As the title question asks, and particularly in light of the Old English word wælisc apparently used to refer to "Welsh", when, why, and how did the English adjective meaning "of or relating to Wales" become "Welsh"? In particular:

Which of the apparently l Old English forms made it into Middle English?

Where (ie, what's the first Middle English appearance)?

Did the vowel change already worst) appear by the first appearance in Middle English, or did that come later?

Is there a general rule converting Old English æ to Middle English e?

In other words, when I ask "when, how, and why", I'm looking for a many details as possible of the historical and phonological process involved.

  • 9
    Perhaps if it were called Walland and not Wales. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 18:32
  • @ianmacdonald in which case I'd expect to see "Englandish". Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 18:53
  • 8
    Would you? Your proposition was "Walish". When changing England to English or Scotland to Scottish, the "land" bit is converted to a form of "ish". Hence my suggestion that it would need to be "Walland" to end up as "Walish". Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 21:00
  • @ian good point, don't know what I was thinking. I retract. Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 2:01
  • 4
    You are looking for logic and consistency in English? Good luck!
    – Criggie
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 7:12

2 Answers 2


Note that Scottish has the contracted form “Scotch” (also “Scots”, where the use of /s/ is I think a Scottish feature).

I would guess that the consonant cluster in the middle of “English” inhibited the development of any monosyllabic contracted forms—“Englsh” is not exactly a validly formed syllable in English.

Alongside Welsh we have French and Dutch (although in Dutch the contraction happened before the word entered English).


As far as I know, there is not a general rule converting Old English short æ to Middle English e. The general rule that I have seen given in linguistic sources is that Old English short æ corresponds to Middle English a. But there are complications.

The "Welsh" word had various vowel qualities in Old English; the form "wælisc" is only a standardized representation of one form. "West Saxon" is the dialect that is most commonly used as the standardized representation of "Old English" (e.g. in dictionary references to OE words), but it isn't the only dialect that contributed to modern English.

The number and distribution of "a-like" vowels differed between different dialects of Old English; I don't know enough about this topic to summarize it, but the OED entry for the word Welsh gives the following information:

  • it classifies the forms into three main groups:
    α. those like "OE Wilis-" (with i, y or u after the w)
    β. those like "eOE Uuelesc (Kentish)" (with e after the w)
    γ. those like "OE–eME Wælisc" and "ME–15 Walshe" (among others) (with æ or a after the w)

    Also a minor "δ." group with the vowel "o".

  • in its "form history" section, there is extensive discussion of the history, including the following paragraph:

    Some of the β. forms represent the Kentish reflex of early Old English æ with regular breaking to ea and i-mutation to e, and this is probably continued in south-eastern Middle English forms. However, the majority of the β. forms represent the Anglian reflex of æ with retraction to a before l plus consonant (compare the corresponding noun, Anglian Walh ), i-mutation of a to æ, and subsequent late Old English raising of this vowel to e in the east midlands and the north (compare A. Campbell Old Eng. Gram. (1959) §193(a), R. Jordan Handb. der mittelenglischen Grammatik (ed. 2, 1934) §62). The γ. forms show the expected reflex of the Anglian retracted and mutated vowel in the west midlands (Middle English a), but appear to be unusually widely distributed in Middle English. Although they become obsolete by the end of the 16th cent., Walsh survives as a form of the surname.

I think it's worth making another post specifically for the question about correspondences between OE "æ" and Middle or Modern English "e"--it seems to be a big, complicated topic, and I think making it a post of its own might attract more expert attention! I'm sure that there are other comparable examples; I'll try to find them when I have some time later.

An earlier question that seems relevant is Why "English" but not "Anglish"?, although unfortunately it doesn't seem to have gotten any answers from experts.

  • And the vowel quality change after w? Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 18:30
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    The correspondence between the front vowels from OE to ME is indeed very complex – so complex, in fact, that I think it’s too broad to fit into a question or answer here. As far as I know, it’s not even fully understood. In Welsh, however, the main takeaway is that the i in the eOE forms regularly caused i-mutation of the preceding a/ea to æ, which was later raised to e by a semi-regular sound change that occurred in some areas. The resulting form, *Welish eventually lost its second syllable, and Welsh ended up being the form that became the standard. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 19:05
  • "English" formed from the two-syllable noun "Angle", so there was already a contraction of the syllabic "l" to form the adjective.
    – chepner
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 12:27

It actually used to be some form of "Walish" that has since been contracted:

Welsh Old English Wielisc, Wylisc (West Saxon), Welisc, Wælisc (Anglian and Kentish);

but it actually meant "foreign" or, more properly, "not Anglo-Saxon"; the Welsh called their country something else, and do to this day. In the Welsh language it's not Wales but Cymru.


  • 1
    I was intrigued by OED's Old English Wealh , (Anglian) Walh foreigner, Briton, Welsh person, slave, is cognate with Old High German Walh , Walah speaker of a Romance language (Middle High German Walch , Walhe foreigner, speaker of a Romance language, specifically Frenchman or Italian, German †Wahle ), Middle Dutch Wale speaker of a Romance language, specifically Walloon or Frenchman (Dutch Waal Walloon, speaker of a Romance language, especially French; compare the Old Dutch byname Wal , Walo )... Never knew the Welsh roots stretched that far east! Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 17:47
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers: Walloon is kind of an a-hah moment for me.
    – Robusto
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 17:51
  • So was the Anglian form definitely the one that made it into Middle English? Was the vowel change set by the first appearance in Middle English, or did that come later? Is there a general rule converting Old English æ to later e? I'll edit those questions into my main one - that's really what I wanted to know. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 18:21
  • @Matt: The OE "ash" (æ) was pronounced like the a in hat and the sc digraph was pronounced like the current sh digraph. As is true today, there was a lot of latitude in the pronunciation of vowel sounds, though, so any "wæ" sound could be rendered in a variety of ways.
    – Robusto
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 18:55
  • @FumbleFingers: if you want to go further east, the Vlachs of south-eastern Europe (roughly speaking what became Romanians) have a similarly cognate name
    – Henry
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 8:01

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