As a Celtic language spoken by the ancient Britons, Welsh is one of the oldest languages in Europe. With English sovereignty over Wales in the 1500s, speaking Welsh was banned and the language was almost wiped out. However, it made revival in the 20th century and today Welsh is spoken by around 20% of the population.
As a bi-lingual country all signs in Wales are shown in both Welsh and English, often with the Welsh appearing first. Many of the place names in Wales are in Welsh and many of the topographical descriptions on maps appear in Welsh only.
Having an uncertainty in how to pronounce Welsh words can cause much confusion and dread to visitors of this beautiful land.
However, Welsh is largely a rules based language (unlike English where rules are flippantly disregarded at any given moment), so if you understand the rules, deciphering this ancient language becomes much, much easier.
|In this guide I hope to provide a basic understanding of Welsh language rules so that you can pronounce Welsh words with confidence. I also provide a translation for common Welsh words that you will likely encounter on a hike around Wales.|
With all this, you’ll be better equipped for your next Welsh mountain adventure!
How Do You Pronounce Welsh Words?
With the unfathomable amount of consonants all lined up, pronouncing words in Welsh may at first seem like an impossible task. However, there are a few tricks available to overcome this challenge.
Here are four basic rules that will help you understand how to pronounce Welsh words.
When pronouncing place names, the emphasis is on the penultimate syllable. For example, Carmarthen is Ka-mar-then. This strong emphasis of drawing out syllables has carried over into English and adds to the unique sounding Welsh accent.
Welsh place names are often descriptive, so if you can understand what the place name means, you’ll get a grasp of the place you’re looking for. For example, two iconic mountains in Snowdonia that are famed for their rocky summits are Glyder Fach and Glyder Fawr. This translates to small pile/heap and big pile/heap.
We like to keep things simple.
If you’re interested in hiking to Glyder Fach and Glyder Fawr, take a look at this post.
The most famous example of a descriptive place name is perhaps, the word that I’ve been asked to say so many times in my life that I’ve lost count. It’s the name of a village in North Wales, the longest place name in the UK.
No I’m not joking, it really is just one word. And no I’m not typing it out phonetically.
This word is one big description of the village, which roughly translates to:
The church of St Mary by the pool with the white hazel near the fierce whirlpool by St Tysilio’s church and the red cave.
In Welsh, ALL letters are pronounced no matter how impossible that might seem.
Welsh is more or less a phonetic language, so if you know how the letters are supposed to sound, you just have to say what you see. The alphabet is mostly the same as English, however there are a few extra letters. There are also some letters that are the same as English but pronounced differently.
Welsh has vowels, consonants and diphthongs (but I won’t torment you with the diphthongs!)
Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien taught medieval Welsh when he worked at Leeds University. One of his Elvish languages, Sindarin, is heavily influenced by the sounds of Welsh words.
Here are some of the unusual vowels and consonants in Welsh:
c – pronounced k, as in cat. For example Cymru (Wales) is Kum-ri
ch – pronounced the same as in a Scottish loch. For example bach
dd – pronounced th, as in bath. For example Carneddau is car-neth-eye
g – pronounced as a hard g, as in gone. For example gwyn is goo-in
ll – pronounced like nothing else in the English language! To make this noise, put your tongue on the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth and then blow. Ask a Welsh person to say Llanelli to fully understand. The closest English sound is thl (although this really isn’t right). For example llyn is thlin
The only other country where I’ve heard this sound is Mongolia, in their word for thank you (It’s баярлалаа in case you were wondering!)
f – pronounced as a v, as in alive. For example Tryfan is try – van
ff – pronounced as an f as in off. For example ffyrdd is furth
w (used as a vowel) – pronounced as an oo, as in boom. For example drws is drooss
rh – another difficult one to wrap your tongue around. When rh appears together it almost sounds like the h comes before the r and you blow out air as you speak. Similar to rhinoceros. For example rhag is hrag
y (used as a vowel) – this one’s a little complicated! Most of the time y is pronounced as a u, as in gun. But when it’s the last syllable of a word it becomes an i, as in if. A common example when hiking is the Welsh word for mountain, mynydd. This is pronounced mun-ith where the first y is a u sound and the second sound is an i sound. Another common example is where y appears by itself or joined by an r to make yr. Y or yr means the and is pronounced as uh or ur. For example, Pen y Fan (Pen uh van), Betws y Coed (Bwet-oos ur koyd) or Pen yr Ole Wen (Pen ur Ol When) However, sometimes it’s pronounced as an e, as in bee! For example Rhyd is rheed. I told you it was complicated!
Useful Welsh Words To Know When Hiking In Wales
In the list below I provide translations for many of the words seen on OS maps or road signs in Wales. If you’ve spent some time hiking around Wales these words may already be familiar to you.
Now that you understand how to say the letters, have a go at pronouncing these words – have you been saying them correctly?! Some commonly mispronounced names I hear quite regularly are Betws y Coed, Pen y Fan and Pen yr Ole Wen. (phonetically explained above)
Find out the best Pen y Fan hiking route for you in this handy guide.
- afon (river) ah-von
- allt (height) ah-thlt
- araf (slow) arav
- bach or fach (small) ba-ch soft ch
- betws (chapel) bet-oos
- bont or pont (bridge) bont
- bryn (hill) I’m sure Gavin and Stacey fans know this one! brin
- bwlch (gap or pass) boo-l-ch
- cadair (chair) kad-ayer
- canol (centre) kan all
- carnedd (rock pile) kar-neth
- carreg (stone) kar-egg
- castell (castle) kast-eh-thl
- coch (red) ko-ch
- coed (wood) koyd
- craig crag) kr-eye-g
- cwm (valley) with accent on w kuh-m
- dim mynediad (no entry) dim mun-ed-ee-ad
- du (black) dee
- dwr (water) d-oor
- eglwys (church) egg-l
- fawr or mawr (big) va-oor
- ffordd (road or way)
- ffynnon (well or spring) fun-on
- glas (blue) gl-aas
- gribin (jagged ridge) grib-in
- glyder (pile or heap) glid-er
- gwesty (hotel) goo-es-tee
- gwyn (white) goo-in
- isaf (lower) ees av
- llwybr cyhoeddus (public footpath) thl-oy bur kuh-hoyth-us
- llyn (lake) thl-in
- lon (lane) lon
- maes (field) my-s
- melin (mill) mel-in
- moel (bare hill) moy-le rhymes with foil
- mynydd (mountain) mun-ith
- ogof (cave) oggof
- pen (top/head) pen
- pwll (pool) poo-thl
- rhyd (ford) rh-eed
- rhaeadr or sgwd (waterfall)
- siop (shop) shop
- ty (house) tee
- uchaf (upper) ee-ch av
- wyddfa (burial mound) oyth-va
- ysbyty (hospital) us-butty
- ysgol (school) us-gol
You may be wondering why the word for small, which is bach, can also be seen as fach. In Welsh there are things called mutations (treiglad), where the starting letter or letters change depending on what precedes it. It’s a fairly in depth set of rules so I won’t get into here.
I’ll just highlight the point so that you’re not left despairing when you look at the dictionary (or Google translate) for a word that doesn’t seem to exist.
Some examples of mutations are:
- Glyder fach
- Moelwyn mawr
- Croseo i Gymru
- Pen y Graig
- Llyn y Fan Fach
- Canol y dref
What About The Roof?
The circumflex (to give it it’s proper name), is the roof-shaped symbol that appears above the letter 6 on your keyboard.
In the Welsh language this is used to lengthen a vowel. In changing the sound it also changes the meaning of the word. An example of the circumflex is in the Welsh word for fire, which is tân (taan), as in Tân Sam or Fireman Sam as you might remember him. Seriously though, how many fires can one small village have?!
A Few Handy Welsh Phrases
Here are a few common Welsh phrases to help you along the way, although I should prefix this with a word of warning. I am from South Wales. South Wales and North Wales have different dialects, so whilst Welsh speakers can usually decipher the difference, it may be quite a challenge for the untrained ear!
These are how phrases are said in South Wales.
- Good morning – bore da
- Good afternoon- prynhawn da
- Good night – nos da
- Hello/alright – su’mae or shwmae
- Please – os gwelwych yn dda
- Thanks – diolch
- You’re welcome – croeso
- Cheers – iechyd da
- Bye – hwyl
- OK – iawn
- How are you? – sut wyt ti?
- What’s the time? – faint o’r gloch?
- Where are the toilets? – ble mae’r tŷ bach?
Yŷ bach is the best name for a toilet anywhere in the world by the way! Literally translated, it means small house and is a throw back to the days where we used to have outhouses.
Understanding & Pronouncing Welsh Words Summary
Thanks for taking the time to learn a little about my language and I hope you find this guide useful on your next visit to Wales. With so many of the Welsh mountains and geographical points in Welsh, it’s useful to get your head around their meanings before embarking on a hike.
I hope you can now confidently describe your walking adventures to all those that are forced to listen!
To see hiking guides for the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia, click this link.
Disclaimer: Some links in this article are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase through them I receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you. This helps cover the cost of running this blog. Thanks for your support!
Join my newsletter today!