Welsh "prifysgol"

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There's a university in Wales with this name:

Evidently "prifysgol" means "university".


From prif- (chief) +‎ ysgol (school).


prifysgol f (plural prifysgolion)

  1. university

Two pronunciations of "prifysgol" may be found here (Forvo) and here (Google Translate).  The Forvo pronunciation sounds authentic, and that's about how I would have pronounced it without ever having heard a Welshman utter it, but it's hard to believe that the GT version is close to how any native speaker would actually pronounce the word, unless it's a special dialectal form.

Apparently there's a phenomenon called "mutation" according to which the basic pronunciation of Welsh words is modified according to circumstances:


Welsh mutation
radical soft nasal aspirate
prifysgol brifysgol mhrifysgol phrifysgol
Note: Some of these forms may be hypothetical. Not every
possible mutated form of every word actually occurs.


Welsh Wikipedia

I'd be interested in learning how and when these mutations of the basic word are invoked.

And here's how to pronounce "Aberystwyth", which also seems fairly straightforward, although it looks slightly daunting, though not nearly so formidable as Eyjafjallajökull:


  1. Arthur Waldron said,

    April 25, 2018 @ 7:41 pm

    I have a Welsh Corgi, a Cardigan ie with a brush not docked like the Pembrokes favored by Mrs Queen.

    This is the best dog in the world.

    But the language ? Not for me. If as I dearly wish I had three or four they would be plural “corgwyyn”

    No wonder Lloyd George could Transmit secrets en Clair from Versailles so long as he spoke Welsh. ANW

  2. S Frankel said,

    April 25, 2018 @ 7:56 pm

    I'm just a learner, not a native speaker, but here goes.

    The plural of "corgi" would be "corgwn."

    "Ysgol" is (obviously, maybe only obvious in hindsight) a Latin loanword.

    The mutations are usually caused by contact. The rules in the literary language are more complex than those in the spoken varieties (and there's a big gap between the two). "Soft" mutation is by far the most common. It occurs, for example, after some prepositions "i [to] Brifysgol Aberystwyth." It occurs in many other contexts, too.

    "Nasal" mutation occurs after the preposition meaning "in": "ym Mhrifysgol Aberystwyth" (although many people would use soft mutation or even the radical here). "Aspirate" (named after the letter "h", not after the phonological process) occurs, for example, after the possessive pronoun meaning "her": ei phrifysgol" 'her university'.

    "Aber" means "mouth of a river," so you can find the Yswyth River by going inland from Aberystwyth.

    The google translate pronunciation of Prifysgol sounds to me like the Welsh colony from the planet Zork which, as is well known, consists of robots that sound only vaguely human. The Forvo pronunciation sounds ok, although too southern for my taste (to be fair, Aberystwyth is in the southern dialect area, although not by much).

    The pronunciation of "Aberystwyth" sounds like an English speaker – a Welsh speaker would likely roll the "r," and the vowels are a little off, too.

    Again, I'm far from a native speaker, so don't take any of this too seriously.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 25, 2018 @ 7:59 pm

    The mutation of initial consonants is common across Celtic languages. It's why e.g. the Scottish Gaelic for "Pennsylvania" is "Pennsylvania" but for "University of Pennsylvania" it's "Oilthigh Phennsylvania." (I only know that from Uicipeid. Why the Welsh Wicipedia lacks the same coverage of the Ivy League the Gaidligh edition does is unclear to me – maybe Penn's marketing people need to apply some pressure.)

  4. Laura Morland said,

    April 25, 2018 @ 8:01 pm

    I only studied Welsh for three weeks (in Aberystwyth, as it happens), but as I recall the Welsh language evinces the Celtic tendency to provide syntactical information at the head of the word, rather than at the end. (Much as does modern French.)

    So the mutations would, I suppose, be invoked in a similar way to case endings, depending on whether it was a direct or indirect object, etc.

    Surely some Welsh linguist is on this list, and can provide the proper answer.

  5. Laura Morland said,

    April 25, 2018 @ 8:09 pm

    P.S. Neither part of the compound is originally Celtic: "prif" is a borrowing from Latin "primus," and "ysgol" is more obviously from Latin "schola".

    (And if anybody is puzzled by my comment about French, simply consider that the only *oral* indication of whether a noun is singular or plural is — with a few exceptions — contained solely in the preceding article; e.g., "la chaise" vs. "les chaises".)

  6. David Cameron Staples said,

    April 25, 2018 @ 8:23 pm

    The etymology is really quite simple: Prif- is cognate with Irish príomh-, both from Latin primus, and ysgol is cognate with Irish scoil, both from Latin schola.

    The pronunciation is also fairly straightforward: Welsh "f" is pronounced /v/. "ff" is /f/. The Welsh vowel "y" is /ə/. Thus /priv-əsɡɔl/.

  7. Keith said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 1:57 am

    Being English, having had an interest in languages for a long time, and having visited both Wales and Brittany many times, I have no trouble reading toponyms and in most cases understanding their meanings.

    Elements like "aber", "caer", "pen", "prydd", "gwynn" and "llan", in Welsh, and "ker", "ty", "pen", "gwenn" and "plouc", in Breton, are so common that you can't spend any time in either country without noticing them and wanting to know more about them.

    Aber appears in many toponyms in both Scotland and Wales as meaning the mouth of a river, and in used in French nautical terminology for a landmark visible from a vessel off the coast. Sometimes this becomes Inver in Scotland, so you have both Aberdeen and Inverness.

    Initial consonant mutation is a VERY important subject for learners of Celtic languages. When you see a word with initial "mh" in a phrase, you need to know that the radical for has initial "p" to be able to look it up in a dictionary. That may have changed with searches in online databases. At least it would if I was building the system; it would accept a query for any of "brifysgol", "mhrifysgol", or "phrifysgol" and propose the definition and translation of "prifysgol".

  8. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 2:45 am

    To say that Aber sometimes becomes Inver in Scotland is a slightly odd way of putting it – Aber is a remnant of the old P-celtic 'pictish' language spoken in the north east, which was a close relative of Welsh and Breton, while Inver is just modern Gaelic (q-celtic) inbhir (which is probably still the word for an estuary, but I don't think I've ever wanted to speak about an estuary in Gaelic!)

    All Celtic languages change the sound at the start of a word to show its grammatical function, but Welsh-type languages change the spelling to match the pronunciation, making the word look unfamiliar, and Gaelic-type languages leave the spelling and pronounce it differently anyway to confuse you – hence the mh pronounced v, because words starting with m sound like they start with v once you change them.

  9. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 2:52 am

    (I should have said 'except in Manx' – EVERYTHING is except in Manx, because as far as I can tell Manx is just Islay Gaelic or Antrim Irish written down in English spelling.)

  10. johnesh said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 4:17 am

    "All Celtic languages change the sound at the start of a word to show its grammatical function, but… Gaelic-type languages leave the spelling and pronounce it differently anyway to confuse you"
    No they don't. Both Irish and Scottish Gaelic mark initial consonant mutations in orthography – lenition, for instance, is indicated by inserting an "h" after the initial consonant, e.g. "caraid" (friend) becomes "a charaid" in the vocative case.

  11. Lugubert said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 4:53 am

    Another learner.

    David Cameron Staples said,
    "…The Welsh vowel "y" is /ə/. Thus /priv-əsɡɔl/."

    Often. But a Welsh beginners' course writes

    "y: 'dyn' as in Dean; 'llyn' as in English tin; 'Cymru' as in up
    y; yr; yn; dy; fy also as in up."

    where up is pronounced [əp]…

    A British linguist, living in Wales after some 20 years in Sweden, told me to use Swedish short 'ö' for the non-final 'y' and the monosyllables mentioned for 'up'.

  12. Kate Bunting said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 5:56 am

    I happen to be a graduate of Aberystwyth, although at that time (1975) it was a college of the University of Wales. I don't speak any Welsh, but I picked up some words from bilingual signs (any notice in English only would quickly get a sticker saying 'Cymraeg!' applied to it), and have some idea of the pronunciation. I remember working out, having seen 'prif' in other contexts, that the word for 'university' meant 'chief school'. But I find mutation mind-boggling, since to a non-Celt the initial letter of a word is such a large part of its identity.

  13. Rodger C said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 7:04 am

    Unless I missed it on a quick read, no one has briefly explained how the Celtic mutations originated: merger with case endings at the end of the previous word, which then went bye-bye and turned into abstract finals. Brythonic and Goidelic mutations are different from each other, and, as Jen pointed out, the spelling conventions are then different on top of that.

  14. Lugubert said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 7:05 am

    Kate, my fondest memory of deciphering a mutation was when I tried to understand the name "Twr y Felin". Twr = Tower, no problem. But there were no dictionary entries on Felin. Don't remember how I was pointed to mutations, but I finally realised that the dictionary form of felin [velin] was melin, which means mill. Not really y [ə] for EN 'of' but rather literally Tower the mill, the way I understand things.

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 7:58 am

    The name is actually Prifysgol Aberystwyth in Welsh, and Aberystwyth University in English, but combined in the logo.

    The GT pronunciation is clearly a machine reading, and lacks the stress on the penultimate syllable (as does the Aberystwyth one).

    Celtic mutations were initially phonological, conditioned by the previous word ending, but are now grammatical; some old rules are now only applied in literary Welsh, e.g. after certain numerals. Welsh has many dialects, but even the standard language differs between north and south; the written language may be more or less colloquial, or literary (mainly in academic writing now, in my experience).

    Some dictionaries include mutated forms, but it’s not difficult to identify the root in most cases, even for an unfamiliar word; m and b both mutate to f though. The Norman Baldwin gave his name to Trefaldwyn, but the later county become Maldwyn, presumably by misinterpretation.

  16. David Cameron Staples said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 8:01 am

    Primitive Irish had word endings which look familiar to anyone who knows Latin or Greek. eg:

    Daughter: inigena, genitive inigenas (a-stem, equivalent to La 1st decl.)
    Man: wiros, genitive wiri (o-stem, equivalent to La 2nd decl.)

    It wasn't spelled in Ogham, but we know that Primitive Irish lenited consonants intervocalically, and we further know that it did this when the intervocalic context was across words in a phrase.

    Thus, all the vowels in "inigena" were pronounced slightly lenited, and if there was a noun after it in the genitive, then its initial consonant would also be lenited.

    As Primitive Irish became Old Irish, a lot of elision went on, and notably, the characteristic suffixes dropped off, but their effects remained. Thus, "ingen" was pronounced /inγen/, the lenited 'g' protecting it from merging into /ŋ/. Another word spelled "ingen" in OIr was something like *ingen in PrimIr, and that was pronounced /iŋen/.

    And the effect on the following noun remained as well. So for a man called Cathbad, in his daughter's name, it would become "ingen Chathbad", because "ingen" *used* to end in a vowel. Similarly for words following a masculine genitive (because they used to end in a vowel as well.)

    Words which triggered a nasal mutation in Old Irish used to end in a nasal consonant, which most often meant anything in the dative case. The nasal mutation turned into eclipsis, which is sort of anti-lenition: the harshening of a sound. Any word following what used to be a final "s" became geminated, but this was in practice almost everything which wasn't lenited or nasalised, and so it merged quite quickly with the null mutation.

    Similar things happened in Brythonic, but independently, and long after Goidellic and Brythonic had split. So while Brythonic also has mutations, they are different from the Goidelic mutations, and happen in different contexts.

    Modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx all derive from Old Irish. Modern Welsh, Cornish, and Breton all derive from Brythonic.

    We don't know if Gaulish, Celtiberian, or even Lepontic and Cisalpine Celtic had, or would have developed their own mutation patterns. They died out, as far as we know, before 500-600ce, which is when this process was kicking off.

    TL;DR: Celtic initial mutation is the ghost of grammar which vanished 1500 years ago.

    And I haven't even mentioned phonemic palatalisation, and how some of that in grammatical cases is a similar ghost of suffixes long past.

  17. David Cameron Staples said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 8:04 am

    Lugubert: Celtic languages generally have the noun at the start of the noun phrase and the adjectives following, and if there is a definite article in a noun phrase involving a genitive noun (such as "The Mill's Tower"), then it goes before the last noun in the phrase, so "Twr y Felin" is the normal and unmarked way of saying "The Mill's Tower".

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 8:25 am

    Lenition of initial consonants, depending on what comes before, occurs to a certain degree in Spanish (/b/→/β/, /d/→/δ/), but it doesn't involve spelling changes.
    In Hebrew, the stops represented by letters with a dagesh traditionally become, when preceded by certain particles, fricatives (with no dagesh); in Modern Hebrew this means /b/→/v/, /k/→/x/ and /p/→/f/.

  19. DDOwen said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 8:27 am

    A decent overview of mutations in standard Welsh is here:


    Colloquial Welsh tends to contextually ignore some mutations eg. 'bws a thacsi' [standard, 'bus and taxi'] becomes 'bws a tacsi', whereas 'bws a char' ['bus and car' — 'car' is the root of 'char'] is the same in both. This is probably not the biggest difference between the standard and spoken languages; the standard literary language in its full formal register is different enough from the spoken language that a case can be made for Welsh being diglossic.

  20. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 3:35 pm

    Johnesh: That's what I said, isn't it? There's no reason why 'mh' should mean 'v' *except* that words that start with the sound mmm come to start with the sound vvv in some situations, and the people who made Gaelic spelling didn't want to write 'v', because then you couldn't tell that the word started with 'm'.

    It doesn't matter whether the marker is h or the old dot or some other convention, as long as you have something to tell you to use the alternative sound.

  21. Philip Anderson said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 5:24 pm

    Jen in Edinburgh:
    If you mean that Irish spelling is more of a code, where not all letters in a sequence are pronounced “normally”, but may modify an adjacent letter, that’s true, but many languages have spelling systems like that, not least English (why write ‘dogs’ not phonetic dogz?).
    Welsh also writes ‘ph’ when initial ‘p’ is mutated, but ‘ff’ in other contexts; at one time, ‘ph’ was also written in the middle of a word when the prefix gor- mutated the following element, ad can be seen on old gravestones, e.g. gorphwys, now gorffwys (rest)

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