I’ve already blogged about Latin words in the English language, but now it’s the turn of the Celtic languages such as Gaulish, Scots Gaelic, Irish and Welsh (but let’s also put in a good word for Cornish).
These have contributed to our language on several occasions, according to that old favourite book of mine, The English Language – Grammar, History, Literature by Professor Meiklejohn, printed in 1905. In his day the spelling was Keltic, but I will use the modern spelling.
Meiklejohn said Celtic words entered the language on three occasions:
1) Direct from the ancient Britons who were found in the British Isles when the Angles and Saxons invaded in the fifth century
2) In Gallic/Gaulish words brought over by the Normans when they invaded in 1066
3) Later additions, many of them from literature such as the works of Sir Walter Scott. I would add to this the many words we take on board these days because of the cosmopolitan nature of society.
A word here about the Celts (probably from the ancient Greek Keltoi and Roman Celtae). The earliest Celtic speakers were the Iron Age people of central Europe, around the Danube and Rhine, established there by the sixth century BC.
They then spread over a wide swathe of Europe by the third century BC. This included France and Britain but left the South of Europe to the Mediterranean “Latin” people and Scandinavia to “Germanic” language speakers.
The Romans expanded their empire into France (Gaul) during Julius Caesar’s Gallic wars (58-51BC). Caesar also tackled Britain gradually from 55 BC, but didn’t get very far, so the Roman occupation only started in earnest from around AD 43.
By around 410 the Romans had gone home again, as they fought to save their heartlands from northern Germanic tribes such as the Goths, Visigoths and Vandals. The Romans never had conquered the Celtic people of Scotland and Ireland, although they had made great inroads in Wales. It also seems the Romans took little from the Celtic languages, although they contributed much to the British speech (modern Welsh has many old Latinisms).
The Celtic peoples were driven further to the northern and western edges of the British Isles by the invading Germanic peoples – Angles, Saxons and Jutes – who started to arrive from the fifth century and established the foundations of the English language.
Some Celtic languages are still spoken today. These long ago split into two different branches: Scots and Irish descend from Goidelic Celtic while Welsh and Cornish (and Breton) descend from Brythonic Celtic. To give just one example, “son of” was/is “maqq/mac” in Goidelic but “map/mab” in Brythonic.
But back to those Celtic contributions to the English language…
1) Direct from the ancient Britons encountered by the Germanic invaders
According to Meiklejohn this contribution includes: bannock, clout, crock, taper, darn, drudge, mug, posset, dun (brown), glen, hassock, knob, mattock, pool…
Many of these are very domestic words: “It may be permitted to conjecture that in many cases the Saxon invader married a British wife, who spoke her own language, taught her children to speak their mother tongue, and whose words took firm root in the kitchen of the new English household.”
The names of most rivers, mountains, lakes and hills are Celtic, for they wouldn’t have been changed by the newcomers. You might say they go with the territory… There are two names for rivers found in various forms all over Great Britain. These are Avon and Ex.
The word Avon means simply water – you can imagine Celts near a river simply calling it water. There are 14 Avons in Britain. Ex also means water and there are maybe more than 20 streams with this name.
It’s the Ex in Exeter and morphs into the Ax in Axminster, the Ox in Oxford and the Ux in Uxbridge. It becomes the Ouse in Yorkshire and the East, while it becomes the Usk in Wales and the Esk in Scotland.
The Celtic word for mountain, Pen (Welsh) and Ben (Scottish) are also widespread.
2) Gallic words brought by the Normans in 1066
“The Normans came from Scandinavia early in the tenth century and wrested the valley of the Seine out of the hands of Charles the Simple, the then king of the French. The language spoken by the people of France was a broken-down form of spoken Latin, but retaining many Gaulish words.”
These are some of the words: bag, bargain, barter, barrel, basin, basket, budget, bonnet, car, caul, garter, ribbon, mutton, gown, mitten, motley, rogue, varlet, vassal, truant.
3) Later additions
According to Meiklejohn these are comparatively few.
From Scots Gaelic we have: clan, claymore (a sword), ptarmigan, brogue (in the sense of a shoe), plaid, pibroch (bagpipe war-music), slogan (a war-cry) and whisky.
And from Irish we have shamrock, gag, log, clog and brogue (in the sense of a mode of speech).
Since Meiklejohn’s day I’m sure we have been continuing to take on these words and I know there is at least one word of Welsh in modern English – corgi, meaning dwarf dog. I suppose this word only became common after the current British Royal Family became interested in the breed.
A more obscure Welsh word in English is cock-a-bondy, a fly used in angling. It is from the Welsh “coch a bon ddu”, meaning red with a black stem.
As you would expect, Wikipedia has a section on words from Celtic, some of the suggestions a bit dubious, but here are a few of their more interesting ones not mentioned above…
Ambassador comes to us via Latin and Old French from the Gaulish word “ambactos”, meaning “servant”, “henchman”, or “one who goes about”. Embassy comes from the same root but by way of Old Provencal, Italian and Middle French.
Galore, as in Whisky Galore, comes from the Scots Gaelic “gu leor”, meaning “enough”, and ceilidh is the Gaelic for an evening of folk song, story and dance.
From Irish we also have shillelagh (a cudgel) and shebeen (an unlicensed drinking house) and those creatures of folklore such as banshee, leprechaun, and the Puck of Shakespeare’s A midsummer Night’s Dream.
The word penguin is possibly from pen gwyn, Welsh for “white head” and originally applied to the great auk. But it may also be derived from Breton, which is closely related…