LINGUIST List 3.103

Tue 04 Feb 1992

Disc: Celtic Etymologies

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Briony Williams, Re: 3.78 Celtic etymology
  2. John Cowan, J.R.R. Tolkien on "Celtic"
  3. , Celtic Etymologies: Avalon

Message 1: Re: 3.78 Celtic etymology

Date: Fri, 31 Jan 92 14:36:03 GMRe: 3.78 Celtic etymology
From: Briony Williams <>
Subject: Re: 3.78 Celtic etymology

This is a response to the recent posting by Dana Paramskas
(paramskasdmCCVAX.CCS.CSUS.EDU) which included a discussion on Celtic
place-names from the CAMELOT list, concerning Arthurian legend.
Since no-one else has contributed on Welsh etymology, I will venture
the following.

The proper nouns 'Arawn' and 'Annwuyn/Annwn' appear in the first of the
Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet. The version I studied
as an undergraduate (I make no claims to being an expert!) is 'Pwyll
Pendeuic Dyuet', edited by R.L. Thomson (1957, Dublin Institute for
Advanced Studies). This contains annotations in English and an introduction.

Thomson's comments on _Annwuyn_ are (op. cit., pp. 25-26):

 "_Annwuyn_ may be explained from _an_ and _dwuyn_ 'deep', hardly 'undeep'
 but rather pejoratively 'fearfully deep'; thus Loth calls Annwn an _abi^me_.
 Comparison with Ir[ish] shows both _domain_ 'deep' and _domun_ 'world', as
 in Dumno-rix, virtually synonymous with the plural Bitu-riges, Ir[ish] _bith_,
 W[elsh] _byt_ 'world': hence _an_ and _dwuyn_ 'the not (this) world', 'the
 Otherworld'. Or again with pejorative colouring leading on to the Christian
 meaning 'Hell', 'the evil world'. PKM [Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi, I. Williams
 (ed.), 1930, Cardiff] suggests that _an-_ has the sense of 'in, inside', so
 'the inner world', inside hills and mounds. Both texts [from which this
 edited version is compiled] read _Annwuyn_ at first, and both change to
 the later form _Annwn_ before the end..."

Thomson does not seem to give any gloss for _Arawn_, and so the meaning of this
proper noun (if any) is probably not known.

The pronunciation of _Annwuyn_ is something like /a - n u - v  n/ (with
stress on the second syllable, probably), where /a/ is as in 'cat', /u/ as
in 'book', // as in the first syllable of 'about', and /-/ is a syllable
boundary. Similarly, _Annwn_ is pronounced /a - n u n/, with stress on the
first syllable (probably). In _Annwuyn_, orthographic "w" represents
a vowel, while orthographic "u" represents a consonant (each of these two
graphemes is capable of representing either a vowel or a consonant, depending
on the orthographic context). The main contributor in the article posted
earlier makes the following comment:

[Main contributor: name unknown to me]
>Mabinogion says Arawn reigns in Annwn (or Annwfn), and although I don't know
>the pronunciation of the word (I don't speak Gaelic in any form), I do know
>that v's easily become w's and vice versa. Could this term be related to
>Avalon? In any case, it could easily be the term for the underworld or land
>of the dead

It is _not_ very probable that "v's easily become w's and vice versa", as
orthographic 'w' can have the pronunciations /w/ or /u/, but not /v/ (voiced
labio-dental fricative), while the grapheme 'v' does not exist in Modern Welsh,
and is hardly used at all in the text under discussion (and then only word-
initially). The grapheme 'u' can have the pronunciations /u/, /w/ (after
/g/ and /a/) and /v/, while /v/ is also represented by the grapheme 'f' when
word-final or when syllable-final before a consonant (see Thomson's
Introduction): the grapheme 'f' always represents /v/ in Modern Welsh (as
in _Annwfn_, /a - n u - v u n/). If _Avalon_ were descended from _Annwuyn_,
furthermore, it would have had to lose the first /n/ and gain the phoneme /l/.
Since the first /n/ is geminate and the second is not, the loss of the first
with the retention of the second seems unlikely.

(N.B: the text is written in Welsh, not Gaelic).

[main contributor: name unknown to me]
>seen anyone mention "Arawn" (the god of the underworld or otherworld in the
>Mabinogian) in this connection, even tho it obviously equates.

In the text, Arawn is described as _king_ rather than _god_. In addition,
one other king of Annwuyn is mentioned, Hafgan, whose kingdom is opposite
that of Arawn's. Since mythological underworlds usually have only one
overlord, it is unlikely that Annwuyn is intended to be the land of the dead.

[main contributor: name unknown to me]
>In a brief introduction to Tales of King Arthur (an illustrated
>and heavily edited edition of Mallory) Michael Senior claims that Geoffrey
>of Monmouth found the term Avalon in a French source and that from the 12th
>century onward it was associated with Glastonbury.

This explanation sounds eminently plausible. From internal evidence, Thomson
dates the present form of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi around the
late eleventh century, i.e. not particularly early, and not early enough for
the 12th century form _Avalon_ to be derived from it.

[another contributor: name unknown to me]
>Personally, I find the Aryan Arawn connection suspect, it strikes me as
>Gravesianism (the connecting of words because it makes for good poetry, then
>calling it scholarship); I do, however find the Erin Aryan connection
>plausible. It's the underworld tie that I don't see evidence for.

I agree.

Briony Williams

Centre for Speech Technology Research, University of Edinburgh
80 South Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1HN, UK.
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Message 2: J.R.R. Tolkien on "Celtic"

Date: Mon, 3 Feb 92 10:45:58 ESTJ.R.R. Tolkien on "Celtic"
From: John Cowan <cowanuunet.UU.NET>
Subject: J.R.R. Tolkien on "Celtic"

The recent discussion of Erin vs. Avalon was prefigured in J.R.R. Tolkien's
public lecture "English and Welsh" (reprinted in >The Monsters And The Critics
And Other Essays<, ed. Christopher Tolkien, HMCo Boston 1984, ISBN
0-395-35635-0), as follows:

"To many, perhaps to most people outside the small company of the great
scholars, past and present, 'Celtic' of any sort is, nonetheless, a magic bag,
into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come.
Thus I read recently a review of a book by Sir Gavin de Beer, and, in what
appeared to be a citation from the original*, I noted the following opinion
on the river-name >Arar< (Livy) and >Araros< (Polybius): 'Now Arar derives
from the Celtic root meaning running water which occurs also in many English
river-names like Avon.' It is a strange world in which >Avon< and >Araros<
can have the same 'root' (a vegetable analogy still much loved by the
non-philological when being wise about words). Catching the lunatic infection,
one's mind runs on to the River Arrow, and even to arrowroot, to Ararat, and
the descent into Avernus. Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic
twilight, which is not so much a twilight of the gods as of the reason."

The footnote reads:

"*For my purpose it does not matter at all whether Sir Gavin or his reviewer
was the author of the remark: both were posing as scholars."

Comment on my part would be superfluous.

--		...!uunet!cbmvax!snark!cowan
		e'osai ko sarji la lojban
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Message 3: Celtic Etymologies: Avalon

Date: Mon, 3 Feb 1992 21:37 EET Celtic Etymologies: Avalon
From: <MANYMANFINUHA.bitnet>
Subject: Celtic Etymologies: Avalon

In the Linguist List 3-78, Dana Paramskas reports the
discussion that has been going on in the CAMELOT list
concerning the etymology of some Celtic place names (Arran,
Avalon). Although the CAMELOTists are likely to take a greater
interest in what I'm going to say, I'm sending my response to
the Linguist List as well. It won't do any harm having some
etymological leisure in the tumult of all the linguistic
reeling & rocking {:-)]=
 Martti Nyman
 Dept of General Limguistics, Univ of Helsinki, Finland

Re: Arran
Some contributors have dismissed any etymological connection
between Arran and Aryan. They are likely to be right. Most
professional Indo-Europeanists prefer to confine the name
Aryan to Indo-Iranian. The antiquated association of the word
arya with Greek aristos 'best, noble(st)' is to be rejected on
semantic grounds which have been laid down by Paul Thieme in
his book Der Fremdling im Rgveda: Eine Studie ueber die Bedeu-
tung der Worte ari, arya, aryaman und a:rya (Leipzig 1938).
According to him, ari means 'stranger', and so the polysemous
semantics of arya is pretty much the same as that of Latin
hostis 'enemy' and German Gast 'guest' taken together.
 Consequently, also Eriu (and Erin) must be disconnected
from the Aryans. Let me say in consolation that the Indo-
European "Urvolk" was scarcely so "noble" as our romantic ima-
gination tends to picture them. :-)
 The Isle of Arran was identified with the supernatural
island of Emhain Abhlach 'E. of the Apple-Trees'. It is the
notion of apple(-tree) which connects Arran (qua Emhain
Abhlach) with Avalon. Formally, Arran and Avalon have nothing
to do with each other.

Re: Avalon I have three sections: 1. Toponomastics; 2. PIE
'apple'; 3. Isle of the Blessed.

1. Toponomastics. In Celtic mythology, Avalon -- which is
usually taken to mean 'Apple-Island' -- was the Island of the
Blessed. However this happy Otherworld is identified, Avalon
cannot be separated from its toponomastic namesakes, such as
Avallon which is the centre of Avallonais (pagus Avalensis) in
Low Bourgogne (Yonne). Avallon is the old Aballo, a town of
the Haedui in Gallia Lugodunensis, mentioned in the Tabula
Peutingeriana. Aballo was an 'Apple-Town', as the Gallic word
abalo 'apple' shows (see e.g. W.v.Wartburg, Franzoesisches
Etymologisches Woerterbuch I [1928] p.2 s.v. aballo).
 Aballo was one of the ancient Apple-Towns (e.g. Male-
ventum, Pometia) or Apple-Islands (e.g. Greek Me:los). One of
the toponomastic namesakes of Aballo was the ancient town
Abella in Campania, now Castel d'Avella, northeast from
 Virgil calls Abella Apple-Town: Aen.7,740 et quos mali-
ferae despectant moenia Abellae. But we know from ancient
sources that Abella was renown not from being malifera 'apple-
growing' but rather nucifera 'nut-growing': the ancient nux
Abella still lives in Italian and Spanish avellana and French
aveline. This is interesting, because Virgil could not pos-
sibly base his Apple-Town association upon what he knew of the
town's economy. Obviosly "malifera Abella" was an etymological
reminiscence derived from some real source of knowledge. Some
possibilities have been brought forward by J.S.Th.Hansen (in:
Symbolae Osloenses 76 [1948] p.120). According to him, Virgil
knew abella either as a Celtic word from his childhood in
Mantua or, more probably, as an Oscan word which he knew
directly or through Varro the antiquarian. These possibilities
do not exclude each other, but the Celtic hypothesis doesn't
explain the "Namengebung". Abella was (or at least had been)
an Oscan town, and the word abella must be Oscan.
 Oscan abella may be traced back to the proto-word morph-
ologically analyzable as *ablo-na (> *ablna > *abelna >
abella) 'apple tree'.
 Avalon has a lot of toponomastic namesakes: Aballava (a
castel), Abalus (an island), Abellinum (a town near Abella),
Abellio (a god), Abelmea, &c., to mention only Latin reflexes.
Such names characteristically spread through colonization (as
may be seen from the fact that Avalon occurs in the New World
as well), and it may be interesting to note that Abella was
believed to have been a Greek colony. I shall not pursue this
train of thoght further, though it is of potential interest.

2. PIE 'apple' is best reflected in Celtic, Germanic, Baltic,
and Slavic, but Oscan abella gives the Italic reflex as well:

 Celtic *ablu-: Gallic aballo
 O.Irish ubull
 Welsh afal
 British aval

 Slavic *ablu-: O.Ch.S. ablu-ko
 O.Polish jablo
 O.Russ. jablu-ko

 Baltic *a:bl-: Prussian woble
 Lithuan. obuolas, obuolys
 Latvian abuols

 Germanic *aplu-: Gothic apel (=Crimean Goth.)
 (*aplya- >) O.Icel. epli
 OE aeppel
 OHG apful, afful

 Italic *ablo-: Oscan abella (< *ablo-na).

More data and views in: E.P.Hamp, Zeitschrift fuer Celtische
Philologie 37 [1979] 158-166; D.Q.Adams, Indogermanische For-
schungen 90 [1985] 79-82; Th.V.Gamkrelidze, Aspects of Lan-
guage: Studies in Honour of Mario Alinei, I (Amsterdam: 1986),
91-97; A.L.Lloyd & O.Springer, Etymologisches Woerter-buch des
Althochdeutschen, I (Goettingen 1988), 298-301 s.v. apful.
 Phonological reconstruction would give ProtoIE *abl- with
some stem variation (-u-/-o-/0). The Baltic group might give
reason to a morphologically sophisticated reconstruction:
Lith. obuolas/obuolys would speak for setting up an ablauting
consonant stem for PIE: *abo:l, *abel-, *abl- (Hamp, Adams).
 *abl- has often been regarded as a pre-IE loan, because
there are no firmly established PIE roots with *b. It would be
easier to believe in PIE extraction, if *b could be shown to
be secondary. From this angle the Anatolian and Indo-Aryan
evidence adduced by Gamkrelidze is very interesting:

 Anatolian *Saml-: Hittite sam(a)lu- 'apple' [sibilants have
 Hattic sawat- (t<l) diacritics that
 can't be ASCIIed]
 OIA: Indic *aml-: Sanskrit a:mra- 'mango'
 Kafir: Ashkun am'r 'pomegranate'
 Iranian: (loans in a few Finno-Ugric languages,
 e.g. Morvinian (u)mar 'apple'; Livonian
 umar 'apple'; Finnish marja 'berry').

Given this, PIE *ablu- would be traced back to an earlier PIE
*amlu- like this: *amlu- > *amblu- > *ablu.

3. The Isle of the Blessed. Sec.1 vindicated Avalon as Apple-
Island. But how does this mesh with the idea that Avalon was
the Isle of the Dead? The best I can offer is perhaps some
food for thought. Rather than Isle of the Dead, Avalon may be
looked upon as the Isle of the Blessed. The idea behind this
is of course that heroes never die. Their life continues for
ever in the happy Otherworld. Insofar as apple is concerned, I
have the impression that apple has had an important role to
play as a symbol of etenity and strength or power (witness
e.g. the "Reichsapfel" as a symbol of imperial power).
 Re Avalon qua Apple-Island, I can't resist suggesting a
wild idea which might be worth pursuing further. The ancient
Greeks had more than one notion of the happy Otherworld.
Besides Elysium, there was the Land of the Hyperboreans
"beyond the North Wind" or "beyond the High Mountains (in the
North)", and the Land of the Hesperides in the extreme West
not far from the Isle of the Blessed at the edge of the Ocean.
The garden of the Hesperides grew golden apples, and according
to one myth Heracles went to seek these fruits of immortality.
His search for the golden apples obviosly symbolizes his
 Now, if we indulge ourselves in "geographizing" the Land
of the Hyperboreans which was supposed to be close to the Isle
of the Blessed, we can't dispense with the conclusion that the
farther we go to the West, the more Celtic (or pre-Celtic)
culture there was. Maybe the original Avalon lies not far from
the Land of the Hesperides? Or maybe the original Avalon WAS
the Land of the Hesperides?

(c) Martti Nyman 1992
 Department of General Linguistics, University of Helsinki,
 Hallituskatu 11-13, SF-00100 Helsinki, Finland.
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