Friday, March 22, 2013

English Celticisms – the “Dummy Do” and “Obsessive Progressive”

Last time I discussed the influence of the Norse settlers on English during the period between Old English and Middle English and how it filtered down from the north to become standard English. About the same time, perhaps beginning a few centuries earlier, there was a Celtic influence that began in the south and filtered northward.

This Celtic influence is much more significant than the handful of words that I wrote about in the August 2011 post “Celtic Vestigia”, but is only now beginning to be generally recognized. 

Professor John McWhorter in Lecture 4 of Myths. Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage (Great Courses 2012) describes three Celtic influences that appear in modern English. Two relate to sentence structure, the third is a vestigial counting system.

Let’s deal with the numbers first. In northern England there is a special counting system called sheep-scoring numbers, presumably used originally to count sheep. This system today is found only in children’s games and nursery rhymes. It goes like this for 1-10: aina, peina, para, pedera, pump, ithy, mithy, owera, lavera, dig. The closest known number words to these are Welsh: un, dau, tri, pedwar, pump, chwech, saith, with, naw, deg. The system of teen numbering is also similar. Note these are not an exact match, but the 4, 5 & 10 are strikingly similar. So the origin of the sheep-scoring system was not, of course, Welsh but an older British Celtic language that somehow survived down the centuries only in this children’s number game.

As an aside, nursery rhymes are excellent “museums” of old words and phrases which are passed down intact while the language around them changes. “Pease Porridge Hot” is a good example of this. Pease was once the singular of the little green vegetable with peasen the plural. At some point the “n” dropped from the plural making both singular and plural words the same. Then, as the “s” ending of plurals became more common, someone assumed that pease was peas, the plural of pea, and this usage spread.

What McWhorter calls the “meaningless do”, Professor Anne Curzan in Lecture 9 of The Secret Life of Words (Great Courses, 2012) dubs the “dummy do”. Both refer to the English grammatical structure of using do in question and negative sentences. Instead of asking “Smoke you?” as would be normal in most other languages (including Old English), we ask “Do you smoke?” And we reply “I do not smoke” rather than “I smoke not”.

In Celtic languages, do is also used in positive statement sentences, but this is optional in English, used occasionally for emphasis. “Yes, I smoke” or “Yes, I DO smoke. Do you MIND?” More likely you would simply reply, “No, I don’t” or “Yes, I do” in answering a question like that, where the action verb in your reply is understood rather than repeated.

Back in Shakespeare’s day the do form of statements was more common. Hamlet, near the end of his famous soliloquy: “…thus conscience doth make cowards of us all”. And Duncan to Macbeth: “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be What thou art promis’d. Yet I do fear thy nature; It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness…

Although this structure of using do sounds completely normal to us now, in fact it is very peculiar. The only other languages in the world that use do in this way are the Celtic languages. This use in English was first observed in Cornish English and gradually worked its way north. Cornish, spoken in Cornwall at the south-western tip of England, is one of the three Brittonic Celtic languages. Similarly to the core changes made by Norse speakers discussed last time, such changes to basic sentence structure were likely first made by Celtic (in this case Cornish) speakers who learned English as a second language. Bilingual speakers are more likely to use their native language sentence structure and overlay it with vocabulary from their new language. (I just made that up so would welcome comments from a linguist).

Similarly, the use of the progressive tense (the “ing” form of a verb indicating the action is ongoing) to show the present is another Celticism. This is what McWhorter calls the “obsessive progressive”. We ask “What are you doing?” instead of “What do you?” (in this case the verb do is the main verb, not a “dummy do”). And we answer “I am making dinner” not “I make dinner”. Again this is peculiar to English and the Celtic languages. It could be used in, for example, Spanish or German to emphasize that you are doing something right now, but that would be a rare usage (perhaps if your mother yelled at you “Get doing your homework!” you would reply “I AM doing my homework!”).

In Welsh to say “Mary is singing” it would be “Is Mary in singing”. Celtic languages have the word order VSO where the verb always comes first, so what looks to us like a question is in fact a statement. Notice the extra word “in” before the action word. English used to have this structure too but it was gradually lost with only a trace remaining in a few dialects. “I was on hunting” became “I was a-hunting” and finally “I was hunting”. See my post from October 2011 “A Hunting We Will Go” for more on this ancient grammatical structure. So this could be another Celticism.

Both the “dummy do” and the “obsessive progressive” show up suddenly in Middle English documents, with nary a trace in Old English. Why the sudden change? Two reasons – first there was 150-200 years starting after 1066 when French was the official language and hardly anything was written in English. Changes to the language during this time were not recorded anywhere. Celtic influence could have started as early as the 5th century with the first Saxon-Celtic interaction. If so, why is there no record in Old English documents? Simply because writing at that time did not record how the common people spoke. Writing was used exclusively for church documents and high literature – it would have been unthinkable to record common speech.

So whenever you use the “dummy do” or “obsessive possessive” sentence structure, you are speaking a remnant of the language of the ancient British Celts. I think this is rather fascinating, don’t you?


  1. Bilingual speakers are more likely to use their native language sentence structure and overlay it with vocabulary from their new language.

    True. I learn Russian grammar by listening to Tanya speaking English. And the I am doing, I am coming, am listening tends to confuse her as of course Russian has no such.

  2. Where you at, Boy? I say, Boy, where you at?

    1. Is this your Foghorn Leghorn impersonation?
      Glad to see that someone misses my posts. It's been quite a few months since the last one. I have a lot of material from my new books and new Great Courses lectures, and other sources. The problem is making the time to cobble together a comprehensible & coherent post.
      I work 10-12 hours a day Mon - Sat at my business (and sleep on Sunday).
      I volunteer on 4 non-profit or charitable organizations (as president, treasurer (2) & newsletter editor)which also take up a lot of time. I try to spend at least 10 minutes a week on Facebook checking for new photos of my grandchildren.
      Does that answer your question?