Medieval Welsh

A Self-Instruction Course created by Heather Rose Jones

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Unit: 4j

Dictionary/Spelling Exercise: Fun with the Letter "Y"


As you might have been able to figure out back in the lesson on pronunciation, the letter "y" is a bit of a catch-all in Medieval Welsh. It can be a vowel with either the "clear" sound or the "obscure" sound, and it can act a bit like a consonant either at the beginning of words (similarly to its use in English "young") or in diphthongs (as in all those plural endings with "-yeu" or "-yawn"). And while there are some good historical reasons for using the same letter to spell all these different sounds, at any given time and place each of these sounds could also be spelled by some other letter -- although which letter it was could differ widely. This lesson will introduce you to a few of these maddening and confusing possibilities.

Example 1: Y/I as a Consonant

When "y" represents a consonant at the beginning of a word (i.e., when it is immediately followed by a vowel) or when it is the first letter of a diphthong (where it is more properly called a "semi-vowel" or "glide"), it can also be found as "i". (In fact, our standardized spelling uses "i" for the first of these and "y" for the second, following the more typical medieval practice in each case.) So you can have ieith/yeith, iar/yar, meibyawn/meibiawn, gwynnyon/gwynnion, etc. It is almost never possible to confuse it for some other sound in these positions. And both of these cases will invariably be spelled "i" in Modern Welsh.

Exercise 1

In the following sentences, identify the places where "y" is serving as a consonant or semi-vowel (as described above) and, using all the techniques you have learned so far, try to determine how you would look up the relevant words in a Modern Welsh dictionary. If you have such a dictionary, look them up and see if you were right before checking the key and then, for extra credit, make a stab at translating the sentences. (Some of these are taken from poetry, so the grammar may be a bit loose.)

  1. Prif obeith praff adeilyat yeith proffwyddolyon.
  2. Wrth duw yt yolaf hynny.
  3. A hen a yeueing.
  4. Duw cadarn a varn pob yaun.
  5. Pa ederyn benac a uo y tayauc ... vn guert a'y yar.

Example 2: Clear "Y"

When "y" represents the "clear" sound (in final syllables and most monosyllables, as you recall) it will often alternate with "i" in medieval texts. For the most part in these cases, you tend to find "i" in earlier texts and "y" in later and modern forms of the words. Some exceptions include a few very common short words. Medieval ny(d) becomes modern ni(d); medieval y ("to" - which I have been spelling "i" to try to keep a difference between it and the third person singular posessive) becomes modern i; as I mentioned in the last lesson, medieval gwedy becomes modern wedi.

A rather peculiar variant of this is the aforementioned third person singular posessives. "His" and "her" are invariably found in Medieval Welsh as y (or with the variants in spelling that the clear "y" can have). In Modern Welsh they are found as ei -- but still pronounced in ordinary speech as if they were spelled "y". (The same goes for medieval ych = modern eich "your (pl)", medieval yn = modern ein "our".) Why? Because in the 16th century, the philologist William Salesbury -- firmly believing in the close connection between Welsh and Latin -- decided to spell them ei/eich/ein to more closely reflect their supposed kinship to Latin "eius". Poor William was several hundred years too early to catch the historical linguistics bus, but his legacy lives on in Modern Welsh (mostly due to the use of these spellings in the late 16th century Welsh translation of the Bible) to befuddle pronunciation, but more happily to keep modern readers from having quite as many "y"s and "yn"s to disambiguate as medieval readers did.

In Medieval Welsh, y can be a definite article, a preverbal particle, three different prepositions -- two of them with opposite meanings, an abbreviated form of three different pronouns (about which more later), or one of three different possessive pronouns (3pl eu also sometimes appears as y). You can narrow down the possibilities by what mutation is caused and in what position the word appears, but there are times when only context can tell you which "y" you are reading.

Exercise 2

In the following sentences, use the mutations and context to figure out what "y" means in each case. It will help greatly if you have a dictionary and can look up unknown words in the environment. Explain what clues you used. As usual, try to translate the sentences before checking the key. This is hard; don't get too frustrated if you have problems.

  1. Ef a uyn ymrwymaw Ynys y Kedeirn ac Iwerdon y gyt, ual y byddynt gadarnach.
  2. Y doeth y mi y gan wr a vu y'th wlat ti.
  3. ... a dyuot att y vorwyn a dodi y law ar y hysgwyd.
  4. Oed gwynnach y chnawd no distrych y donn.

Example 3: Obscure "Y"

In Modern Welsh, the use of "y" to spell both the clear and obscure sounds is the wildest departure from the general principle of phonetic spelling. The driving reason to do so is the strong connection between the two sounds -- seen most clearly when you add a suffix to a word that had clear "y" in the last syllable. (C = clear, O = obscure)

In a bit of a turn-about, writers of Medieval Welsh were more likely to attempt to spell obscure "y" phonetically. That there were several different ways to do this either shows that the sound they were aiming for had no direct representation and could only be approximated, or that various dialects pronounced it in slightly different ways. These phonetic spellings can be quite useful in trying to determine which of the "little words" normally spelled with "y" represented the obscure sound (where the clear one would be expected in monosyllables). "E" and "a" were the most popular alternate spellings.

Exercise 3

The Medieval Welsh law text called "Llyfr Iorwerth" is the most extreme that I have seen in trying to avoid spelling obscure "y" (and sometimes clear "y") with that letter. In the following passage, try to identify all the places where our standardized spelling would have "y". You've already had a great deal of the vocabulary in this passage, which should help.

Key to the Exercise

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