Tuesday 15 February 2011

worrying about Wyre

Anyone who watches BBC TV or listens to BBC radio will have heard the name of Wyre Davies, currently the BBC’s Middle Eastern correspondent. Everyone pronounces his first name as ˈwɪrə.

And therein lies something of a mystery. I wonder if anyone can shed light on it.

Wyre is Welsh, and his first name is presumably Welsh too. After all, it can’t be English: if it were the English name so spelt it would be pronounced ˈwaɪə, as in the Lancashire placename.

No, it must be Welsh, and presumably a hypocoristic form of some longer name. But — (i) I cannot discover what this longer name might be, and (ii) there is a phonotactic rule in Welsh to the effect that the vowel ə cannot occur in final syllables (as it does here).

As a Welsh name you would expect Wyre to be the pet form of some name beginning Wyr- or Gwyr-. (Welsh g soft-mutates to zero.) But I know of no such name. Perhaps the nearest is Gwilym, the Welsh for ‘William’.

Given the Welsh spelling -e you would expect the pronunciation to be e, as in bore ‘morning’ ˈboɾe, which you may know from the greeting bore da! ‘good morning!’. Since English doesn’t allow the DRESS vowel in final position, that would map onto English . But all the other BBC presenters are consistent in calling Wyre not ˈwɪreɪ but ˈwɪrə.

In Welsh the schwa vowel is always spelt y. It can be stressed or unstressed. But it cannot be in a word-final syllable. So for example the word for ‘mountains’ is mynyddoedd məˈnəðoið; but if we strip off the plural suffix we are left with the singular mynydd, which is pronounced ˈmənið.

Correspondingly, given the Welsh spelling y (not counting the digraph wy) the reading rules tell you that the pronunciation will be ə, except in a final syllable, where it will be i. (The sole syllable of a monosyllable is inevitably final. There are footnotes here, which we can ignore, relating to north Welsh ɨ and to proclitic function words.) One of the words for ‘is’, ydy, is ədi; one of the words for ‘valley’ is dyffryn ˈdəfrin. One of the words for ‘man’ is dyn diːn, plural dynion ˈdənjon. All of these exemplify the reading rule for y.

OK, the spelling wy can be an exception to this rule, so we needn’t worry about the first syllable of Wyre ˈwɪrə. But the final vowel remains very unexpected, and from the standpoint of Welsh phonetics seems to be impossible.


  1. It seems there's an Afon Wyre in the county of Ceredigion.

  2. Yes, it flows from Llangwyryfon down to Llanrhystud: see map (and scroll to the left).
    Llangwyryfon ('church of the maidens') would formally be ɬanɡujˈrəvon but according to my sources is more usually ɬanˈɡurðon. Could the river somehow have taken its name from the village, and Mr Davies his name from the river? The mystery deepens.

  3. There are some Welsh disyllables that end in -e: bore as you say and cyfle, for example.

    So why can't Wyre be /ˈwəɾɛ/? This would normally be anglicised as /ˈwᴧreɪ/. Or we can replace the ə with ɪ to give /ˈwɪɾɛ/ in Welsh and /ˈwɪreɪ/ English.

    Actually, for a final short /ɛ/, English /ə/ is good an approximation as /eɪ/. So /ˈwɪrə/ would make sense for an anglicisation of Welsh /ˈwɪɾɛ/.

  4. Isn't it possible that he says /ˈwɪɾɛ/ in Welsh but for some reason he anglicizes it as /ˈwɪrə/ rather than /ˈwɪreɪ/?

    @Pete: I'd anglicize əɾ to NURSE not STRUT, but that's another matter.

  5. @army1987: Yeah that should be possible, assuming Mr Davies speaks Welsh.

    Yeah NURSE is probably a better match for Welsh [ə] than STRUT in most non-rhotic accents, differing mainly in length. But in Wales, STRUT is realised as [ə], so to them it's an even better match - perfect in fact. The rest of us then naturally follow their anglicisation, even though we often realise STRUT in our own ways.

    There's a Welsh band called Gorky's Zygotic Mynci (i.e. "Gorky's Zygotic Monkey"). These guys clearly chose Welsh /ə/ (spelt y) as a match for the STRUT vowel of monkey. This is not anglicisation though, but the reverse process - cambricisation?

    Sorry--bit off topic there.

  6. I'm with Pete and army on the last vowel. I actually think /ˈwɪrə/ is a more likely anglicization than /ˈwɪreɪ/ for the final ɛ. I was already thinking that in the anecdotal Welsh of my childhood 'bore da!' was ˈbɒrə dɑː.

    As for the wɪ, the comments feed gave me a comment from Ian Preston which has mysteriously not appeared here. He said "There's a recording of someone from Ceredigion pronouncing the name of the river here (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cy-Afon_Wyre.ogg). Sounds very like /ˈwɪɾɛ/ to me."

    What it sounds like to me is the digraph wy that JW mentions, and again I think the most likely Anglicization of such a falling diphthong would be to make it a rising one, i.e. precisely wɪ.

  7. I think I remember him using ˈwᴧrə in the past, when he was the BBC's Wales Correspondent. If not, I'm sure somebody used it of him.

    This would square with his status then, broadcasting from Wales to the wider English-speaking world, and so anglicising his name slightly. The fact that he's now completely removed from Wales might explain the further anglicisation to something nearer the spelling for the baffled readers around him.

    Some people are more interested in being recognised and understood that preserving the sound of their origin. Hence Norman Lamont ('lamnt) and John Menzies ('mɪŋız). I've been told that the Australian Sir Robert considered himself really 'mɪŋɪz but chose to become 'mɛnzi:z. We have a friend called Inglis ('ıŋglz) who even in Scotland answers to 'ıŋglɪs.

  8. Pete

    Wyre Davies speaks Welsh with a fluency that suggests that it's his first language.

  9. If he does pronounce his name ˈwᴧrə it doesn't seem it can be the same as the disappeared Ian Preston's sound file for the river (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cy-Afon_Wyre.ogg).

    Can anyone explain this disappearance? How could his comment appear in my inbox as having been posted here? There's no sign that it's been deleted.

  10. @Mallamb: ... the disappeared Ian Preston's sound file ...

    I haven't disappeared, even if my comment appears to have done so. It wasn't particularly insightful but I thought the link might be useful to somebody. It was there for a moment than it went. It is not the first time it has happened when I've tried to comment here actually. Perhaps something I'm doing triggers something - I guess the survival or not of this ocomment will prove something about what it is I'm doing wrong.

  11. Congratulations! I wasn't aware of any glitches like that in previous discussion (on Marathi, for ex). Perhaps some markup expert not party to this may yet throw some light on it.

  12. I wasn't aware of any glitches like that in previous discussion (on Marathi, for ex).

    Indeed not. Maybe it has happened when I've tried linking to things improperly somehow. I don't think the world has lost much from the disappearance of my comments but it would be nice to know for my own benefit how to avoid it happening.

  13. As the owner of the blog I have the ability to delete any comments I choose. I exercise that right only if, for example, someone calling themselves CheapViagra posts a comment with a link to a website purporting to sell it.

    You who comment can later delete your own comment, but that leaves a trace behind. I often clear things up by deleting the trace too, which I assume is what you would like.

    I have not deleted any comment of yours, Ian.

  14. Does the Anglicisation have to start directly from a Welsh /ɛ/ ? After all, there are dialects in Wales where /a/ is substituted in final unstressed syllables (leading to spellings like "bora", "capal"). While that's not a shwa either it seems more likely to become one if Anglicised. The relevant regions are in the North West and (historically at least) the South East, so not particularly near Ceredigion.

    Andrew Woode


  15. I have not deleted any comment of yours, Ian.

    I can confirm I haven't been trying to sell CheapViagra either. Mysterious.

  16. It's entirely possible the name Wyre isn't Welsh at all. Just because he's Welsh doesn't mean his first name has to be. After all, my parents are neither German nor Italian, but named me after a character in a German novella who had an Italian first name. And here in Germany there are plenty of non-Irish little boys named Patrick and Kevin.

  17. Hi John,

    When Wyre used to report for Radio Cymru, he would be introduced as ['wɨrɛ] by NWelsh speakers and ['wɪrɛ] by SWelsh speakers (maybe the [ɨ] in the first example should be a barred [ɪ] but I don't have that in my font...). Certainly the final vowel is not usually a schwa--I imagine the ['wɪrə] pron. by non-Welsh speaking newsreaders is the closest they can get to what the BBC pronunciation dept tells them.

    I don't know of a longer form from which Wyre derives (but Welsh has many diminutive proper nouns which bear little phonic relation to their antecedent; cf. Ianto < Ifan, Begw < Margaret etc.), so I suspect Wyre Davies' name comes from the river Wyre noted above.

    Interesting post; thanks!

    PD (Welsh L1)

  18. Hi Peredur,

    Did you listen to the Wikimedia sound file for the river Wyre noted above? It doesn't seem to me to sound very much like the original of the NWelsh and SWelsh pronunciations you mention.

  19. Hi Mallamb,

    You're right. The woman in the sound file has a SWelsh accent and pronounces it ~['uɪrɛ], i.e. with a diphthong (whereas above I suggested ['wɨrɛ] or ['wɪrɛ] with a monophthong). The [uɪ] here is the same as the word wy 'egg'. spelling is one of the biggest pitfalls in Welsh pronunciation, I suspect, because it can be pronounced either way and there is little way of interpreting which from context: e.g. could be either [gwɪn] 'white' or [guɪn], the softmutated form of 'complaint'.

    I don't think there's dialectal variation at play, so I can't argue that the Ceredigion pronunciation of the river is [uɪrɛ] and the NWelsh pronunciation of Wyre Davies's name (he is a Northwalian, I think, though I draw a mental blank on this) are different just because it's a dialect thing. The river may well be pronounced [uirɛ]; I hadn't heard of it before.

    Most likely explanation I can think of: is a proper noun only, and a rare one at that, so speakers encountering it would pronounce it in either of the two ways explained in my first paragraph, assuming they had not heard either form before (= quite likely given its scarcity). So perhaps there is variation by different Welsh-speaking newsreaders (etc.) when saying his name, depending on personal preference. And anyway, the difference between ['uɪrɛ] and ['wɪrɛ] are pretty slight in practice, so two speakers who pronounce it differently might not realize they are doing so.

    The final vowel in the audio file sounds [ɛ]-ish to me (this is what Welsh phoneticians usually claim the short/lax SWelsh phoneme is), but I might be wrong. Could be [e] or more central. Not a phonetician! :)


  20. As Mr Davies works for the BBC, his email address should be firstname.lastname@bbc.co.uk.

    Despite the fascinating discussion above, wouldn't it be easier simply to ask Mr Davies for the correct pronunciation of his name, whether it's a short form of another name, and whether he has anglicized the pronunciation for non-Welsh speakers?

    Or would that be cheating?

  21. I discussed this topic with fellow choristers in Cardiff this evening and what your comment maker deBréauté said was what we agreed should be done. I know many of the BBC folk here in BBC Wales so I will set an enquiry in motion.

  22. It must be obvious that some of us on here enjoy a bit of detective fiction, but it's always nice to know the ending eventually!

  23. Sadly my broadband modem crashed on Thursday morning, back on-line again now and will check with BBC on Monday - if the query is unresolved that is.

  24. I checked with another journalist, one working for Beeb, that deBréauté's suggestion for email addresses was correct, it is. I emailed Wyre, but I guess with what's going on in the middle east that he's got other priorities. I'll try the Beeb's press office in due course.

  25. I will say WYRE, like "WEER [OUIR, in French]", or if i am very pointed, i will say "WEERI" or "WEERU", "U = I" Welsh form" [weeree], and also WYRV [OUIVRE, "U-EE-VR"], like a "VOUIVRE = A snake, in old french; and i will finish with time, to say "YVES [eev:] or VYVE [veevee]", i will erase the "R".

    Why? Because Cymraeg is closed the Old French called Loegrian (Language from Loire, Long-Rhyn, Liger, Ligurian).

    But as Mr WYRE work in Saxon-England (in two-faced-england or false-england), i will say WEIR' or WAIR' all simply.

    Let's go!

  26. Wyre Davies emailed me this morning - this is an extract with his permission.

    - My full given name is Ifan Wyre Davies (Ifan pronounced "ee-van", as
    there is of course no "v" in the Welsh language) but I have always been
    known, from birth, as Wyre

    - Wyre does, indeed, originate from the River Wyre (Afon Wyre) which
    rises above the village of Llanrhystud and empties into Cardigan Bay.
    Though little more than a stream ("dank and shallow" according to my
    wife) in spate, decent sized sea trout have been caught in the river. It
    is my mother's home village and, even now it is relatively rare to find
    someone from beyond Llanrhystud with the name Wyre.

    - There are English versions of "Wyre" (nearly always pronounced "Wire")
    as in the River Wyre in Lancashire, and "Wyre Piddle" (a village in
    Worcestershire, which produces a nice pale ale of the same name)

    - There is also the Isle of Wyre (pron "Weir") in the Orkneys, whose
    origins are, I think, Norse.

    - Although a fluent Welsh speaker I was born and raised in Manchester,
    the son of Welsh parents. I, of course, spent a lot of time in
    Llanrhystud as a child but did not go to live in Wales until my posting
    there as the BBC Wales Correspondent in the 1990's.

    - The correct pronunciation of my name, best spoken perhaps by
    newsreader Huw Edwards is "Wee-reh". It is, though, often toned-down to "Wu-reh" by other non-Welsh colleagues. To be honest, as long as they don't call me "Wire" Davies, I don't really mind!

    End of extract.


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