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29  Medieval Spelling

29.1  The date when the Welsh language began to be written down is a matter of much controversy. Celts on the Continent were using the Greek alphabet in the first century B.C., and the Roman alphabet not long after. It would be surprising if the Celts of Britain, in frequent contact with the Continent, were not doing the same. We have names on coins and gravestones, but we have to wait until the eighth century for small pieces of continuous Welsh written in manuscripts. It is suggested that a system of Welsh orthography was established by the sixth century. (From one sort of evidence, this would seem a late date. Some of the Welsh letter-values seem to suggest a Latin pronunciation more akin to the "pre-Vulgar", "Classic" patterns.)

29.2  One implication of this is that many words seem to have assumed conventional forms before lenition had its full effect. For this reason, the treatment of lenition in Welsh manuscripts is very irregular. In other ways too, much of Welsh orthography reflects a time before some major phonetic changes took place. So medieval Welsh spelling is largely historical spelling, just like modern English. It presents the same sort of difficulties that English does (in confusions such as we find in sets like rough-bough-ought, or fishing-mission-condition). It is also internally inconsistent, with the same word or word-segment spelt in different ways even within the same sentence. Some of the difficulties are outlined here, but the editions of Pwyll and Branwen, and other texts, have introductory sections dealing with problems.

29.3  Consonants (only possible deviations from "standard" are noted)
KCkeffy, kynt
final CGmarchawc, noc, darparedic
final PBhep, pawp, nep
final TDcochet, ryt, oet 'date'
DDtrydyt, oet 'was'
DDDgorwed, gilyd, medwl
FFFford, furf
RRHryt, rac

29.4  Vowels
UWguelet, guerth, haut, paup, enu
Fperued, uy, teruynedic, ulwyddyn
YImedyant, ny
eiy (possessive)

29.5  Perhaps this is the point to review what we know about the monosyllable written in the manuscripts as Y. It can be
an articley cwn, y farchoges(leniting before a feminine)
prepositioni Annwfn, i fynydd(leniting)
pronoun (1s)fy lladd i, gefeis i
possessiveei wlad(leniting = 'his')
ei hymddiddan(aspirating = 'her')
eu clusteu('their')
preverbal (indirect relative)
after adverbial beginning
ac yno y bu
prefix to a preposition,
sometimes written separately
y rof= yrof
(possibly)i'w= 'to his'
Every time you see the monosyllabic Y in a text, you should rigorously decide what it means. This is one of the tests of real competence in the reading of medieval spelling.

29.6  E can be written in place of Y, especially in phrases e hun (ei hun), e ymdeith (i ymdeith), e wrthaw (i wrthaw, iwrthaw), and in the prefix ken- (cyn).

29.7  Many words containing a cluster of consonants "simplify" that cluster by inserting a vowel -- almost always the minimum vowel (schwa) represented by y. So:
treiglweithis writtentreigylweith

29.8  This is not just a question of spelling. It represents a phonetic tendency in the language, but a tendency very slow to work. Welsh poetry in the traditional forms considers words like cefn and cwbl as monosyllables.

29.9  In Pwyll and Branwen we have the following words, as spelt with the extra letter. Practise reading them without the letter. Note that the apparent extra syllable is in fact not a syllable for stress purposes.

29.10  The technical name for this phenomenon is "epenthesis", or (more precisely) the term borrowed from Sanskrit, "svarabakhti". The epenthetic vowel is almost always the central y, but it is possible to echo the vowel in the preceding syllable. So you could see cefn, pobl, written as cefen, pobol. The only examples of this in our texts are twrf, which appears both as twryf and twrwf, and ffurf, which appears as ffuryf and ffuruf.

29.11  By now you will realise that the old spelling has many potential pitfalls. One of the danger-points is the multiple meaning of the letter written as U. It can represent a real U, or F, or W. In turn (and this is a different problem), the F could represent a lenited form of M or B, and the W could be the lenited form of GW. An eye-opening exercise would be to go through the vocabulary of the edition of Pwyll, looking at all the words in PPD1 , and compare them with the vocabulary in this book.

29.12  It is notorious that a, y, yn, yr, have multiple meanings to be treated with extreme caution. (Look yet again, and many times, at 29.5.) Here is a selection of other words which might have more than one meaning:
byd(1) 'world'
(2) = bydd ('is')
doeth(1) 'clever' 'learned'
(2) 'came'
eu(1) 'their'
(2) lenited geu 'lie'
geir(1) 'word'
(2) = ger 'near, by'
gwely(1) 'you see'
(2) 'bed'
gwyr(1) 'men'
(2) 'knows'
(3) = gwir 'true'
heb(1) 'without, at the side of'
(2) 'says'
hun(1) 'self'
(2) 'sleep'
mwyn(1) 'value, reward' (er mwyn 'for the sake of')
(2) 'in'
(3) 'gentle, decent'
oed(1) 'appointment, date, rendez-vous'
(2) = oedd 'was'
ofyn(1) = ofn 'fear'
(2) lenited gofyn 'ask'
and many spellings of paraf 'prepare, arrange', and parhaf 'last, endure'.

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All text copyright © 1996 by Gareth Morgan. Online layout copyright © 2001 by Daniel Morgan.