SSi Forum

Baffling Welsh language things



So, first of all, when we talk about sounds we are often talking kind of metaphorically: in linguistics I can describe ‘i’ as a “high, front” vowel, because I’m talking about where the tongue is positioned in the mouth, but in a non-technical context we might just say that ‘i’ sounds ‘brighter’ than, say, ‘o’. So although ‘soft’ is the word people use, it’s just a metaphor. (Another more old-fashioned and technical term is ‘lenition’, which means making sounds ‘lighter’ or ‘weaker’ – because consonants like c/p/t were known to linguists as ‘fortes’ – ‘strong’ sounds. It’s all just metaphorical, only this time in Latin.)

And you’re right about c/g etc.: the difference in Welsh and English is bigger than the difference in Italian, but even so I’m sometimes still not sure whether I’ve heard @aran say a ‘c’ or a ‘g’.

The difference in English is bigger than Italian because there are two differences in English, and only one in Italian. In both languages one sound of the pair is ‘voiced’ and the other is ‘unvoiced’, and that’s what we think of as the main difference: a voiced sound is one that makes your vocal cords buzz, while an unvoiced one is one you can whisper. The easiest pair to do this with is probably f/v (Italian/English spelling): if you place your fingertips against your throat and alternate saying fffffff / vvvvv you can feel the difference.

But it’s actually the other difference, that most English and Welsh speakers probably aren’t aware of, that helps account for c/p/t sounding ‘harder’ or ‘harsher’ to us than g/b/d (hence the ‘softening’ metaphor). For this one it helps if you roll your own cigarettes, or know someone who does (although a strip of tissue paper will do), and have access to a native English or Welsh speaker. You see, there are two different sets of c/p/t sounds in English. One, after ‘s’ in words like Scot, spot, stop, sounds like Italian – the only difference from g/b/d is the voicing. But the other – initial English c/p/t as in cot, pot, top – is normally ‘post-aspirated’: they’re followed by a puff of air almost like an English or Welsh ‘h’, which most speakers are completely unaware of. And this is where the native speaker and the cigarette paper come in: if a native speaker holds a piece of thin paper up in front of their lips as they say ‘spot - pot - spot - pot’ you can see the difference. When they say ‘spot’, the paper will move a bit – when they say ‘pot’ it’ll be much more dramatic, because of that extra puff of air. Alternatively, get someone who speaks Italian with a really English accent, and listen to them trying to say capra. See how wrong it sounds!

(Actually, as I was thinking about this I realized that the Welsh spellings with g/b/etc. for borrowed words like esgus and sbâr – for ‘excuse’ and ‘spare’ – might reflect an earlier scribal awareness of the difference between English sc-/c- and sp-/p- sounds.)

So anyway: in certain situations ‘stronger’ / ‘harder’ / ‘harsher’ sounds tended to get made ‘weaker’ / ‘softer’ by being voiced, and losing post-aspiration if they had it. In the same contexts existing voiced sounds were made weaker by being relaxed a bit, so that instead of stopping the air flow it was allowed to go through as a sort of a hiss or buzz (fricatives): so d becomes dd and g goes from Italian to Spanish-style before vanishing. In the same way b became like a Spanish b(β) – a v, but with both lips rather than bottom lip and top teeth – before shifting to a labiodental (lips and teeth) v as it is today; m seems to have been more or less the same, but with a nasal sound to it, before settling down to an ordinary v as well.

At roughly the same time, the reverse happened to initial r and l – in certain contexts (mostly where the other sounds weren’t softened), they got ‘strengthened’ with extra breath instead, becoming rh and ll. If you look up Welsh grammar mutation rules online (suggestion: don’t bother) you’ll see that there are a few circumstances where the other sounds get softened, but rh and ll don’t.

Oh, and the change in Italian that turns ‘c’ from capra into ciao when it’s followed by an ‘i’ or an ‘e’? It also happened in Old English, too: cycen (modern ‘kitchen’) is the same word as cucina and cegin :slight_smile:

Gair y Diwrnod - Word of the Day

Oh, absolutely – I suspect that if you took a global view it’s probably far from unique, but within Europe and within Indo-European it’s really very distinctive indeed.


I just had a look and Wikipedia here lists ways in which consonant mutation happens in a whole range of languages — it’s common when a suffix is joined onto a root word (this happens in English too, e.g. act — action, where the “t” becomes a “tsh” sound), but it seems it’s quite rare for initial consonants to be mutated as they are in the Celtic languages. The only other ones I can see in Wikipedia’s list that do initial consonant mutations are the Central Vanuatu languages and the Fula language from West and Central Africa. There are probably others, but it does look like Celtic-style mutations are uncommon worldwide as well as unique in Europe. :slight_smile:

(Meanwhile, reading down to the end of the article, I’ve got onto Sindarin — which is intriguing, but I think my ancestors’ real (now revived) language needs me more than Tolkien’s invented ones do… :grinning: )


Whoa that’s a lot of details I didn’t know, @RichardBuck, thanks!

And as soon as I have access to a native Welsh or English speaker I’ll definitely do the test. :wink:


A quick afterthought - a lot of English speakers hear an un-post-aspirated (say, Italian) ‘t’ as being sort of half-way to being a ‘d’. My children’s grandmother is Brazilian, so we use some Portuguese words with family members. My son used to keep referring to his aunt as “Dear Sandy” :slight_smile:


Yes, exactly - because it’s spoken by humans, but Esperanto speakers are generally very aware of the need to keep it international and avoid it developing local/regional varieties, so it’s way more regular than any “natural” languages. The quirks that exist tend to be in-jokes that everyone learns as part of Esperanto culture, such as calling it “crocodiling” when someone speaks their mother tongue at an Esperanto gathering, or “alligatoring” when they speak a second language that isn’t Esperanto at an Esperanto gathering :smile:


Oddly enough, to us it’s the way British natives pronounce t that sounds half-way to being a d. :astonished:

Dear Sandy is funny but still nice, at least! :smile:

Edit: I guess I’m getting confused with all these sounds. It’s the d that sounds half-way to a t to us!


Now I’m curious as to where those in-jokes come from and what they mean… or do I have to start learning Esperanto to find out?? :wink:


Yes, now you mention it, you are right. Especially in the North of England (possibly Scotland and Ireland and parts of the US also?), the end of syllable t in the middle of a word is naturally softened to a d and a th to a dd. Old London Cockney is more extreme with the glottal stop (glo_al). Computer is a good example.

Unfortunately, I tend to do the same in Cymraeg, sometimes. However, fortunately words like Lidiard, stryd, Prydain etc have already been softened for me.


When my mum was a lollipop lady an Irishman driving a lorry stopped to ask her for directions to the bedding shop. She’d sent him off to a furniture showroom before she realised that he actually probably just wanted to back Laughing Boy in the 2:30 at Newmarket :smile:


Curiously, there are pockets of Welsh speakers in the south where the ‘d’ in the middle of a word starts to sound more like a ‘t’ again - “wedes i” becoming “wetes i” :slight_smile:


I’m not sure where those particular words come from, but ‘to crocodile’ has been around for a while. ‘To alligator’ is a more recent addition, when people started saying “but I’m not crocodiling! This isn’t my mother tongue” and someone decide “to alligator” would be a good way to describe it.


And I have noticed - possibly younger, “Estuary”, English speakers (in England) pronouncing words like “had” as “hat”, i.e. the “d” hardening to “t”.


The d hardening to t reminds me of the dissappearing “calediad” in the south Wales Valleys, where “d” s are pronounced like a “t”.
I still hear older speakers saying things like wtw or otw for ydw.

In a lot of old Welsh texts the modern spelling of words with a d is often spelt with a t instead as well, so I suspect there has been a shift over time, at least in the South, from t to d in many words and some older speakers still speak like that.


I think that if we’re talking about really old manuscript spellings like in things such as the Mabinogi or Canu Aneirin then it’s actually an older phenomenon than that.
Essentially, the sound changes that turned British into Old Welsh are believed to have already started in the Roman period, so when British speakers learnt to read and write Latin they were probably already saying, say, Bridannia, but writing Britannia, or writing cucina but saying cugina. Presumably other Latin speakers from other provinces would mostly understand them but sometimes make jokes or tell anecdotes about them, like my mum with the ‘bedding shop’.

(Lucius: So why do you keep calling the new guy Bridannigus?
Marcus: Oh well, you know these Britons, they all talk like they’ve god a perbaded cowd id de head – it’s probably the weather up there in Britannia.
Lucius: Sdob beig such a dease, Barcus…)

But anyway: when Welsh started to be written down, if you were already literate in Latin, and knew that the right way to spell a -d- sound was with a letter t, it was natural to spell, say, koet with a t. That doesn’t mean that they actually said ‘koet’ at that period – I gather there is reason to believe they were already pronouncing it as coed. Then there was a big shift in the Middle Welsh period to a spelling system much more like the modern one, but of course some Middle Welsh manuscripts were copied from much older Old Welsh originals in the old spellings – and sometimes the scribes modernized, and sometimes they didn’t, and sometimes they did so inconsistently, and sometimes we’ve got versions of the same text in different MSS in two different spelling systems.

And the same thing applies to a lot of initial mutations that we were talking about earlier – they simply wouldn’t record them because (a) they were obvious from context and (b) if ‘t’ was pronounced ‘d’ at the end of the word troet (troed) then why not do the same with the initial ‘t’ when you wanted to say i troet (=ei droed, ‘his foot’). Sometime in the Middle Welsh period they started getting written down, but fairly inconsistently – especially in the case of rh- and ll-.


One thing that I find handy, thinking of @Dee 's comment:
The hard and soft sounds tend to indicate in which county I will find Llancatock and Llangadog (I think).


Perhaps one reason why mutations are difficult is because we label them as such and declare them to be difficult. Unless someone corrects me otherwise, I would think that Welsh is no more difficult for native kids to learn than any other language. (That would make an interesting study in itself.) But as adults, when we try to learn a second language without the luxury of doing nothing but listening to it for years as we would for a first language, we have to somehow explain the rules. Maybe we make them too difficult. I like the approach where as little complicated grammar as possible is taught, with a bit thrown in when it makes things easier.
In English there is only one way to say “the”; in Italian you have “il”, “la”, “gli” and several others. For me, it’s mind-spinning. But you wouldn’t even need to think about it!
I think it depends how you look at it.


Good point, Baruch. My mum is a native Polish speaker and that’s a language with (I think) seven different noun cases — which would blow my mind as a speaker of English where we don’t even have the concept of noun cases, let alone seven of them. But to Mum it would just be the perfectly natural thing that happens and I doubt she has to think about it at all. So I think of mutations as just part of what makes the language what it is — a bit of fun and added excitement, not an insurmountable bafflement. :smile:


On a related point, children seem to pick up easily whether to say “the” (with the ‘uh’ sound, before a consonant) or “the” (with the ‘ee’ sound, before a vowel, like the old word ‘thee’).


What? I’ve been doing this ‘wrong’ for the last 60 years. Why was I never told about this rule? I’ve just been listening to my mum and she gets it wrong too! How am I going to break this news to her? :wink: