Dragging myself out of my deep pit of procrastination, I’ve decided to write some more. I’m still not entirely sure what the purpose of this blog is; I’m just feeding a compulsion and this seems like a good outlet.
One of the biggest mysteries in historical linguistics is why there are so few Celtic words in English. After all, two thousand years ago Britain supposedly had a Celtic culture. A thousand years after that, however, Celtic languages were in a minority.
The most commonly used words of Celtic origin in English are: dad, flannel, paw, hog, gull, crumpet, lawn, crockery, iron and penguin( meaning white-head). In place names we have: tor (hill) , coombe (valley) , Avon (river)and Exe (water), these words becoming more common the further West you go. There are more, such as Druid, Dolmen and menhir, but I’m talking about mainstream words here.
Before the Romans came there were three main language groups in the British Isles. Our knowledge of this is very hazy but the basic picture is this; in the far North there were Picts, who may or may not have been Celtic at all, but probably were and were probably related to the second group, the Brithonic-speakers, or Britons, in the south. These people took up most of Britain and Welsh, Cornish and Breton are its direct descendants. In Ireland were the Gaels who spoke Gaelic.
These two main groups are called P-Celtic (Brithonic) and Q-Celtic (Gaelic), because Brithonic uses a P sound where Gaelic uses a Q/K sound. Hence ‘mac’ in Gaelic means ‘son’ (MacDonald etc.), and ‘map’ in Brithonic meant the same (modern Welsh ‘ap’).
Britain was one of the only places in the Western Roman Empire where Latin never really took hold. After the last Roman legions left in 410AD Latin completely died out except as a church language, Christianity having been brought to Britain about a hundred years before. The people were left speaking the same languages as they had before, with some additions. For example, ‘ffenestr’, from Latin ‘fenestram’, means ‘window’; ‘cloch’, from Latin ‘clocca’, means ‘bell’ (English ‘clock’). Llyfr is from latin ‘librus’ – ‘book’. There are many other words, but they all tend to be related to the Church and to refer to things which people would not already have had words for.
Someone has actually constructed a hypothetical language, called Brithenig, which could have been the language that might have evolved up to the present day along the same lines as, for example, French. It contains a few Celtic words but is mainly Latin with a ‘Celtic’ accent. Here’s an interesting link: http://steen.free.fr/brithenig/introduction.html
The other special thing about Britain was that it was the only place in the Roman Empire in the West where the people took on the language of the invaders after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the mid 5th Century. There were Germanic invasions in Spain and France at the same time but people continued to speak their Latin languages.
It’s still a mystery why Celtic languages were wiped out so quickly and completely in England. There is a theory, and some evidence, that there was a plague which only affected the British population and not the Anglo-Saxons. The general idea is that the British were more prone to live in larger conurbations and the Anglo-Saxons shunned the old Roman cities and tended more towards isolated villages and farmsteads. This, added to the fact that the two cultures had little contact in the first century or two meant that the British were effectively wiped out in eastern Britain.
The two cultures’ different styles of warfare seem to be a large factor in this as well. It’s well documented that the British style of fighting relied of skirmish and ambush tactics, with very light armour and weapons. This isn’t to say that they never used heavier equipment, only that they tended culturally towards this. Outside of what is now Wales, British tactics relied heavily on cavalry using hit and run attacks, with a very small proportion of the army being heavy cavalry built for charging. In Wales, infantry predominated.
This is in contrast with the Anglo-Saxon style of warfare which was based on infantry in tight formations with little cavalry. This made it a lot easier for them to defend sites once they had been taken, going some way to explaining the rapid take-over of British land.
British settlements weren’t immediately taken over in a lot of cases and were often left to their own devices. We can still see this in the current borders of some of the Southern counties, where there are small indents or ‘bubbles’ surrounding a surviving British settlement of some sort, left outside the new shire borders.
These are all just theories but for me it’s the most convincing explanation as to how an entire culture was obliterated in just a short span of time. This goes some way towards explaining why we use so few Celtic words.
However, Celtic languages have influenced English in a much greater and more subtle way. A quick glance at other Germanic languages such as German or Norwegian shows that English has a very different structure and sound system. All of the languages in Britain, Gaelic, Brithonic and English, have the same general set of sounds. All use ‘th’ and‘w’ and are the only languages to use these in Western Europe. In English we say ‘I am going’ instead of simply ‘I go’ as in German. This probably comes from Welsh, which has similar constructions.
These linguistic idiosyncrasies give a picture of a very fast takeover and establishment of English cultural areas, and then growing contact over the successive centuries, but never a true mingling of cultures. There’s a lot I haven’t mentioned; the many Celtic dialect words in Western England and the Yan Tan Tethera method of counting sheep for example, and I have simplified a few linguistic terminologies, but this is all I really have space for!
Again, thanks for getting this far!