Welsh language myths 1. Welsh has no vowels


As part of Newsnet Scotland’s series on Scottish language myths, part 2 tomorrow, we are delighted to have some contributions on the subject of Welsh language myths.  We hope the comparison will throw some light on the similarities and differences between our two countries.

by Siôn Rees Williams

This myth has been propagated for more years than can be remembered, by those who have no love for the language and often want to prove the so-called ‘unpronouncability’ of the Welsh language.  For linguists and lovers of Welsh, this hackneyed old chestnut only goes to demonstrate how ignorant the presenters of this myth are.  In the run of things, the non-linguist English speaker will say that there are the following vowels in his alphabet: a, e, i, o, and u.  The first point of misunderstanding is obviously in thinking that the Welsh alphabet is identical to his own.  On closer examination this is clearly not true: Welsh lacks the letters k, q, v, x and z. (J is rather an imported letter, and not considered part of the alphabet by purists.  The ubiquitous surname, Jones, is actually an anglicisation and an English possessive to boot – previously, as all Celts, the Welsh used patronymics to denote familial relationships, not ‘other names’.)  The Welsh language does however possess the following digraphs used as single letters, unknown to English: ch, dd, ng, ll, ph, rh and th.  Each of these has its own place in the Welsh alphabet.

Firstly then, we consider the seeming lack of Welsh vowels.  In a simplified, non-linguistic analysis, we can inform our English colleague that all his ‘vowels’ are present in Welsh plus w and y.  Further, all such vowels can take the circumflex accent (^) lengthening their sound, and the diaresis (¨) enabling them to retain its ‘pure monothong sound’ when preceding another vowel.  Again, like English, two or three Welsh vowels can sit side by side causing a diphthong or triphong – such as in cae ‘a field’ or tywyllwch ‘darkness’.  To the uninitiated, the latter word looks bereft of any vowel; to a Welsh speaker, the vowels actually outnumber the consonants in the word: y, w, y and w as against t, ll and ch.

Again, to our non-linguist, words such as fly, sly, cry, spry etc have no vowels at all in English – and although the sound is recognised as being vocalic [ai], it is the linguist who will tell you so; the uneducated, upon seeing the written word would conclude that as none of the ‘usual suspects’ of letters/vowels have been provided, then no vowels are present in these words.  Alas for the dearth of vowels in English …  

This seeming lack of vowels then leads to other false analyses of a whole string of consonants – consonantal clusters as we linguists call them – in Welsh, whereas in fact there are regular syllables with vowels at their nuclei.  One has heard of similar accusations being made against Polish and the Balkan languages, all based on the misconception of assuming these languages’ alphabets are identical to the more familiar English one.  Yet, and in addition, English too, is a prime candidate for consonantal clusters – something which Far Eastern speakers of Chinese and Japanese often struggle with.  Let us consider these words, lacking as they are in vowels to break up an almost unpronounceable string of consonants: schedule, strict, spring, splat, pitch, crash.  (This last has the added difficulty for the Japanese in trying to distinguish it from clash).  And how about the daddy of consonantal clusters for English according to the Guinness Book of Records – latchstring – with a total of six consecutive consonants?

So no more ‘jokes’ at Welsh being like an unhelpful hand at Scrabble.  Indeed, in lacking the ‘awkward’ letters of j, k, q, v, x and z and having more vowels than English, being easier to spell and having full verbal conjugations and inflexional prepositions, it is probably easier to find words than in English.  Scrabble does actually exist in Welsh in any case.