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

28 Jul

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


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

28 responses to “In Search Of The ‘Original’ King Arthur – Post Script

  1. Pabo Post Prydain

    July 28, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Hi Mak,

    Very interesting stuff, but are we able to say with any confidence that:-

    a) There was a regularised spelling system in either OI or OW when the names were recorded?

    b) There weren’t as many OW/OI ways of pronouncing “Arthur” as there are modern English ones?

    In the absence of an accepted and regularised spelling system, what you are likely to get is regional and/or phonetic renditions of the name. This same process allowed the Duke of Buccleuch to be referred to as “Buglugh”. Not how his name should have been spelled with the benefit of our modern, regularised system, but certainly how it was spelled by an educated man at the time.

    A second issue is that the modern name “Arthur” might derive from unconnected names – including Latin Artorius and any OW word with the *arth element welded in.



    • badonicus

      July 28, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      Thanks for the comment 3P.

      Here are my thoughts:

      a) At this time we’re talking of transmision more thorugh word of mouth than written.

      b) According to Chris Gwinn, there would not be as many regional variation as there are today. Today’s regional variations come from the amount of invaders and their languages that have come our way. But I did say “This said, we should probably keep in mind the regional variation in Britain in the Late 5th/Early 6th centuries, and, indeed, later.”

      The Duke of Buccleuch and “Buglugh” example you site comes from one language trying to interpret another as much as anything and, according to Dr David Dumville, Brittonic and Goidelic would have been mutually understood, certainly in the 5th century. It depends when the name was transmitted.

      Some believe Artorius and Arthur are not unconnected at all and Arthur can indeed derive from it. I basically said the same thing as you: “If there was an Arthur around in 500 AD he may have been called something like *Arto-rigo (>Artho-ryo) or *Artu-rigo (>Artoo-ryo), or some other similar name, or even Artur (>Arthoor) via Vulgar Latin Artūrius [which comes from Classic Latin 'Artorius'] or Latin Arturus”


      • Pabo Post Prydain

        July 28, 2011 at 6:10 pm

        Hi Mak,

        Thanks for that.

        I can certainly accept that Brittonic and Goidelic would be mutually understood. Even today, there are plenty of similarities.

        Where do you stand on the notion that Old Irish/Goidelic was spoken in parts of mainland Britain and effectively represented an older language which was steadily replaced by Brittonic tongues? I have a sneaking suspicion that some of our OI speakers had nothing to do with the landmass we now call Ireland. Look at the derivation of York as name – arguably from the OI “ibor” (yew trees) rather than OW “ywen” (apologies for any spellos – it’s there or thereabouts!)

        I also understand that Rachel Bromwich and others argue that the existence of a clutch of Arthur names actually militates against there being an Arthur after whom they were named. However, I don’t know how the argument runs – do you?



  2. badonicus

    July 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    From what I understand, Goidelic being spoken on mainland Britain on the western seaboard is an old theory no longer held. (Skene?) However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the western seaboard (in places) were influenced by it. I’m no linguist so it’s hard to argue.

    I believe Ebruac/Eburacon/Eborocum (York) derives from Brittonic ‘eburos’ (yew tree), which may be a personal name, which would indeed be similar to the Goidelic ‘ibor/ibhair’ (the name they give as Uthyr) as they have the same root.

    All of what I know about the late and great Rachel Bromwich comes second hand. There are papers of hers I would love to ge a hold of but haven’t been able to as yet. I know Thomas Green (Concepts of Arthur) says the following.

    “Dealing with the last of these first, the occurrence of four (or possibly five) people named ‘Arthur’ in sixth- and seventh-century western Scotland and Wales has often been seen as one of the best pieces of evidence for a historical Arthur — the argument is, essentially, that the appearance of these names reflects the commemoration of an earlier historical figure (see, for example, Chadwick and Chadwick, 1932). However such a commemoration by name of an earlier historical hero would be totally unparalleled in the Celtic world and as such cannot be at all supported as an explanation of these names (see Bromwich, 1975-6: 178-79). Thus these names cannot be used as evidence for a historical Arthur and as long as we continue to see Arthur as genuinely historical they are likely to remain a lasting crux (at present there is only one viable explanation of these names, that proposed by Oliver Padel (1994: 24) — see below on this. It is worth noting that none of these ‘Arthurs’ can be seen as the ‘original’ Arthur, pace Barber, 1972 — see Bromwich, 1975-6: 179; Jackson, 1973; Roberts, 1973-4).”

    What he says is odd in two respects. Firstly, I believe Rachel Bromwich was in favour of a northern historical Arthur, whose exploits were transferred south. He doesn’t mention this. Secondly, it is not unparalleled at all for a name to be commemorated – or, at least, re-used – as I showed in Part Six; Caroticus/Ceridig/Cerdig and Constantine/Cunstenin/and many other variants, being just two. The Picts were famous for it, reusing three or four names many times for their kings. (My conclusions were the same as these great scholars about one of these Arthurs being the ‘original’).

    • Pabo Post Prydain

      August 9, 2011 at 12:47 pm

      Hi Mak,

      Skene may well have raised it, but it’s been argued more recently by a chap called Seamus de Napier, who appears to be a bit of a noise in Ireland. He argues that there is a fairly significant sprinkiling of OI names and name elements which were captured by the Roman practice of simply latinizing (and then recording) existing names – Boudicca, Cartimandua, Venutius, Mediobogdum and Eboracum amongst them. I’m no linguist either, but his arguments look well thought out and fairly convincing.



      • badonicus

        August 22, 2011 at 10:58 am

        I will check Mr Napier out as soon as I get the chance.

        Thanks 3P.

  3. Ed Watson

    July 31, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Amazing post Mak, you put your quill where others fear to scribe; the derivation of the name Arthur is a minefield on its own, but discussion of the pronounication of that name in the Dark Ages is something I’ve not come across before in such detail. Nice one!

    • badonicus

      July 31, 2011 at 9:50 am

      By the way Ed, have you read Blake & Lloyd’s theory on Glastonbury?

      • Ed Watson

        August 1, 2011 at 7:36 pm

        Mak, it’s been a while since I read Blake & Lloyd’s ‘Keys to Avalon’ but I do recall becoming rather sceptical when their theory seemingly put the whole Dark Age history of Britain behind the Welsh border. If my memory serves me correctly they located Avalon in north-east Wales.
        An Arthurian Llangollen is probably a more legitimate claimant than Glastonbury and much more convincing. Take a walk up Dinas Bran and the Valley of the Cross you will see what I mean.
        However, my preferred choice is Phillips & Keatman’s proposal of the Berth in Shropshire for the site of Arthur’s burial ground. We need some archaeological investigation there.
        I’m sure I’ve read an article on the Berth by yourself elsewhere?

    • badonicus

      July 31, 2011 at 9:51 am

      Many thanks Ed, much appreciate it.

    • Pabo Post Prydain

      August 9, 2011 at 12:52 pm

      Hi Ed,

      I’d be wary of Messrs Phillips and Keatman if I was you. The big denouement in “King Arthur: The True Story” relies on (amongst other cardinal sins) totally confusing the old king lists and apparently failing to understand that *cun was a highly common element in personal names which cannot automatically be taken as indicating kinship with Cunedda.



      • badonicus

        August 9, 2011 at 1:31 pm

        I’d been extremely wary of Philips and Keatman too. They did amazing things with the ‘facts’.

      • Ed Watson

        August 9, 2011 at 5:21 pm

        3P, I can assure you I am ever wary of authors like Phillips and Keatman who fail to use any footnotes to substantiate their wild conjecture. After reading their account of the ‘Real King Arthur’ one is left feeling more like you’ve read a fictional account rather than factual history.
        I am just as wary of Blake & Lloyd and their intentions for Welsh tourism.
        However, reading all these different theories is certainly entertaining if nothing else. I haven’t come across one yet that convinces me of a figure for the historical Arthur, if there was one.
        I merely stated I like the notion of The Berth, there is a certain atmosphere there.
        But we need some archaeology there, and as Mak rightly said there is not much evidence for Dark Age activity on the site.
        Can anyone book Time Team for a dig there perhaps? I wonder if Tony Robinson reads Mak’s blog?

  4. badonicus

    August 1, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    Yes, I think Steve and Scott went a bit mad there. I know Steve very well; used to run a company with him. We had many discussions about their theories, and he knows I don’t agree with a lot of them.

    I know the Berth extremely well too,as you rightly say, having lived just one mile from it. Unless the next English Heritage dig finds any 5th/6th century finds, it’s out as a Dark Age anything … including Pengwern. Take a look at the virtual tour of it in an earlier blog.

    I know Dinas Bran and Valley Crucis well too. (I live in Oswestry). We created a 3D model of it for their virtual tour.

    • badonicus

      August 9, 2011 at 6:02 pm

      Well, funnily enough Ed, I sent them a document on the Berth to Time Team but they didn’t take it up .It all depends what they’ve got on at the time. They did do a King Arthur special, which involved it and Phillips, which probably didn’t help its cause much.

  5. Tim

    August 2, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    Another thought-provoking post, Mak. Most of it was completely new to me. Always useful to see pronunciations spelled out for those of us who don’t speak a Celtic language. I’ve found the bit about Gaelic pronunciation of Artur especially relevant to something I’m working on myself (Arth- names in Strathclyde) and I’ve made a note to trackback here when it’s done.

    • badonicus

      August 2, 2011 at 5:38 pm

      That’s very kind of you Tim. If you need to converse with someone who really knows what they’re talking about, let me know and I can point you to him.

      • Tim

        August 3, 2011 at 3:47 pm

        Thanks Mak. Could be useful. I’ll keep it in mind.

  6. badonicus

    August 3, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Tim, what is he listed as: Artgal or Arthgal?

    • badonicus

      August 3, 2011 at 4:06 pm

      You probably know this already, but I believe Artgal means “noble passion.”

      • badonicus

        August 3, 2011 at 4:11 pm

        My namesakes were kings of Strathclyde: Máel Coluim I & II (My real name’s Malcolm).

  7. Tim

    August 3, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    I’ve seen both forms of the name: Artgal and Arthgal. I’m wondering if it means ‘High valour’ or ‘Noble valour’ like Irish Ardghal, hence I’m looking at a possible Gaelic connection. Your two namesakes on the Clyde obviously had a more definite Gaelic link.

    • badonicus

      August 3, 2011 at 9:41 pm

      In ‘The Name of Arthur – A New Etymology’ by Stefan Zimmer’, he says: Old Irish Artgal = Old Welsh Arthgal, Middle Welsh Arthal, < *Arto-galno-, possibly ‘having the vigour of / vigorous like a bear’.

      I wonder if it could come from Ardghal, to Old Welsh Artgal, then to Arthgal?

  8. Tim

    August 4, 2011 at 12:11 am

    I really should take a look at the article by Zimmer. It’s been out a couple of years and I’ve not got around to it yet. Thanks Mak for the reminder. One of the points I’ve been exploring is whether Arthgal/Artgal is indeed Arth=bear not Art/Ard=high/noble. Hoping to use this in a new blogpost provisionally entitled ‘The Three Bears (of Strathclyde)’, one of which will be King Arthgal himself.

    • badonicus

      August 4, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      You’d think if ‘Artgal’ came before ‘Arthgal’, it came via Gaelic … unless Artgal was written down before they started to write ‘th’? Otherwise it should have become ‘Arddgal’ to get the ‘high/noble’ part? But that would only be if whoever was transmitting the name knew what it came from.

      • Tim

        August 5, 2011 at 11:33 pm

        If the name did come from Gaelic then maybe Arthgal’s mother was Irish or (perhaps more likely) a Gaelic-speaking Pict. This is another possibility I’ve been bouncing around lately. All good fun.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 105 other followers

%d bloggers like this: