Friday, 21 March 2014

Celtic - The Influence of Celtic Languages on English

A green Celtic knot


Adjective & noun. Also Keltic. Late 16th century.
[Latin Celticus (from Celtae) or French Celtique from (from Celte): see CELT.]

A adj. Of or pertaining to the Celts and related peoples,
or (with specification as for the noun, a stage of division of) their language group. L16

B noun. A branch of the Indo-European language family including
Irish, Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton,
and the languages from which they have developed. E17

A map of Britain, Ireland and North-Western France
Areas where Celtic languages are still spoken:
Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Wales
(C.C map from Wikipedia

What's the History of Celtic Languages and Where Are They Spoken?

The story of Celtic languages is a story of rise, fall, and, no matter how big or small, resilience in the face of invasion. Celtic is one of the 11 major branches of the Indo-European language family. It has two major subgroups. Continental Celtic – particularly Gaulish – could once be heard all across the European continent, but was lost with little trace during the expansion of the Roman Empire. Besides Gaulish, it included the long-extinct Celtiberian, Galatian, Lepontic, and Noric.

Insular Celtic is found on the British Isles and Brittany on the northwest coast of France, brought there from the isles in the 5-6th century AD. It has its own two subdivisions, so-called P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. This classification is based on a shift in the Proto-Indo-European phoneme /*kʷ/. In the former, this phoneme shifted to the p sound and in the latter to q. The go-to illustration is the word for 'head': in Welsh it's pen and in Irish its ceannCeann sounds roughly like can.
Irish spelling has long troubled many Americans who try to incorporate token Irish expressions during inebriated touts of their Irish descent. And the reason for these difficulties is in part due to how its pronunciation diverges from its orthographical attempts to preserve etymology. But then again, English spelling troubles everyone everywhere.
P-Celtic, variously known as British or Brythonic, from a Welsh term for a native Briton, comprises Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. It also includes Cumbric (possible source of the famous yan tan tethera sheep-scoring counting systems) and Pictish, which went extinct about 1000 years ago. Welsh can boast about a half a million speakers. Manx was considered extinct since World War II but, with revitalization efforts, it can claim about 100 speakers in the Isle of Man as of 2003.
Q-Celtic, Irish or Goidelic (referring to and related to a Gael, or Irishman, glossed as 'raider') includes Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. Irish can claim less than 100,000 speakers and Scottish Gaelic somewhere between roughly 60,000-80,000.  Cornish tells a similar tale to Manx's - it died out in the 18th-century but, as of 2008, about 600 people (largely in Cornwall) can claim it resuscitated.
An enormous, armoured Celtic Gaul faces a small Roman soldier
A comic depicting a Roman soldier facing a titanic Gaul.
In truth, it was the Romans that were the titanic force.

Why Have Celtic Languages Declined?

All in all, though, the fate of the Celtic language family is not auspicious: "If language planning efforts fail, it seems inevitable that eventually another branch of the Indo-European family of languages will disappear." (Baugh & Cable, 2002)

Why the unusual decline of Celtic languages? In a word - power - but the Oxford Companion to the English Language cites nine major forces that have lead to their decline:
  • Disunity among Celts in the face of conquest and colonization
  • Loss of linguistic status with the rise of English and French
  • Shortage of reading material (especially in colonial education systems)
  • Lack of adequate instruction and backup
  • Loss of language in religious life (think English bibles)
  • Immigration of English- or French-speaking people into positions of power in Celtic areas
  • Emigration (e.g, during times of famine)
  • The impact of an English dominated media in the 20th century
  • Feeling of cultural inferiority
You'd think, given all the contact, that Celtic would have left a significant linguistic mark on other languages, particularly English. Yet the impact of Celtic on English and other Indo-European languages is considered surprisingly slight. How come? In a word - need.
Again, the Oxford Companion synopsizes the matter well. When Anglo-Saxons moved from the continent to the isles, a familiar natural (and perhaps even cultural) environment meant "they had no need to adopt local words for novel flora, fauna, and experiences." Latin's power and prestige – religiously, governmentally and culturally – meant it was the big man on campus in terms of loanwords. And probably as a result of these two forces as well as others, no pidgin languages emerged.

A cairn on a hilltop
Cairn is, unsurprisingly, a word of Celtic origin
(photo by Eileen Sanda)

What Influence Has Celtic Had on English?

Nevertheless, Celtic did leave its mark in some interesting places. Gaulish loaned French a small body of words, some of which English has picked up. One of them – aller, as in 'Comment allez-vous?', which I butcher whenever I visit Paris – is a pretty important one. It's believed to be rooted in the Gaulish *allu or *aliu, 'to go'.

There are other surprising words of Celtic origins:
  • Embassy (Gaulish *ambactos meant a "vassal")
  • Change (both noun and verb are from a Celtic root that gave Latin cambire meaning 'to barter')
  • Truant (originating in the Gaulish for, essentially, a low-class wretch)
  • Possibly gallon (Gaulish for "vessel")
  • Likely mutton ("sheep")
  • Lance
  • Vassal (from an Old Celtic root *wasso- for "young man")
Druidbardand cairn join the list as well, if we want to get all poetic and mystical. From Welsh we might get flannel but definitely the Scrabble-winning cwm; Scottish Gaelic has given us slogan, and Irish everything from shamrock to smithereens.
One major subset would be geographic terms: bogpeat, glen, crag, loch, cumb, and torr all named prominent land features the Anglo-Saxons needed terms forAnd then there's car. Apparently, the Romans borrowed the Gaulish karros as carrus, naming a kind of two-wheeled chariot (a cognate) the Celts used in warfare. This was first documented by Caesar himself, suggesting the Romans didn't just borrow an important word or concept from Celtic peoples, but an important technology as well. Historical linguists root karros in the Proto-Indo-European *kers, 'to run' - think course or current. Cognates include: carry, career, carpenter, cargo, and charge.
By far Celtic's biggest legacy, though, is found in place names. The British Isles, obviously, bear many: KentCumberlandLondonExeterDoverWye, and many other places, often featuring some  of the geographical terms discussed above (e.g., Holcombe includes cumb, and Pendle the pen, or 'top'). There's also DublinYork and Glasgow; the Thames is Celtic in origin, too.
The European continent keeps a Celtic footprint in some of its own place-names, at least in the English form, such as in the SeineParisRhineRhoneDanube and Cognac, the name for BohemiaParis is believed to have taken its name from the Parisii, a Gaulish tribe. Speaking of cognac, we have the whiskey. But let's save this until Lexicolatry gets to the W's, why don't we? And I'll definitely cheers to that - or should I say sláinte?
Selected References: 
Baugh, A. C. & Cable, T. A History of the English Language. 5th ed. Prentice Hall: 2002
Lehman, W. P. Historical Linguistics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1973
The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Ed. by T. McArthur. Oxford University Press: 1992.

A stone slab with spiral art in the Celtic style

Do you speak a Celtic language?

Are there any Celtic languages or influences where you live?

Do please comment in the box below.

John Kelly
The Mashed Radish

Would you like to know more about the Celts, their history and their culture? Click here.


  1. I'm on the road for forgiveness ;)... Iberian Peninsule was so much invaded and then you had all those years of ressentful History teaching "invaded by the Celts..." "...invaded by..." "and by...." and the list seems endless (and then you had to learn all the influences of such invasions in our culture and....) - or so it seems when you're 9 years old - until Romans showed up and "saved" us.
    But learning that our cultural richness comes from all those people gives it a trully spectacular and new vision. History Teachers could (should) learn from you - and Lexicolatry - and save next generations :D.
    Thank you and Sláinte (here in many places - when raising a glass to toast - "Saúde" (health)!

    Yesterday - and thank you for putting the bug on me :curtsey: - I went searching a bit more:
    Don't tell the locals, but the hordes of British holidaymakers who visited Spain this summer were, in fact, returning to their ancestral home.
    Instead, a research team at Oxford University has found the majority of Britons are Celts descended from Spanish tribes who began arriving about 7,000 years ago.
    The reality is that Celts have been resident here for far longer than that - and they originated not in central Europe but among the people who had taken refuge from the last ice age in the Iberian peninsular. As the climate improved, they moved northward up the coast of France and on to Ireland, western England, Wales and eventually Scotland.

    (now I'm just p*** off by having them speak of Spain as if Iberian Peninsule was JUST Spain. It isn't. I'm here... and it's Portugal. Too. In fact, Spanish people don't forgive us for having the best part of the Peninsule but then I hold a bigger grudge and wait until World Cup starts again ;)...

    1. I suppose forgiveness really is the key to happiness Teresa.

      Despite being angered by almost everything, including baby ducks, I think Celtic languages are just lovely. When I hear them, it takes a concerted effort of will and muscle not to melt into a contented puddle of quivering joy.

    2. There's a soft spot in you, C! I knew it...
      I'm so happy that you shared it with me :) :teresatriestoconcealthetearthatrollsdownherchubbyface:
      And you're lucky not living in my Country or you'd be a wreck whenever someone mentioned Braga (Bracara in Celt), Évora (Ebora in Celt), Bragança (Brigância in Celt), River Douro (Durius, from Celt dur, meaning water), River Minho (Migno in Celt) just to mention a few - and important - names in our toponomy, that remained the same since. Oh quivering joy, indeed.

    3. Teresa, you're right: the Iberian peninsula is home to so much more diversity than we acknowledge. Historically, culturally, linguistically, its identities number many more than even just Portugal and Spain. It makes me think, too, of the great diversity we once had here stateside: the many Native American cultures with their many languages and traditions, now lumped tragically into one monolithic culture by many, if remember at all. Widespread, too, not unlike Celtic tribes, and vanished with less of a trace than one would have thought.

      And, Clueless, I often hear people speak of a beauty they hear in Celtic languages. I wonder why this is? I'd guess that it's in part because many of its words end in broad, open vowels (see Évora above, or Douro) and lots of what I will call 'warm' sounds: b's/v's, m's, r's. I'd be interested to see, across cultures, what is considered beautiful, say, speakers of Semitic languages and their perceptions of French.

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