Medievalist learning modern

Hello. I’m a superannuated PhD student. I work on Middle Welsh (medieval literature), and I am just learning modern Welsh. It’s different and the vocabulary is somewhat different! :wink: Any other scholars doing this? :slight_smile:

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Hello Dara!
I’m not studying it now, but I did have to do a bit of Old Welsh for my degree in university. But that was a long time ago now!

I’m tagging @RichardBuck as he might have some ideas on this

Good call John!

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hello there all of you!
I’ve been working on Medieval Welsh literature for about 30 years…


Well, I’ve got some thoughts… disjointed and disorganised, but thoughts, of a sort…

(Disclaimer: I started learning Old English when I was 13, so when I got disenchanted with being a NatSci I managed to blag my way unofficially into the ASNaC department at Cambridge for a year, and then parlay that into an MPhil in Old English and Old Norse at Oxford. While I was at Cambridge I did a year of Middle Welsh under Oliver Padel, but I’ve never had enough Irish or Gaulish to get my head around Lewis and Pedersen… and my Middle Welsh is now very, very rusty.)

When I first learnt Old English it was treated like learning a foreign language: so by setting one’s sights deliberately low in terms of how similar you expect it to be, instead of feeling surprisingly difficult, it felt surprisingly easy. So I suspect that if you try to just go with the flow as far as the differences go, the similarities will just jump out at you.

When I first read any Middle Welsh it was a matter of looking up (initially) every single word of Pwyll one by one in the glossary, until some of them slowly started to stick: now, I find that despite having not set eyes on it for literally about 30 years, I can glance at a sentence like ‘Minnheu a wnaf hynny,’ heb ynteu, ‘yn llawen.’ and it’s absolutely transparent, without need for glossary or even context. (OK, I picked that one out of the first few pages of my old copy of Pwyll precisely because it was so easy; others aren’t quite so straightforward…)

I think that having a grip on Modern Welsh pronunciation – although it probably hampers me trying to do any sort of reconstructed C14ish accent – definitely helps me get my head around the vagaries of Middle Welsh orthography :slight_smile:

Occasionally (very occasionally) there are bits of Middle Welshj that have stuck in my head, and it’s a delight to come across them alive and well in colloquial Modern Welsh – I was trying to read the novel Chwalfa about the great strike in Bethesda (temporarily on hiatus while I build up to it by ploughing through some of the slightly easier books on my teetering ‘to-read’ pile) when I first came across ebe for “s/he said” in dialogue, and was startled to recognise it as the oft-repeated heb ef of the PKM.

Anyway… I think that had I been able to think in Modern Welsh when I was struggling to read Middle Welsh it would have helped more than it hindered, so I wish you well traveling in the opposite direction – mwynha!


I am planning to expand into Middle Welsh eventually, when I get more confident and build my vocabulary in Modern Welsh, so that I can read a poem written about one of my ancestors by Lewis Glyn Cothi in around 1454.


I think it’s really not that bad, and it may be possible to transition to it by degrees. The early modern Welsh of the William Morgan Bible has a lot of features that would feel familiar to medievalists, as far as I can tell; and in its turn, it influences the proper literary Modern Welsh that we’re not (quite) learning here. But I’ve noticed that even the YA fantasy stuff that I’ve been tending to read lately will have some literary features – dropping pronouns, different forms for ‘they’, occasional impersonal verbs – so I think that by judicious choice of reading material you can probably wean yourself onto the hard stuff in due course :slight_smile:

I decided to take another look at the poem (my first since I was on like Level 1 Challenge 3, and I have now started Level 2 as of yesterday)… and I understand soooo much more, and among many individual words I just picked out this phrase from recent words I have learned:

ein iaith ni… our language! (Line 32)

It is small, but it is a start!

Link to the poem by Lewis Glyn Cothi


ASNCs are everywhere! I’m doing a PhD in ASNC at Cambridge right now, and I’ve known Oliver for 25 years or so! Small world, no crap. :wink:


PS - I recognised Y Venni ( Y Fenni - Abergavenny! lol)

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@RichardBuck Fascinating! But what’s the PKM?

Sorry - a lapse into jargon is what it is. The four main stories of the Mabinogion are referred to as the four ‘branches’ of the Mabinogi - in Middle Welsh spelling Pedair Keinc y Mabinogi. So, PKM.

Fun fact: apparently ‘k’ sounds in Welsh were regularly spelt ‘k’ until they came to get an English press to print the William Morgan Bible. They took one look at the text and said “We haven’t got enough k’s, you’ll have to make do with c’s instead!”
(Please note: fun facts may be exaggerated or slightly apocryphal. Terms & conditions apply.)

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IIRC, when Andy Orchard used to run an evening session reading the rest of Beowulf (the bit that wasn’t a set text back in the day) – “Beer and Beowulf” – Oliver used to come along to keep his hand in with Old English.

And Ros Love was in my Ancient Greek class at school, too.

Talking of k’s and as an aside and just for a bit of interest, I don’t know if Caer in Welsh was originally Kaer, but Breton Ker and Welsh Caer are the same thing, from what I understand. Looking around Brittany they have quite a few places named Kerfily - one of them is close to a river called Aber Ildut (aber Illtud) not very far from Treganna (as in Cardiff’s Treganna) near Brest and down the road there’s a Breton variant of Llanishen and a Nevent (newent), there’s even a Castell Kerfily (a doubling up on the castle words), which Henry VII and the Pembroke lot used to stay at. Also a handful of places called Kerduff - most of these are in the area of Brittany, formerly known as Leonard, maybe the Leon (roman legion) is the same as the Leon near Galicia and Caerlleon?

There’s a group of (modern) Welsh speakers in Cambridge who meet up every month in the pub – look up Cymry Caergrawnt on Facebook or contact @maynard if you’re interested :slight_smile:

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And I imagine @dara-hellman will already know David Callendar in the department, whom I asked to share the message about the recent special offer – he’s taught Modern Welsh in the past, and I rather think he may be mamiaith.