Monday, 11 June 2012


The severe flooding in mid-Wales over the weekend again provided something of a pronunciation problem for newsreaders on British radio and TV. The names of the villages Dôl-y-Bont (‘meadow of the bridge’) and Tal-y-Bont (‘end of the bridge’) had local reporters pronouncing the embedded Welsh definite article -y- in the Welsh way as ə, while less well-informed outsiders gave it an English spelling pronunciation i.

Another of the villages badly affected was Pennal, near Machynlleth. In an ITV report from there I was struck by the reporter’s pronouncing it as peˈnæl, with final stress. (There was also an English visitor who pronounced it in the expected English spelling-pronunciation way, as ˈpenl̩.) On consulting the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names (OUP 1990) I find that the form recommended there is ˈpenæl, i.e. with initial stress but unreduced second vowel. In this news clip from the BBC you can hear both stress patterns for penæl (or pɛnal, if you prefer). The etymology is pen ‘head’ plus hâl, where the second element might mean either ‘moor’ or ‘salt’. (“Despite now being a half mile from the estuary of Afon Dyfi, high tides did reach Afon Pennal … and Roman ships are believed to have had trade access up Afon Dyfi south of Pennal village” — Owen & Morgan, Dict. of the Place-Names of Wales, 2007).

According to Wikipedia,

Pennal is known for its historical association with Owain Glyndŵr. In Pennal Owain composed the famous Pennal Letter of 1406, a letter to the King of France setting out his plans for an independent Wales - the only document which stands as a policy document for an independent Wales in the Middle Ages. The letter was briefly returned to Wales from France for an exhibition at the National Library of Wales in 2000.
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Some of you may know Geoff Lindsey’s excellent blog Speech Talk. You may not be aware that Geoff also runs occasional five-day workshop courses on Contemporary English Pronunciation at UCL. The next one starts in a week’s time on 18 June, and he tells me that places are still available. I’m happy to recommend it.


  1. I am never sure, with Welsh place names which derive from words joined together, whether the stress will reflect the original phrase or will follow the usual stress rules as applied to the resultant single word. Although only a learner, I have a pretty strong hunch that Penycwm would have to be ˌpɛnəˈkʊm not *pɛˈnəkʊm, and that Pentre, now a word in its own right, would have initial stress even though I assume that it is originally from pen tre(f) and that in that phrase, tref would have the intonation nucleus (if that's the right term? I'm not a phonetician...) But are there any general rules about it?

    1. I believe it differs according to whether the place is in North or South Wales, with the north sometimes applying penultimate stress while the south uses a stressing that reflects the morphology. Thus Penyberth in Gwynedd is stressed on the -y-, peˈnəberθ, unlike most Pen-y-XXX places.

  2. The thing that struck me was the large proportion of residents interviewed who were obviously born and bred in England.

  3. The Welsh are never much for reducing their vowels.

  4. Aberffraw (Anglesey) is rendered locally as Berffro and Abermaw (Barmouth) is now Y Bermo (cf Y Bala). Welsh likes to drop the initial syllable especially if simply a short vowel.