Celtic names to make you spit

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The Independent Online
An eminent journalist and broadcaster like James Naughtie has no doubt several eminent aims in life as a journalist and broadcaster, but to the innocent eye he has one overriding purpose in life, and that is not to be called Naughty. His name looks like Naughty and reads like Naughty, but, because he insists on the "gh" being pronounced in the native Scottish fashion, as in"loch", it sounds more like Nochtie, which I think we can all agree is more attractive than Naughty.

It is not given to many people to be able to restore a local native pronunciation at the same time as they are warding off a banal misreading. We English tend to be pretty cackhanded and conservative about pronunciations, and generally take the easy way out. We don't, for instance, pronounce the names of Chirac or Mitterrand with the proper French "r" in the middle, full of rumbling saliva noises. We hardly pronounce the letter "r" in English, let alone French - the final "r" on words like "water" is mainly heard in Scotland these days.

Nor do we pronounce Celtic names properly, for heaven's sake, which is why James Naughtie has to fight so hard. It is comparatively rare to find an English person who can handle the Welsh "ll" sound, a sound which does not even exist in English.

I think I can do it all right, but I take no particular credit for this, as I was forced to master Welsh place names early on in life simply in order not to be spat on in the street by Welsh people or taken out and lynched. I grew up in North Wales, not far from Llangollen, halfway between two places called Rhostyllen and Rhosllanerchrugog, and once you have discovered how to pronounce these three places without thinking about it, you are half-way to being accepted by the Welsh.

(That is usually as far as you get. Half-way. I don't think any English person gets much nearer to being accepted by the Welsh. Maybe neither side really wants any progress beyond the half-way mark. I sometimes tell Welsh people that I grew up in Wales and a look of awe comes over their features at the thought that any English person might prefer to spend his youth in Wales. "Whereabouts?" they inquire. "Near Wrexham," I tell them, at which point the interest fades from their features. This is because the person I am talking to is invariably a South Walian and Wrexham is in North Wales, and there is no love lost between the South and the North in Wales. Prejudice cuts deeper than you might think.)

There were many other surprises in Welsh orthography and pronunciation. It came as a bit of a shock to find that there is no written letter "v" in Welsh. There is, however, the sound "v". The way the Welsh write down "v" is as "f", as in Cefn, or Afon. This means that the Welsh can't write down the sound "f" with the letter "f", as they have already used that for "v". So, for the sound "f", they have to double up and write it down as "ff".

That was not all. I was told regularly at school that it was impossible to have a word without one of the vowels, a, e, i, o and u. "What about the word hymn?" we smarter ones would ask. "Well, 'y' can be a vowel sometimes," we would be told. Then one day I discovered a pub near Wrexham called the Hwntw Arms. I couldn't believe my luck. There was a genuine word with no recognisable vowel in it.

I was wrong, of course. "W" is a vowel. It just happens to be a Welsh vowel, that's all. That's why there are places in Wales called Bwlchgwyn which look baffing to the English eye.

But the most curious "w" of all is one that has only appeared recently, and that is the one in the middle of Dr Brian Mawhinney's name. If you listen to his name being pronounced - especially by James Naughtie - you can hear another exotic sound there, a sound we don't often hear, a sound a bit like the wind blowing bleakly across Scotland in search of a safe Tory seat. Mawhinney looks as if it should be Scottish, but the Mac has got eroded after migration to Northern Ireland. So you can't call him Macwhinney. At the same time you can't call him M'winney. So we have now got this rather attractive sighing noise, like the noise of a man wishing he could cancel the privatisation of the railways without anyone noticing.

Tomorrow: we tackle the question, why do people from Northern Ireland such as Brian Mawhinney and Ian Paisley like to call themselves Doctor for no apparent reason, while real doctors such as Graeme Garden and Jonathan Miller find it quite easy to go on air without drawing attention to their medical background?