LINGUIST List 28.307

Mon Jan 16 2017

Review: Irish, Middle; Welsh, Middle; Historical Ling; History of Ling; Ling & Lit: Hayden, Russell (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 31-Aug-2016
From: Jean-François Mondon <>
Subject: Grammatica, Gramadach and Gramadeg
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Deborah Hayden
EDITOR: Paul Russell
TITLE: Grammatica, Gramadach and Gramadeg
SUBTITLE: Vernacular grammar and grammarians in medieval Ireland and Wales
SERIES TITLE: Studies in the History of the Language Sciences 125
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Jean-François R. Mondon, Minot State University

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The volume “Grammatica, Gramadach and Gramadeg: Vernacular Grammar and Grammarians in Medieval Ireland and Wales” is a compilation of ten papers emanating from a 2013 conference at Christ Church, Oxford entitled “Grammatica and the Celtic Vernaculars in the Medieval World.” As defined in the introduction to the volume by the editors, Deborah Hayden and Paul Russell, “grammatica was typically defined as the field of study that encompassed both ‘ratio recte scribendi et loquendi,’ the systematic principles of correct discourse, and ‘scientia interpretandi,’ the art of reading, interpreting and analyzing authoritative written tradition” (p. 1). The ten papers contained in the volume illustrate the seeming vastness of this area, with the gamut of linguistic subfields being covered, ranging from the semantics of individual Old Irish words, to Old Irish verbal morphology, to the phonology and orthography of the Middle Welsh consonants. Additionally, going beyond linguistics, a few contributions to the volume touch on the pedagogical practices in place in the medieval Celtic world, especially as related to the teaching of Latin, as well as on the acquisition of an understanding of figurative language. The audience for this volume is a scholarly one and aside from a working knowledge of at least Old Irish and Welsh (either Middle or Modern), some familiarity with paleography and/or literary studies would prove beneficial though not essential.


The work contained in this volume comes from some of the leading scholars of the world of Celtic linguistic history, and their contributions do not disappoint. Each paper contributes in some way, marginally or substantially, to a better understanding of the history and contents of vernacular grammars and those who wrote them in the Medieval Celtic world. The volume itself suffers from no discernible typos but only the occasional missing preposition. Below, the various papers will be summarized with their key conclusions highlighted.

Elizabeth Boyle’s “Allegory, the ‘áes dána’ and the liberal arts in Medieval Irish literature” is a preliminary study of three explicitly allegorical texts with the intent to determine whether allegorical interpretations can be attributed to other texts. While metaphor, simile and analogy unquestionably were notable features of medieval Irish literature – as seen in the famous poem “Messe ocus Pangur Bán” (The Scholar and his Cat) – the status of allegory has been less certain in the medieval Celtic world. Following Scowcroft (1995) Boyle raises the possibility that journeys to the otherworld or mention of otherworldly creatures do not necessarily represent residual evidence of a pre-Christian mythology but rather they represent passages to be interpreted via an allegorical lens. This seems true of the otherworld over the sea in “Echtra Chonnlai” which represents the Christian religious life (McCone 2000) as well as the otherworld of the horsemen in “Cormac’s Adventure,” which represents the real world itself. She concludes that allegory very reasonably could be present in more texts than hitherto thought. This should not come as a surprise since scribes would have become well acquainted with figurative devices via the educational practices of medieval Ireland, a large part of which was training in the analysis and interpretation of figurative, religious texts.

Deborah Hayden’s “Cryptography and the alphabet in the ‘Book of Ádhamh Ó Cianáin’” focusses on one of the earliest post-Norman manuscripts, and specifically two entries on the codex G3. The one is a quatrain in a cipher written twice in the lower margins of individual folios and the other a numeric key to the alphabet on one of the same folios as the cipher. Hayden points out that the former occurs in both plaintext and cipher in two sixteenth copies of the grammatical text “Auraicept na nÉces,” which she traces as being transmitted to that work from Ádhamh’s manuscript. The cipher itself, which replaces vowels with various dots, potentially derives from a later recension of “De inventione linguarum,” which had been widely circulated on the Continent. As far as the alphanumeric key, Hayden points out that it does not follow the system established by Bede. Instead, it possibly mimics a similar key attested in two manuscripts of the same “De inventione linguarum.” She concludes her article with an edition of a previously unpublished poem dealing with the numeric values of the letters.

Erich Poppe explores what constitutes a word and what terminology was used to describe a grammatical word in Medieval Ireland in his “Caide máthair bréithre ‘what is the mother of a word’.” Poppe begins his discussion with an analysis of the concept ‘word’ in “Auraicept na nÉces.” He observes that the term “focal” is used to describe both a lexical word as well as a ‘mot phonétique,’ which is a single stress group including all dependent particles as in “isfer” (it’s a man) with the copula “is” and the noun “fer.” Poppe then discusses the four-part division of senses of “word” in the tract “Dliged sésa a huraicept na mac sésa.” “Son” refers to the sound in the throat, “anal” to the breath used to utter a word, “guth” to the actual sound produced by the voice, and “bríathar” to the mental aspect of a word, outside of the vocal tract.

Pierre-Yves Lambert continues the discussion of semantics in his “The expression of ‘sense, meaning, signification’ in the Old Irish glosses, and particularly in the Milan and Saint-Gall glosses.” Lambert concludes that “cíall” is the principle word for “meaning” though it could be used differently in grammatical texts such as the Saint Gall glosses as opposed to exegetical texts such as the Milan glosses. Other words for “meaning” such as “intliucht” appear to be Textsdependent on the Latin word it is translating. “Intliucht” is more frequent than “cíall” in the earlier part of the Saint Gall glosses, perhaps due to the higher frequency of Latin “intellectus” there.

Anders Ahlqvist turns to morphology in his “The verbal paradigms in ‘Auraicept na nÉces’.” Of the manuscripts he analyzes, all the verbal forms are Old Irish aside from “nobar-carthar-si” whose 2nd pl. infix “bar” belies its Middle Irish provenance (Strachan 1904). In the manuscripts, the forms of the verb “caraid” (to love) are inflected to illustrate both the active and passive voice, though curiously the perfect tense is used rather than the present. As a solution, Ahlqvist mentions Paul Russell’s suggestion that the perfect is more easily analyzable with its prefix, stem, s-suffix, and ending.

Liam Breatnach studies glosses from various periods on law texts in his “The glossing of the Early Irish law tracts.” He shows that the earlier Old Irish glosses are often elaborated on by Latin glosses and that the glosses themselves do not constitute a complete reading of the text itself. As the language of the texts became more removed from the form of the language as it was actually spoken, however, the glosses became more geared towards total explication, with glosses which become full renditions into Middle Irish of the Old Irish text. Additionally, several of the glosses become etymological in nature. While disparaged by older generations of scholars (Binchy 1943), Breatnach contends that these forays into etymology are important for several reasons, not least of which is their taking account of more specific technical meanings of certain words.

Paul Russell has two contributions in this volume. His first, “Teaching between the lines,” gleans what we can learn about the learning of Latin in Medieval Wales by studying three manuscripts, and particularly the glosses of the second two. The first contain typical colloquies in which certain grammatical Latin forms are emphasized and repeated. The second contains a ninth-century copy of Ovid’s “Ars Amatoria” whose glosses provide factual and mythological information as well as more specific senses of general terms. The third piece studied is Juvencus’ metrical version of the Gospels, “Evangeliarum Libri Quattuor.” The overwhelming number of glosses appear to be geared towards elucidating the allusions of the text itself as well as referring the text to the commentary tradition. From these three disparate texts, Russell concludes that “it would have been possible with texts such as these to learn Latin from scratch” and that the glosses indicate “what was important for a teacher to impart and [for] the students to learn” (p. 148).

Russell’s second contribution to the collection, “Poetry by numbers,” explores the uses of “trioedd cerdd” (poetical triads) in Welsh bardic grammars. The grammars follow the structure of comparable Latin grammars but diverge in later sections by including extensive sections on Welsh metrics. While the earlier sections which are based on Latin models do appear to be numerically structured though not necessarily into triads, the sections on Welsh metrics give way almost completely to a triadic structure. The function of these triads, Russell shows, differs from manuscript to manuscript. In some they seem to contain supplemental information, whereas in others they seem to summarize the material in the text. The article also includes an interesting digression into the word “cainc,” best known from its translation “branch” seen in “Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi” (The Four Branches of the Mabinogi”). The word does not occur in any literary context (Lloyd-Morgan 1996) and Russell proposes it was “imported from pedagogical discourse as a term of classification and sub-division” (p. 176).

T. M. Charles-Edwards assesses the transmission of Welsh bardic grammars by focusing on opening sections on the letters in his “The Welsh bardic grammars on ‘Litterae’.” The major contribution of this article is determining the origin of a new sign for the voiced dental fricative in a version of the grammar attributed to Dafydd Ddu Hiraddug. The curious symbol resembles a “q” followed by a mark of abbreviation. Jones (1952) took it to stand for Latin “que” (and). Charles-Edwards concludes that a manuscript from Southern Wales in which an ampersand stood for [eð] made it to North Wales where /et/ was pronounced either [et] or [ed] but not [eð]. Therefore, the ampersand as a representation of the voiced dental fricative lost its basis. To remedy this, Dafydd Ddu used the abbreviation of another Latin word for “and,” namely “que,” to write the [ð].

Ann Parry Owen’s article “Gramadeg Gwysanau” completes the volume. She presents an edition of a recently discovered fragment of a Welsh bardic grammar. It is peculiar for being written in a documentary hand (i.e. “script hand”), Anglicana, which is in fact only one of two manuscripts from before 1400 written completely in a documentary hand. The fragment discusses both the oral and written means of producing an effective poetic composition. With respect to the creation of a poem, the piece makes an extensive comparison between the poet and a master-builder, suggesting that the author of the fragment might not have been a trained poet per se since the knowledge exhibited about building is detailed and indicative of a professional. With respect to recitation of a poem, the excerpt provides a precious view into the world of 14th century Wales. The role of the “datgeiniad,” those who recite a poem, is clearly shown to be essential to the poet, as the success or failure of a poem rests entirely upon their shoulders. The author of the manuscript then enumerates the ways in which a poem can be read incorrectly ranging from mispronunciation to reading the piece too quickly.

The volume is rounded out by a master list of references, an index of manuscripts, an index of subjects, and an index of terms by language.


Binchy, D. A. 1943. “The Linguistic and Historical Value of the Irish Law Tracts,” Proceedings
of the British Academy 29: 195-227.

Jones, Thomas. 1952. Brut y Tywysogyon: Peniarth Ms. 20. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Lloyd-Morgan, Ceridwen. 1996. “The Branching Tree of Medieval Narrative: Welsh cainc and
French branche,” in Romance Reading on the Book: Essays on medieval narrative
presented to Maldwyn Mills (eds. J. Fellows et al.): 36-50. Cardiff: University of Wales

McCone, Kim. 2000. Echtrae Chonnlai and the Beginnings of Vernacular Narrative Writing
in Ireland. Maynooth: Department of Old and Middle Irish, National University of
Ireland Maynooth.

Scrowcroft, R. Mark. 1995. “Abstract Narrative in Ireland,” Ériu 46: 121-158.

Strachan, John. 1904. “The Infixed Pronoun in Middle Irish,” Ériu 1: 153-179.


I teach at Minot State University. My primary research interests are Celtic and Armenian historical linguistics and language pedagogy.

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