Tuesday, 30 June 2009


Britain’s latest UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, north Wales.
The structure, built by Thomas Telford and William Jessop, is the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain.

Pontcysyllte is such a lovely name that it would be a pity to let the occasion pass without mention.
Wikipedia tells us that its Welsh pronunciation is ˌpɔntkəˈsʌɬtɛ. Myself, though, I would transcribe it ˌpɔntkəˈsəɬtɛ (or more simply as ˌpontkəˈsəɬte). The Welsh schwa is indeed stressable, despite being mid central, and has the same quality in the penultimate syllable of this word as it has in the antepenultimate. There is no reason to use the symbol ʌ in transcribing Welsh itself. The reason some people do is that in Welsh English the equivalent sound is used in STRUT words.

The first part of the name is the Welsh word for ‘bridge’, pont, an obvious Latin borrowing (pons, pont-, hence French pont) dating from the time before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, when the Latin-speaking Roman urban population and legionaries interacted with an indigenous British-speaking (= early Welsh speaking) rural population. (That is why there are several hundred Latin loanwords in Welsh.)
What is the second element? It looks like a local dialect form of cysylltau, plural of cyswllt ˈkəsʊɬt ‘joint, junction’. This is related to the rather more frequently encountered verb cysylltu kəˈsəɬtɨ ‘join, connect’. So perhaps the name means something like ‘junction(s) bridge’.

The nearby village is called Froncysyllte, ‘junction brow’. Somehow it sounds less romantic when turned into English. Bron (when soft-mutated, fron) is the brow of a hill but the breast of a person or animal, hence the name Bronwen ‘white breast’.

The stem of cyswllt, cysylltau, cysylltu, too, is of Latin origin. It can be traced to the Latin word consolidus, which has given us English consolidate.

The aqueduct is only two hundred years old, so did not exist in Roman times. I wonder, though, whether there might have been a Roman bridge nearby, called pons consolida.

[I remember at the oral exam when I did a GCSE in Welsh the first question the examiner asked me was, Beth yw eich cysylltiad chi gyda Chymru? ‘What is your connection with Wales?’, to which I could only answer Dim ond diddordeb ieithyddol ‘just linguistic interest’. Sorry, that’s nothing to do with phonetics, it just relates to cysyllt-.]


  1. Interestingly, Geraint Lewis's (2007) "Y Llyfr Enwau: Enwau'r Wlad (a check-list of Welsh place-names)" suggests pont + cysylltu ("link bridge") for Pontcysyllte, as you suggest. But for Froncysyllte it suggests "bron + cysyll (o 'syllu') + lle: viewing place on the hillside".

    To drag this back to phonetics, I would note that Welsh syllable-final plosives are much more likely to have audible release than English syllable-final plosives, so it might be worth pointing out to L2 learners of Welsh (such as you and me, though you are far more advanced than I am) that [pɔntkəsəɬtɛ] is not necessarily [pɔnt̚kəsəɬtɛ] or [pɔnʔkəsəɬtɛ] (which miɡht be temptinɡ pronunciations for L1 English speakers).

    PS It's much easier to work out the etymology of my local bridge: Pont y Borth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menai_Suspension_Bridge)

  2. A while back you gave suggestions for how to practise/acquire a trilled alveolar r, [r]. Do you have any hints for how pick up [ɬ] in the absense of a Welsh speaker?

    I can't help but suspect that what I'm really producing is some sort of /hl/.

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  4. Sili.

    To produce a [ɬ]

    * Grip the tip of your tongue lightly between your upper and lower front teeth

    * Exhale sharply, so that the air rushes out of either side of your mouth.

    Once you have become comfortable with this technique, the gripping of the tongue may be abandoned.

    Disclaimer: I am not a Welsh speaker.

  5. @sili, @vp
    I'll do a separate blog entry about this question, either tomorrow or sometime soon.

  6. Sili: The best advice I can give you is to start with a clear dental [l] (not alveolar, as in English). Then make sure that one side of your tongue is up against your teeth and cheek (Welsh ll is inherently one-sided), and that the other side is close enough to produce frication, but not enough to stop the airflow altogether. Remove voicing et voila.

  7. Why do you insist that Welsh [ɬ] is "dental, not alveolar"? I know of no evidence for that. Still less is it interdental, as vp implies.

  8. I didn't mean to imply that [ɬ] is interdental: just that holding the tongue between the teeth is a useful trick to help produce one's first lateral fricative.

    Once the speaker has the hang of what a lateral fricative is, it will be easy to produce an alveolar lateral fricative, which is what I meant to suggest by saying that the gripping of the tongue could be abandoned.

  9. Are all Welsh words with the prefix cy- or cyn- borrowings from Latin (com-)? Or is cyn- also a native formant?

  10. I don't "insist it's dental", I just think you can pronounce it more easily if you make it dental, and that it's unlikely that any Welsh-speaker (as opposed to phoneticist) will hear the difference.

  11. Probably easiest to start from words like subtlety in English, with a syllabic [l] between unvoiced consonants, then work on losing its voicedness.

  12. Consolidus is said to be 'firm' (hence its use as a name for several companies - firm ~ company, geddit?), but I suppose it's a Vulgar Latin back-formation from the verb (In consolidare con- is an intensive prefix); it is not mentioned in any of my classical dictionaries.

  13. Are [ɬθ], [lð] (and [ɬð], [lθ]) permitted clusters in Welsh? I'm wondering why (and I don't have Jackson LHEB at hand) if Latin consolid-at-(io) or similar might help if it contributes to keeping the resulting dental voiceless.

  14. I'm going to post this anonymously as it will get timestamped during working hours!

    @Cecil Ward:
    The corresponding orthography would be "llth", "ldd" (and "lldd", "lth") - sorry not to use angle-brackets to denote orthography but it thinks I'm trying to enter HTML. There is a useful searching lexicon at http://www.cs.cf.ac.uk/fun/welsh/LexiconForms.html
    which lets you search for partial words. The only one of these combinations that it finds is "ldd", and the instances it gives all seem to be words built from a root ending in "l" and another starting with "dd" (in fact soft-mutated from "d"), e.g. canolddydd (midday) = canol + dydd), so I guess that you would consider the "l" and "dd" to be in separate syllables; I don't know enough about phonetics to know whether this counts as a cluster.

  15. You could sign with your name or a handle inside the comment text.

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  17. http://www.howjsay.com/index.php?word=pontcysyllte&submit=Submit