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’ (tŷ ‘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 ape, snail, ache, explain, and reindeer
- Long e (ē) sound as in eat, agony, needle, pianist, and electricity
- Long i (ī) sound as in eye, cry, tightrope, tile, and violin
- Long o (ō) sound as in oh, domino, ghost, pillow, and stethoscope
- Long u (ū) sound as in you, salute, toothbrush, goose, boot, 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-L LISTSERV GROUP
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