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An introduction to the Cumbric sounds and grammar

Joss Gospatrick

The phonology of Cumbric isn’t exactly clear, we can only make educated guesses at the phonemes
of Cumbric, based upon modern pronunciation and recorded pronunciation in place-names.
Attempts to revive Cumbric are underway, including Cumbraek by Neil Whalley and an ongoing
reconstruction of the Cumbric spoken in the Eden Valley, both of which have a more specific set of
phonemes. Early forms of Northern P-Celtic (including Pictish) are written in a different spelling.

I developed a standard Cumbric orthography for writing place-names and other words with their
different dialectal variations. The spelling is partially based on how these place-names were written
down, but also with influence from previous versions of Cumbric. The exact phonemes are not
completely understood at this time, but the following is worth noting.

Cumbric appears to have dental fricative sounds where Welsh does not, at least in some areas.
Cumbric also has stops rather than fricatives, for example in the place-name Penruddock, Cumbric
Penn Ruddoc, where Welsh would have rhudd rather than rudd (if this is the correct etymology). I
use dd to donate where Welsh would have a dental fricative, but Cumbric has a ‘d’. The letters dh
represent the voiced dental fricative [ð] in Cumbric, e.g. cêdh ‘forest’.

ow represents what was probably [oː], [ɔː] and [ɔʊ]. ō is used to write the sound in areas with no
diphthongisation, e.g. Cumbria. When this sound, or a variation appears when forming the plural or
when being comparable to Welsh eu it is written -ou, because it may have been pronounced
differently in certain positions. ow is also used to write a form of the Brittonic au, e.g. lowadher. ei
represents what was probably a long [e:], which may have had other allophones, e.g. ecleis
‘church’. Both of these sounds may have diphthongised in some areas, or may previously have been
diphthongs.

u is used for what is presumed to be [u], but which may have had [ʊ] as a short allophone. This
sound was susceptible to changes and doesn’t have this pronunciation in the modern Brythonic
languages. As far as Cumbric is concerned, the [u] pronunciation seems to survive in the north
where i-affection is often less evident. The sound without i-affection was written w in Middle
Welsh, the Middle Welsh u being pronounced [ʉ]/[ʉ:] and normally coming from a Proto-Celtic ou
and oi, except in words such as du 'black' and in various Latin loanwords, where [y] and fell
together with [ʉ].

In Modern Welsh, i is pronounced [ɪ] or [i:] depending on length. In the north, y and u are
pronounced [ɨɨ ] or [ɨː] depending on length, and in the south these are pronounced [ɪ] when short and
[i:] when long. The [ɨ] in Middle Welsh typically evolved from i in Ancient British, for example
moniios - mynydd. It appears that this final -dd didn't always appear in Cumbric, leaving the final
syllable open e.g. moni, where there is no reason to suggest that the final vowel was [ɨ]. The letter y
is used when another vowel has undergone spirantisation in the final syllable of a word, e.g. galnys
for Welsh galanas. In a position like this, the pronunciation of Cumbric y may have been [ɨ] or [ɪ].
This sound may also have always been pronounced [ɪ] in southern Cumbric areas where today's
English dialects have a preference for [ɪ] over [i], leaving forms like monydh possible. The same
may have also happened to u, making ty and brynn possible variations of ti ‘thou’ and brinn.

The letter y is also used to mark vowel changes to a word where necessary, for example
dyvoc/devoc ‘dark’, but duv ‘black’, e.g. Glendevon near Kirkliston. It appears that -uv can change
to -ev or -iv. Glendowlin near Penrith, preserves an [o] pronunciation. More examples of
pronunciation differences, can be seen in the nearly identical place-names of: Pardivan, Pardovan
and Parduvine. On its own, y stands for the definite article, which can also appear as yr, yn and yl.

This sound or a similar sound evolved in Welsh from Proto-Brythonic u, which became [y] when
affected by internal or final i-affection and then presumably became [ɨ] in Middle Welsh, written y.
In Northern P-Celtic, i-affection is often lacking, and this vowel change seems less simple. It
appears that the sound change [u] to [y], to [ɨ] may not have occurred in Cumbric, so y is not used to
spell this word in Cumbric, which I spell brinn. Although a form of this word does occur as brinn,
this vowel is one northern variant and may have had allophones, including [i] and [ɪ], but spelt i.
The original pronunciation of this vowel may have been [ø], [ɵ] (in Pictish areas) or [y] or [ɛ]
(rarely). Although the original sound is not known, [ø] may be written as ẅ.

The letter ÿ is used to represent a vowel between [y], [ʏ] and [i]. This occurred with i-affection as a
variant of u. In Cumbric, this pronunciation appears to have been dialectal rather than being the
norm. For example dÿv, crÿc as variants of duv and cruc. ÿ is generally used when transcribing
southern dialects, whereas [ʉ] occurs as a modern Cumbrian realisation of a long [u], which is
transcribed ỿ. E.g. dỿv, crỿc.

I-affection also caused the Proto-Brythonic o to become [y] or [ø], written as ÿ and ẅ for those that
prefer that rendering of the pronunciation. I normally use o because i-affection often doesn't occur.
For example mẅnidh and Cÿmbri are the forms monidh and Combri after i-affection. This vowel
seems to have become a sound like [i] or [ɨ] in some words, but in other words this may have
become [ʊ], written ẃ, or [u], written u. The original sound changes may have occurred in different
areas before spreading into the Cumbric area as the language spread there.

ê represents what was probably a sound between [eɪ] and [ɜː], possibly occurring as a short [e] or
[ɜ]/[ɛ] in some positions. When this vowel occurs as a diphthong between [äɪ] and [aɪ], it is written
aí.

The letters thl are used to spell the Welsh ll sound, although this only seems to occur in a couple of
place-names, e.g. Trailflat, Cumbtic: trev yl thlat. ỻ is used to represent [ɫ], which can disappear to
become [w], often seen in place names with ‘pol’ or ‘pow’, poỻ. The Cumbric gh is used to
represent a voiced ch, or it may be silent. lh is used to represent the voiceless [ll ] sound which may
have evolved in Cumbric, e.g. lhann for lann. thl may also be written fl for those who see that as a
valid, later pronunciation.

ch was probably pronounced [ʍ] when initially occurring as chw, but was pronounced [x]
elsewhere.

Brythonic -ag plus another consonant, tends to become ae in Welsh. In Cumbric, the original sound
with the muted -g may have been pronounced as a diphthong in some areas where this sound
change first occurred. Across most of the Cumbric region this appears to have been pronounced [ɛɛ :],
[eɨː] or [eɪ], perhaps owing to an early preference for [e] rather than [a] in some positions in
Cumbric, particularly when occurring as a long vowel in single syllabled words which hadn't come
from ā, e.g.Welsh tân, but Cumbric may have had ten, tin. This can be spelt ae or e depending on
the pronunciation chosen to be represented. This sound almost always becomes [a] or [æ] before r,
except in parts of Scotland. For example caer as car in Cumbria. In parts of Scotland, this sound
becomes a in other positions, but it is not known how general this was; e.g. blan in Scotland with
blen in England, originally blaen.

Although little can be said about Cumbric grammar, there are remnants in place-names and possibly
in the local dialects of English. Cumbric seems to have had at least three definite articles across a
wide area, with yn before t and perhaps other dentals, and with yr and y as variants, with yr always
coming before vowels and sometimes before consonants. For example yn tir 'the land'
(reconstructed noun). A fourth form, yl, appears near Carlisle and seems to occur before thl. The
pronunciation of the definite article seems to have varied upon its position and perhaps differed
across regions. Cumbric has evidence of lenition of adjectives after feminine nouns, also found in
other modern Celtic languages, and lenition after adjectives, for example cul gêdh 'narrow forest',
showing the mutation from c to g. The mutations in Cumbric are less clear than those in other
Brythonic languages, some place-names such as Glaskeith showing no lenition at all.

Lenition in Cumbric sometimes occurs in unexpected places, for example in Cardrona, Cumbric
Car/Cair Dronou. Two extremely interesting place-names are Carhullan and Penhurrock. The
etymology of both places is unclear, but they make sense if the second element has undergone
aspirate mutation, Cumbric Car Chul Lann and Penn Churroc. It is speculative but remotely
possible that the aspirate mutation is an indication of the genitive, Car Chul Lann meaning 'farm of
the narrow land' and Penn Churroc 'head/top of the 'Curr'. The curr may be some type of rounded
stone fortication or religious site, referring to the stone avenue at Penhurrock, with the -oc suffix
making this 'of the curr'. This is unlikely to be related to the Welsh word corwgl, from corwg, as the
Cumbric phonetics don't match up, a relationship to the Irish word curach 'boat' is also unlikely,
there is no water nearby to the site and the stones don't form the shape of a boat.

The place-name Plentridoc (Borthwick, Midlothian) may be Cumbric blaen/blen/plen tridoc 'third
summit', although in Welsh this would be blaen trydydd. This might be another example of no
equivalent of -ydd in Cumbric, in this case the possessive ending -oc seems to have been used,
Proto-Celtic tritiyos.

Bardennoch near Carsphairn may contain danoc meaning something like 'toothed', another example
of -oc and showing a change in the pronunciation of a before a nasal.

-an appears to have been a nominal or locative suffix, perhaps to describe a collective area of
something. E.g. Louran Burn near Minigaff , Glasson Docks near Lancaster may contain a related
but separate suffix, glas 'blue, grey', glasson 'of greyness', it is unlikely that this suffix was a
diminutive.

A possible remnant of the Cumbric verb might exist in the Cumbrian dialect, where pronouns are
often attached to their respective verbs, e.g. aaz 'I am', dusta 'do you'.

This research was conducted alone and the ideas are quite different to what other writers have said
about the subject, but there are some fantastic resources for learning about Cumbric and getting an
idea of how it might have worked.

References:

• Language and history in early Britain - Kenneth Jackson, Reading this book helped me to initially
understand how Cumbric and Pictish phonology might work, I have made my own conclusions
on many things but this work is a good foundation for any research concerning ancient
Brythonic languages.

• The Brittonic language in the Old North - Scottish place-names society, by Alan G. James. - this
is the most up to date guide to Brittonic place-name elements in Northern Britain, excluding
Pictland. I made great use of this resource to double check place-names.