Pronouncing Welsh Names in the Arthurian Age

Welsh is a beautiful language, descended from the same ancient Celtic roots as Irish. But for non-speakers, it can be bewildering. This post will help with that, and as a bonus, I’m premiering the next spoiler image from the next book in The Arthurian Age, The Strife of Camlann!

One of the things that makes The Retreat to Avalon different from most stories about King Arthur and his knights, is that I don’t use the names and stories that most people are familiar with. Those names, the Round Table, Camelot, the Grail, are all from the much later French Romances. Those stories were written by later medieval authors who based them on the earlier legends surrounding King Arthur, but which had very little to do with those early legends and stories.

Instead, The Retreat to Avalon is based on historical events and people, and the oldest stories of King Arthur, primarily from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (the HRB), and the Old Welsh sources. Ok, there are a few nods to some of the Romance stories, and more noticeably, I use some of the later names rather than the original Welsh names.

Gawain is the foremost example of this. Like we see in this article, the origin of his name is Gwalchmai, which is Welsh for “Hawk of the Plain” or “Hawk of May”. In the HRB, Gwalchmai becomes Latinized as Gualguanus, and over time there are other variations. So why did I use the older Welsh names for most of the characters, but not for Gawain?

I confess, it’s because I wanted to invoke an Arthurian feel to the story, and Gwalchmai just doesn’t do that for the vast majority of people. And for non-Welsh speakers, it’s a tough name to pronounce.

Pronunciation is actually a big deal when writing, because it can pull the readers out of the story while they try to decipher how to mentally pronounce something. One of the few complaints about my book is that some people have trouble pronouncing the names as they read them. I always say not to worry about how they should really be pronounced, just pick a sound that works for you and carry on. That being said, if you really want to know how to pronounce the names, I’ll give a short description of Welsh pronunciation, below.

First, I should point out that I am posting the pronunciation for current Welsh. This is not exactly how names would have been pronounced in Arthur’s time of the fifth century. At this time, Britons spoke Brittonic (and often Latin, which heavily influenced Brittonic into Welsh), but with limited documentation of names from that time, I have often had to use Medieval Welsh names.

Let’s start with Gawain. It’s not Welsh, but some folks have asked about how to pronounce it. It’s a matter of preference. In the US, I mostly hear “ga-WAIN”. I rather prefer how I’ve heard it pronounced in Wales and parts of the UK, as “GAH-win”. Sometimes I’ve heard something like “GOW-wein”.

“I’d like to buy a vowel.”

Pronouncing Welsh

Before I give some examples of names, here is a basic overview of Welsh pronunciation.

First, in multi-syllable words, Welsh tends to put the emphasis on the middle, or penultimate, syllable. So, for instance, in English, we pronounce “imitate” as “IM-ih-tate”. If it were a Welsh word, it would likely be be pronounced “im-IH-tate”. So the city of Caernarfon is pronounced as “kyre-NAR-von”.

Welsh is basically a phonetic language, meaning every word is pronounced as written. When you know how those letters are pronounced. Looking at Welsh signs, you might doubt that, but consider that, in English, you can pronounce ‘ough’ in at least eight different ways:
though (oh)
through (ew)
thought (ah)
tough (uff)
cough (off)
bough (ow)
hiccough (up) (Seriously, what happened here?)
lough (och, as in Scottish ‘loch’)

There are no silent letters in Welsh. So, if “imitate” were a Welsh word, the final ‘e’ would be pronounced, so “im-IH-tat-eh”. Or possibly “im-ih-TAT-eh”. Some letters combine to make a specific sound, however. Here are some examples of letter combinations, and how they sound in Welsh:

ae, ai and au all sound like ‘eye’.
aw sounds like ‘ow’ in ‘now’.
eu and ei both sound like the ‘ay’ in ‘say’.
ew is is tricky. It’s sort of between ‘eh-oo’ and ‘ow-oo’.
iw, i’w, yw or y’w are all like ‘ee-you’ or ‘ee-oo’ with a very short ‘ee’ sound.
oe sounds like ‘oy’.
ow sounds the same as in “throw”.
wy sounds like ‘oo-ee’ or a short ‘wi’ sound like in ‘win’.
ywy sounds like the ‘ow-ee’ part of ‘Howie’.
ch is the rough ‘kh’ sound, like in Scottish ‘loch’.
dd sounds like the ‘th’ in ‘this’ or ‘there’.
ff (and ph) is used to make the ‘f’ sound like in ‘fee’.
ng is the same as the ‘ng’ in singer, though sometimes has the ‘ng+g’ sound in ‘finger’.
ll is a tough one. It is a soft sound of making an ‘l’ with a lisp, sort of like in ‘athlete’.
si is “sh” like in “show”.
th is similar to ‘dd’, but the ‘th’ sound is more like in “think” or “thick”.
rh is a slight ‘h’ sound right before the ‘r’ sound. I know, seems backwards, but English is often worse.

So those are the special cases. Here are how the other letters are pronounced when they are not combined as above:
a is always the same as in ‘can’ or ‘hat’.
e as in ‘get’ or ‘red’.
i may be like ‘pin’, or an ‘ee’ sound like in ‘seen’.
o is either like in ‘got’ or as in ‘low’.
u sounds like ‘ee’ in ‘see’.
w sounds either like the ‘oo’ in ‘boot’, or sometimes a consonant ‘w’ like in ‘weather’.
y sounds like either short ‘ee’ sound at the end of ‘happy’, if it is a one-syllable word or when the last syllable of a word with more than one syllable. Otherwise, it sounds like ‘uh’ in ‘about’.
c is always a ‘k’ sound.
f is a ‘v’ sound, like in ‘have’.
g is always hard ‘g’ like in ‘get’.
r is a “tapped” ‘r’, meaning very lightly trilled. It almost sounds like a ‘d’.

These letters are all pronounced the same as English:
b, d, h (but never silent), l, m, n, p, s, t.
The Welsh don’t use the letters k, q, v, x or z, except in borrowed words.

A Few Examples

At the end of The Retreat to Avalon, I include a section on each character, to help keep track of who is who, and usually with a short mention of where the character comes from and who he or she becomes in later literature. So here are some examples:

Gwalchmai = Goo-ALCH-my
Bedwyr = BED-oo-eer
Cei = Kay
Myrddin = MUHR-thin
Cadwallon = cad-oo-ATH-lon (that ‘ll’ is tricky)
Gwenhwyfar = goo-en-HOO-uh-var (not far from Guinevere)
Gwyar = GOO-uh-ar (the uh-ar part should almost be one sound)
Cethtrwm = KETH-troom
Meliau = meh-LEE-eye
Siawn = SHA-oon (really, more like ‘Shown’ if the ‘ow’ part sounds like ‘ow’, like an injury.)
Rhyddfedd = HRUHTH-veth

King Arthur from Monty Python and The Holy Grail

What about Arthur? It turns out, his name has been pronounced ‘Arthur’ for a very long time, though the stress would have been on the end of the name, so ‘arth-UR’. Also the ‘u’ was likely a cross between ‘oo’ and ‘ee’, and the ‘r’ would have been lightly trilled.

Thanks for coming by. If you are a Welsh speaker, and I goofed any of this, please let me know! In the meantime, here is the next spoiler image from The Strife of Camlann, book 2 of The Arthurian Age! Again, thanks to Luka Cacic for the fantastic art!

Spoiler Image!

Comedian talks about learning Welsh

7 thoughts on “Pronouncing Welsh Names in the Arthurian Age”

  1. My dog just died & I desperately needed a distra- ction & reason to smile. So thankyou. My dad, Llewellyn who is born near Chepstow, Monmouth & his
    Dad is from Brecon, Carmarthen.(today I can barely spell.) Always taught me about Artur Pendragon with Merlin buried, in Carmarthen )
    *house of Merlin
    Was he wrong?!

    • Hi Judith, so sorry to hear about your friend passing. I am glad I was able to help a little bit.
      As for where Arthur and Merlin were buried, there are many locations that make that claim and we have no strong evidence for any of them. The old Welsh themselves wrote a poem called “The Stanzas of the Graves” that described the locations of many graves or people we know and don’t know. But for Arthur, they wrote “A mystery to the world: The grave of Arthur”. Thanks for chatting and feel free to ask any other questions!

  2. Sorry to be so slow to find your page Sean, …sorry… “Shawn”.
    ‘Welsh’ comes as easily to me as Quantum Physics. I am a passionate devotee of both, and spend approximately 95% of my time scratching my head…Ummmm?
    ………“I’d like to buy a vowel.” …please?
    A very well written post. (Well it sort of has to be, doesn’t it. You being a writer and such. And it is your own page after all).
    Eloquent, educational, and amusing. Well done!
    …..and that just your interweb post.

    If I could afford to buy your novels, without having to rob a service station, or vulnerable but affluent innocent bystander(do they exist? Hmmm?), then I certainly would. On principle, you’ve got me.
    As to how ‘Welsh’ was spoken in its historical context, as far as I am aware, no one from that time is presently alive to say “Yay” or “Nay”. And as an independent scholar of those times, for 40 ongoing weird years, I feel reasonably confident in suggesting that even the most ‘Learned’ Professor would be clutching at straws. I personally would be hard pressed to translate the conversation I had in the wee hours, at the Pub the other night…You had to be there! …or perhps not…hmmm?

    Thankyou Sean, good work
    And good luck into the future Sir Sean/Shawn
    (Hey, I’m an Aussie. Its our God given job to take the mickey! ….Our “Founding Fathers” were mostly ‘Celtic Convicts’…. talk about an oxymoron)

    • Hi Jay, thanks for the fun comments and I appreciate the support.
      If you ever do knock over that service station and decide to pick up one of my books, I’d love to know what you think.
      It might be a while before I sell enough books to get there, but Australia is high on our bucket list. Maybe we’ll bump into each other at that pub.
      Thanks, and best wishes,

    • Well, they may have been those pugnacious Scottish.(I’m 25%) or some drunken Gaelic. People get them mixed up with each other. As historically, the southern Scots liked to move to Northern Ireland, & North Irish to South Scotland. While we Welsh have been in Wales, for 10000 yrs & stayed. (As it has the best acoustics in the World. Just ask the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And it has some of the most ŕefined paper producing trees. Just ask Dylan Thomas or all of the Welsh priest’s who become The Archbishop of Canterbury. Sing,Write, Preach, Teach; & they all need alot of space on our paper. I wish those who write about us would provide more space for names like eg*Llewellyn EVANS. Duw Ach Bendithio Judith-Catherine

      • Some great comments on this post!
        I will say, though, that there’s a lot of Irish in Wales. Dyfed was basically an Irish-originating kingdom in southwest Wales.
        And I wonder how things may have been different if the Welsh priests had been willing to proselytize to the Anglo-Saxons in the early era, when they were the Britons? Very interesting times!

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