Welsh: The Language with 32 Rules of Soft Mutation
Welsh is a difficult language to learn, and even more difficult to speak because of its complex rules of grammar and pronunciation.
Welsh is easily one of the more frightening-looking languages out there – mainly because of its pronunciation foibles and terrifically intimidating spelling. For example, a simple sentence like “This is a simple sentence” becomes the fanged horror mae hon yn frawddeg syml after a little translation services magic. The spelling and pronunciation of Welsh also makes learning to speak and understand even basic Welsh a particular challenge – though it also might explain why so many Welsh actors turn out to be such wonderful speakers of English, like Richard Burton. Listening to the late actor’s velvet tones in Shakespeare, it’s hard to believe his native language was this Celtic monstrosity.
The most intimidating aspect of Welsh for the student, by far, is the pronunciation factor. That’s because at first glance Welsh appears to be pronounced more or less randomly. What’s really happening is that Welsh goes beyond the Event Horizon for complexity: The seeming randomness of Welsh is a result instead of incredible complexity, and it’s all due to things called Soft Mutation and Conjugated prepositions.
There are 28 letters in the Welsh alphabet, and pronouncing those letters has a whole list of rules – and then there are rules on top of those governing how the sound of consonants at the beginning of words changes under certain circumstances. In English, for example, you pronounce the “K” in kick the same way no matter what kind of sentence the word appears in, or any other grammatical aspect. In Welsh, however, pronouncing that initial consonant sound changes in a wide variety of ways – there are, in fact, 32 distinct rules governing the pronunciation change in consonants. Thus, you can learn a word in Welsh and how it’s pronounced, and be totally lost when people start speaking.
The most common examples of soft mutation are
- Feminine nouns following the definite article: A chair (cadair) becomes y gadair.
- Following possessive pronouns
- Following a long list of prepositions (e.g., ar, am, at, gan, heb, i, o, dan, dros, drwy, wrth, hyd)
- Often happens with the object of a verb
The other fun aspect of pronouncing Welsh is when prepositions are merged with the pronouns they are paired with to essentially form a distinct word on the fly. In English, for example, if you say “to them” those two words are distinct and separate. In Welsh, “i” means “to” and “eu” means “them,” but when they are together in a sentence they merge into something else entirely, iddyn nhw.
This makes for some very complicated pronunciation and grammar rules, which in turn makes Welsh very difficult to learn or speak. I wouldn’t suggest choosing Welsh as your first second language! But it also means that every effort should be made to protect and defend Welsh – speaking as a translation professional and love of languages, it’s an incredible cultural treasure for the whole world.
Image courtesy westwalesholidaycottages.co.uk