What Do I Need to Learn Medieval Welsh?

I’m posting this FAQ, not because I’m an expert teacher (I’ve never taught Welsh), but because I’m an expert learner, having made most of the mistakes students can make in learning a language. My comments are based on the Welsh classes I’ve had, and my own trials and errors. I assume that you are primarily interested in learning Medieval Welsh in order to read the Mabinogi and the other medieval texts, and that you already have an understanding of English grammar, including conjugations, declensions, subjects, objects, and indirect objects. I’ve included a book list at the end of this page listing all the books mentioned here. They are all available from Books for Scholars.

Medieval Welsh: Getting Started

Medieval Welsh is similar to Modern Welsh, or at least more similar than Medieval Irish is to Modern Irish. If you know one, you can probably read much of the other, much like the way a fluent English speaker can read Chaucer without too much difficulty. There’s a fairly good Medieval Welsh Grammar, A Grammar of Middle Welsh by D. Simon Evans. The Evans Grammar is part of the Medieval and Modern Welsh series, from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, a series of inexpensive editions of medieval Welsh texts edited by scholars with introductions, notes, and complete glossaries. I suggest you start methodically reading your way through A Grammar of Middle Welsh a few sections at a time. This isn’t as onerous as it sounds; it, like the other books in the series, is small, and well organized.

You should also read Alun Hugh’s excellent essay on How to Use a Welsh Dictionary at the Cymdeithas Madog web site. Using a Welsh dictionary, or any alphabetical list of Welsh words, is not as easy as you might think because the syntax of a sentence can change the first letter of Welsh words, but dictionary entries use the unchanged word. There’s a good introduction to Welsh orthography here. The essay is concerned with Modern Welsh, but much of it applies to Medieval Welsh as well. Be especially sure to read the sections about mutations in the Phonology section at the beginning of Evans’ Grammar. Then read, and print out Professor David Klausner’s Guide to Welsh Mutations. You should also have a copy of Y Geridaur Mawr, the standard Welsh/English and English/Welsh dictionary as it will often help you to find words that, because of mutations, are not listed alphabetically where you expect them to be. (Learning the mutations is, of course, the best solution, but there are times . . .). Keep the Grammar close by as you translate, so you can look puzzling things up as you encounter them. The notes in editions of Welsh texts will often help you too, and you can then use Evans’ Grammar for more in depth explanations.

A good text to begin translating is the edition of Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet by R. L. Thomson in the Medieval and Modern Welsh series. Pwyll is the first tale of the Mabinogi, the four medieval Welsh mythological tales. Start by trying to translate just a few sentences of Pwyll at a time, looking up each word in the glossary, reading the notes, and using the Grammar to figure out the how and why of the grammar and syntax. Almost every word in the tale is included in the glossary, so this is much easier than it might sound, and it’s a good tale, so it’s not as boring as it might be. You should also have a good, and fairly literal, translation of Pwyll close by to use as a crib. I very much prefer Patrick K. Ford’s The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. When you’ve finished with Pwyll, you can move on to the second branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen Uerch Lyr, edited by Derick S. Thomson, also in the Medieval and Modern Welsh series. A good third text in the same series is Cyfranc Lludd a Llefelys. There are editions of a number of other texts listed in the Book List at the end of this essay.

My Preferred Method for Translating

One way to translate Welsh is to make lists of the unfamiliar or difficult words in a text (or really, a short passage of a text) and label each word in terms of the part of speech (noun, verb, pronoun, the tense or mood, the person (first, second, third, singular or plural, etc), and note any particularly interesting characteristic of syntax or etymology. Then try to make coherent English out of it verbally, as you look at your notes and the original Welsh. This is tedious, but it has the virtue of making you really internalize the language. Gradually, you will find that you have an increasingly large Welsh vocabulary of words which you know when you see them, and don’t have to look up, parse, and write down. I know it is much easier to simply translate the Welsh into modern English word for word in writing, but do first try doing it without writing down your translation in fluent English. I find it helps to read the Welsh aloud, doing your best to pronounce things correctly. Reading the Welsh aloud helps me remember the words better. When you get tired of translating, spend time gradually working your way through Evan’s A Grammar of Middle Welsh,, or looking at someone else’s translation.

Additional Learning Aids

Remember that there are resources on the web for learning Welsh, medieval and modern. Be sure to look at the wonderful, helpful page on mutations in Welsh and the exceedingly helpful Checklist of Middle Welsh Particles by Professor David Klausner at the University of Toronto. If you have some spare cash, there are a few other books you might want to consider. Other translations (Gantz, though be careful. He arbitrarily changes the Welsh original, and alters the names; Jones and Jones though a bit archaic, is still the standard for many) are useful, and interesting, and there are also a few texts with English and Welsh on facing pages. If you are at all serious about Welsh mythology, you will want Rachel Bromwich’s Triodd Ynys Prydein. Bromwich has a super introduction, all the triads, in English and Welsh, and extensive notes on names. Her notes alone are worth the money. There’s a printed facsimile of the White Book, (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch) one of the two central medieval Welsh manuscripts of the Mabinogi and the other tales, all in Welsh. And the Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi edited by Ifor Williams from the White Book manuscript is still the standard edition of the four branches; it includes lengthy notes as well as the edited text, all in Welsh. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans have recently re-edited Culwch ac Olswen, this time including the text in Welsh and the notes in English, and a glossary. There are student editions of the poems of Dafyd ap Gwilym, and of Y Gododdin, the strange, and rather difficult medieval Welsh epic poem about the battle of the men of the north at Catraeth, part of the Welsh contribution to Celtic Arthurian literature. Up to this point, the books mentioned have been in the $7.00 to $30.00 range, most of them in the lower price strata. But there are others, like Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru The Really Big Welsh dictionary, the Welsh equivalent of the OED. GPC is still being edited and published in small sections, which are later bound into large hard covers. The first two volumes are available now, and the third is about to be born. These are very large books, and a bit expensive, though very much worth the cost. You can visit the GPC web site here.

Book List

Branwen Uerch Lyr. Ed. Derick S. Thomson. Medieval and Modern Welsh Series Vol. II. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1976. ISBN 1855000598.

Amazon UK catalog page for Branwen Uerch Lyr

Bromwich, Rachel, and D. Simon Evans. Eds. and trans. Culhwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale. Aberystwyth: University of Wales, 1988; Second edition, 1992.

Amazon UK catalog page for TITLE

Bromwich, Rachel. Ed. and Trans. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. University of Wales Press: Cardiff, 1978; Third edition due in 1999.

Cyfranc Lludd a Llefelys. Ed. Brynley F. Roberts. Medieval and Modern Welsh Series Vol. VII. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1975.

Amazon UK catalog page for Cyfranc Lludd a Llefelys

Evans, D. Simon. A Grammar of Middle Welsh. Medieval and Modern Welsh Series Vol. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1964. ISBN 1855000008.

Amazon UK catalog page for A Grammar of Middle Welsh

Ford, Patrick K. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. ISBN#0520034147.

Amazon catalog page for The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales

Amazon UK catalog page for The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales

Gantz, Jeffrey. The Mabinogion. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1976. ISBN# 0140443975.

Amazon catalog page for Early Irish Myths and Sagas

Amazon UK catalog page for Early Irish Myths and Sagas

Y Geiriadur Mawr: The Complete Welsh-English English-Welsh Dictionary. Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1987. ISBN 0715405438.

Amazon UK catalog page for Y Geiriadur Mawr: The Complete Welsh-English English-Welsh Dictionary

Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru. Eds. Gareth Gareth, Gareth Bevan, Patrick Donovan. Cardiff: University of Wales, 2004. Vol. I-4. ISBN 0708318061.






Amazon UK catalog page for Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru Vol. II.

Jones, Gwyn and Thomas Jones. The Mabinogion. Everyman’s
Library 1949; revised in 1989, 1991. ISBN 0460872974.

Amazon catalog page for The Mabinogion

Amazon UK catalog page for The Mabinogion

Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch. Ed. J. Gwenogvryn Evans. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1973.

Amazon UK catalog page for Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch

Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi. Ed. Ifor Williams. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1951. ISBN 0708314074.








Amazon UK catalog page for Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi

Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet. Ed. R. L. Thomson. Medieval and Modern Welsh Series Vol. I. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1986. ISBN 1855000512.

Amazon UK catalog page for Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *