Kathleen H. Formosa

title.none: Russell, ed., Yr Hen Iaith (Kathleen H. Formosa)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.017 04.12.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kathleen H. Formosa, New School University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Russell, Paul, ed. Yr Hen Iaith: Studies in Early Welsh. Series: Celtic Studies Publications, vol. 7. Aberystwyth: Celtic Studies Publications, 2003. Pp. viii, 221. ISBN: $40.00 1-891271-10-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.17

Russell, Paul, ed. Yr Hen Iaith: Studies in Early Welsh. Series: Celtic Studies Publications, vol. 7. Aberystwyth: Celtic Studies Publications, 2003. Pp. viii, 221. ISBN: $40.00 1-891271-10-5.

Reviewed by:

Kathleen H. Formosa
New School University

Yr Hen Iaith, or "the old language," is a collection of ten essays adapted from papers presented at the colloquium "The History of Welsh before 1500," organized by T.M. Charles-Edwards at Jesus College, Oxford in April 1999. Essays in the volume are divided between technical linguistic analyses of early Welsh etymology, morphology and semantics, and more general discussions on the history of the Welsh language. Approximately half of the volume's essays focus on the details of specific manuscripts. Thus, the essays in this volume are important reading for specialists in Celtic linguistics and paleography, and scholars interested in the history of language.

The phrase yr hen iaith in the collection's title is often used in modern Welsh as a euphemism for the language and marker of ethnic pride. It makes simultaneous reference to the historical status of Welsh as an officially marginalized language within English culture [[1]] and also to the notion that Welsh-speakers are the descendants of the original Britons. Scholarship on medieval Britain increasingly notes the central role Welsh courts and people played in insular political and cultural life, and also in wider-ranging relationships with the continent. All of the essays in this volume fit in with these developments. Although none of the essays in Yr Hen Iaith have a social-historical orientation per se, the important work presented by the scholars contributing to this volume provides more tangible, and in some cases more quantifiable, support for arguments about the influences and interactions of medieval Welsh society.

The highly technical nature of most essays in the volume make for a daunting, at times eye-glazing, read for those of us whose scholarly orientation is more literary. And for those not proficient in modern Welsh, John T. Koch's important essay on the Marwnad Cunedda and the end of Roman Britain will be inaccessible. Celticists with a particular interest in Welsh literature will find essays like Koch's andalso Erich Poppe's "The Progressive in Ystorya Bown de Hamtwn" very valuable for their focus on literature, but from the point of view that the linguistic shifts in evidence in these texts demonstrate important developments in the history of the Welsh language. Simon Rodway's "Two developments in medieval literary Welsh and their implications for dating texts" and Peter Busse's "Are there elements of non-standard language in the work of the Gogynfeirdd?" are also important reading for scholars of Welsh literature for their contributions to the dating of Welsh medieval texts and the consideration of medieval Welsh literature as a part of a wider- ranging European literary culture. Evidence presented in the more highly-technical linguistic analyses such as Peter Schrijver's essay on the etymology of Welsh chwith, and Peter Kitson's essay "Old English literacy and the provenance of Welsh y," further support emerging scholarship on pan-European interactions among the Welsh. The most interesting contribution in this area is perhaps Pierre-Yves Lambert's essay "The Old Welsh glosses on Weights and Measures," which focuses on early Celtic scholars' translation and adaptation of Latin scientific terms and conceptual models into Welsh. Lambert thus demonstrates the depth of Latin learning within early Welsh scholarly communities, while speculating on their level of resistance to imported intellectual models.

Many of the essays also provide helpful visual support for the more highly technical elements of the arguments presented. Paul Russell's arguments on the orthography and phonology of Rhufoniog, for example, are made much clearer through the two charts he provides which detail the shifts in the orthography of names recorded in the Liber Landavensis. The chart allows readers to see clearly the dramatic shift in the spelling of certain personal names over time, and thus assists in the reader's understanding of the impact of Russell's argument. That is, that the shift did not simply occur, but that there were particularly significant historical points in which the shifts occurred more dramatically than in others.

On the whole, the volume is well produced and presents a wealth of technical and specialized information with relative clarity. One significant stumbling block for the book, however, is that it does not contain an index. Essays as densely written and highly technical as these often have a large number of non-obvious connections between them. An index certainly would assist scholars whose interests rest in one specific area to negotiate among the essays more easily.

A more serious problem is found in the huge number of abbreviations used throughout the volume. At the end of the book, there appears a complete list of references, preceded by a three-page list of abbreviations broken down into two categories: abbreviations for language names and abbreviations for periodicals. References to primary sources in the bibliography are similarly listed by abbreviation. This kind of set-up is not, in itself, a problem. The problem is that the list of abbreviations is incomplete, and at times inconsistent with what appears in the volume's essays. Some essays are worse offenders than others. For example, Schrijver's essay includes the abbreviations "Mod. W" and "Early Mod. W," which are easily recognizable as references to "Modern Welsh" and "Early Modern Welsh," but are inconsistent with the abbreviation provided for Modern Welsh in the list of abbreviations, "MW." Less obvious are references to "Ir.," for example, which does not appear at all in the lists of abbreviations, but can be intuited in most cases as a reference to "Irish." But it could just as easily be mistaken for a reference to "Iranian" as per the abbreviation "I-Ir." (for "Indo- Iranian") which does appear in the list of abbreviations. Also in Schrijver's essay, in the space of only two pages, are references to "BY," "GA," and "ID," none of which appear in any of the lists of abbreviations. Such omissions may not be terribly troublesome for specialists who may recognize these as standard abbreviations from elsewhere. For non-specialists, however, such omissions and inconsistencies at best make for a difficult read; at worst, they make it nearly impossible to follow the precise chain of an argument, or to decipher its source or reference.

Most scholars of Celtic literature and history are likely to find this volume an overly challenging read, and thus not a particularly valuable resource. For Celticists specializing in the history of Celtic languages, paleography, or linguists more generally, however, this volume, despite its errors, will be a critical resource that underscores the centrality of a medieval language and culture that has been seen all too frequently as marginal.


[[1]] The Act of Union (1536), which united England and Wales, established English as the exclusive language of government, law, religion, business, and education. Similar acts of union, and similar marginalizations of local languages, followed in later centuries upon the unification with Scotland and with Ireland.