Welsh Etymology (Word Origins)

Which Welsh words derive from different languages?

It seems many Welsh words from Latin due to the Roman occupation all those years ago, such as Braich (arm, from L. bracchia), Ffenestr, Porth… This according to “Speak Welsh”, a little handbook from John Jones Cardiff, 1977 I have, and they say even un, dau, tri may be related to Latin and un, deux, trois.

I suspect other words from Latin include Sadwrn, Cant, Canwr, Ysgol, Eglwys, Llyfr, Meddyg and ysgrifennu.

Of course, the list of words with English origin is enormous and hardly needs emphasizing…

But other words I truly wonder about, they just seem to me they might hide another foreign origin, my short list is:


I would love to hear everyone’s syniadau a damcaniaethau, about this and other Welsh words. Diolch yn fawr pawb!

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A fascinating subject. Like most European languages, Welsh has borrowed from its neighbours over the ages - and given back, like “car”. A good link is here: http://cy.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benthyg_geiriau_i%

Numerals I am not certain about, most languages don’t borrow these, and I’d say they are evidence of a common earlier origin. Un, dau, tri…breaks down at pedwar, and interestingly that one is very similar to Gothic fidwor.

Siwgr is sugar, llong is (navis) longis, pabell is papilio, ystafell is stabellum, etc - not sure of the other ones.

There are quite a few words in Dutch that are almost identical to Welsh in sound and meaning, and invariably are from Latin origin: bechod - pech, ffenest - venster, cist - kist, sicr - zeker, parod - paraat, cyningen - konijn, caws - kaas. Some of these words have had consonant shifts in English, e.g. cheese, chest. Crom/crwm - krom (bent, crooked) must have a link somewhere via English, but haven’t found that yet.

What about gwawr? Is that from aurora?


I can see why we took words for things we didn’t have or didn’t take much notice of, like planets which the Romans worshipped and we didn’t, but I have never believed that we suddenly noticed our arms after the invasion!! I believe our language arose from Central European roots and Latin probably did too, so some words are far older than either Cymraeg or Latin! Simple numbers, Mama, Dada/Papa, Me!me!me! etc…
from Jackie

Sometimes it’s not that another word didn’t exist for a particular thing, but it depends on the relative status of the languages. I’m only guessing but say, for example, that doctors were learned people held in high esteem in the community and they used Latin to refer to body parts. It is conceivable that the local words could get dropped in favour of the new words with higher prestige. A common example is the fact that we tend to use French origin words when we talk about meats but the original words to refer to the animals. We probably used to eat cow and pig, now it’s beef and pork.


I fairly sure the planets were named after the gods. The ancients loved their astronomy, but they definitely didn’t know about Pluto, Ceres, Sedna etc.

Numbers are similar across all Indo-European languages, even in Indian ones they look familiar. One word I like is llosgi. The closest thing that comes to mind is the Greek phlox, as in phlogiston. Likewise with haul and helios. Does it make sense for some Welsh words to be closer to Greek than Latin, or am I seeing things?

I think the point of this is that in England in the middle ages, only the aristocracy (who spoke Norman French) actually ate meat as a matter of course (see what I did there?) while the English-speaking peasantry raised the animals. Therefore there were no widely-used names for the tpes of meat in English.

Also worth noting that eating the meat of young sheep has only recently become fashionable, so the name for the meat (lamb) is the same as the name of the animal. Contrast with sheep/mutton (from the French mouton). And to digress even further, mouton appears to be one of those words that came into French from Gaulish, so it’s directly related to (and not an ancestor of) the Welsh cig mollt.

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If Greek and Cymraeg share roots, which is not impossible, there could be close relationships. However, I believe there is evidence for trade between Britain & the middle east (which includes Greece) from before the Roman invasion. We then all spoke British (well dialects of the same language) so at least those parts in the west would have picked up some foreign terms. I can sort of see that navigators might discuss the sun, but am at a loss on the subject of scorching!! p.s. The Romans believed the planets were Gods. Later on we named newly discovered planets, asteroids etc. for various Roman Gods!!

Sometimes words in Welsh and Latin are similar because Latin and Celtic seem to have split up a (relatively) short time ago. Though it’s disputed “exactly” how long ago, if you can be exact in such things, and it is still a long time ago by most standards!

In the original post, the words “cant” for hundred and “canwr” for singer seem to be similar simply because they are both derived from the same source, rather than taken from the Latin.

You do get a “h”<>“s” thing in Latin and Welsh, and many other languages. Haul<>sol, halen<>salis, haf<>summer, Hafren<>Sabrina<>Severn, and many others. But also saith<>sept<>hept, where Welsh is more similar to Latin than Greek in that way. It seems to be a common sound change.

However, the superficial similarities to Greek did lead to some mediaeval writers using this as proof for the Welsh descending from the Trojans, an idea apparently still around when Pistol called Fluellen a “base Trojan!” In Henry V!

Though as Dee says, there are many reasons why words can be taken in from other languages- the human population is an enormous, organic thing, not responding to defined laws which can predict what words become popular, and you do simply get some words taken in, well, “because”!- I was myself always a bit thrown by the “braich” borrowing. I’ve read of some similar words in Irish possibly being around, but .i have never been able to track them down.

However, there is a simpler explanation which I’ve come to think is more likely. Perhaps the Celts didn’t have a word for arm.

For just arm, that is.

Now, I have no knowledge of Irish. But reading about a bit, it seems that the Irish word “lamh” (ie, our “llaw”) stands in for both “arm” and “hand”.

If this was the case in Roman times, you can see how it would be possible for such a word as braich to become used- it would not be replacing a native word, and could actually have been seen as a useful addition.

Just a theory which I have not seen elsewhere, My knowledge of Irish is negligible, so it could well be complete rubbish!

Ps- I don’t think the Romans actually thought of the planets themselves (or what we call planets today) as Gods. More that they were simply named after them. There was a certain “anthropomorphisation” of the Sun and into Helios, Sol, even Appollo etc. and of the moon into Luna, Diana and even Athena, but I don’t think this happened with the five visible [other!] planets, as it were. I think they were just named after them. Maybe some astrological stuff, I don’t have enough interest in that to find out! But I don’t think the planets were regarded as Gods in the same way that the Sun and the Moon were. I could well ( ie probably) be wrong.

[ edit- hmmm… There’s a tendency in Welsh in older texts for “Dwrn” to cover hand as well as fist. No idea if any of that survives. This might be a hangover from the method of making a distinction when necessary before the “braich <> llaw” thing came in. This is pure head-in-the-clouds guessing though.]

Sooo… There’s more, I’m afraid! Sorry about this!

My knowledge of Breton is, again, effectively non-existant. But again just from looking round-
The Breton for arm seems to be “brech”, whilst the Breton for hand seems to be “dorn”.

This fits in at least with the idea of “llaw” originally covering the entire upper limb, including references to the hand, whilst “dorn” covered “fist/hand”. Worked perfectly well in most cases, context would usually make clear what was meant.

But “Braich” found a niche as another (?more straightforward?, if you need a “reason”) way of making a distinction between “arm” and “hand”, with “braich” meaning " arm" and “dwrn/llaw” kept as alternatives for “hand”.
“Llaw” survived as “hand” in Welsh, “Dorn” survived as “hand” in Breton when the older way of making the distinction faded away.

Possibly. Just an idea, as I say. And it does at least definitely show how even words for basic body parts (such as “hand”) are liable to change.

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What I find fascinating are place names in the Britain. You can clearly see, without looking too hard, that Welsh speaking people (well, actually the forerunner of Welsh - Brittonic) inhabited this whole island. Glasgow, Aberdeen etc in the north, and many more all over Britain. There was a great programme on S4C on this very subject by Dewi Prysor. It focused on the “Old North” (Hen Ogledd). Such a shame that Cymraeg is now only spoken in one small remaining corner (what is now Wales… and not in very much of that, either). Hence SSiW is doing such a fantastic service in helping it in it’s revival.


Where are you Jason? I’m forever pointing out to my friends here in Scotland that what they call Pictish was actually Brithonic (British) and we were all one island, speaking roughly the same language with dialects… let’s face it, the differences between gogledd and de in one little country are quite large, so the differences between what was spoken in Aberdeen and Kent must have been… vast… especially as travel was a lot harder, basically depending on rivers and sea!!
from Jackie

That’s a very good point, as so much trade was by sea it’s quite possible Aberdeen dialect may well have been heard in Kent or Welsh ports, but inland (mid south) where i live, i can imagine the chances were zero. It’s more than possible as little as two hundred years ago the difference in language between Newbury and Kent was greater than North/South walian is today.

I have heard it said that boat pilots that went out to guide visiting ships into southern ports could get by in up to six languages purely by osmosis because they grew up with people around from that many nations. I seem to remember around Aberdeen there is a dialect which involves a lot of Norwegian, again because of sea trade.
Cheers J.P.

I think we’re talking about different times here? Re, placenames and what I was referring to previously… My understanding is… Back when the Romans invaded 2000 years ago the people of this island, from Lands End to John O’Groats were Brittonic speaking (from which Welsh and Cornish are the descendant languages). They called themselves the Cymro. Breton also comes from this Brittonic language via people settling over there from Cornwall. The evidence that the whole island of Britain were Brittonic speaking is retained in the place names. Glasgow, for example, means “Green hollow” in Brittonic/Welsh. (Glas, of course, now means “blue” in most Welsh, but still means ‘green’ in some areas and contexts). When the Angles and Saxons arrived they christened everyone on this island the “Welsh” (foreigners) - not just the ones in present-day “Wales”, which is merely all that is left of the Britain-wide Cyrmu heartlands. The real heartlands of Cymru was actually not what is now present-day Wales. It was actually what is now southern Scotland and northern England. The area the old Welsh Bards from 1500 years ago called the “Hen Ogledd”. Present day Wales was cut off from the Old North about 600 AD when a battle was lost in the Chester area. Those up there lost their Cymru identity and language thereafter. Around this same time the Scotti tribe from Ireland invaded the north of Britain. Their separate Celtic language (Gaelic Celtc) replaced the old language (Brittonic Celtic) and became Scottish Gaelic, and they became Scotland. As the Cornish language has now, very sadly, all but died out, Cymraeg is the last remaining trace of the old Brittonic language of this island.

Again - I highly recommend you watch the programme on S4C on this very subject by Dewi Prysor. It is fascinating. I am merely regurgitating what it said and what I have since read!

Hi - I am from south Wales, but now live in London. I don’t blame them for not realising as I, for one, don’t remember much of this from my school syllabus. You only have to point out the place names to them. They are pretty indisputably Welsh-sounding! Glasgow, Aberdeen… even Strath Clyde (Clyde as in Clwyd in Welsh) etc

Jason, you seem to have a really good grasp of the complex history of the period. You are right in that there are loads of place names to the south of Glasgow which have a Brythonic origin. The river ‘Nith’ is probably related to ‘Neath’ etc. Even around Leeds the old kingdom of Elfed -Elmet as it is today- has left its mark with Ben Rhydding, Walton, Cumberworth and more. Even the River Aire has claim to a Brythonic pre-name. Later this year, I hope to visit the Galashiels area and come up with some support to the idea that the famous Catreath ( Y Gododdin) battle took place there, and not as is supposed at Catterick - there is not one shred of hard evidence to back this up, someone in academic circles just assumed it on the basis of the name.

In Edinburgh, buses to Penicuik have a livery carrying an explanation of how Penicuik got its name, the smaller writing says "Penicuik, lying on the west bank of the River North Esk in Midlothian, derives its name from the ancient Brythonic phrase “Hill of the Cuckoo”

If i remember correctly, Caesar used the ability of the Belgae (northern France/Belgium) to escape to their relations in southern England as the excuse for his invasions. It is possible that the Belgae either spoke a Celtic similar to the Brythonic in the rest of Britain, or people south-east England spoke a different (but related) language. Caesar also mentions that the Belgae were different from the Gauls.

Well, there’s no disputing that sounding Welsh/Brythonic!

Have they mistranslated it, though? Pen meaning “head”, as in mountain. Rather than “hill”, which would be “Bryn”.

Either way, yes - that is a great example.

Another example is Cumbria (Cymru), which would have been slap bang in the heartland of the Old North.

Worth noting that the River Esk has exactly the same name as the Wysg (Usk) in Wales and the Axe and Exe (more than one of both) in south west England. The name is also related to the word whiskey.