Thursday 11 February 2016

A brief note on Britons and wealhstodas

The following is just a very quick post about the historically interesting Old English word wealhstod, 'translator' or 'interpreter' (plural wealhstodas), which is used of a variety of people including St Jerome, who is praised by Ælfric in the late tenth-century as the 'first wealhstod between Hebrew, Latin and Greek'; the seventh-century king St Oswald of Northumbria, who is said by Ælfric to have acted as wealhstod for St Aidan because he, unlike the churchman, knew both Old English and Gaelic; and King Alfred the Great, who is described as the translator—wealhstod—of the Old English Boethius in the Prose Preface to that work.

The entry for wealhstod from J. Bosworth, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, ed. T. N. Toller, Oxford 1898, p. 1174 (image: Bosworth-Toller). 

The historical interest of OE wealhstod, 'translator/interpreter', stems primarily from its likely early origins and etymology. With regard to the former, it is worth emphasising that this occupational term occurs several times as a personal name for people who lived in the later seventh and early/mid-eighth centuries. So, we read of in both the Anonymous Life of St Cuthbert and Bede's Prose Life of St Cuthbert of a seriously ill but faithful monk of Lindisfarne named Wealhstod (Walhstod, Walchstod) who was healed by St Cuthbert and was there at the saint's death in 687. Similarly, a Glastonbury charter (S1410) dated AD 744 is witnessed by a priest named Wealhstod (Walcstod), who may also have been an early abbot there, and Bede and other sources refer to a man named Wealhstod (Walhstod, Walcstod) who served as 'bishop of the people who dwell west of the river Severn', i.e. Bishop of Hereford, in c. 727–36 (HE v.23). It thus seems clear that a personal name Wealhstod was in existence by the mid-seventh century at the latest, when Wealhstod of Lindisfarne was presumably named, and this in turn implies that the occupational term wealhstod is of even greater antiquity, given that 'such a name could not become used as a baptismal name until it had become first used as a "nickname" or occupational name', as J. R. R. Tolkien long ago observed.

These indications of an early origin for the term wealhstod become even more interesting when one turns to the etymology of the word, as wealhstod is based upon Old English wealh/walh. Although wealh/walh gained the generalized meaning of 'slave' by the end of the ninth century, this is a later, secondary development of an original sense of 'Briton' or 'Welsh-speaker', and it is with this sense that the word is found in the late seventh-century Laws of Ine and in English place-names such as Walton, 'the farmstead or village of the Britons'. In this light, the word wealhstod is clearly of some potential historical interest: given that it appears to have its origins in the mid-seventh century or before, wealhstod must—as Margaret Faull notes—'originally have referred to someone who could understand the languages both of the Wēalas [the Britons] and the English and so could act as the medium between the two'. Of course, the probable existence of such bilingual individuals in the post-Roman period is nowadays largely uncontroversial, especially as it is now usually agreed that 'Anglo-Saxon' immigrants from north-western Europe cannot have made up the majority of the population of what became England in the fifth and sixth centuries and that there must have been a significant degree of British acculturation and bilingualism during the pre-Viking era, but it is nonetheless intriguing to note that the Old English word for translator/interpreter seems to directly reference this!

Image from NLW MS. Peniarth 4 (The White Book of Rhydderch), 84r, showing a section of Culhwch ac Olwen that reads 'Gỽrhẏr gỽalstaỽd ieithoed ẏr holl ieithoed aỽẏdat', 'Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd—he knew all languages' (image: National Library of Wales, Public Domain).

Finally, by way of a conclusion, it is worth pointing out that this early medieval word for a translator was not confined only to Old English speakers, but was actually borrowed by the Britons (Welsh) themselves at some point too. The most frequently discussed evidence for this comes from the early Arthurian prose tale Culhwch ac Olwen, the extant redaction of which is generally placed in the late eleventh century. One of the recurring characters in this tale is Arthur's interpreter, Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd, literally Gwrhyr the 'wealhstod of languages' or 'interpreter of tongues', with gwalstawd representing Old English wealhstod borrowed into Welsh. Moreover, Gwrhyr's character in Culhwch ac Olwen lives up to this billing, with Arthur himself stating that not only does Gwrhyr 'know all languages', but that he 'can speak the same language as some of the birds and the beasts' too, something that Gwrhyr proceeds to do as part of the quests undertaken in Culhwch ac Olwen. However, this is not the only evidence for a Welsh borrowing of Old English wealhstod. Indeed, whilst wealhstod appears to have been superseded as a term for a translator in England—replaced by latimer, translator and drugeman—the word actually survives in Wales through to the end of the medieval period and beyond. So, for example, there was a Walstot/Walstottus of the Carmarthen commotes of Elfed and Widigada in the later medieval and early modern eras, who is variously described as an official interpreter/translator or steward and whose title reflects Welsh gwalstot/gwalstawd from Old English wealhstod, and the word continued to be recorded and used in both its original sense and a new one into the modern era as well, as the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru notes.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2016, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.