Long-time followers of my blog may remember my post on the origins of English. The language tree in that post shows that English is largely derived from Germanic, specifically Anglo-Frisian.
So, where are the Celts? Are there no Celtic words in English?
As several of Quora answers explain, there are several – but far fewer than might be expected. Take one of my favorite British English colloquialisms, “smashing,” which is used to mean “really rather good.” Smashing may actually be an Anglicization of the Scottish Gaelic phrase is math sin, “that is good” (although some linguists question that).
The English word “twig” in the sense of suddenly catch on, and the hippy word “dig,” meaning to be really involved in, both come from Scots Gaelic tuig, understand.
Then there are several irish, Celtic, and Cymraeg (Welsh) words that have made their way into modern English, such as smithereens (smidrín), bog, galore (go leor), spree, slew, brogue (a type of shoe; brogue means shoe). Or banshee, breeches, whisky (uisce), clan, lug (ear), slob (slab), phony (fáinne), slogan (sluagh-ghairm), and gob (mouth). Or how about snug from snog, “good.”
And of course, hooligans (Ó hUallacháin), and putting the kaibosh on things are both Irish Gaelic. Then, penguin (pen-gwyn = white head), flannel (gwlannen = wool cloth), cwm (=valley), druid (derwydd = one who knows the oak-tree), crumpet (crempog = pancake), adder (neidr = snake), bard (bardd = poet), bow (bwa = bow), crockery (crochan = cauldron/bowl), gull (gwylan = seagull), iron (haearn), lawn (llan = grassy clearing), Cromlech (crom = curved/bent + llech = stone), and avon.
So, any hooligan bards among you who ever went on a whisky spree on your lawn and smashed a plastic penguin to smithereens with your brogue, while screaming like a banshee, congratulations: you have put your Celtic language heritage to good use.
So why isn’t Celtic more prominent in English? Well, Celtic languages were often victims of politics.
Four hundred years of Roman occupation of Britannia pretty much eradicated Celtic from the area that would later become England. Celtic speakers were pushed to the peripheries by the borders of Roman Britain.
The Angles and Saxons that came after the fall of Rome would have encountered very few Celtic speakers in what would later become England, the population instead speaking British Vulgar Latin.
Then, the Vikings came and threw some Old Norse into the mix, which is why Old English is far more akin to German than modern English.
After the Vikings, the Normans invaded, adding French to the milieu. French was the language of court and Latin of religion and learning and permeated the legal system. Also, the Normans despised Old English because it sounded to their ears harsh and guttural. So, it’s no surprise that within a couple of centuries it had all but gone.
Adding to the pressure was the fact that during less enlightened times, the speaking of Gaelic in Scotland and Irish in Ireland was actively discouraged to the point that children could be beaten at school for speaking the language they spoke at home. The act of union also discouraged the use of Welsh (Henry VIII) and around this time – and for many decades after – the Welsh people were thought to be uneducated and uncouth. While Gaelic was not actually made illegal, an 1847 report into the state of education in Wales implied that the Welsh language should be removed and Welsh was banned from courts, therefore further diminishing its use.
By the 1950s, only a handful of native speakers were in the six Celtic countries. A subsequent revival has raised the numbers once more and there is a primary school (Bunscoill Ghaelgagh) at St John’s Isle of Man, that teaches through the Manx language.
As a result, Celtic-derived words in Old or Middle English are pretty rare and the only common Celtic place-name element in England, outside Cumbria and the West Country, is “-co(o)mb(e)”, meaning “valley.”
What About Grammar?
Interestingly enough, and despite the lack of Celtic words in English vocabulary, there may be a subtle Celtic grammatical influence on English, since there are certain grammatical features in English that are shared with the Celtic languages, particularly Welsh, but which are rare or absent in the other Germanic languages.
For example, Celtic and English have formal identity between intensifier and reflexive pronoun. They share this feature only with Maltese, Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian in Europe. In Middle English, the old intensifier “self” was replaced by a fusion of pronoun + “self” which is now used in a communication to emphasize the object in question; e.g. “A woman who is conspicuously generous to others less fortunate than herself.”
So it’s possible that the ancient Brittonic language spoken in what’s now England left a bigger impression on English than you’d think just from the rather small contribution to English vocabulary.
As for me and my continued fascination with English, the fact that it is essentially a mongrel language that continues to evolve to this day is a big part of its appeal!
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