Opinion

What people get wrong about the number of vowels in the Welsh language

19 Jul 2021 5 minutes Read

Dr Rodolfo Piskorski

With the news that the Welsh government will require a “courtesy-level” of Welsh-language knowledge from civil service applicants, a tide of customary disinformation about the language resurfaced.

There were the common ill-informed accusations that Welsh is a “dead language” (according to UNESCO, Welsh is not even endangered), that it is a relic, that it is pointless, or that the legislation is illegal.

But perhaps the most famous and enduring of these is that Welsh has few or “no” vowels. But why does it matter exactly? Why would a shortage of vowel be a stick to beat the language with, or a hurtful accusation for its speakers?

There is in fact a long tradition of relating the apparent wealth of vowels in a language to levels of civilisation which harks back at least as far as Rousseau.

He argued that consonantal northern languages were harsh, logical, and degenerate under influence of severe weather, whereas southern ones were melodic and more natural, attuned to their clement climates.

The Welsh language, too, has been accused of being intrinsically immoral. Besides the gratuitous offense these arguments have brought, they are also absurd, unscientific, and ungrounded on fact.

Welsh has a very normal “number” of vowels, perhaps lower than some European languages, but certainly higher than in English, one of the northern languages Rousseau disparaged.

Counting vowels is difficult because people are not talking about the same thing when they use that word. When they talk about vowels, most people are referring to letters of the alphabet: a e i o u. But Welsh also has those five letters.

In fact, it is often claimed in defence of Welsh that it has two extra vowels: y and w. This can’t be strictly true, because English has words that appear to have no vowels if we don’t consider y to be one, such as “why”.

So, y is a vowel in English sometimes. Conversely, w is not always a vowel in Welsh: it’s used as a consonant, like English w, in words like “gwasg” and “gwlad”. The same is true for i, which oscillates like English y between vowel (“torri”) and consonant (“iach”).

In the end, Welsh appears to have 7 letters that can be vowels, while English has 6.

Pointless

But counting vowels like this is rather pointless, since it only tells us about the inventory of a language. People who make the Vowelless Accusation are probably reacting to seeing a Welsh word like “ysbyty”, not to a list of letters of the Welsh alphabet. It is how often vowels occur in a language, and not how many there are, that gives rise to these stereotypes.

There is published data regarding letter frequencies in many languages, which has been calculated over the centuries for different purposes (cryptography, Morse code, Scrabble).

Most calculations gauge that around 40% of the letters of English texts are vowels (counting y). This is more than Icelandic and Danish, but less than any Romance language (Portuguese boasts over 50% vowels) and also less than Polish and Dutch. Welsh texts have been calculated to be composed of approximately 43% vowels (less than French but more than Polish).

You can replicate these calculations yourself fairly easily, and that’s what I did in a video for my channel for Welsh learners hir-iaith: I analysed the same article as it was published on BBC News Wales and BBC Cymru Fyw. I scrupulously counted English y’s and Welsh w’s and i’s only where they represented vowel sounds. I arrived at 41% for English and 43% for Welsh.

Aren’t letters

But the truth is that vowels aren’t letters. That’s why the same letter can “be” a vowel in some words but not in others.

For linguistics and language learning, “vowel” is a type of sound: “a syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract”. Vowels are the basic building blocks of syllables, and that’s why the words “strengths” and “house” have the same number of vowels: one. Both have only one syllable. “House” contains a diphthong, which is a single vowel that has two “moments”, unlike monophthongs, that have only one (compare “hiss”).

In terms of inventory of distinct vowel sounds, both English and Welsh have large numbers of vowels, around 20, with some varieties of Welsh having more.

But we should again ignore inventory of sounds and look into their frequency of occurrence. After all, Spanish, with its tiny vowel inventory, sounds quite vowel-heavy to English ears. But curiously, those English ears appear to have a “deaf spot” to how consonant-heavy English is, whose words like “strength” are a challenging mouthful for Romance speakers.

Data on English phoneme frequency is also available, varying between 36% and 39% of all phoneme occurrences (depending on dialect and transcription). By transcribing the BBC News Wales article into phonemic symbols, I counted that 39% of its sounds are vowels. A phonemic transcription of the BBC Cymru Fyw article consist of 43% vowels.

Therefore, both written and spoken Welsh are 43% vowels, while English varies between 39% in speech and 41% in writing.

The Vowelless Accusation is groundless and probably stems from a misunderstanding of Welsh spelling, an unawareness of English as it sounds, and ultimately confusion regarding what a vowel is.

For a longer version of this article see: https://www.hiriaith.cymru/post/Welsh%20vowels

Dr Rodolfo Piskorski teaches Portuguese and Academic English at Cardiff University. He’s a Welsh learner and was the first person to sit the UK citizenship test in Welsh. He also lectures on English Literature and Brazilian politics, and publishes scholarship on literature and animals.

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Llywelyn ein Llyw Nesaf
Llywelyn ein Llyw Nesaf
12 days ago

Very interesting. And a comparison. I’m a great fan of Grand Sumo wrestling (highlights on NHK World) and that is an excellent primer in Japanese – but one thing I noticed is the consistency of sound of vowels when spelled in Roman characters. One rikishi (wrestler) is called Onosho – the o is always the same sound (as in English ‘top’) , as is Chiyonoo – with an oh-oh at the end. In Wakatakakage the ‘a’s are all the same (and try saying that fast!)

Shan Morgain
12 days ago

I welcome the definition of “courtesy Welsh” as I definitely have that much. But when forms ask me to tickbox myself I have to opt for non-Welsh which is humiliating. I probably have a vocabulary of several hundred words, and with a bit of dictionary help can read the gist of a short piece. However I have very little speech, although my family spatters Welsh words among our talk. I cannot upgrade my conversation because of poor health – and the demands of a PhD in Welsh literature and politics. I think ‘Welsh speaker’ is too elite and we need… Read more »

CJPh
CJPh
12 days ago
Reply to  Shan Morgain

Hakuho is one of the (if not the) greatest living sportsmen.

Stephen Owen
Stephen Owen
11 days ago
Reply to  Shan Morgain

Why is the term Welsh speaker elite? People are people, and I never met a person who can speak Welsh who thinks they belong to an elite. It seems to be something non-Welsh speaking people think of those who speak the language but all sorts of people speak Welsh and from all sorts of backgrounds. Maybe I misunderstood what you mean, if so I am sorry.

Rodolfo Piskorski
11 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Owen

I believe you, but whether one believes they are part of an elite or not is irrelevant to whether they are actually part of one.

Stephen Owen
Stephen Owen
10 days ago

I just meant that being able to speak Welsh does not mean someone is part of an elite, there are all sorts of people who can speak Welsh. Rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, old, young people of different education experience etc etc.

William Habib Steele
William Habib Steele
12 days ago

For the Welsh language usage to be recovered it must be spoken, and it’s only right that Welsh speakers should have all government services available to them in their mother tongue. I came to Wales frim Canada in 2016. I did a free introductory course in basic Welsh during lockdown, and have now registered for the introductory course offered by Dysgucymraeg. I wondered if, at the age of 73, it’s worth my while. I’ve realised, however, that if I’m to be part of the flourishing of Wales, I need to speak the language. Canada has two official languages, English and… Read more »

CJPh
CJPh
12 days ago

Very interesting piece – The view of other languages via an anglo lens does seem to have a lot to answer for – when any language is compared to the breadth of English, they all get reduced to mere curiosities. Imperfect communication mediums. But is that the nature of a language? Dr. Piskorski’s work seems to have only considered standardised, written BBC Welsh – a form of language that maybe 2%-3% (that’s a guess) of Welsh-speakers use. It isn’t only the frequencies of vowels, but the nature of their use when spoken. In my dialect (Cwm Tawe), they’re loooooong. Cymraeg… Read more »

Last edited 12 days ago by CJPh
Vaughan
Vaughan
12 days ago
Reply to  CJPh

Not sure about your assertion about Gwendraeth Valley Welsh having even longer vowels than Cwmtawe.
It is generally acknowledged by dialectolegists that in South Wales vowels become shorter the further west you go.

CJPh
CJPh
12 days ago
Reply to  Vaughan

Cwm Gwendraeth is the exception (in my experience). Further into sir gar, definitely true. From Hendy to Tumble there are some who even add vowels to the end of words – ‘siwd i ti-uh, matthew-www?’ (overheard in Llangennech) 😁

Philip Jones
Philip Jones
12 days ago

Dr Rodolfo is my hero.

Alan Reilly
Alan Reilly
12 days ago

Use of vowels is linked to morality…

That must mean Italian is the most moral of all languages!

Yay! We can all take our guidance on moral issues from Rocco Siffredi and Valentina Nappi… beats taking it from believers in sky angels!

Rodolfo Piskorski
12 days ago
Reply to  Alan Reilly

When Rousseau made that argument he had Italian in mind but he made sure to point out that in the South of Europe the weather is TOO nice which makes for a language and a society which is just TOO passionate, pleasurable, lethargic, and, well, lazy… It’s a racist way for him to say that the French were better than the lazy Italians and the heartless Germans.

Alan Reilly
Alan Reilly
12 days ago

There is more about the English and the French that is similar than different (yes, yes, before someone says it, there is good and bad everywhere and not everyone fits the stereotype). And asking the Bretons, the Corsicans and countless others about the heartlessness of the French v that of the Germans might jar with Rousseau’s idea.

In any case, personally, give me the Italians over the French any day!

And that includes Valentina Nappi over Anissa Kate lol!

Stephen Owen
Stephen Owen
11 days ago

Diddorol iawn, diolch yn fawr 😊

Richard Y Cymro
Richard Y Cymro
11 days ago

The myth that Welsh has no vowels is a slight perpetuated by Cymrophobes. In fact, Welsh has 7 vowels. See, everybody in Wales must have the ability to speak or understand basic Welsh. And why you ask? The simple ability to pronounce placename’s. We now have a situation now where Welsh people mispronounce or can’t even understand the simplest of Welsh words. I can recall one Welsh Tory leader Andrew RT Davies who butchered Llandudno in one Senedd debate. How embarrassing. Also, even ones pro-Welsh language, even Welsh speakers, too fall into the same trap. Take the name Lloyd. Although… Read more »

Last edited 11 days ago by Richard Y Cymro
Rodolfo Piskorski
11 days ago

But did you read the article? The number of letters used to represent vowels doesn’t correlate with “how many vowels” a language has. Portuguese has fewer letters (only a e i o u can represent vowels) but they occur far far more frequently than in English or English, for example.

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