The Grail Code 

How to Pronounce Those Impossible Welsh Names

Welsh looks impossible to English readers. Faced with a name like Gwrhyr Gwastawd Icithoedd, most of us probably just close our eyes till it’s over, or maybe throw the book against the wall.

But you can learn to bluster your way through those Welsh names as if you knew what you were talking about. It takes a little work, but it will really impress people at parties. Or it will bore them out of their minds. One or the other.

If you’re really interested in learning the Welsh of the Middle Ages, there’s a first-rate online course in medieval Welsh by Gareth Morgan at the University of Texas. If you just want to fool your friends, though, you can stay here at this page.

I don’t know much about medieval Welsh, and I’d love to have some expert point out where this page is wildly off the mark. While I was working on The Grail Code, I learned enough about medieval Welsh to pick my way laboriously through a few lines of verse, and after the book was written I forgot everything I had known. But I can pretend that I know how to pronounce those Welsh names, and that’s the skill we’re going to pass on to you.

The important thing to remember is that we’re not trying to pronounce Welsh accurately. We’re coming up with a sort of anglicized pronunciation that will let us drop a few Welsh names into casual conversation. We’re trying, in other words, to pronounce Welsh names as if we knew how, which will fool anyone who doesn’t actually know Welsh. And we can take consolation in the fact that even the Welsh don’t agree. To this day, half the native speakers of Welsh still think the other half don’t know how to pronounce Welsh.

Accents

We’ll start with the easy part. Most Welsh names are accented on the next-to-last syllable. There - that was easy, wasn’t it? Console yourself by remembering how easy that was when we get to the diphthongs.

Consonants

Welsh uses the Latin alphabet mostly to lull us into overconfidence. Many of the letters don’t sound at all like the same letters in other European languages.

Single consonants are mostly the same as in English, but with a few exceptions:

C is always hard, pronounced like K.

F is pronounced like our V.

G is always hard, pronounced like G in get, not G in gem.

There are, however, many consonant sounds in Welsh that can only be written by sticking two consonants together.

CH is like the Scottish CH in loch, the sort of sound you make when you’re clearing your throat.

DD is like English TH in then, never like TH in thick.

FF is like English F.

LL is completely foreign to English speakers. If you get your mouth ready to pronounce an L, and then try to say an H instead, you might get close.

PH is like English PH in photograph.

RH is a bit different from R alone, but not so much so that we need to worry about it.

TH is like English TH in thick, never like TH in then.

Vowels

Vowels are trickier. There are short sounds and long sounds for each vowel. For the purpose of blustering our way through occasional Welsh names, however, we’ll just pretend we don’t know the difference. We’ll come close to the real pronunciation, even if we don’t get it exactly right. Welsh speakers might think we have funny accents, but they would understand what we’re saying.

A is like English A in father.

E is like E in beta.

I is like I in machine.

O is like AW in thaw.

U (watch out for this one) is like I in machine; in the Middle Ages it was probably pronounced like French U in zut or German UE in Duesseldorf. Pronounce it that way if you want to show off. If you don’t know French or German, don’t worry about it. Why complicate your life?

W (as a vowel, which it often is) is like OO in book.

Y is a hard one. In one-syllable words, or in the last syllable of a word, it’s like I in machine. Otherwise, it’s like A in ago or U in cup.

Diphthongs

Now, at last, the diphthongs. There are lots of them, and some of them are completely foreign to English mouths.

AI, AU, and AY sound like I in line.

AW is pretty close to English AW in thaw.

EI and EU sound like I in line.

EW - well, you’ll get close if you pronounce the E as in beta, and then suddenly try to stick a W after it.

IW sound like eeew, the well-known American expression of disgust.

OE sounds like OY in toy.

WI usually sounds something like OOEY in phooey. But in certain words, usually after CH or G, it sounds more like UEE in queen.

YW sounds like IW.

Try it yourself

All together now: Can you say “Gwrhyr Gwastawd Icithoedd”?

GOOR-hir GWAS-tawd ik-ITH-oyth

We knew you could.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey