Tag Archives: Old Irish

In Search Of The ‘Original’ King Arthur – Post Script

I am Arthur, king of the Britons … or is that Artheer … or Arthoor?

First of all, let me say I am neither a Welsh or Irish speaker or an expert of the development of either language, so I would be very grateful for any corrections on what I say below.

This blog is a Post Script to a earlier post, which, if you’d like to read first, click HERE. In this post I went on a journey to see if I could discover the ‘original’ – or close to – pronunciation of Arthur. We are so used to the name now it’s hard to image it sounding like anything else other than ‘Arthur’ (In some parts of England, more like ‘ARthuh’, ‘AHtha’, ‘ARRthurr’ or ‘AHffa’). But to the Welsh speaking Welsh or Gaelic Irish or Scots (who don’t pronounce it the English way) it is pronounced very differently. This said, we should probably keep in mind the regional variation in Britain in the Late 5th/Early 6th centuries, and, indeed, later. Whilst the dialects/accents may not have been as diverse as they are now, they must still have been present.

Many people will also be unaware of the great difference (as well as similarities) between Brittonic and Modern Welsh, or even Old or Middle Welsh. Here are some examples taken form the paper ‘Old and Middle Welsh’ by David Willis (although Dr Graham Isaac has a slightly different take on this development – see below).

“Brythonic *esjās tegos > ModW. /i θɨ/ ei thŷ ‘her house’ (‘house’) via the change /-s t/ > /θ/;

Brythonic *sweks tabarnās > MW. /xwe θavarn/ chwe thafarn ‘six taverns’ (tafarn ‘tavern’) via the change /-s t/ > /θ/;

Brythonic *ak tortā > ModW. /a θorθ/ a thorth ‘and a loaf’ (torth ‘loaf’) via the change /-k t/ > /θ/.”

θ= a voiceless dental fricative … or a th to you and me!

For what’s about to be written you need to know the following:

  • Long a (ā) sound as in apesnailacheexplain, and reindeer
  • Long e (ē) sound as in eatagonyneedlepianist, and electricity
  • Long i (ī) sound as in eyecrytightropetile, and violin
  • Long o (ō) sound as in ohdominoghostpillow, and stethoscope
  • Long u (ū) sound as in yousalutetoothbrushgooseboot, and costume

Modern Welsh should pronounce Arthur as ‘Arthērrr’ (the ‘u’ being an ‘ē’ sound as in Cymru=Kumrē) with rolling rrrs. This made me wonder how this could be if the ancient Gaels got the name from the British, as some argue they did? Artúr in Irish is pronounced ‘Artūr ‘ (genitive Artúir= ‘Artūir’ , with the ‘i’ either hardly pronounce or not at all). If this came from British, it should come from Arthgwr/Arthwr (or the Brittonic equivalent such as *Artos(Artu)-wiros=>Arthouros … I think … or Arthouros if I’ve got Dr Graham Isaac’s theory right). The ‘w’ in Welsh giving a long vowel ū.

However, I discovered that the Welsh vowel ‘u’ is the only one to have significantly changed from Middle to Modern Welsh (Middle Welsh=approx 12th to 14th centuries – dates vary). This vowel, which now has an ‘ē’ sound (or something close to it) then was an ‘ū’ sound. So, whilst Arthur might be pronounced Arthēr today, it could, indeed, have been ‘Arthūr’ in the past. But, this only applies with a written name, not an orally transmitted one. If Arthur was ‘Arthūr’, one would think when the vowel changed, they’d spell it Arthwr. Not necessarily, apparently. The spelling can be ‘frozen’.

There is the spelling of Arthur in the ‘Brut Tysilio’ (c. 15th century), which is rendered as Arthyr. I thought this could be an older version of the name making ‘Arthēr’ again. However, the vowel ‘y’ had replaced ‘i’ by the 15th century, which has an short vowel ‘u’ (‘uh’) sound if used in a single syllabic word or final syllable of a multi syllabic word; so Arthur being written Arthyr would, in Modern Welsh/Early Modern Welsh (scholars differ on dates), almost render the English version of the name ‘Arthur’ (but with a rolling rrrs of course). So this may not be an ‘Arthēr’ but a sound close to what the name had become to the English (Anglo-Normans) through these later legends.

Arthur (‘Arthēr’) should be Erthir/Arthir in Old Welsh. But this would render Goidelic (Irish) Artír and not Artúr or Artur.

Should the Irish version of the name tell us how this name was transmitted? It might, if it came via the Britons as some argue. If it was from a British ‘Arthūr’ it then shows an early transmission when the ‘u’ was still an ‘ū’. It also allows for a transmission in the opposite direction. However, I discovered that the spelling in Irish also changes from document to document. Some are Artur (Artuir) not Artúr (Artúir). This would mean it sounded like ‘Artuhr’ (and Artuhir). I thought I’d better check the documents again.

Adamnan simply gives Áedáin’s (possible) son the name Arturius, with no Gael equivalent, though it would most likely be Artur. However, the ‘Annals of Tigernach’ (AT) tells us.

“Iugulacio filiorum Aedan .i. Bran & Domungort & Eochaid Fínd & Artur, i cath Chirchind in quo uictus est Aedhan, & cath Coraind.”

… and for Conaing:

“Hii sunt filii Conaing meic Áedáin .i. Rígallán Ferchar. Artán. Artúr. Dondc[h]ad. Domungart. Nec[h]tan. Ném. Crumíne”

Here we have one as Artur and one as Artúr. Was this just bad copying, could each sound as a long vowel ‘ū’, or were they, in fact, two different names?

Arthur ap Pedr in the ‘Expulsion of the Desi’ is ‘Artuir maic Retheoir’ .

Again in the AT Arthur son of Bicoir is …

Artuir filio Bicoir Britone

Annals of the Four Masters‘ has …

h-Artur, mac Bicair, do Bretnaibh

Subsequent Gaelic Arthurs are given a mixture of both spellings.

So, actually, only one document uses the spelling Artúr (‘Artūr’), the rest use Artur (‘Artuhr’) it seemed to me. To come from British, the latter would have to come from Old Welsh Arthir/Erthir (Arthur/Erthur). The latter name is attested to in the poem about the sons of Llywarch Hen.

However, I then found a phonetic pronunciation of a line from an Old Irish poem:

ina churchán tar muir nglan

ih-na KHOOR-khawn tahr MOOR NGLAHN

This gave the short vowel ‘u’ a long vowel sound ú. I was confused! I needed an expert and so went to the Listserv discussion group site, OLD-IRISH-L. I had a reply from Dennis King telling me that the scribes weren’t always careful about adding the long marks that would denote a long vowel, but it would most likely be pronounced with the long vowel. I had a similar reply from Dr. Mícheál O Mainnín, Director of Research, Irish & Celtic Studies at Belfast University adding that sometimes the long vowel marks were hard to discern on some manuscripts but the meter of the text also gives it away as a long vowel. So, even Artur, would be ‘Artūr’. (I hope you’re following this!).

Nennius in the 9th century uses the spelling Arthur, which, in his time, would have produced ‘Arthūr’ and not ‘Arthēr’. But what would someone purely reading this in Latin make of it?  In Vulgar Latin ‘u’ was an ‘o’, so it should read as ‘Arthor’. BUT, it could also have been read as a a short vowel ‘u’ or long vowel ‘ū’, as far as I can see because at the time they didn’t attach accentuation marks to them. (Help!) Either way, it wouldn’t be ‘Arthēr’. (They would try and denote long vowels on grave inscriptions, using ‘VV‘. So Arthur should be rendered as ‘ARTVVRIVS‘. Hence why the Welsh use the long vowel ū for a ‘w’).

So, it looks like the pronunciation of Arthur would be Arthūr (Arthoor) (with rolling rrrrs), regional variations not withstanding. What it was in Brittonic/Brythonic (before 550 – although dates differ) or Primitive Welsh is still debatable. It may have had over 200 years of oral transmission with the language changing before it was written down and a lot could have happened in that time. If there was an Arthur around in 500 AD he almost certainly got his name via Vulgar Latin Artūrius or Latin Artūrus; but one thing’s for certain, it wouldn’t have sounded anything like the English ‘Arthur’.

I look forward to corrections and comments.

Thanks for reading,



I have to thank the power of Twitter for getting me in touch with  Dr. Mícheál O Mainnín, Director of Research, Irish & Celtic Studies at Belfast University via Ciaran Bradley and SLDP member Dominic Bradley MLA.


Old-Irish Spelling and Pronunciation by Dennis King

Reading Old Irish, The Values of the Letters

Index of Names in Irish Annals: Artúr by Kathleen M. O’Brien

The Chronology of the Development of Brittonic Stops and the Spirant Mutation by G. R. Isaac.

‘Old and Middle Welsh’ by David Willis

Middle Welsh Vowels and Diphthongs by Elizabeth J. Pyatt

The Wales-Catalonia Website


Posted by on July 28, 2011 in King Arthur


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In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part Six

UPDATED 21.5.12 

What’s in a name?

Before getting into the possible meaning of the name Arthur and where it might have originated from, there’s a quote I’d like to make from Thomas Green’s book, ‘Concepts of Arthur‘:

“To have all four [of these Arthurs] ‘named after ‘the historical Arthur’ … would be a type of commemoration for which Celtic tradition tradition offers no parallel,’ as no less an authority than Rachel Bromwich has made clear (1975-6: 178-9). So what can the solution be?” (p.49)

Now, I haven’t read this particular work Green cites, and far be it from me, a layman, to criticise the late, great Rachel Bromwich, but there are some other names that seemed to have been used on a number of occasions, which might be worth looking at.  These are:

Constantine/Constantin/Costentyn/Custennin/Custennyn (and many other variations)

Caraticus/Coroticus/Ceretic/Caratawc/Caradog/Cerdic (?)

Geraint, Gereint









There are probably more, but these are the ones I have spotted. Yet a search of the Welsh Brut y Tywysogion‘The Chronicle of the Princes’ (Jesus MS 111 Red Book of Hergest), which covers six hundred years of north Walian history, will bring up only one Arthur, and that is the Arthur, mentioned in a Latin verse commemorating Rhys of Gwerthrynion on his death in 1197.

Cesar et Arthurus leo fortis uterque sub armis

Nil par vel similis Resus utrique fuit.”

“Julius Caesar and Arthur, each a strong lion under arms

Nothing like or similar to either one was Res (Rhys).”

(Kindly translated by Christopher Gwinn)

The south Walian didn’t use the name either, from what we can glean from the genealogies. (The only possible 12th century Welshman was a priest called Arthur of Bardsey). The same period in Ireland brings up at least five Arthurs: ARTUIR on a tombstone in Co. Tipperary,  Fergus mac Artuir (Leinster), Artur mac Muiredaigh (Western Liffey), Artúr ua Tuathail, Artúr Clérech, Artúr mac Bruide (Source: ‘Early Irish examples of the name ‘Arthur’, Bart Jaski)

Surprisingly, we do not get the reuse of Ambrosius or even the British version of it, Emrys, as far as I’m aware.  Why not, I wonder?  It could be because the others gained national and international fame and Ambrosius, for all Gildas’ praising, only gained relatively ‘local’ fame.  Or, perhaps, they just didn’t like the it!

It would help if there was some certainty over where the name ‘Arthur’ comes from or its meaning.  There is no universal agreement on this. One of the main contenders (and the one most etymologist favour) is the Classical Latin name ‘Artōrius’, which, through Vulgar (Insular) Latin renders ArtūriusTo quote Dr Kip Wheeler:

 “The strongest evidence that Arthur may be a historical hero comes from etymology. The name Arthur, unlike Rhiannon or many other Celtic names in Welsh literature, does not appear to originate in the remnants of a divinity. Nitze was among the first to argue convincingly for a link between the etymology of the name “Arthur” with the Latin name Artorius (585-96), as opposed to the Welsh/Irish cognate Arth  (“bear”) as suggested in Bromwich’s introduction to The Arthur of the Welsh. Artorius was a common Roman name from the gens Artoria, one of the founding families of Rome.” (Arthuriana: Summary of the Welsh Tradition, 1999, p.3)

Back to ‘Arthur’

.Contenders for the derivation of Arthur are:

  1. ‘bear king’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto-rigos OW Artorix
  2. ‘bear’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto (with Latin decknamen of Artōrius)
  3. ‘bear man’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto-guiros - OW Arthguir/Arthwr
  4. ‘guardian of the bear’ – from Greek star *Arktourus – Latin Arcturus – Neo-Brittonic *Arturus
  5. Classical Latin Artōrius - Insular Latin  Artūrius - Neo Brittonic *Artur - OW Arthur.
 (I am indebted to Chris Gwinn of Arthurnet during correspondents at his Celtica-Camelot website for this and following information.  (To see full the discussions go to

(Philips and Keatman in their book King Arthur – The True Story. put forward Owain Ddantgwn (Owain Whitetooth) of Rhôs - a small kingdom next to Gwynedd – as Arthur, saying the name was an epithet. They suggest that Arth (bear) was joined with Latin ursus (bear) to make Arthursus. Apart from the fact this would have to be unique and British epithets attached to names had nothing to do with animals, etymologists simply don’t agree).

*Arto-guiros should make Old Welsh Arthwr and *Arto-rigos, Old Welsh *Erthir or, possibly, *Arthric. *Arto-guiros or *Arto-uiros is one of the British etymologies that has been considered more than most. The reasons are extremely complicated and it will be easiest form me to quote a paragraph on the subject directly fro Thomas Green’s book:

“Whilst *Arto-uiros would have, through regular changes, become Archaic Welsh Art(u)ur, it ought to have developed into Old Welsh *Arthgur and Middle Welsh *Arthwr (see Schrijver, 1995: 151-2 for *-uiros > *(u)ur -wr. Simms-Williams, 1991b: 27,72 discusses the dating of medial -u > -gu-, which he sees as a ninth-century and later development; it is not, however, a universal change, so the name might have been regularly Arthur through the Old Welsh period – Jackson, 1953: 387, 392-3; Higham, 2002:74). There are two possible solutions to this. The first is that the Archaic Welsh (and perhaps Old Welsh) version could have been petrified as Art(h)ur through popular usage, so that it did not participate in the expected later changes. Alternatively, Griffen has argued that *Arto-uiros may have taken the form *Artgur by c.AD 500, at which point he argues it would have regularly become Art(h)ur, as -g- would be lost in this period (Griffen, 1994a: 85-6; Griffen, 1994b). This latter route is very doubtful, however, and we would still have to rely on a petrification in an early form.” (2007, p.190)

That’s how complicated this whole debate is! It is why Artūrius is preferred, because it takes less etymological gymnastics to get it to Arthur.

However, here is another possibility I will forward, following on from these British and Brittany names:




If his name was originally Artorix (*Arto-rigos) this would render Latin Artōrius, which then could have become Insular Latin Artūrius – Neo Brittonic Artur/Arthur – Goidelic Artúr. But, for this to work he would have to have been known by his Latin and not British name, which could be hard to argue as British characters are known by their British names.

A name coming from the Greek star Arktourus (Latin Arcturus) would be unusual but not out of the question. After all, this star and its constellation of Boötes, looks after Ursa Minor (‘The Little Bear’) and Ursa Major (‘The Great Bear’), otherwise known as The Plough, and Arthur’s name later became attached to this constellation when it would be known as ‘Arthur’s Wain’ or ‘Arthur’s Hufe’, and this could have derived from Ar(c)turus’ Wain. To the Romans the constellation Ursa Major was known as ‘The Bear-like Wagon’ or ‘The Chariot. (Germanicus Caesar, 1976, p.55)

There are plenty of ‘Art’ based names, both in Britain and Ireland.  In Britain its meaning is ‘bear’ (from Brittonic *artos modern Welsh ‘arth’, plural ‘eirth’) and, possibly, ‘warrior’. In Goidelic it could mean ‘bear’, ‘stone’, ‘noble’ or ‘warrior’. There have been those who put the name Arthur forward as being of Goidelic origin, but the problem is, whilst there are many ‘Art’ names in Irish, there are none, apart from Artúr, ending with ‘úr’ and it’s hard to find a meaning for this … as it is with Brittonic.  The nearest is Old Irishúr’, meaning ‘noble’:- (c) of persons (a) noble, generous, (b) fair, active. It can also mean ‘earth’ or `evil’.  As Dane Prestano pointed out in a comment below:

‘Art’ can mean Bear, God, hero, noble and stone. So various meanings could be constructed in Goidelic, the ‘noble bear/god/hero’, the ‘evil bear/god/hero’. I would have thought the former would be more likely but we do have that Sawley gloss where he is called “horrible from his youth” to contend with. I suppose we do need to find some Goidelic names with this ending to see if either of these were actually used in names., there are no other names with this ending.  It could be unique, but it looks unlikely.

The one problem is with the reversal of the words to get ‘Noble Bear’ (*úr-art). I know it can happen, but I’m just not knowledgeable enough to be sure. My first rendition of Art-úr was ‘bear (of the) earth’ or ‘stone (of the) earth’, which has similarities to Peter (Petr). However, I believe the main problem, as Chris Gwinn points out, is not so much the etymology, but the distinct lack of names ending in úr.

We don’t have that many comparisons of the use of Latin name in Britain for the period but there are a few that have survived. From inscribes stone in Wales: Peturus, Potentinus. Quenvendanus, Marti Pumpeius, ‘great-grandson of Eternalis Vedomavus’, ‘Etternus son of Victor’, Vitalianus … and from Devon and Cornwall we get:  Ingenuus, Iustus, Latinus. Most other names we know of are Latinised British one. (Source: BableStone

L. Artorius Castus (LAC) is thought to be from Dalmatia (the Balkans) but a number of Italian scholars think the name to be Messapic (southeast Italy on the ‘heal’) but of unknown meaning. Another derivation could be from the Latinisation of the Etruscan name Arnthur. (Chelotti, Morizio, Silvestrini, Le epigrafi romane di Canosa, Volume 1, 1990, pp. 261, 264)

Artorius is, in fact, a family name (cognomen) and LAC would most likely have been known by the praenomen Lucius, not Artorius, to his friends at least. It’s not known in Britain, besides LAC, but must have been at some point to be given to a mythical or historical figure. It’s relatively common elsewhere in the Roman world.

If Arthur is a name used by Hiberno-Britannians/Hiberno-Britons, though not necessarily an Hibernian (Gaelic) name as mentioned above, it might go someway to explaining why the British don’t appear to have used it. Could there also have been the added possibility that in Goidelic Artúr had some semblance of a meaning but in Brittonic and Welsh it didn’t – apart from ‘bear – ur‘, so wasn’t used? We still have to understand why the Britons and Welsh wouldn’t name their sons Arthur but were quite happy to have their great folkloric and/or legendary figure have the name … and why a certain 12th century monk/priest called Arthur of Bardsey would take the name.

(For my blog on the pronunciation of the name Arthur in both Brittonic and Goidelic, click HERE).

In the next blog I want to look at the genealogies that include Arthur.

Thanks for reading,



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