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Character names & the joys of Welsh

Posted in Characters

I'm slogging through the character names index and a Welsh pronunciation guide (very necessary — sorry to do it to you folks. One of my beta readers is complaining bitterly. I say, could be worse – could be a Russian novel.) This requires me to look up every name and make sure I provide some clue about how to say it. Welsh looks much harder than it is because of unusual spelling conventions. “Gruffydd” is Griffith, “Rhys” is Reece, “Vachan” became Vaughan, and so forth, but there are some genuine problems, too.

To begin with, the name of one of my main characters turns out to be the wrong gender. (No, I'm not telling you which one.) That's fixed now (that is, I fixed the name, not him.) Too bad, I liked that name.

Secondly, you can't just look up Welsh words in a dictionary. Perhaps you didn't know this… Celtic languages share a phenomenon known as “mutation” and are annoying enough to change the spelling accordingly. This means, when you pronounce a word differently because of the influence of its surrounding words or grammatical syntax, you spell it that way.

We're used to this in English for vowels in some of our older words, such as our class of strong verbs. We share with other Germanic languages couplets like “run/ran”, “fall/fell”, “know/knew”. Initial letters, on the other hand, rarely do this in English, so it doesn't seem so bad because we only have a few of them, and the initial letter isn't involved. It's different in Welsh.

Let me give you an example. In English, we write “an apple”, but we say “a napple”. In Welsh, they spell it that way, too. So a hypothetical sentence in English, spelled as the Welsh do, might read. “Mary couldn't decide which apple she wanted, but John gave her a napple she couldn't resist.”

Got that? How would you look up “napple” in a dictionary? You have to know the language well enough already to understand what might happen so that you can guess what the unmutated form of the word “napple” might be, after you fail to find it. Good luck with that if you're skipping the grammar and going straight to the vocabulary lists.

In English, we have some other famous examples, both of which demonstrate how this can all go terribly wrong. That little amphibian we call a newt? Sorry, wrong name. It's actually an eft. At some point circa Middle English, the phrase “an eft” was reanalyzed, incorrectly, as “a neft” which became “a newt.”

But you can screw up going the other way, too. The name of that juicy fruit we like to eat in the morning came, along with the fruit itself, from Sanskrit through Persian and other points middle Eastern into Italian and then French. The original word started as something like “naranj” or “narang” and was garbled a few times in passing until it became reanalyzed the other way as “an orange” instead of “a norange.”

(For those who are interested, other English examples, in either direction, include: adder, apron, augur, humble (pie), nickname, and umpire.)

What is a rarity in English is a constant presence in Welsh. Sometimes it's the first letter that changes, but sometimes it's the last. “Rhys son of Rhys” is written “Rhys ap Rhys,” where “ap” is itself shortened from an original “mab” which means “son.” But if Rhys's father's name starts with a vowel, he becomes “Rhys ab Edern.” By the way, these mutations lead to many well-known Welsh surnames: “ap Howell” becomes Powell, “ap Rhys” becomes Pryce, “ap Huw” becomes Pugh, “ab Owen” becomes Bowen, etc,

Now, I realize most of my readers don't really care about all of this in any detail, but I am cursed with an obsessive nature, so I like to try and get these things right. Luckily, only the character names and very little else are Welsh in form, but since the names come from various periods in history, and are often present only in inscriptions that are more than a thousand years old, it's a challenge to make them both accurate and consistent. Someday, somewhere, some native Welsh speaker or scholar is going to stumble across this book, and I expect to hear all about my linguistic shortcomings when that happens.

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