaching it to an adult that can't already do it. I think if you don't learn it as a child, it will be very hard. Note that in common (i.e. fast) speech the "rolled" R is so quick that only a single "revolution" of the roll is made (so it's hardly a roll) and it actually comes out sounding like an L. The roll is at the front of the mouth, not in the throat as it is in French.

\> Y is a bit funny... neutral 'uh' sound as in butter.

The SECOND syllable of "butter"! I hope that was clear. There is no hard short "u" sound (as in "but" "tug") in Welsh.

\> W... 'uh' as in book and 'oo' as in food, respectively.

And again, elongate and sing it to sound genuine.

\> See too many consonants at the end of a word (e.g. cefn)?

The missing vowel is always a "blank". So "cefn" rhymes with "heaven" and "seven".

\> Aran Fawddwy – 'ARR-an VOWTH-wee' ('th' as in that)

Stress is on the DDW. I'd have approximated it thus: vow-THOO-ee.

\> Rhyd Ddu – 'hrreed thee' ('th' as in that)

The vowel in Rhyd is the blank one as in second syllable of "Herod".

Cariad mawr,

Paul

Can we get a (Scottish) Gaelic version of this too at some point, please Mark? (I know the club doesn't go to Scotland all that often, but it'd be nice to have some advice from an expert for when we do...)