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