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: 2j

Dictionary/Spelling Exercise


Each unit will include one lesson designed to help you learn to cope with the spelling and appearance of actual medieval documents. When you work on the text examples at the end of each unit, use these concepts to try to work from the original version of the text before using the standardized one.

The History of Lenition and its Effects on Medieval Welsh Spelling

As mentioned in the lesson introducing lenition, the historical origin of this sound change was the sandwiching of a consonant between two vowels. At the beginning of a word, whether or not this happens will vary according to the word's environment, and these situations are discussed in terms of grammar. But the sound change also happened to consonants inside words, and in this case the change would be complete and permanent because the internal environment would not vary.

The sound change happened around the 6th century -- much earlier than the period of the language we are studying -- and was complete by the Medieval Welsh period. Spelling is a different matter. Spelling tends to be conservative as long as there is an unbroken tradition of literacy. As long as the sound represented by a letter is predictable by regular rules, there is no need for the spelling to have a one-to-one correspondence with the sound. (An example in English is the possesive 's, which is pronounced either [s], [z], or [@z] in a completely predictable way depending on what sound it follows.) While the spelling tradition in Welsh has always aimed at a strictly phonetic representation, it sometimes took a while to catch up with changes in pronunciation.

To make a long story short, when the sounds subject to lenition appeared in the interior of words (and keep in mind that the final sounds of Medieval Welsh words were internal during this period -- the inflectional suffixes had not been lost yet) they normally underwent lenition. (Certain consonant clusters "protected" them from lenition, but we're considering general trends here.) However the spelling was only beginning to reflect this change during the Medieval Welsh period. In consequence, letters corresponding to the lenitable sounds in Medieval Welsh words should often be interpreted (in pronunciation and when looking them up in a modern dictionary) as their lenited counterparts.

The final position in the word was the last to have the spelling catch up with the pronunciation, so in certain texts and at certain times the internal consonants can be interpreted as written but the letters representing final consonants should be lenited to give the correct pronunciation and modern spelling.


The following are actual words from a medieval text. Try to guess or figure out what the modern dictionary form might be. (Don't worry too much about vowels for now.) The key will give the actual modern form, but there will usually be several correct "guesses". Don't be concerned if you don't understand why you sometimes need to lenite a letter and other times don't. The idea at this point is to get used to figuring out where you might have to look. Experience can help you make better guesses, but it will never eliminate the process entirely. Hint: remember that Medieval Welsh and our standardized spelling use "v" where Modern Welsh uses "f".

Example: swydawc


Key to the Exercise

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