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Welsh Phonetics:
a preface

J.C. Wells

This is the preface I wrote for Welsh Phonetics by Martin J. Ball and Briony Williams,
Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. ISBN:0-7734-7603-2

I am not a native speaker of Welsh. But it is a language in which I have for many years had a great interest.

When I was an undergraduate reading classics at Cambridge, one of the subjects I chose to study was comparative philology. This involved discussing numerous examples of sound correspondences between the various Indo-European languages. I remember then feeling envious of one of my fellow-students who spoke Welsh, since he could use his native-speaker knowledge to come up with Celtic examples that the rest of us had to learn by heart. I duly learnt ten or twelve Welsh words to quote in the examination -- but I didn't take it any further.

When I came to UCL to do a master's in phonetics, I remember hearing two of my fellow postgraduates speaking together in Welsh. I felt a mixture of emotions: annoyance that I couldn't understand what they were saying or take part in their conversation, but also a lively phonetic interest in the exotic sounds and rhythms I was hearing. I wished I could speak Welsh -- but I didn't take it any further.

When I started teaching, becoming a lecturer at the UCL Department of Phonetics and Linguistics, every now and again there would be a student who was a native speaker of Welsh. After all, Welsh is the second most widely spoken indigenous language of the United Kingdom in which I live. And I began to feel ashamed. Here was I, holding forth about the phonetics and grammar of a wide range of different languages -- yet I couldn't even speak this language that was on our doorstep, a few hours' drive from London.

So I decided to learn Welsh. I studied books, I went to evening classes. I took a Welsh O level, I took a Welsh A level. (There's a lot to be said for doing advanced-level language exams in one's thirties, rather than as a teenager: you can make your own mature judgments about the literature you study, rather than having to reproduce the teacher's views.) The peak of my achievement came when I managed to hold my own in a BBC radio interview, in Wales, in Welsh.

This means that I was delighted to hear of plans to publish Welsh Phonetics. This book will enable a wide audience to become familiar with the phonetic work that has been done on the language, work that has not until now been widely known.

Non-linguists looking at Welsh notice mainly the spelling, which makes it look unpronounceable, with its abundant w's and y's. Linguists know there's more to a language than its orthography.

What can phoneticians find? Look inside.

Yn wir, trysordy o iaith yw'r Gymraeg.

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