The Cardiganshire "Goidelic" numerals and Cantre'r Gwaelod, are they connected?

Written by Linden Alexander Pentecost in Mid November 2023

In 1924, an antiquarian named David Thomas, published an article titled: An old system of numeration found in South Cardiganshire, published in Transactions of the Cardiganshire Antiquarian Society, Vol 3, printed by the “Cambrian News” (Aberystwyth), Ltd. 1924 (1). These numbers were re-discussed and re-published in: The Irish Numerals of Cardiganshire by David Greene (Institiúid Ard-Léinn Bhaile Átha Cliath) in 1975, (2).

Generally in this article I refer to these numbers as the Cardiganshire numerals, as this is a simpler and more balanced way to describe them. In the title however I write Cardiganshire “Goidelic” numerals in order to convey something of what these numerals are comparable to, although I include “Goidelic” in brackets because despite the similarities, the exact relationship the Cardiganshire numerals have to Goidelic is unknown. David Greene in his paper gives them the title of ‘Irish numerals’, which does I think to some extent convey what these numbers are, but I have chosen not to give them this title in this article.

To briefly summarise, according to the research of David Thomas, it seems that a counting system was known in Southern Cardiganshire (in West Wales), a counting system that appears very similar to that of the modern Goidelic languages, and particularly to modern Irish. Some examples of these numbers included in The Irish Numerals of Cardiganshire by David Greene (2) are listed in the table below. They were included in source (2) in David Thomas’ original Welsh-based orthography in source (1). Note that from what I understand, David Thomas’ original article on the subject (source (1)) gives several distinct lists of these numerals.

English Cardiganshire “Goidelic” Manx Modern Irish Welsh
one în, ên nane aon un
two tô, dô, dôr jees dau
three târ, câr tree trí tri
four câr, cwâr, côr kiare ceathair pedwar
five cŵi, cwî, cwîr queig cúig pump
six sîch, shîch shey chwech
seven soch, shôch shiaght seacht saith
eight nîch hoght ocht wyth
nine noch nuy naoi naw
ten jeih deich deg

The above numbers are from source (1) originally, but I have only seen them in source (2)

As can be seen in the numbers above, there is a lot of similarity between the Cardiganshire numerals to the numerals of Manx and Modern Irish, which are modern Goidelic languages. But, there are also features of the Cardiganshire numerals that, whilst similar to Goidelic, and to Celtic numerals in general, are distinct from them. Take for example the way in which nîch (1), (2) and noch (1), (2) contain some similar consonants, and the numeral for “nine”, noch (1), (2) may be partially based upon the phonemes in the numeral for “eight”, nîch (1), (2). Some may argue that this is due to a corruption of the original numerals system, but perhaps we are instead seeing more ancient, extra-Indo-European or pre-Indo-European features in these numerals, which only seem like corruptions at first glance.

Note also that the forms în (1), (2) and ên (1), (2) correspond respectively to the Connaught and Munster pronunciations of Irish aon – ‘one’, at least approximately, with this word being pronounced as /iːn̪ˠ/ in Connaught Irish (and in some Ulster dialects), and as /eːn̪ˠ/ generally in Munster Irish.

Cantre’r Gwaelod – an ancient landscape between Wales and the Irish Sea?

Wales and Ireland have shared maritime and cultural contact for many thousands of years. This is clear for example by studying the kinds of rock art visible at Neolithic passage tombs in Ireland (such as Newgrange), and comparing that to the rock art found on coastal parts of Wales at similar sites, such as at Barclodiad Y Gawres on Anglesey, another passage tomb. This is a very vast subject, which I will not discuss in detail here.

I will however discuss a little of the Welsh mythology surrounding Cantre’r Gwaelod. Cantre’r Gwaelod is a mythical landscape, said to be beneath the waves in Cardigan Bay. One telling of the Cantre’r Gwaelod legend is named The Green Meadows of Enchantment, included in the book Wales of the Unexpected by Richard Holland (3). In this story, Cantre’r Gwaelod is named Gwerddonau Llion – ‘green meadows’. Gwerddonau Llion may have a more general usage in reference to mysterious islands, however in this story it refers to mysterious lands beneath Cardigan Bay and thus is likely the same as Cantre’r Gwaelod in this content. I reference the example of this legend in Richard Holland’s book (3), partially because it is the first place in which I came across these legends, and secondly because I will talk about the word llion in the paragraph after the next.

These stories of a land beneath Cardigan Bay also have a basis in physical reality, as submerged forests have also been found in Cardigan Bay, and also a timber walkway, mentioned in Chris Griffiths’ article How a storm revealed a Welsh kingdom, 19th of March 2020 available on BBC.com (4).

Josef Roberts, a native speaker of Welsh, pointed out to me that llion can refer to ‘streams’, and believes that this meaning makes sense in the name Gwerddonau Llion. There are several estuaries which flow into Cardigan Bay, such as the Aber Dyfi and Aber Maw (Mawddach Estuary). During times when sea levels were lower, what is now Cardigan Bay would have been a very flat landscape, and I think it likely that the “abers” visible today could instead have formed a delta-like landscape, hence llion would be very appropriate as a description.

Considering that many of the archaeological sites and other aspects to Welsh history that show a close association with Ireland, appear to be on the coastlines of Wales, and considering the proximity of Cardigan Bay to South Cardiganshire, perhaps the origins of these cultural links, that gave us the Cardiganshire numerals, are connected to a time when a unique, perhaps “more-Irish” cultural zone existed off parts of coastal Wales, until being flooded. It is purely speculative to postulate that the Cardiganshire numerals might be connected to this, but, taking into account the links between historic Wales and Ireland as a whole, and the mythology, I think it may be possible.

I hope that this article was interesting to read, and that it encourages more research into these topics.

References

  1. An old system of numeration found in South Cardiganshire, by David Thomas, published in Transactions of the Cardiganshire Antiquarian Society, Vol 3, printed by the “Cambrian News” (Aberystwyth), Ltd. 1924.
  2. The Irish Numerals of Cardiganshire by David Greene, (Institiúid Ard-Léinn Bhaile Átha Cliath), 1975.
  3. The Green Meadows of Enchantment, published in the book Wales of the Unexpected by Richard Holland (2005), first published by Gwasg Carreg Gwalch of Llanrwst.
  4. How a storm revealed a Welsh kingdom, published by Chris Griffiths,19th of March 2020. available on BBC.com.

Articles by Linden Pentecost

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