As a native English speaker, it’s common to feel two things about the Welsh language: first that it’s uniquely lyrical and appealing to listen to, and second that it’s utterly incomprehensible. Throw in an alphabet that seems to contradict most agreed interpretations of each letter, a written language that’s clearly had an argument with its vowels and decided not to work with them anymore, a relatively small portion of the population (a fifth, or 562,000 people) who speak it fluently (but hundreds of place names whose pronunciation is dependent upon an understanding of the language)… and you’ve got a quandary.
Luckily it’s easily overcome. And although I wouldn’t say that a casual attitude will have you speaking it like a local in no time (my understanding of Welsh is exceedingly basic, despite spending much of my free time there), with a little research you can at least greet Welsh mountain locals and pronounce the names of the peaks and their features in a way that won’t have people wincing at you sympathetically.
The (in)famous Anglesey village with the 58-letter name. Don’t be afraid, though. It finds its origins in an 1860s publicity stunt and “real” Welsh place names are considerably easier to understand and pronounce. Mostly.
So. There are 29 letters in the Welsh language, with
K, Q, V, X and Z being the notable absences (and with J included only for certain borrowed English words), but with the double pairings of CH, DD, FF, NG, LL, PH, RH and TH making up the shortfall.
Perhaps the most useful thing to learn immediately is the pronunciation of
LL and DD which feature pretty regularly in place names from Llanberis to Llanrwst to Llanfairfechan and from the Carneddau to Gwynedd to Dolwyddelan, and can be the easiest to trip up on.
LL is pronounced as a THL sound, but it can be easier for English speakers to simply say CL, so Llanberis can be said as Clan-berris.
DD is pronounced as the TH in “breathe”, so Beddgelert becomes Beth-gell-airt
With that in mind, here’s a short glossary of phrases and words which I’ve regularly met over years of visits to the mountains of Mid, North and South Wales. Hopefully they should prove useful and interesting in varying measures. Here we go…
Moel… is pronounced to rhyme with “boil” and means a bare, treeless hill. Think of Moel Siabod (which may translate as “bare hill of the abbot”, although there’s no consensus about this).
… Fawr rhymes with “power”, but (thanks to f and v being fairly similar in Welsh) is pronounced Vower and roughly means “major” or “great”. Which is why Glyder Fawr (1,001m) carries that suffix in comparison to...
… Fach which rhymes with “lack” sounds like vack and roughly means “minor” or “little”. Hence why Glyder Fach (994m) is so named.
Cadair… is pronounced Cadder and means “chair” or “throne”. So Cadair Idris is the throne of the legendary giant Idris.
Pen yr… is pronounced Pen-ur and means “head of…”. So Pen yr Ole Wen (Ollah-wen) means “head of the white slope”.
Mynydd… is pronounced Munn-ith and means (easily enough) “mountain”.
… goch… is pronounced as written and means red. Crib Goch therefore translates as “the red ridge”.
… ddu… is pronounced thee and means black.
Coed… is pronounced koid and means woodland.
Afon… is pronounced ah-von and means river.
Nant… is pronounced as written and means stream.
Eryri is pronounced eh-ruh-ree and means the eyrie (this is the Welsh name for Snowdonia).
Cnicht is pronounced ker-nicht and means “knight”.
Tryfan is pronounced Truh-van and means “three rocks”.
Carneddau ispronounced Car-neth-aye and means “the cairns”.
Glyderau is pronounced glidd-uh-rye and means “the heap of stones”.
Yr Wydffa (Snowdon) is pronounced Ooer-with-va and means “the tumulus”
Moelwynion is pronounced moil-win-ih-on and means “the white hills”.
Pumlumon ispronounced pum-lummon and means “five peaks”.
Rhinogydd is pronounced Rye-nogg-it and is most likely derived from a word meaning “the threshold”.
Fforest Fawr is pronounced Forest (but with a slightly elongated “f” as in “stuff”) Vower and means “the great forest”.
Betws y Coed is pronounced Bet-uss-uh-koid and means “grove of the trees”
Blaenau Ffestiniog is pronounced Bl-eye-now Fess-tin-ee-ogg, and likely means “highland stronghold”.
… and if you’d like some handy phrases for everyday use...
Hello, is “helo” and pronounced much the same as in English.
Thank you is “diolch”, and pronounced much as written.
Good morning is “Bore da”, and pronounced boh-reh dah
Cheers! Is “Iechyd da!”, pronounced something like yeh-key dah
If you’d like to
listen to some Welsh being spoken, you can always listen online to BBC Cymru (pronounced come-ree). Or, if you fancy some mountain-related entertainment, following this Welsh-language film about the climber Eric Jones is well worth your time.
If your tastes are more practical and you’d like to
take on a Welsh language course, then the National Welsh Language and Heritage Centre on North Wales’ Llŷn Peninsulais exactly the place you’re looking for: http://www.nantgwrtheyrn.org/languagecourses
And if you think Welsh can be a tricky language for the visitor to get to grips with, consider these two tales…
1) In 2008 Swansea Council put up a dual-language road sign which featured the phrase “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only” in English with matching Welsh text beneath. Unfortunately, due to a clerical error, that Welsh text read “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated”. Nothing you say or do will be this embarrassing,
by quite a wide margin.
You couldn’t make it up.
2) There’s a 305m hill on New Zealand’s North Island whose Mauri name is
Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu. It literally means “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one”, and is typically shortened to Taumata for ease. And that’s stranger than anything in Welsh, trust me.
Make sure to visit the Lifesystems
Facebook page and Twitter feed to share your own advice about or experiences of wonderful Welsh place names.
Until next time.
Dan Aspel is a journalist and Mountain Leader. You can find him at
www.lifesystems.co.uk to find a host of kit and equipment for your next wild camp adventure.