Welsh phonology

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 voiceless (ç)[2]
voiced ɬ 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 phoneme /ç/ is an allophone of /j/ when preceded by /h/, often as a result of h-prothesis of the radical word, e.g. iaith /jaiθ/ 'language' becomes ei hiaith [/eː çaiθ/] 'her language', resulting in /j/ i/ç/ hi.[2]

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.[3] 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 /j/ 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').[4]

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, Gwynedd.[5]

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

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

The vowels /ɨ̞/ and /ɨː/ occur only in Northern dialects; in Southern dialects they are replaced by /j/ 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 /h/ 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

Stress in polysyllabic words occurs most commonly on the penultimate syllable, more rarely on the final syllable (e.g. verbs ending in -áu).[6] 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:

ysgrif /ˈəsɡriv/ "article, essay"
ysgrifen /əsˈɡriven/ "writing"
ysgrifennydd /əsɡriˈvenɨð/ "secretary"
ysgrifenyddes /əsɡriveˈnəðes/ "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.[6] This high pitch is a remnant of the high-pitched word-final stress of early Old Welsh (derived from original penultimate stress in Common Brittonic 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.[7]


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  1. 1 2 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. 1 2 Ball & Watkins (1993), pp. 300–301.
  3. John C. Wells (26 June 2008), "Welsh ll", John Wells's phonetic blog, retrieved 15 July 2013
  4. John C. Wells (1982), Accents of English, Cambridge University Press, p. 390
  5. 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
  6. 1 2 Briony J. Williams (1983), Stress in Modern Welsh (Ph.D.), University of Cambridge. Distributed by Indiana University Linguistics Club
  7. Old and Middle Welsh, David Willis, University of Cambridge
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