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2  Pronunciation: Consonants and Vowels

2.1  Even if you were learning an ancient language with no modern continuation -- Hittite, say, or Egyptian -- you would still do well to pronounce it and read it aloud. Not only would you have more chance of appreciating rhetorical and poetic effects, but the very act of saying what you are learning would help you to learn it. Mouth and ear would be added to eye and mind in the process of understanding.

2.2  It is all the more important to say aloud what you learn of Middle Welsh. Welsh was developed early. Much of the Mabinogi is immediately accessible to the Welshman of today. It is especially true that Welsh pronunciation developed very early. If you read the Mabinogi in a modern pronunciation you will be close to the original sound. You will certainly be far closer to the author than a modern actor would be when speaking Shakespeare.

2.3  Modern Welsh pronunciation is divided broadly into two varieties, South and North. The Southern pronunciation is a little more accessible for English speakers. The sections that follow will deal with S speech: then the comparatively small differences of N speech will be described: lastly there will be some suggestion of how the medieval pronunciation very slightly differed.

2.4  The best way to learn pronunciation is by listening to a native speaker. If you can't get a live one, a number of elementary Welsh courses come with cassettes. Whether you use such things or not, some description and analogy with English pronunciation will be useful.

2.5  Consonants are approximately what they are in English. But

2.6  Digraphs are simple sounds written with two letters. Two of them are like English: But other digraphs are more deceptive: 2.7  The one consonantal sound quite alien to English (and most other languages) is the one represented by the digraph LL. Put your mouth into the position for saying a normal L (lack, loot, Billy, Paul). Relax the tension a little and "breathe through" the sound, i.e., make it a "spirant".

You might take this opportunity to analyse how you yourself make the sound L. A standard description is that you place the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge, and then let the flow of air pass on either side of the mouth. In practice, many people prefer one side of the mouth to the other. In Wales, this preference becomes so strong that many people pronounce their Ls unilaterally -- on one side of the mouth. (There is a tradition that this goes with handedness -- right-handed people on the right, left-handed on the left.) Allegedly this is part of the mobility of South Welsh faces, as you see the mouth twitching to one side every time an L is pronounced. Whether this is true or not, a unilateral L leads to a unilateral LL, and this seems easier to most learners than the bilateral variety.

2.8  All these digraphs (except RH) are considered as separate letters of the alphabet. (For example, the Welsh alphabet starts "a, bi, ec, ech, ed, edd . . .".) So, in dictionaries and vocabularies,

     words beginningCHare grouped after words beginningC

The same alphabetical order is used within words as well. This is very easy to forget. If you do, it can lead to irritation when you look up words.

2.9  The five vowels A, E, I, O, U, have both short and long pronunciations.

2.10  Short vowels:

2.11  Long vowels are found almost exclusively in monosyllables. The vowel in a monosyllable is short only if it is followed by a double consonant, or one of the consonants P, T, C (voiceless) or M, NG (nasal): Note 1: The P/T/C rule applies in Modern Welsh, and will be followed in this book. But medieval manuscripts do not necessarily observe a difference in spelling between final P/T/C and B/D/G.

Note 2: There are many apparent exceptions to the rules, but they are nearly all in words which are written as monosyllables, but which in fact are part of longer pronunciation groups. For instance, prepositions are automatically pronounced with what comes after them, so gan ('with'), yn ('in'), etc., have short vowels. So have articles yr, y ('the'); possessives fy, dy ('my', 'your'); and the conjunction a, ag ('and'). All these are short.

2.12  W can be a consonant or a vowel:

2.13  Stress falls almost universally on the second syllable from the end of the word (the "penultimate"). Exceptions will be marked in this text. Most exceptions fall into the class of "causative" verbs: glanháu ('to make things clean' -- glan), sicrháu ('to make things secure' -- sicr).

Note: Sometimes, stressed vowels (almost all in the last-but-one syllable) are lengthened to a certain extent, but this is very irregular and there are many dialect variations. Some modern grammars ignore this: Morris Jones' grammar sets up a different category of "half-long vowels". The most important group consist of plurals or other forms made from monosyllables that have long vowels in them.

2.14  Some words for practice:

(F and FF)arnafdecafbarafHafganPendefig
(W as a vowel)bwrddbwrwfwrwhwnnhwnnw
(GW+consonant may be a difficult cluster. Four of the final five words are monosyllables.)

2.15  Modern Welsh orthography takes a fairly high place for phonetic efficiency among the languages of the world -- as opposed to English, which would be close to last. The main flaws in Welsh are in the simple vowel Y, which has two pronunciations, and the diphthong WY (to be dealt with in Chapter 3) which can be equally ambiguous.

2.16  Y has two sounds. It can have the "high" sound, the same as I. This is the sound in monosyllables and final syllables. (Remember that it may be long or short: look back at 2.11 for the rule.) Elsewhere, it has the "middle" sound, the "schwa" or central vowel often represented in English by U (bun, lug) or by ER (father).

2.17  For practice:

(final high Y = I)
(central middle Y = 'schwa')
(central high Y)

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All text copyright © 1996 by Gareth Morgan. Online layout copyright © 2001 by Daniel Morgan.