Monday, August 1, 2011

Celtic Vestigia

The English language developed in England so to understand the history of English we must explore the history of England.

The earliest inhabitants to leave any trace on the English language were the Celts. Their legacy is surprisingly small considering the centuries they inhabited Britain prior to and during the Roman occupation.

The Celtish languages are part of the Indo-European language family. There are six Celtic languages surviving into historical times, divided into two branches – the Brythonic (Welsh, Cornish and Breton) and Goidelic (Irish, Scottish and Manx).

The Brythonic (Brittonic) language was spoken across Britain south of the Firth of Forth by the people known as Britons during the Iron Age (800BC – 100AD). North of the Firth of Forth the distantly related Pictish language was spoken. By the 6th Century AD regional Brythonic dialects had developed into the Welsh and Cornish languages. In the 4th and 5th centuries AD Britons immigrated to the mainland (escaping the invading Saxons), settling in what is now known as Brittany, France. Here the third Brythonic language, Breton, developed, replacing the Gallish (or Gallic) Celtic language which was previously common across most of western mainland Europe.

Irish and Scottish Gaelic and Manx (from the Isle of Man) make up the Goidelic branch. These languages bear similarities to Iberian Celtic while the Brythonic languages are more similar to Gallish Celtic, suggesting that the Irish Celts came from Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) while the Britons came across the English Channel from what is now France and Belgium. Thus the roots of differences between the Irish and English are very deep.

The Gaelic language was introduced to Scotland from Ireland in the 4th century AD by Irish raiders who settled in western Scotland. The Romans called Irish raiders Scoti and the area in northeast Britain settled by the Irish became known as Scotia (the Roman name for Scotland was Caledonia and Ireland itself was at one time known as Scotia). [I tried to explain this one time to a Scottish born friend but he wouldn’t hear of it.] Over time Scottish Gaelic diverged from the Irish Gaelic and spread throughout most of Scotland, displacing Pictish and Old English. Gaelic was later replaced by Scottish English, surviving in the Highlands and northern islands into modern times.

This brief history of the British Celtic languages lays a foundation for understanding the history of the English language. For a foundation, however, Celtic had surprisingly little lasting influence on English. A short chapter in my new book The Story of English deals with “The Celts and the Romans”. While the Romans ruled southern Britain, the Celts were more or less allowed to carry on with their life and language. After the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxon invaders pushed them into the far western corners of the island. There was very little assimilation either of the Celtic people or their language. We have to look carefully to find traces of them in modern English.

Most modern English words of Celtic origin are of place names and landforms. The place name suffix combe is Celtic for valley (spelled cwm in Welsh, a useful Scrabble word!). Tor means hill or high rock (a bit of trivia I learned in a university geography class which has also proven useful in Scrabble). It has been suggested that the landform names for hills and valleys were borrowed from Celtic because the Anglo-Saxons, coming from countries with low flat land, lacked names for them. London (Latinized to Londinium by the Romans), Dover, Kent and the rivers Thames, Wye and Avon, among many others, are of Celtic origin. These place names increase in frequency from east to west across England.

Some words have been obviously borrowed from modern Celtic languages: bard, plaid, loch and glen from Scottish Gaelic and brogue, coracle and colleen from Irish Gaelic. Not so obvious is whiskey from the Gaelic compound word for water + life (similar to Latin aqua vitae for distilled alcoholic drinks). Bannock is another word believed to have a Celtic origin: OE bannuc (piece of a loaf or cake). It has survived in Scotland where it refers to a round, flat unsweetened and usually unleavened bread, and in Canada where its adaption to being baked over a campfire has made it a staple of northern trappers and traders. It was likely Hudson Bay Co. traders from Scotland that introduced both the bread and the name to northern Canada.

Two surprisingly modern looking words can be traced back to Celtic: slogan and car. Slogan comes from the Gaelic words sluagh (army) and gairm (cry) which together make war-cry. This proves that advertisers mean business! The word car has a more complicated derivation from words meaning “cart”. Old Celtic karros became Latin carra and Old French carre which was introduced into Middle English by the Normans. But this and likely many other words were previously borrowed by the Romans from the Celts living on the continent, not necessarily from the British Celts. Other Celtic words – like gravel, lawn, truant and valet were borrowed by the French from Gallic and later introduced into English following the Norman Conquest.

In summary, there remains very little evidence in modern English of the Celtic languages, once spoken across what is now England for centuries.


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