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Lesson 1. Pronunciation


Revision 1.21 of this page, last updated on 2003/06/14.
(C)opyright 1994-2003 Mark H. Nodine

[By Roger Vanderveen <>, with editing by Mark Nodine <> and editing and sounds by Briony Williams <>.]

1.1. Introduction

One thing that is important to remember is that the pronunciation of Welsh varies widely between dialects. Therefore the student should remember that the pronunciations (and even the words) are guidelines, and regional varations are myriad.

1.2. Internet Orthography

Since the system of accents used in Welsh is not supported universally by the computers comprising the Internet and connected networks, a set of substitute characters has been devised by speakers of the Celtic languages who participate in network discussions. These will be used in this series of lessons. They are:

+ for circumflex, / for acute accent, % for  diaeresis, and \ for grave accent.

Thus, we have "ty+" for "house", "gweddi%o" for "to pray", "nesa/u" for "to approach", etc.

The symbol chosen for the circumflex may appear to be arbitrary, since almost all keyboards have a caret character; however the experience on the net was that the code used to represent the caret differed on different machines. These codes were specifically chosen because they were consistent across all known machines.
The effects that these accents have upon vowels is described in Section 1.8.

1.3. Simple Vowels

A simple vowel, i.e., a vowel that is not a diphthong, may be either long or short depending on its context and on whether or not there is a circumflex accent. There is a difference of duration and also of pronunciation between corresponding long and short vowels. Here are the rules for when vowels are short, and when they are long:

long vowels
Simple vowels (monophthongs) in stressed syllables take the long pronunciation when one and only one of the following consonants appears in the same syllable as the vowel (e.g., when word-final): b, d, g, (single) f, dd, some cases of l, n, m, and ng - and also when no consonant at all follows the vowel.

short vowels
If more than one consonant -- of any kind -- occurs after the simple vowel in the same syllable, then the vowel is short. Simple vowels in unstressed syllables are short, whatever the following consonant.
Here is how the vowels are pronounced:
As in UK English "can" (short) or UK "father", USA "gone" (long). Examples: "nghap" (short) and "gwlad" (long).
As in "let" (short) or Yorkshire/Scottish accent "late" (long) - i.e., like "late" but with no "eee" sound at the end of the vowel. Examples: "phen" (short) and "hen" (long).
As in "pit" (short) or "lean" (long). Examples: "mhin" (short) and "llid" (long).
As in UK "lot" (short) or Yorkshire/Scottish accent "coat" (long) - i.e., like "coat" but with no "ooo" sound at the end of the vowel. Examples: "siop" (short) and "ffos" (long).
A matter of discussion; in the south, it is completely equivalent to "i" (long or short), even in diphthongs; in the north, it's halfway between the vowels in "lick" and "look" (short) or "leap" and "loop" (long) with the lips not rounded but slack. The sound also seems to have a similar sound to the Russian yeri, but not centered so far back in the throat. Examples: "sut" (short) and "thus" (long).
As in "put" (short) or "soon" (long). Actually, "w" can represent either a vowel or a consonant in Welsh spelling. Examples: "twp" (short) and "rhwd" (long).
Has two sounds:
  1. like the vowel written "u", with the same geographical variants; can be long or short. This sound is referred to as clear y.
  2. the unstressed obscure vowel in the first syllable of "aside" (though in Welsh it can be stressed). It is always short. Examples: "llyfr" (clear, short), "gwy+dd" (clear, long), "bychan" (obscure).
"y" almost always takes sound 1 in word-final syllables, except for a few "small" words like y, yr, yn, yng, ym, fy, dy (sound 2). "y" takes sound 2 in non-final syllables, and in the above exceptions.

All of the vowel sounds in Welsh are pure vowels. One of the most difficult things for English speakers to overcome in pronouncing Welsh is the tendency in English to "diphthongize" vowels. For example, if you listen to yourself very closely when you pronounce the word "toe" (long o sound), you will find yourself putting an "oo" sound at the end. The trick is to clip the sound off before you get to the "oo" part. The same thing problem occurs with long a as in "bay": it tends toward having an "ee" at the end.

1.4. Diphthongs

As in English, it is often the case in Welsh that two vowels combine to form a diphthong.

ae, ai, au
These combinations sound like the Welsh long "a" quickly followed by long "i"; thus, they sound like the vowel in "bike", although the North Wales pronunciation of "ae" and "au" have the colo(u)ring listed above under the vowel "u". In the North, "ae", "ai", and "au" tend to become "a+". Examples: "caer", "main", "haul".

ei, eu, ey
These combinations are similar to "ae" et al. except that instead of starting from the Welsh "a", they start from a shwa sound (the "e" in "mother"). We don't have an exact counterpart in English. Again, the North Wales pronunciation of "eu" and "ey" is colo(u)red by their pronunciation of "u". In speech, (both North and South) the possessives "ei" (his, her) and "eu" (their) tend to become long "i". Examples: "peidio", "nheulu".

Like the "ow" in "now". Example: "faw".

We don't really have this sound in English. It is approximated by the English "e" in "get" followed quickly by the "oo" in "food", with the emphasis on the "e". Example: "tew".

iw, uw
Similar to the the "ew" sound in the English word "hew", except the emphasis is on the first part of the diphthong rather than the second. Examples: "lliw", "uwch".

This is just like the "o" in "home", including the diphthongization towards "oo". Example: "brown".

oe, oi, oy
Like "oy" in "boy". Examples: "noeth", "osgoi".

There are actually two versions of this diphthong: a rising version (stress on the "y"; the "w" is consonantal) and a falling one (stress on the "w"; the "y" is consonantal). Examples: "gw+ydd" (goose) is pronounced GOOH-eethe (falling); "gwy+dd" (trees) is pronounced GWEETHE (rising).

1.5. Consonants

As in English. Example: "bychan".
Always as in "cow" (even before e, i and y). Example: "caer".
As in Scottish "loch" (guttural "kh"-type sound). Example: "bychan".
As in English. Example: "dwyn".
Like "th" in English "the", never as in "think". Example: "gwy+dd".
Like English "v". Example: "faw".
Like English "f". Example: "ffos".
As in English. Example: "gw+ydd".
As in English. Example: "haul".
As in English (this is not a native Welsh sound). Example: "ngarej".
As in English. Example: "nheulu".
Put your tongue in the position for "l" and blow out. Example: "llid".
As in English. Example: "main".
Like it looks; not as hard as it sounds, since it almost always occurs after a vowel. Split it between two syllables if you like. Example: "mhin".
As in English. Example: "main".
Sort of like "mh"; split it into ng-h. Example: "nghap".
Similar to "mh". Example: "nheulu".
As in English. Example: "peidio".
As in English "phone"; it represents the same sound as "ff". Example: "phen".
Trilled with the tongue-tip. Example: "caer".
Like "r", followed by an aspiration of breath (h). Example: "rhwd".
As in English, though "si" is pronounced as in English "sh", and is found before "a", "e" and "o" only - e.g., "siop" (shop). Exception: the "s" in "sw" is pronounced like the English "z" in South Wales. Examples: "sut", "siop".
As in English. Example: "twp".
Like "th" in English "thug", never as in "this". Example: "thus".
Like "ch" in English "chip". (This is not a native Welsh sound.) Example: "mats".

1.6. Other Strange Combinations

Like "wy", "gw" is pronounced differently in different words. In "gwlad" (land), "gw" is little more than a "g" with lips rounded, so the word remains one syllable. But in "gw+ydd" (goose), it sounds more like "goo-eethe". Sometimes the accent gives a clue: if there is a circumflex over the "w", pronounce it like "oo".

wl, wn, wr
The consonant "w" can combine with "l", "n", or "r" to form a hybrid consonant. Examples: "gwlad", "gwneud", and "gwraig".

-fr, -fn, -gr, -tr, -bl, etc. at end of word
Often in speech, some vowel is inserted between the two letters of these combinations, making an extra syllable where there really isn't one. An example is "llyfr" (book) which becomes "llyfyr". The inserted vowel mirrors the one in the previous syllable (or the second part of it, if a diphthong). e.g., "cefn" becomes "cefen", "aml" becomes "amal", "ofn" is "ofon". [1]
Also, the final consonant is sometimes dropped, so "ffenestr" (window) becomes "ffenest" and "posibl" (possible) becomes "posib". The consonants that are often dropped are "f" (pronounced as /v/), and "l" and "r" when after other consonants.

-f at end of word
The letter "f" is considered a weak consonant in Welsh, and is often dropped when it is the final letter of a word. For example, "haf" (summer) is usually prounounced "ha".

1.7. Where Does the Stress Go?

The rule in Welsh is that the accent, or stress, goes on the penult (the next-to-last syllable). There are a few exceptions to this general rule, to be noted in the lessons. A regular exception to this rule is that words ending in "-hau" are accented on the last syllable.

Because of this rule, stress often shifts when a word adds an ending. For instance, "AFal", (apple), with stress on the first syllable, has a plural "afALau", (apples), with stress on the second syllable.

One slight trickiness is knowing when two adjacent vowels actually form separate syllables. For example, the letters "i" and "w" are often consonants rather than vowels. A common case is the ending "-io", as in "peidio" (to cease). The letter "i" is a consonant in this ending unless there is a diaeresis over is (as in "si%o"). The treatment of "ia", "iau, "ie" in a final syllable is identical; e.g., "tincian" (to tinkle) and "smotiau" (spots) are both two-syllable words.

Stress is sometimes a tricky thing to hear in Welsh, since the last syllable, especially in the last word of a clause or sentence, is uttered with a rising tone. So it sometimes sounds like the last syllable is stressed, to the ears of an English speaker. Hearing the accent correctly comes with practice, and it is a good idea to use tapes if you have no access to a native speaker. Example: "tystio". For further details, see Section E.1.

1.8. What Do the Accents Mean?

As mentioned in Section 1.2, there are four different kinds of accents that can occur in Welsh. An accent can only occur over a vowel, and in theory any accent can occur over any vowel. All of the accents are relatively rare. The following descriptions are in increasing order of rarity of occurrence.

A circumflex
Causes a vowel to be long where it would otherwise be short. Example: "ti+m" (team).
An acute accent
Causes the stress to occur on a syllable where it would normally not occur (usually the ultima, or last syllable). Example: "ambare/l" (umbrella).
A diaeresis
Causes the vowel to be pronounced separately when it would otherwise be part of a diphthong. Example: gweiddi%o (pray); in this case the vowel also assumes the accent, since it becomes the penult.
A grave accent
Causes the vowel to be short where it would otherwise be long. Example: "sio\l" (skull).

1.9. Words to Beware

There are a number of words of which the learner should be wary, since they look like English words, but are pronounced very differently--and often mean very different things. (Incidentally, there are only a few words that I have found that are spelled the same in English and Welsh, are pronounced the same, and have the same meaning: "anthem", "helm", and "mat".) Not all of these words are common, but watch out for them anyway.

Footnotes 1 (for the terminally curious)

These vowels that appear are known as epenthetic vowels. See Section E.2 for further details.

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14 June 2003 at 23:33:20