Wednesday 3 October 2012


Machynlleth in mid-Wales is quite a small town, not often featured in the national news. But yesterday morning as I finished my breakfast the television presenters on the BBC1 Breakfast show handed over to their correspondent in what they called məˈkʌnlɪθ. The correspondent in question, one Rhun ap Iorwerth, duly told us about the missing five-year-old in the town (at the time of writing she’s still not been found), the town which he, clearly being a speaker of Welsh, pronounced maˈχənɬɛθ.

Note the unreduced vowels in the first and last syllables and the schwa in the middle, stressed, syllable. In Welsh, in this respect strikingly unlike the Germanic languages, ə is often stressed, but is restricted to non-final syllables (clitics such as the definite article y(r) count as non-final).

In passing, I might comment that I have never previously come across the forename Rhun (riːn, or north Welsh r̥ɨːn). I see from Wikipedia that it was the name of a sixth-century king of Gwynedd.

I was in my mid-forties when I sat my Welsh A-levels after studying in evening classes. I remember that in the English to Welsh translation paper the passage set began “The sign on the station platform read ‘Machynlleth’”. I dutifully recast my Welsh version so that Machynlleth was the first word of the sentence rather than the last, as is required by Welsh syntax.

There was recently a brief discussion on the web (I’ve forgotten just where) on the subject of digraphs. As Wikipedia explains,

In some language orthographies, like that of Croatian (lj, nj, dž), traditional Spanish (ch, ll, rr) or Czech (ch), digraphs are considered individual letters, meaning that they have their own place in the alphabet, in the standard orthography, and cannot be separated into their constituent graphemes; e.g. when sorting, abbreviating or hyphenating. In others, like English, this is not the case.

Someone pointed out, correctly, that in Welsh CH, LL, NG, and RH are treated as digraphs [= as single letters]. I pointed out that in the case of NG this can lead to problems. NG is treated as a digraph [ = a single letter] for collation, and ordered between G and H, if pronounced [ŋ], but not if pronounced [ŋɡ], in which case it is treated as N plus G. So angau (death, [ˈaŋaɨ]) comes before ail (second); but dangos (show, [ˈdaŋɡos]) comes after damwain (accident).


  1. A clearly Welsh but not necessarily Welsh-speaking police officer, being interviewed in English, used the correct Welsh consonants but the same vowels as the BBC breakfast show presenter - məˈχʌnɬɪθ.


    (Off-topic, but I really hope she's found ASAP. It somehow brought it home to me seeing the local petrol station on the news because of having to open long hours for all the locals needing fuel to search for the girl, when a few months ago I'd bought ice-cream at that same petrol station, on holiday and without a care in the world.)

  2. Welsh even has a minimal pair for the two types of "ng", though both words are archaic. Cyngyd meaning "frontier" is [ˈkəŋɨd] and is alphabetized between cyg- and cyh-, while cyngyd meaning "intention" is [ˈkəŋɡɨd] and is alphabetized between cynff- and cynh-.

  3. Re digraphs, there's also PH and TH, collated after P and T respectively, e.g. athro after atynnu.

    Similarly rh can be R, H rather than RH when pronounced rh rather than , a dot sometimes being inserted in dictionaries (e.g. "par.hau"). However, although the distinction matters for collation (rhag after rygbi, but arolwg after arhosfan), I think this is pretty determinate from the usual orthography: R, H after a vowel, otherwise RH.

  4. Oh, and for completeness there's also DD. The difference there is that the normal orthography inserts a hyphen when it's dd (or is it just d?) rather than ð: ad-dal before adeg before addas.

  5. In your last paragraph here, "treated as digraphs" is ambiguous, and I misinterpreted it until I read the rest of the paragraph—'treated as digraphs [i.e., sequences of two letters, rather than a single graphemes]', rather than 'treated as digraphs [unitary orthographic entities, rather than sequences of two letters]'.

    "Rhun" is the name of a character in Lloyd Alexander's loosely Welsh-inspired fantasy series known as the Prydain chronicles.

  6. I happened to catch the story being reported on Newsround a day or two ago, and the presenter pronounced the town's name as məˈhʌnslɛθ, or it might have been -slɪθ.

  7. Any idea what the relative frequencies are of English speakers using k vs. h when anglicizing x, χ in syllable initial position? How often would this be məˈhʌnlɪθ?

    At least for we Americans, Hebrew and Yiddish words with ‹ch› seem to be h when word-initial, k otherwise, but I'm not sure about when they start a stressed non-word-initial syllable. Spanish ‹j› seems to be h throughout, though of course it occurs only prevocalically.

  8. Dirck, the variety of Spanish Americans most often come in contact with usually has [h] rather than [x] for ‹j› (and "soft" ‹g›) anyway. And sometimes American English deletes even that [h], namely before [w] (e.g. San Joaquin [wɑˈkin]) and before an unstressed noninitial vowel (e.g. Bexar County, Texas, pronounced identically to ''bear'', or Refugio, Texas, pronounced [ɹɪˈfju.i.oʊ] or with an intrusive r as [ɹɪˈfjʊɹi.ou]). Of course it's no coincidence that most varieties of American English don't have [h] before [w], and no varieties of American English have [h] before a noninitial unstressed vowel. (Which is a great grief to Irishmen named Cathal who try to get Americans to pronounce their name correctly.)

    1. It depends on which Americans. In the Southwest that is true; in the Northeast, not so much.

  9. Dirk

    Very few English speakers outside Wales have learned of the town through hearing a Welsh speaker pronounce it. And fewer still would base their pronunciation on such a hearing.

    Whatever pronunciation we've heard, most of us would hesitate to name the town until seeing it written. And k or χ are the only common spelling pronunciations.

    English speakers who are Welsh seem to get the consonants 'right', as Alan observes. I suspect resident foreigners in general adopt χ with ease and make an attempt at ɬ.

  10. Spanish ch and ll have traditionally had their own place in the alphabet, but rr hasn't. And in terms of hyphenation, 'rr' is also different from the other two (among other differences). I presumed to edit the Wikipedia article to delete the reference to 'rr'.

    Hernán Ruiz

  11. In Welsh the unitary nature of the several digraphs noted above is manifested in crossword puzzles where, for example, CH is placed in a single square. I wonder whether the same happens with the other languages described in the comments (e.g. Spanish CH and LL)?

    1. In Dutch, the digraph < ij> is often treated that way. Sometimes it's also considered to be a letter. It's not terribly uncommen to replace < ij> with < y> in some contexts.

      Timmoty Wigboldus

    2. I gather that in Dutch you capitalise the whole digraph in mixed-case writing, e.g. IJsselmeer. Doing that in Welsh (e.g. *LLanfair) would be a hypercorrection, in view of which this logo strikes me as a bit fastidious.

    3. However, the Anglican Archdeacon of Germany and Northern Europe spells his name Jonathan LLoyd. I don't know whether that's a long-standing tradition in his family or just a personal affectation.

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