A Linguistic Guide to ‘Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla’

by Ryan

The Welsh are referred to as Britons in Valhalla. The Britons were the Celtic speaking peoples who had inhabited Britain before the Roman conquest. Their language, Common Brittonic, was originally spoken across Britain. Following the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England, it was replaced by Old English in most parts of the country. However, Common Brittonic remained the dominant language in Western regions of Britain and it eventually became the languages Welsh, Cornish, and Cumbric. Interestingly, the Sciropescire (Shropshire) story arc in-game features Eivor meeting the historical Welsh king King Rhodri.

“It is uncertain how much English someone like King Rhodri would have been able to speak, but again it’s not impossible that he was bilingual,” says Webb-Davies, a native Welsh speaker. “The Welsh used in the Rhodri arc consists of some Middle Welsh as well as formal Modern Welsh.”

This level of linguistic detail was a significant undertaking for the development team at Ubisoft.

“To create the Old Welsh used in the western marches, we had the very resourceful Malo Adeux, PhD candidate in medieval literature at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale in Brest, and Ifor Ap Dafydd, development officer at the National Library of Wales. They had a particularly hard task, starting from the oldest extant sources of mostly 12th- to 15th-century Middle Welsh, then having to reverse-engineer that to an even older-sounding form. Like rewriting Dickens in Shakespearean!” Grimwood says.

Welsh also features in the game region of Glowecestrescire (Gloucestershire). While modern Gloucestershire is a part of England, its portrayal in Valhalla is surprisingly Welsh, with many characters having names such as Tewdwr, Cynon, and Modron—and references to the pre-Roman Pagan culture that existed in Britain, such as the Wicker Man and the horned god Cernunnos.  

It is in this region that the player meets Brigid, a woman who is only able to converse in Welsh, during a pagan festival that involves merrymaking, and obligatory weird skulls, and antlers. I am not a Welsh speaker, but I could understand familiar Welsh words such as da, meaning good; maes, which means field; and gwely, meaning bed. At the end of their meeting she says “Diolch” which translates into Welsh as “Thank you.” I also recognized a lot of English loan words.

“Brigid is an interesting case, she speaks in a very informal style mixed with English words. This phenomenon is called code-switching, and is a frequent feature of the way bilinguals speak, then as now,” says Webb-Davies. “It is very hard to follow Brigid at times, even as a native Welsh speaker and Welsh linguist—and her speech is sometimes ungrammatical; I suspect that it was sent through translation software!”

The reason for Brigid’s unusual speech was revealed by the Ubisoft team. “Brigid is a special case,” Russell Lee, a scriptwriter for Valhalla, tells WIRED. “The writer just put ‘unintelligible’ in the script and the actress came up with her own version of incomprehensible ‘Welsh’!”

Gaelic and the Picts

Gaelic is present in the game as a language spoken by the Picts, a group of people who resided in the area that is now modern Scotland. Gaelic was brought to Scotland by Irish settlers between the 4th and 5th centuries AD. By the 9th century, Gaelic had become the dominant language in most of Scotland.

There was also a separate Pictish language, however it was already in decline during the time that Valhalla is set. Although not much is known about the language, evidence derived from place-name research suggests Pictish was probably closely related to Britonnic languages such as Welsh. A neat example is the “Aber” component of Scottish place name “Aberdeen,” which literally means “river mouth” in Brittonic. Traces of this place-name element can be found today in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany, however it is not found in Ireland suggesting its a Brittonic rather than a Gaelic word.

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