Welsh phonology

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The phonology of Welsh is characterised by a number of sounds that do not occur in English and are typologically rare in European languages, such as the voiceless alveolar lateral fricative [ɬ] and several voiceless sonorants (nasals and liquids), some of which result from consonant mutation. Stress usually falls on the penultimate syllable in polysyllabic words, while the word-final unstressed syllable receives a higher pitch than the stressed syllable.


Welsh has the following consonant phonemes:[1]

Labial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
central lateral
Nasal voiceless ŋ̊
voiced m n ŋ
Plosive voiceless p t k
voiced b d ɡ
Affricate voiceless (t͡ʃ)
voiced (d͡ʒ)
Fricative voiceless f θ s ɬ ʃ χ h
voiced v ð (z)
Trill voiceless
voiced r
Approximant voiced l j w

Symbols in parentheses are either allophones, or found only in loanwords. The sound /z/ generally occurs in loanwords, e.g. sw /zuː/ ('zoo'), although this is usually realised as /s/ in northern accents, e.g. /suː/. The postalveolar affricates /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ occur mainly in loanwords, e.g. tships /tʃɪps/ ('chips') and jeli /ˈdʒɛli/ ('jelly'), but also in some dialects as developments from /tj/ and /dj/, e.g. /dʒaul/ from diafol /ˈdjavɔl/ ('devil'). The voiceless nasals /m̥ n̥ ŋ̊/ occur mostly word-initially, as a consequence of nasal mutation. Initial /χw/ (or /χʷ/) is colloquially realised as [ʍ] in the south, e.g. chwech /χweːχ/ ('six') pronounced [ʍeːχ].

The stops /p t k/ are distinguished from /b d ɡ/ by means of aspiration more consistently than by voicing, as /b d ɡ/ are actually devoiced in most contexts. This devoiced nature is recognised in the spelling of /sp sk/ as sb sg, although /st/ is orthographically st for historical reasons.

The fricatives /v ð/ may also be devoiced in some contexts, but are distinguished from /f θ/ by having a shorter frication length than the latter. There is a tendency in the spoken language not to pronounce these voiced fricatives in certain contexts, e.g. nesaf /nɛsav/ ('next') realised as /ˈnɛsa/ or i fyny /iː ˈvənɨ/ ('up') from mynydd /mənɨ̞ð/ ('mountain'). Historically, this occurred so often with the voiced uvular fricative that it disappeared entirely from the language. Some speakers realise the voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/ as an voiceless palatal fricative [ç] in some or all contexts.[2] The occurrence and distribution of the phoneme /ʃ/ varies from area to area. Very few native words are pronounced with /ʃ/ by all speakers, e.g. siarad /ˈʃarad/ ('talk'), although it appears in borrowings, e.g. siop /ʃɔp/ ('shop'). In northern accents, it can occur when /s/ precedes /iː j/ or /j/, e.g. mi es i /mi ˈeːʃ iː/ ('I went'). In some southern dialects it is produced when /s/ follows /ɪ/ or /iː/, e.g. mis /miːʃ/ ('month'). The voiceless fricative /χ/ is realised as uvular except by some southwestern speakers, who produce the sound in the velar region.

The /r/ phoneme is reportedly pronounced as a voiced uvular fricative by some speakers in Dyfed and Gwynedd, in a pronunciation known as tafod tew ('thick tongue').[3]

In northern Welsh, the alveolar lateral approximant is consistently velarised or "dark" in all positions, but remains unvelarised or "clear" in the south.


A chart plotting the vowel formants of a Welsh speaker from Bangor.[4]

The vowel phonemes of Welsh are as follows:[1]

Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close ɪ ɨ̞ ɨː ʊ
Mid ɛ ə (əː) ɔ
Open a ɑː

The vowels /ɨ̞/ and /ɨː/ occur only in Northern dialects; in Southern dialects they are replaced by /ɪ/ and /iː/ respectively. In Southern dialects, the contrast between long and short vowels is found in stressed syllables only; in Northern dialects, the contrast is found only in stressed word-final syllables (including monosyllabic words).

The vowel /ə/ does not occur in the final syllable of words (except a few monosyllabic proclitics). In Southern dialects, schwa can be long or short. In Northern dialects, schwa is always short, because long vowels appear only in word-final syllables, a position where schwa never appears.

Diphthongs Second component
First component front central back
close ʊi ʊɨ ɪu, ɨu
mid əi/ɛi, ɔi əɨ/ɛɨ, ɔɨ əu/ɛu, ɔu
open ai aɨ, ɑːɨ au

The diphthongs containing /ɨ/ occur only in Northern dialects; in Southern dialects /ʊɨ/ is replaced by /ʊi/, /ɨu, əɨ~ɛɨ, ɔɨ/ are merged with /ɪu, əi~ɛi, ɔi/, and /aɨ, ɑːɨ/ are merged with /ai/. There is a general tendency in the South to simplify diphthongs in everyday speech, e.g. Northern /ɡwɑːɨθ/ corresponding to /ɡwaːθ/ in the South, or Northern /ɡwɛiθjɔ/ and Southern /ɡwiθɔ/.

Stress and pitch[edit]

Stress in polysyllabic words occurs most commonly on the penultimate syllable, more rarely on the final syllable (e.g. verbs ending in -áu).[5] Exceptions can arise in relation to borrowings from foreign words, such as ambiwlans and testament, and words with an epenthetic echo vowel such as cenedl /ˈkɛnɛdɛl/. According to its positioning, related words or concepts (or even plurals) can sound quite different, as syllables are added to the end of a word and the stress moves correspondingly, e.g.:

ysgrif /ˈəsɡriv/ — 'an article or essay'
ysgrifen /əsˈɡriven/ — 'writing'
ysgrifennydd /əsɡriˈvenɨð/ — 'a secretary'
ysgrifenyddes /əsɡriveˈnəðes/ — 'a female secretary'
ysgrifenyddesau /əsɡrivenəˈðesaɨ/ — 'female secretaries'

Note also how adding a syllable to ysgrifennydd to form ysgrifenyddes changes the pronunciation of the second y. This is because the pronunciation of y depends on whether or not it is in the final syllable.

Stress on penultimate syllables is characterised by a low pitch, which is followed by a high pitch on the (unstressed) word-final syllable. In words where stress is on the final syllable, that syllable also bears the high pitch.[5] This high pitch is a remnant of the high-pitched word-final stress of early Old Welsh (derived from original penultimate stress in Proto-Brythonic by the loss of final syllables); the stress shift from final to penultimate occurred in the Old Welsh period without affecting the overall pitch of the word.[6]


  1. ^ a b Glyn E. Jones (1984), "The distinctive vowels and consonants of Welsh", in M. J. Ball; G. E. Jones, Welsh Phonology: Selected Readings, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, pp. 40–64, ISBN 0-7083-0861-9 
  2. ^ John C. Wells (26 June 2008), "Welsh ll", John Wells's phonetic blog, retrieved 15 July 2013 
  3. ^ John C. Wells (1982), Accents of English, Cambridge University Press, p. 390 
  4. ^ Martin J. Ball (1984), "Phonetics for phonology", in M. J. Ball; G. E. Jones, Welsh Phonology: Selected Readings, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, pp. 5–39, ISBN 0-7083-0861-9 
  5. ^ a b Briony J. Williams (1983), Stress in Modern Welsh (Ph.D.), University of Cambridge. Distributed by Indiana University Linguistics Club 
  6. ^ Old and Middle Welsh, David Willis, University of Cambridge