Medieval Welsh

A Self-Instruction Course created by Heather Rose Jones

Copyright © 2003, 2004 all rights reserved. This page most recently revised on: May 31, 2004

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Unit: 1

Pronunciation and the Standardized Spelling System

 

 

The Standardized Spelling System

Rather than plunging directly into the language of the original Medieval Welsh texts, these lessons create a bridge for beginners by using a standardized system of spelling (alongside the presentation of texts in their original forms). The purpose of this regularization is two-fold: to highlight the connection between Medieval Welsh words and their modern equivalents; and to aid the student in the pronunciation of Medieval Welsh. The latter may be thought to be a somewhat trivial concern -- after all, who is going to speak Medieval Welsh today? But knowing pronunciation will help the student understand the logic behind actual Medieval Welsh spelling systems, and it will bring other senses into play that will aid learning and memory. Besides this, eventually the Medieval Welsh student will want to read poetry, which can best be appreciated when recited or heard aloud.

One goal of this standardized spelling has been to remove ambiguity: the student should be able to determine the proper pronunciation of a word purely from the written form (similarly to the relationship between Modern Welsh spelling and the formal pronunciation of Modern Welsh). But another goal has been to preserve whenever possible those differences between Medieval and Modern Welsh spelling that either point to differences in pronunciation or that will make it easier for the student to shift to reading texts in their original spellings.

One problem in trying to regularize Medieval Welsh spelling with pronunciation in mind is that we are far from certain how all the sounds were pronounced. In some cases (especially for vowels) changes between medieval and modern spellings may be a clue to changes in pronunciation, but they may also reflect differences that only existed at a previous stage of the language and have been retained due to the conservatism of the written language. In the case of consonants, conservatism is probably the largest factor in the mismatch between the expected pronunciation and the spelling, but in some cases medieval writers were simply experimenting with various ways of representing sounds that were not part of the Latin written tradition -- the one from which Welsh spelling originally derives. So to some extent, the following should be taken as a guide and tool only -- as one possible interpretation -- rather than as absolute truth.

Stress

Medieval Welsh is uniformly stressed on the penultimate (next to last) syllable. Apparent exceptions are usually due to "false diphthongs" as noted below

Consonants (after D. Simon Evans)

Regularized Medieval Welsh Modern Welsh Pronunciation (the IPA symbol, if available, is given in brackets)
p p [p]
b b [b]
m m [m]
mh mh voiceless [m]
ff ff [f]
ph ph [f] -- when the sound is from aspirated "p"
v f [v] -- There are occasional examples of "f" being used to spell this sound in Medieval Welsh, but it will be easier to transfer to reading real texts if you learn it as "v").
t t [t]
d d [d]
th th voiceless dental fricative, as in "throw"
dd dd voiced dental fricative, as in "this" -- This is the greatest departure from actual Medieval Welsh practice as "dd" was far more often represented by simple "d". A more useful bridge to medieval spelling could be produced by using an "edh" symbol ("d" with a bar through the ascender), but this symbol is notoriously prone to not displaying correctly in electronic contexts. If this reliability problem is ever solved, I will consider changing my standard symbol.
n n [n]
nh nh voiceless [n]
s s [s]
l l [l]
ll ll voiceless lateral fricative -- the voiceless "Welsh double l". This sound should be learned in person or from a tape -- the shorthand version is "put your tongue as for 'l' and hiss around the side of it".
r r,rh trilled "r" -- In Modern Welsh, there is a voiced and an unvoiced (or aspirated) version of this sound. While Medieval Welsh probably had some difference in pronunciation corresponding to this, both were invariably written as "r", so it seems artificial to introduce a written distinction.
c c [k]
g g [g] -- Always the "hard" sound as in "get", never as in "genius".
ng ng as in "sing"
ngh ngh voiceless "ng"
ch ch [x] -- i.e., "hard ch" as in "loch" or "Bach"
h h [h]

Vowels

For the most part, vowels may be assumed to have the same value as in formal Modern Welsh (e.g., the pronunciation you might learn for choral singing). The best way to learn to pronounce them is to obtain a tape that gives close attention to pronunciation. The descriptions below will be approximate.

a as in "father", either long or short
e short as in "pet" or long like the "a" in "tape"
i as in "machine", either long or short
o as in "hope", perhaps sometimes as in "long", either long or short
u like German u-umlaut or like French "u", pronounce like "i" but with the lips rounded, either long or short
w long like the "oo" in "loom" or short like that in "book"
y "clear sound" - like "i" but slightly more towards the back of the mouth
y "obscure sound" - schwa, but unlike in English it may be stressed, like the first syllables of "above" or "butter"

The "clear" and "obscure" sounds of "y" depend primarily on position in the word. In the final syllable, the letter will have the clear sound; in all other syllables it will have the obscure sound. This means that in one-syllable words it should have the clear sound, but there are a handful of exceedingly common one syllable words in which it doesn't. These will be noted as they occur.

Vowel Length (after J. Morris Jones)

Vowel length is a complicated subject, and mostly we have only clues from spelling, rhyme, and foreign borrowings to tell us how similar Medieval Welsh practices were to modern ones. If you are interested in a more detailed treatment of the subject, a book such as J. Morris Jones' "A Welsh Grammar" should be consulted. This section is a simplified guideline to help in reading exercises and passages aloud.

Unaccented syllables can be considered short. Accented monosyllables and other accented syllables can be considered separately. In monosyllables, the vowel is short if followed by: a) more than one consonant; b) a voiceless stop (p, t, c); or c) the nasals m and ng.

Sometimes the final consonant cluster is a doubled form of the same letter, e.g. "gwynn" (white). Sometimes a vowel is long because it is doubled, e.g. "buum" (I have been). In both these cases, Modern Welsh has eliminated the doubled letters and long vowels that can't be predicted from spelling are usually marked with a circumflex. The standardized spelling in this course will use the doubled letters, because these are what you are more likely to encounter in texts.

Very often, words that are unaccented in the sentence (such as prepositions, particles, etc.) will have short vowels no matter what the predicted pronunciation would be.

The rule for accented syllables in polysyllabic words is very similar. The vowel is short if followed by: a) more than one consonant; b) a voiceless stop (p, t, c); c) the nasals m and ng; or d) the sounds ll or s.

Diphthongs

Diphthongs in Welsh are very simple: sound the two vowels as written but make them a single syllable. The only notable exception is that combinations with "e" as the second letter are pronounced as if it were "y". The following are considered to be the diphthongs of Medieval Welsh:

w-diphthongs aw ew iw yw
i-diphthongs ae oe ei eu wy

If "i" (or medieval "y") appears at the beginning of a vowel cluster (other than as above), treat it as more like the consonant "y" in "you". Sometimes you will find a whole series of vowels in a row, as in "ieuanc" (young). To sound out the pronunciation, look for possible diphthongs from the list above. Neither "ie" nor "ua" are listed as possible diphthongs, but "eu" is. So sound it out as "i-eu-anc", with the initial "i" acting as a consonant.

"W", like "i", will sometimes act more as a consonant than as a vowel. (Some manuscripts even use different letters for vocalic and consonantal "w", but this is a topic for later.) As a general rule, "w" will be more consonantal when it is sandwiched between other vowels. It is almost always consonantal if it follows "g" or "ch" and is followed by a vowel.

Occasionally, either sound changes or the normal word-formation processes will bring together vowels that look like a diphthong but are pronounced as separate syllables. This will often affect the placement of the stress. In the regularized spelling (as in Modern Welsh) this will be indicated by placing a diaresis on the first vowel: "mäes" (field) pronounced "MA:-es", "glanhäu" (to clean) pronounced "glan-HA:-u".

Pronunciation Keys

In the first few lessons when a pronunciation is shown, syllables will be separated by a hyphen, the stressed syllable will be shown in upper-case letters, and long vowels will be marked by placing a colon after them. (All vowels without the colon are assumed to be short.) Otherwise, the sounds will be represented by their standardized spellings with the exception of the "obscure y" sound, which will be rendered as @ representing schwa. Remember that the combinations th, dd, ch, ll, mh, nh, ngh, and ff or ph represent a single sound. In some words these letters may fall together in the spelling without representing that single sound, but they will normally fall in different syllables in the pronunciation key, as in the example of "glanhäu" above, which is pronounced "glan-HA:-u" not "gla-NHA:-u".

Exercise

Try sounding out the following words. [Note: eventually, these lessons will include sound files, which will improve their usefulness.] In some cases, words may not be in their "dictionary" forms, but all are possible forms in some context. The key to the exercises gives a clue to matters like stress and vowel length, but naturally cannot give feedback on correct pronunciation.

sound word gloss
P penn head
gwypych you would know
B bod to be
hebawg falcon
mab boy, son
M mam mother
cymryd to take
gwelsom we saw
MH mhlant children (nasalized)
ymhervedd in the middle of
FF/PH ffordd road
cyffes confession
corff body
phali brocade (aspirated)
V vorwyn maiden (lenited)
cyvodi to arise
hav summer
T teg fair, beautiful
attav to me
wyt you are
D deu two (masc.)
modrwy ring
oed appointment, date
TH thad father (aspirated)
llathreid shining
cyvoeth realm
DD Dduw God (lenited)
cynneddyv quality, property
neuadd hall
N neges errand
honno that (fem.)
gorffen to finish
NH nharyan shield (nasalized)
brenhines queen
S swyddawg officer
nessa"u to approach
gwas lad, servant
L lys court (lenited)
gwylad to watch
meddwl thought
LL llyma behold
allan outside
pell far
R ryd ford
arav slow
hir long
C carw stag
raccw yonder
G gallu to be able
hygar affectionate
gwisg clothing
NG ngwr man (nasalized)
anglod disgrace
rwng betwen
NGH nghi dog (nasalized)
cynghor advice
CH charyad love (aspirated)
achaws cause
chwech six
H hi she
gwahanu to separate
A can song
cam injury
E lle place
llenn cloak
I gwir true, truth
gwisg clothes
O holl all
honn this (fem.)
U un one
unben chieftain
W gwr man
gwrth against
Y hyd length
hynt path
hynny those
hygar affectionate
AW llaw hand
EW newydd new
IW cymriw wound, injury
YW mywn inside
AE maen stone
OE coed wood
WY dwyn to carry, bear
EI geir word
EU deu two (masc.)

Key to Exercise

 


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