I heard on the Wikipedia article for Sindarin (which I admit is far from being the best source) that Common Brittonic, like Old Irish, had a nasalized v sound . Is this true? If so, are there any other language that use this sound? I'm sorry if this isn't a valid question.

  • It’s often stated that Old Irish used [ṽ], but there’s no proof that this is actually the case, and when you see it, it’s usually just repeated uncritically. Given the later outcomes of all the labial fricatives, it’s more likely that the sound was actually (palatalised and non-palatalised) [β̃] instead. Evans’ Grammar of Middle Welsh (best I’ve got available for Brythonic) says a bilabial realisation is also likely for earlier stages of Welsh; I don’t know enough about Brythonic to say much beyond that, unfortunately. Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 16:44
  • Although I will just add that people like Peter Schrijver and Stefan Schumacher (perhaps also Kim McCone? Can’t remember offhand) write the 1sg verbal ending in Common Brythonic as -ǖμi, which may indicate that they consider it to have been [β̃] rather than [ṽ], but definitely indicates that they don’t just consider it [v]. Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 17:06
  • Neat! where do you think that conception came from?
    – user31453
    Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 22:19
  • 1
    Which conception do you mean? The Old Irish one, or the Brythonic one? The Old Irish one, I assume, was just because in Modern Irish, the bilabial fricative has disappeared, and the broad and slender allophones are [v] and [w] in most dialects ([vʲ] and [vˠ] in others), so [v] is present nowadays. It’s also a lot easier to type, so I think it was just used as a phonemic shorthand that wasn’t necessarily intended to say anything about the phonetic reality of the sound, but was then taken too literally and broadened out. For the Brythonic, I don’t know, but there are probably reasons. Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 22:33

1 Answer 1


This phoneme /ṽ/ appears to be common to both Common Brittonic and Old Irish, and shows the difficulties that the contemporary scribes for Old Irish had with notating nasalisation. As of January 2021, Wiktionary transcribes it for Common Brittonic as /β̃/ but Old Irish with /ṽ/. The difference between the two being merely a notation difference is mentioned in Stifter's Sengoidelc: Old Irish for Beginners:

/μ/ is pronounced like /β/, but with a nasal quality. In other publications you may find this transcribed as /ṽ/.

/β/ is a labial sound as in Latin Vergilius. In other publications you may find this transcribed as /v/.

However, Gillies (2009:435) sees this as stages in diachronic change:

[μ] > [ṽ] > [v], [β] > [v]

It was by no means a rare marginal phoneme: it was used in words as common as *nemos "sky" and *temeslos "darkness". Its reflex remains a important part of the morphophonemics of the modern Celtic languages, occurring whenever lenition (soft mutation / séimhiú in Irish / treiglad meddal in Welsh) operates on the phoneme /m/.

Owing to the conservative nature of Irish orthography, it corresponds quite well to the spelling mh in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, e.g. teimheal. In Modern Welsh, it is mostly written with w or f, but a lot of these have mu in Old Welsh. Breton uses v for the form after lenition, although it frequently uses the digraph ñv, indicating nasalisation of the preceding vowel; older forms vary between fv, n, and nv.

Nonetheless, the modern reflexes of this consonant across Celtic languages vary between /w/ and /v/ (palatalised or velarised); only in Breton is the nasalisation retained, and even then, I'll let you all be the judge of neñv and teñval, and to what extent the spelling reflects modern phonetics versus historical etymology.

There have been studies about the nature of nasal fricatives; one 2016 paper states how they are "unusual, maladaptive articulations". More relevant to this question, there has been work done understanding to what extent mh is different to bh and ph in Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic. This is currently under investigation: a 2015 paper claims incomplete merger in Scottish Gaelic, implying some marginal distinction, and also cites two languages which have been claimed to have [ṽ]: Umbundu and Coatzospan Mixtec; the authors conclude it is phonetically a form of vowel nasalisation that spreads, turning the fricative into more of an approximant. On the other hand, one 2020 study concludes that there is no distinction between bh and mh, and that there is insufficient evidence for any nasalisation.

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