How to pronounce Benjamin Britten’s “Wolcum Yule”

During the mid 20th century, the uncovering of some important manuscripts led to a renewed interest in medieval music and poetry. Composer Benjamin Britten was involved in creating editions of newly uncovered Purcell manuscripts and himself wrote a large collection of settings of Middle English and Medieval poetry.

Perhaps his most well known is the carol “Wolcum Yule” from Ceremony of Carols. It’s natural for choir masters to be confused approaching this work by some unusual words such as “lefe”, and may be rightly confused as to how to pronounce it.

If you are one of these directors and would like to skip the explanation, please skip to the end, where there is a full summary transliteration.

Let’s go back to the source

I’ll start by saying that I do not know precisely the source of Britten’s text. What I do have is a transcription of it in British Library Sloane MS 2593, and I have set this text as part of my Sloane 2593 project. This transcription is from Songs and Carols from a manuscript in the British Museum Collected by Thomas Wright in 1856. For details of this setting click here.

Straight away we can see that Britten has put in the work already:

Wolcum, ȝol, thou mery man,

The Middle English Alliterative Poetry blog asserts that “Consonants are pronounced as in Modern English except  ȝ/gh, which represents /x/, the guttural sound in German  Loch“, which makes our job here pretty easy except for the yogh (ȝ) character in ȝol, which this guide on folgerpedia asserts should sound more like a modern “y” at the beginning of the word, which we will follow here.

Vowels are more difficult to ascertain, and most medieval pronunciation guides talk about short vowels and long vowels. To understand what that means here is a (hopefully) useful chart:

Modern
Vowel
Short
(both)
Modern Long exampleMiddle Long
acat, fatmate, datefather
ebet, fretmeet, feedblame, fame
isit, fitsight, might, whitewheat, meet
odot, trot, lotboat, load, homeshoe, loo, boo
ubut, mullmule, fool, luteflour, How,

Determining which vowels are short and long is more tricky but so long as there is a modern equivalent, you can refer to that modern world as it is etymologically derived. These vowels in bold are long, and underlined are short:

Welcome Yule, th[ou] merr[y] man

Wolcum, ȝol, th[ou] mer[y] man,

[ou] – diphthongs are pronounced by adding the two vowels together so thou is o (shoe) + u (flour), to sound like modern English grow, according to Middle English Alliterative Poetry.

[y] – this is fairly interchangeable with i. At the end of the word like this is is long (as in wheat)

In IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) this hopefully (according to my fumblings with ToPhonetics) comes out as:

‘wɒlkʌm juːl ðəʊ ˈmɛri mən

But it might be more helpful and less time consuming to create a likely transliteration (a version spelled out in near-english which will result in the right pronunciation). This transliteration assumes a received British-English accent:

Wolcum Yule, thoh merry man,

Ok, it took some work to figure out that Britten was basically right, except in the pronunciation of “thou” (probably). Now we have the basics, let’s speed the process up for the refrain and first verse:

Refrain and Verse 1

Wolcum, ȝol, th[ou] mer[y] man,
In wor[ch]epe of this holy d[ay].
Welcome yule, thou merry man
In worship of this holy day.
WOLCUM be th[ou], heven[e] kyng,
Wolcum, bo[r]n in on mo[rw]enyng,
Wolcum, for hom we [x]al syng,
Welcome be th[ou], heaven king,
Welcome, born in one morning
Welcome, for whom we shall sing,

[ch] – while ch is usually pronounced as in church, except that this word is clearly worship, as in devoutly, and the majority of spellings listed under the citations of the Middle English Dictionary are spelled with sch or sh, both pronounced sh.

[ay] – diphthong of a (father) and y (feet). in IPA ɑɪ. We’ll transliterate this as “dahy”

[e] – e at the end of the word is pronounced “where it is etymologically justified” according to Middle Ensligh Alliterative Poetry, and sites its entry in the Middle English Dictionary (this is a useful entry gate to the Middle English Compendium, an invaluable resource). In this case, heven has a wide variety of forms including hevenes and heavenen so it is probably ok to assume that the e might have been pronounced. Daniel Donoghue’s History of the English Language workbook asserts that in Chaucer’s English this ending inflection would have been pronounced in most cases, except when followed by a vowel.

An e at the end of the word would be an inflection and pronounced as a schwa i.e. a neutral vowel, which to me means that it would be legitimate to make it short and possibly leave it out when singing. It would be an interesting study to see how and when this inflection impacts on the meter of the verse.

[r] – Rs in Middle English are always rolled, according to all of my sources.

[x] – this is pronounced sh as in she or shall.

Wolcum yule, thoh merry man,
In woor*shep[e] of this hooly dahy

Wolcum be thoh, heaven[e] king,
Wolcum, bor*n in on mor*wening,
Wolcum, for hoam wey shall sing,

[e] denotes schwa inflection
* denotes tongue trill

Verse 2

Wolc[o]m be ȝe, Stefn[e] and Jon,
Wolc[o]m[e], Innocentes everychon ;
Wolcum, [Th]omas, ma[r]ter on ;
Welcome be ye, Steven and John,
Welcome, Innocents everyone;
Welcome, Thomas, master one;

[o] -presumably a spelling mistake

[Th] – the etymology of the name Thomas points to a pronunciation of t in most languages as apposed to th as in those.

Wolcum bey yey, Steyfn and John,
Wolcum, Innuecentes ever*ychon;
Wolcum, Tomas, mar*ter on;

Verse 3

Wolcum be ȝe, good new[e] ȝer[e],
Wolcum, twelth[e] day, both[e] in [fer[e]] ;
Wolcum, seyntes, [lef] and dere ;
Welcome be ye, good new year,
Welcome, twelfth day, both [in a group];
Welcome, saints, [loved] and dear;

[fere] – this word, meaning in companionship, or together, brotherhood, is likely rhymed with ȝere and dere, both of which have long e vowels in modern English so although there is no modern English equivalent (although a French equivalent frere) we can guess at a long e vowel.

[lef] – not so obvious is this word meaning loved. The Middle English Dictionary suggests this has a long vowel.

Wolcum bey yey, goad neyw[e] yeyr*[e],
Wolcum, twelth[e] dahy, booth[e] in feyr[e];
Wolcum, sahyntes, leyf and deyr[e];

Verse 4

Wolcum be ȝe, candylmess[e] ;
Wolcum be ȝe, qwyn of blys,
Wolcum both[e] to mor[e] and less[e];
Welcome be ye, Candlemas;
Welcome be ye, queen of bliss,
Welcome both to more and less;

Wolcum bey yey, candilmess[e];
Wolcum bey yey, queen of bliss,
Wolcum booth[e] too mor* and less[e];

Verse 5

Wolcum be ȝe that arn here ;
Wolcum, all[e], and mak good cher[e] ;
Wolcum, all[e], another ȝer[e] 
Welcome be ye that are here;
Welcome, all, and make good cheer;
Welcome, all, another year

Wolcum bey yey that ar*n heyr*[e];
Wolcum, all, and mahk goad cheyr[e];
Wolcum, all, another* yeyr[e]

In Summary (How to Pronounce Wolcum Yule”)

Here is my attempt at a pronunciation of Wolcum Yule based on the available web resources and written in a British-English transliteration. I am as ever very grateful for any corrections from actual Middle English students or professors. Please get in touch or leave a comment below.


Wolcum yule, thoh merry man,
In woor*shep[e] of this hooly dahy

Wolcum be thoh, heaven[e] king,
Wolcum, bor*n in on mor*wening,
Wolcum, for hoam wey shall sing,

Wolcum bey yey, Steyfn and John,
Wolcum, Innuecentes ever*ychon;
Wolcum, Tomas, mar*ter on;

Wolcum bey yey, goad neyw[e] yeyr*[e],
Wolcum, twelth[e] dahy, booth[e] in feyr[e];
Wolcum, sahyntes, leyf and deyr[e];

Wolcum bey yey, candilmess[e];
Wolcum bey yey, queen of bliss,
Wolcum booth[e] too mor* and less[e];

Wolcum bey yey that ar*n heyr*[e];
Wolcum, all, and mahk goad cheyr[e];
Wolcum, all, another* yeyr[e]


[e] = e inflection, pronounced as a short schwa (open vowel). Not necessarily pronounced while singing.

r* = rolled r.


Britten was most likely aware of some of the issues of pronunciation but it is equally likely that research in this field has moved on since he wrote his setting. It would be problematic recreating this pronunciation in performance, however as with my own settings of Middle English poetry, I hope choirs will aim to illuminate the poetry of this era by selectively using a mix of Modern and Middle English language while performing.

I am no expert on Middle English and I am slowly making my way into the field by using the excellent work of people more knowledgeable than me, sources cited above, and in this blog listing some very useful Middle English and Medieval Resources. I am fascinated by this study, interested to know more and hope that it inspires other people to find out about the rich language of 14th/15th century England.

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