History Files


Roman Britain

Tribal Names: Linguistic Analysis and the Origin of Gwynedd

by Edward Dawson, 1 March 2009

To start with, the name 'Gwynedd' is most definitely a post-Roman pronunciation, and one which is still used by the modern Welsh.

Go back fifteen hundred years and it is still most likely to be pronounced the modern way. But note that fifteen hundred years ago when it was written down (in Latin, as no one wrote in Old Welsh back then), the name was spelled 'Venedotia'. The first three letters, 'ven-', are probably the proto-Celtic word for 'white'. The proto-Celtic (or common Celtic) root was 'windo'. The proto-Celtic 'd' apparently mutates into a 't', a voiced 'th', a hard 'k', an 's', or a soft 'ch' and also, of course, it can be dropped entirely.

Proto-Celtic 'v' became an 'f' in Old Irish Gaelic, producing the Gaelic word 'fin' for white. In Britain it shifted in the other direction and became a 'w', then a 'gw' and, in at least one location (Votodini = Gododdin), the 'w' was dropped so that what began as a 'v' became a 'g'.

Gwynedd is said to have been founded by Britons from Manau Gododdin on the northern side of the Firth of Forth and River Forth. But Roman writers did not describe that area as Votodini (Gododdin) territory. To them it was the land of a Pictish tribe called the Venicones.

Venicones? There's that 'ven-' again. And it isn't difficult to get from a 'c' to a 't' when people have no writing and they are pronouncing a word as they please. It slides right over. There is even precedent for it amongst Celtic tribes, as witnessed by 'Galatia' and 'Galacia' as tribal names on opposite ends of the Celtic expansion. The common root in that case is 'gal', meaning 'cock' (or 'rooster' in US English), probably a reference to the red hair which was common amongst early Gauls (Galli).

The opinion here is that Gwynedd was founded by Venicones (Venedoti) from Fife. Their point of origin was at a fort in Fife called Manau, which was nominally under Gododdin overlordship. Hence 'Manau Gododdin'.

Picts or Brits?

But how could this happen? How could a group of 'Picts' become Roman Britons?

To begin with there were no 'Picts'. It's just an adopted name, in the same manner that the Britons of Wales adopted Cymry as their name, and Cymru as their country (instead of Prydein = Britain). No Picts existed as any sort of separate people. The so-called Picts were merely Britons who had not been conquered by the Roman army. The 'Picts' were the free Britons to the north of the Antonine wall.

But the Romans did occupy an area north of the Antonine wall for a generation, before retreating to more defensible positions. Which area was that? Fife.

The Venicones had been occupied for a generation by Romans, whose influence continued north of the Forth at Manau after the legions marched away. Manau was subject to the Gododdin, who were in turn clients of the Roman empire.

The men of Gwynedd are Venicones. And they still call themselves Venicones, with an updated pronunciation.

Further afield

Just as fascinating is the fact that the men of Gwynedd appear to be one of a large number of Celtic or Italo-Celtic tribes (Latin is a language which was closely related to Celtic), all of which are using variations of 'white' (ven-) as their name. Whether these tribes are branches of one tribe (not likely), or that groups of them are branches of a few tribes (likely), or that none of them are related (not likely) is unclear.

Known usage of this naming pattern is as follows:

Vindelici: Vindelicia (pronounced 'wendelichia') simply identifies the country inhabited by the Vindelici, a region which was bounded on the north by the Danube and (later) the Hadrian's 'Limes Germanicus', on the east by the Oenus (Inn), on the south by Raetia, and on the west by the territory of the Helvetii. It therefore corresponded to the north-eastern portion of Switzerland, the south-east of Baden, and the south of Württemberg and Bavaria. Its chief town was refounded by the Romans as Augusta Vindelicorum ('Augusta of the Vindelici', or Augsburg).

The material culture of its inhabitants, the Vindelici, was La Tène. Whether the Vindelici spoke a Celtic (Gaulish) or Germanic language is not certain; a possible etymology of their name includes an element, 'vind-', which is cognate to the Irish 'find'-, meaning 'white', and is directly descended from the proto-Celtic root, 'windo'. Together with the neighbouring tribes they were subjugated by Tiberius in 15 BC. The Augustan inscription of 12 BC mentions four tribes of the Vindelici amongst the defeated.

Vandals: a German tribe which was probably formed through combining with a Gaulish tribe (and possibly involving a change of leadership from Celtic to Germanic)? (See Vindelici, above.)

Stirling Castle in Scotland

Could Stirling Castle, which in its earliest incarnation dates to the eleventh century, be a replacement for a similar stronghold for Manau Gododdin?

Veneti: three examples are known to exist:

The Adriatic Veneti, 'Enetoi' in Greek, a bygone people of north-eastern Italy (ie. the modern Venice area) who spoke an unclassified Indo-European language. Since they quickly adopted Latin they may originally have been speakers of some Italo-Celtic language.

The Armorican Veneti, a Celtic tribe which lived in what is now Brittany in France. Also, Vannes in Brittany emerged as the Breton 'Gwened'. Sounds very much like 'Gwynedd'.

The Vistula Veneti, a bygone people of north-eastern Europe, who lived in the area of the Vistula river basin and along the shores of the Baltic Sea (as the Wends). Were they Gauls - or proto-Italic-speakers who had been dominated by Celtic culture - but who adopted a Slavic language?

Gwynedd: this was based on the former Brythonic tribal lands of the Ordovices, Gangani, and Deceangli which were collectively known as Venedotia in late Romano-British documents. The name Gwynedd may derive from the Brythonic 'Ueneda', but this spelling also looks as though it was derived from 'Venedotia'. These names may be akin to the Goidelic (the ancestor of Irish) 'Fenia' (which gives 'fiana', meaning 'war-band', in Old Irish - eg. 'Finn and his warriors'). But of course the original meaning is 'white'. This means that the possible meaning may be 'Land of the Hosts' or 'Land of the Warrior Bands' if the name is Irish in origin.

Guenet: a region which was mentioned by Nennius and which may correspond to Gwynedd. Or not. He seems confused between Gwynedd and Baddan (Bath).

Venicones: a tribe from Fife, Tayside, who were supposedly 'Picts'.

Vennicnii: of Ireland. The name is very similar to Venicones; probably a branch of the same tribe which migrated to County Donegal from Fife or vice versa.


Main Sources

Greek references - Dictionary.com website

Latin references - Bantam New College Latin & English Dictionary by John Traupman, and the University of British Columbia Maths Department website

Ammianus Marcellinus - Res Gestae Libri XXXI available online at 'Early Church Fathers - Additional Texts' website

Ptolemy - Geographia

Map at Rootsweb (the main map is very silly because it has Concani and Gangani adjacent in the Thomond area, when anyone can see they are the same tribal name with different spellings)

Map perhaps not under copyright: Alexander G Findlay's Insulae Brittanicae, produced in 1849 in A Classical Atlas of Ancient Geography, available online at the University of Texas Libraries



Text copyright © Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.