Pronunciation of Welsh sb combination

Anyone have any idea why, when the Welsh seem to make the same sounds for the letters b and p as we do, they nonetheless choose to represent our sound ‘sp’ by the combination ‘sb’, as in sbwnj, sbort, Sbaen, sbwriel, sosban etc? I started out thinking that as Welsh is phonetic there must be something subtle going on here and that I should e.g. be pronouncing sosban with a definite b sound – sos-ban – but however carefully I listen Welsh ‘sb’ does just sound like ‘sp’ to me. Of course, the two sounds are very close anyway and it may be that my ear simply isn’t sufficiently attuned to catch a nuance here.

I note that the combination ‘sp’ is in fact vanishingly rare in Welsh and occurs mainly in loanwords: prospectws, marspan, dispiwtio, dispensasiwn, an exception being ‘cospty’ (house of correction) rather than ‘cosbty’.

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oooh - excellent question! I’ve never really thought about that before. I hope someone has an answer!

I’m sorry I have no answer, but I think I have to say that…I hear sb not sp!

At least in the songs I’m more familiar with - therefore Southern accent, maybe there are differences in this sense?

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and me - I’m from the South and hear sb clear as a bell, it’s very different in sound to sp.

It sounds natural to me because in Czech, we have something called “spodoba znělosti”, we would read it as sp. The closest translation I can find in English is assimilation:

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In English if you listen carefully you’ll realise that we do actually say “sb” for words spelled “sp”. The “b” is the voiced equivalent of “p”. If you say them separately - “puh” then “buh” - your lips are in the same position, but the “b” has a sound from the throat. When you put the “s” in front of “p”, you get the assimilation that @ani mentions above. There are lots of sounds like that in English that we don’t actually hear the way we pronounce individual letters as we’re used to seeing them written.

Welsh tends to more closely reflect the actual pronunciation :slight_smile:


Yes, @Deborah-SSi is on the right track there. But in English the difference between the p in pin and the p in spin is not unvoiced vs voiced but aspirated vs unaspirated - hold your hand in front of your mouth and say the two words, you’ll feel the puff of air with pin, but not with spin.

Whether this is the reason why Welsh spells [sp] as sb, and [sk] as sg is a moot point, however. After all, the same phenomenon is true with [st], and yet Welsh doesn’t spell this sd - we write cosbi, sgorio but stafell.


It’s more that p t c in English and Welsh (especially at the start of words) are pronounced with an extra puff of air after them, as well as being ‘unvoiced’ (no buzz in the throat): ph th ch. B d g have voice, and also no puff of air (post-aspiration).

But after an s in English we drop the extra puff of air and do a plain p etc - so to our English (and Welsh) ears the plain p sounds kind of half-way between a p and a b, and this is reflected in Welsh spelling.

You can check it out for yourself by holding a piece of tissue or a cigarette paper in front of your mouth and saying “pot, spot” repeatedly - you’ll find the tissue flies up for ‘pot’ much more than it does for ‘spot’ :slight_smile:


Beat me to it!

Ah yes, my days of studying phonology are too long ago :rofl:


although I often get emails asking to source a “sdil” (i.e. photo/still image) for a programme - niche TV speak, obviously :wink:


My days of smoking roll-ups are too long ago, too, but it doesn’t stop me recommending cigarette papers :smile:


Does this mean that the sb I believe I’m hearing is just in my (Italian) ears?
I remember it happened before for other sounds, so at least I know!

@RichardBuck, I remember you mentioning the cigarette paper for that sound I’m not used to as non-native English, but can’t remember which word(s) we were discussing back then!

I found where we discussed it before, and that has a link to yet another previous discussion :slight_smile:

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Thanks for all the replies, very helpful even I still, when I listen, for example, to Beca’s first interview (with herself), hear ‘sbwnj’ as ‘spwnj’ and ‘sbwriel’ as ‘spwriel’, and that seems to me different from how I would hear ‘sbwnj’ and ‘sbwriel’ with a b sound. If you think about the English word ‘raspberry’, I think most people pronounce it with a silent ‘p’ but an audible ‘b’, and that surely gives a different result from how it would sound if you pronounced the ‘p’ and left the ‘b’ silent - and it’s the latter I hear with the English/Welsh sp (of course, in raspberry most people use a voiced s but I don’t think that affects the argument). But I don’t have a background in phonology so I am on shaky ground here and am happy to accept that I am just not hearing things quite right.

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To my ear in the South Wales valleys the English words, hospital, spectacle, splendid and special would generally have the sb sound, but I would expect a newsreader on the BBC to say those with an sp sound. Spain has the sp, and Sbaen has sb. English sport is sp, but Welsh use of that word is sb. My brain may be influencing how I think I hear those, but it feels real to me.

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Oh that’s interesting! Goes against the rules, though… :slight_smile:

but we know there are always exceptions to the rules, don’t we? :wink: :rofl:

Yes, and we secretly rather like them, don’t we? :wink: