Is the Welsh Accent “Foreign?”

Map of Welsh Language Fluency

Welsh Language Fluency in the UK (Keith Edkins / Wikimedia)

The Welsh accent is a mystery on American shores.  Numerous Welsh celebrities have made the US their home: your Hopkinses, Burtonses, Zeta-Joneses, and just plain Joneses.  Yet Americans have few of the preconceptions about Welsh English that we do for Received Pronunciation, Cockney, or Irish English.

To hear a Welsh accent as an American, then, is to hear it with virgin ears.  And one’s first impression is often one of “foreignness.”  There is something about Welsh English, in all its beauty, that can strike an outsider as exotic, as not quite of the English-speaking world.  And given that Welsh (the language) is spoken by a solid percentage of the country’s populace, can the Welsh accent itself be described as foreign?

Maybe.  Although it’s less common these days, there are certainly first-language Welsh speakers who learned English later in their childhood (musician John Cale is a good example of this).  Yet regardless of a speaker’s English acquisition, there remains something slightly different in the speech of many Welsh people.  For example, famous baritone Bryn Terfel:

Terfel’s Welsh accent is quite mild. But the rhythm of his speech is markedly different than most accents of English: like the Welsh language itself, this accent has more “evenly weighed” syllables.

For example, in most contemporary accents of English the second syllable in “language” can be expected to be reduced to an extremely short vowel, almost disappearing completely for some speakers. In some types of Welsh accents, however, each syllable in “language” is clearly pronounced, so that the word becomes something like “lang-wedge” (IPA laŋgwɛʤ)*. This is  quite different from the majority of native Englishes.

But this isn’t the only feature that marks Welsh English as a different animal. As a commenter mentioned a few posts back, the accent is remarkable for how very different it is from its neighbors. The Welsh accent is largely derived from non-rhotic Southern English dialects. Yet the nearest region of England to Wales is the West Country, an area with a brogue arguably more akin to Irish English.

Welsh English, then, most likely began as a “school-learned” accent. In this sense, its origins are similar to Indian, Singaporean or Afrikaaner English. “Foreign?” Maybe not. But I do think it’s origins as a foreign accent are more recent than most other English varieties**.

Perhaps a moot point, though: Despite the country’s promotion of its native language, the Welsh accent’s distinctiveness may be waning. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with a clip of a much younger Welsh person, courtesy of a PSA by the Welsh government. Hear any London in her speech?

*Example not my own. This is mentioned in this study of the Rhondda Valleys accent of South Wales (by Rod Walters, of the University of Glamorgan).

**Again, citing the study above, Welsh fluency in the region studied was at 61% at the turn of the 20th Century, dropping to a paltry 8% by the turn of the 21st. These figures (along with features of Welsh English like the TRAP-BATH split and non-rhoticity), and the history of Welsh industrialization, would strongly suggest 19th-Century origins.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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25 Responses to Is the Welsh Accent “Foreign?”

  1. boynamedsue says:

    Without doubt, there is much less London in the Girl’s accent than in Terfel’s! Terfel has a very unnatural trained pronunciation.

    One interesting thing about Welsh Englsh is that it isn’t really losing ground in the South amongst English monolinguals, who retain very strong accents. But there is a strong tendency for English/Welsh bilinguals in Cardiff and Aberystwyth to act as “full bilinguals”, using very lightly accented RP English, splitting between “pure English” and “pure Welsh”, something their parents didn’t do.

    Another strange thing is that the biggest threat to Welsh English comes not from Standard English but from North Western (more specifically Merseyside) dialects. As far west as Bangor, it’s possible to hear young people sounding more scouse than Welsh, even when they are bilinguals. Further South, Wrexham is now really part of the North West English dialect continuum, rather than the Welsh one that begins to its south and West.

    • trawicks says:

      You know, there’s a book about accents (can’t remember whose) with a dialect map of how the writer imagined English dialect areas would be in a few years. I recall it showing a huge chunk of North Wales being eaten up by Merseyside English. There seems to be a lot of “exurbanization” in rural parts of Northwest England these days, so I’m not surprised this trend has spilled over into Wales.

      • TT says:

        That sounds familiar. The closest thing I could find wasthis map which shows a chunk of South Wales being eaten up by the Southwest of England in 2050.

        • TT says:

          Northern accents are quite similar to scouse anyway, even in first-language Welsh speakers.

          Indeed they are. I found this accent/language quiz, took it and I had a very hard time distinguishing between the Northern Welsh and Scouse accents.

          You don’t have to fill out all that stuff to take the quiz; just click “next” at the bottom right of the page, click “ok” on the box that pops up, then click “begin”. You can take it over and over again and you’ll get different speakers, languages and accents each time. It screws up sometimes on my computer, but it’s fun.

        • TT says:

          I actually just found something that helps explain part of why those accents sound similar. This passage in a book I found says that the velarized voice quality in Scouse may come from North Wales. I don’t mean to post too many replies here, I just stumbled upon something interesting.

        • trawicks says:

          No, comment, comment! It’s nice to read about a feature of Scouse that isn’t blamed on the Irish ;) Although to be fair, velarization is pretty common in Irish accents as well.

        • TT says:

          Well, velarization of specific consonants, such as /r/, may be common in some Irish accents, but I don’t know how common a velarized setting is there.

      • David says:

        The modern Scouse accent and northern Welsh-accented English have never been that far apart as one would naturally expect; a continuum has almost certainly always existed there, especially if one considers that the ‘modern’ day Scouse accent is rather new anyway.

        As you say, people always tend to characterise Scouse as more Irish sounding, but the more I listen to Welsh, the more I realise that the intonation patterns and many phonological features of Scouse are most likely a direct result of Welsh influence.

        I agree with Rhys that northern Welsh accents and ‘Scouse’ have always existed in the same continuum anyway (or at least since the emergence of what we now call Scouse).

  2. ella says:

    I agree with boynamedsue – the second clip sounds much more Welsh to me. Mr. Terfel’s voice is so heavily trained that I can’t detect much of a Welsh accent. And I’d be hard pressed to say how much of the ‘evenly weighted’ syllables you mention are due to the Welsh influence and how much to his training as a professional singer.

  3. ella says:

    Can’t resist the temptation to post my personal favourite example of the South Wales accent: Newport State of Mind

  4. Rhys says:

    The girl in your video has a very obvious Welsh intonation but with a Modern RP influence on her vowel sounds.

    “One interesting thing about Welsh Englsh is that it isn’t really losing ground in the South amongst English monolinguals, who retain very strong accents. But there is a strong tendency for English/Welsh bilinguals in Cardiff and Aberystwyth to act as “full bilinguals”, using very lightly accented RP English, splitting between “pure English” and “pure Welsh”, something their parents didn’t do.”

    I’d agree with that. Monolinguals in the southern valleys tend to have the strongest accents in English and this dialect is holding ground (the intonation seems to be expanding and blending with Cardiff English in certain places) although the latin vowels/trilled ‘r’ is declining in certain areas as these are stigmatised as these characteristics are strongly associated with working class mining communities. Many working class men post-industrial South Wales have an accent which can sound pretty similar to Geordie or Scottish.

    There are also West Country and Irish influences on South Wales English, although this is more apparent in Cardiff/Newport/Eastern valleys than the areas further west. A classic working-class Cardiff accent can sound pretty similar to Boston or Scouse. Just listen to Frank Hennessy!

    It’s true that throughout most of North Wales, Welsh English is giving way to Merseyside English (which was strongly influenced by the northern Welsh dialect… there were over 100,000 native Welsh speakers living in Liverpool during the early 20th century including Saunders Lewis, the founder of Plaid Cymru).

    • trawicks says:

      Cardiff is a fascinating mishmash of different accent features: There’s a bit of Dublin, some East Anglian, American even. It must have been influenced by the various accents that passed through its docks when it was one of the UK’s largest shipping ports.

  5. boynamedsue says:

    Rhys: The girl in your video has a very obvious Welsh intonation but with a Modern RP influence on her vowel sounds.

    There is a tiny influence there, but no vowel I hear is acceptable RP but unacceptable in South Wales (I’m going to say she’s Swansea-ish?). Don’t you think that her (very) slight RP-ness might be because she knows she’s on the telly? Most British speakers tone down their accents in formal situations, especially when they are reciting a speech they wrote in standard English.

    Certainly, she is much less RP than Terfel.

    • dw says:

      I agree: I only hear L-vocalization and some T-glottalling as evidence that her accent has been corrupted by London :)

      • boynamedsue says:

        Glottalising t is South Wales through-and-through, definitely Cardiff, does she l-vocalise in there?

      • trawicks says:

        Given that l-vocalization seems to be picked up by younger near-RP speakers, could it be described as an out-and-out prestige feature (rather than a covertly prestigious one)?

  6. boynamedsue says:

    I don’t think we could call this girl a ‘near RP’ speaker, as her pronunciation and intonation are extremely different to RP or even Estuary. Terfel would be an example of ‘near rp’..

    The l-vocalisation in ‘help’ and slight l-vocalisation in ‘call’ strikes me as a non-standard Welsh English feature rather than a borrowing from estuary or cockney, just because it’s something that isn’t often heard in the British media, and does not exist in any dialect touching on Welsh English. If it is a contact effect, where is the contact?

    • Rhys says:

      Yeah, her l-vocalisation is more of a non-standard Welsh English feature (originating in the Cardiff/M4 corridor region). There’s been a lot of population movement between the cities and lower valleys over the last 25 years so the accents are blending together.

      Welsh language influence on Welsh English has been declining for quite some time (although the intonation remains strong) but certain new features are appearing. Accents in South Wales aren’t converging with neighbouring counties of England but Merseyside English is definitely spreading westwards.

      It’ll be interesting to hear what Welsh English (northern and southern) sounds like in 30 years time.

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