(navigation bar)

6  Lenition

6.1  The most important consonant change in Welsh is "lenition". It is often called the"soft mutation". Lenition is a pronunciation phenomenon which is widespread in Western European languages, but in Welsh (and in Celtic generally) it has a special importance because it is not merely a change of pronunciation. Often it has acquired a structural significance. Sometimes the presence or absence of lenition can make a difference in the meaning of a group of words.

6.2  Lenition is the "softening" of a consonant when it is between two vowels (or between a vowel and a semi-vowel like r or l). Such a consonant is technically known as "intervocalic".

6.3  Consonants "soften" in the following way:

(The progression may technically be described as "voiceless" > "voiced" > spirant. The guttural series was really C > G > GH > zero, but the GH was unstable, and disappeared without leaving any significant trace in the written language.)

6.4  An easy way of illustrating this is to look at Welsh words borrowed from Latin. (There is a full study of such borrowings in Harald Haarmann, Der Lateinische Lehnwortschatz im Kymrischen [Bonn 1970].)
P > BsyberwproudL superbus
dyblygfoldL duplic- 'doubled'
B > FafwynreinL habena
ufyddhumbleL oboedi- 'obedient'
T > DpenydpenanceL paenit- 'penitent'
D > DDufyddhumbleL oboedi- 'obedient'
perfeddmiddleL permedi-
swyddofficeL sedes 'seat'
C > GseguridleL securus
G > zerocarrailaceL corrigia
eisieuneedL exiguus 'scanty'
M > Fniferhost, retinueL numerus 'number'
prifchiefL primus 'first'
perfeddmiddleL permedi-
terfynendL terminus
ffurfform, shapeL forma
There are two other changes which are usually classed with these as lenitions, though they have a different rationale: LL > L, RH > R

6.5  All these lenitions took place in Welsh before final syllables were lost (the early sixth century A.D.). Therefore the lenited form is found in many situations where the previous word would originally have ended in a vowel. In the prehistory of Welsh (at the time when it might be called "Brythonic") we could have had two phrases:
*oinos brigantinos*oina brigantinissa
In the second, the initial b is intervocalic, and becomes lenited. When final syllables disappear, in Welsh, we have:
un breninun frenhines
'one king''one queen'
(Note how the intervocalic g disappears as well.)

6.6  According to how you make your count, there may be as many as forty or fifty situations in which initial consonants are lenited. (See Appendix A, and GMW 14ff.) Most lenitions are real phonetic developments, such as we have seen, but others come from the effects of analogy. For instance, most feminine adjectives in Celtic (as in Latin or Greek) used to end in a. Naturally they led to lenition in phrases of the shape feminine adjective + noun. But some feminine adjectives did not end in a vowel. Nevertheless, by analogy, all feminine adjectives cause lenition, even though there was no original phonetic reason for some of them to do so.

6.7  Surprisingly, lenition is not much of a problem in reading Medieval Welsh. (It is a major problem in speaking Modern Welsh.) We shall see when we look at medieval spelling that it is not even regularly notated. But it's obviously essential that you are familiar with the effects of lenition, for the simple needs of looking up lenited forms in vocabularies or dictionaries. Also, as we've seen in the first set of Latin loanwords, an understanding of lenition can help you to perceive etymological relationships.

6.8  Feminine nouns have lenition after the article (except nouns with initial LL). All nouns have lenition after the word ei ('his').

(Note: The word ei is a paradox in Welsh orthography. From the earliest historical evidence we have, it seems to have been pronounced as i. The spelling ei is a learned revival, based on the analogy of the Latin word of the same meaning, eius. In most people's normal speech it is heard as i, but in sermons, hymns, and occasional academic discourse, the diphthong may be used. Indeed, for a beginner concerned primarily with the medieval, it might be useful to use the diphthong, to differentiate from the other little words pronounced i.)

Go through the preliminary vocabulary (4.3). Before each noun place (i) the article, (ii) ei.

(navigation bar)
All text copyright © 1996 by Gareth Morgan. Online layout copyright © 2001 by Daniel Morgan.