The English Language and The Celtic Question

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According to most linguistic / historical sources, the English language as we know it today is a West Germanic language (the other two languages in this family being German and Dutch). Modern English is the descendant of Old English, and Old English was essentially born when the Anglo-Saxons migrated to the isle of Great Britain in the 5th c. C.E., from their traditional homeland in the north-west of modern Germany. Prior to this time, it's believed that the inhabitants of all parts of the British Isles were predominantly Celtic speakers, with a small Latin influence resulting from the Roman occupation of Britain.

Of the languages that have influenced the development of English over the years, there are three whose effect can be overwhelmingly observed in modern English: French ("Old Norman"), Latin, and Germanic (i.e. "Old English"). But what about Celtic? It's believed that the majority of England's pre-Anglo-Saxon population spoke Brythonic (i.e. British Celtic). It's also been recently asserted that the majority of England's population today is genetically pre-Anglo-Saxon Briton stock. How, then — if those statements are both true — how can it be that the Celtic languages have left next to no legacy on modern English?

The Celtic Question — or "Celtic Puzzle", as some have called it — is one that has spurred heated debate and controversy amongst historians for many years. The traditional explanation of the puzzle, is the account of the Germanic migration to Britain, as given in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As legend has it, in the year 449 C.E., two Germanic brothers called Hengest and Horsa were invited to Britain by Vortigern (King of the Britons) as mercenaries. However, after helping the Britons in battle, the two brothers murdered Vortigern, betrayed the Britons, and paved the way for an invasion of the land by the Germanic tribes the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes.

Over the subsequent centuries, the Britons were either massacred, driven into exile, or subdued / enslaved. Such was the totality of the invasion, that aside from geographical place-names, virtually no traces of the old Brythonic language survived. The invaded land came to be known as "England", deriving from "Angle-land", in honour of the Angles who were one of the chief tribes responsible for its inception.

Various historians over the years have suggested that the Anglo-Saxons committed genocide on the indigenous Britons that failed to flee England (those that did flee went to Wales, Cornwall, Cumbria and Brittany). This has always been a contentious theory, mainly because there is no historical evidence to support any killings on a scale necessary to constitute "genocide" in England at this time.

More recently, the geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer has claimed that the majority of English people today are the descendants of indigenous Britons. Oppenheimer's work, although being far from authoritative at this time (many have criticised its credibility), is nevertheless an important addition to the weight of the argument that a large-scale massacre of the Celtic British people did not occur.

(Unfortunately, Oppenheimer has gone beyond his field of expertise,which is genetics, and has drawn conclusions on the linguistic history of Britain — namely, he argues that the pre-Roman inhabitants of England were not Celtic speakers, but that they were instead Germanic speakers. This argument is completely flawed from an academic linguistic perspective; and sadly, as a consequence, Oppenheimer's credibility in general has come to be questioned.)

Explanations to the riddle

Although the Celtic Question may seem like a conundrum, various people have come up with logical, reasonable explanations for it. One such person is Geoffrey Sampson, who has written a thorough essay about the birth of the English language. Sampson gives several sound reasons why Celtic failed to significantly influence the Anglo-Saxon language at the time of the 5th century invasions. His first reason is that Celtic and Germanic are two such different language groups, that they were too incompatible to easily mix and merge:

The Celtic languages… are very different indeed from English. They are at least as "alien" as Russian, or Greek, say.

His second reason is that, while many Britons surely did remain in the conquered areas of England, a large number must have also "run to the hills":

But when we add the lack of Celtic influence on the language, perhaps the most plausible explanation is an orderly retreat by the ancient Britons, men women and children together, before invaders that they weren't able to resist. Possibly they hoped to regroup in the West and win back the lands they had left, but it just never happened.

I also feel compelled to note that while Sampson is a professor and his essay seems reasonably well-informed, I found a rather big blotch to his name. He was accused of expressing racism, after publishing another essay on his web site entitled "There's Nothing Wrong with Racism". This incident seems to have cut short the aspirations that he had of pursuing a career in politics. Also, even before doing the background research and unearthing that incident, I felt suspicion stirring within me when I read this line, further down in his essay on the English language, regarding the Battle of Hastings:

The battle today is against a newer brand of Continental domination.

That sounds to me like the remark of an unashamed typical old-skool English xenophobiac. Certainly, anyone who makes remarks like that, is someone I'd advise listening to with a liberal grain of salt.

Another voice on this topic is Claire Lovis, who has written a great balanced piece regarding the Celtic influence on the English language. Lovis makes an important point when she remarks on the stigmatisation of Celtic language and culture by the Anglo-Saxons:

The social stigma attached to the worth of Celtic languages in British society throughout the last thousand years seems responsible for the dearth of Celtic loan words in the English language… Celtic languages were viewed as inferior, and words that have survived are usually words with geographical significance, and place names.

Lovis re-iterates, at the end of her essay, the argument that the failure of the Celtic language to influence English was largely the result of its being looked down upon by the ruling invaders:

The lack of apparent word sharing is indicative of how effective a social and political tool language can be by creating a class system through language usage… the very social stigma that suppressed the use of Celtic language is the same stigma that prevents us learning the full extent of the influence those languages have had on English.

The perception of Celtic language and culture as "inferior" can, of course, be seen in the entire 1,000-year history of England's attitudes and treatment towards her Celtic neighbours, particularly in Scotland and Ireland. The Ango-Saxon medieval (and even modern) England consistently displayed contempt and intolerance towards those with a Celtic heritage, and this continues — at least to some extent — even to the present day.

My take on the question

I agree with the explanations given by Sampson and Lovis, namely that:

The strongest parallel that I can think of for this "Celtic death" in England, is the Spanish conquest of the Americas. In my opinion, the imposition of Spanish language and culture upon the various indigenous peoples of the New World in the 16th century — in particular, upon the Aztecs and the Mayans in Mexico — seems very similar to the situation with the Germanics and the Celtics in the 5thcentury:

In Mexico today, the overwhelming majority of the population is classified as being ethnically "mestizo" (meaning "mixture"), with the genetics of the mestizos tending generally towards the indigenous side. That is, the majority of Mexicans today are of indigenous stock. And yet, the language and culture of modern Mexico are almost entirely Spanish, with indigenous languages all but obliterated, and with indigenous cultural and religious rites severely eroded (in the colonial heartland, that is — in the jungle areas, in particular the Mayan heartland of the south-east, indigenous language and culture remains relatively strong to the present day).

Mexico is a comparatively modern and well-documented example of an invasion, where the aftermath is the continuation of an indigenous genetic majority, coupled with the near-total eradication of indigenous language. By looking at this example, it isn't hard to imagine how a comparable scenario could have unfolded (and most probably did unfold) 1,100 years earlier in Britain.

There doesn't appear to be any parallel in terms of religious stigmatisation — certainly nothing like the Spanish Inquisition occurred during the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, and to suggest as much would be ludicrous — and all of Britain was swept by a wave of Christianity just a few centuries after, anyway (and no doubt the Anglo-Saxon migrations were still occurring while Britain was being converted en masse away from both Celtic and Germanic paganism). There's also no way to know whether the Britons were forcibly indoctrinated with the Anglo-Saxon language and culture — by way of breaking up families, stealing children, imposing changes on pain of death, and so on — or whether they embraced the Anglo-Saxon language and culture of their own volition, under the sheer pressure of stigmatisation and the removal of economic / social opportunity for those who resisted change. Most likely, it was a combination of both methods, varying between places and across time periods.

The Brythonic language is now long since extinct, and the fact is that we'll never really know how it was that English came to wholly displace it, without being influenced by it to any real extent other than the preservation of a few geographical place names (and without the British people themselves disappearing genetically). The Celtic question will likely remain unsolved, possibly forever. But considering that modern English is the world's first de facto global lingua franca (not to mention the native language of hundreds of millions of people, myself included), it seems only right that we should explore as much as we can into this particularly dark aspect of our language's origins.

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Hey guy this is a great article! I came here before visiting Drupal site and your job is amazing! Congratulations for all!

Now I comment about the article: It's great! I feel a little interested about the title so i decide to read it at all. The "mestizo" part is really interesting it also happen in all Latin America.

Sorry if I have mistakes. My English isn't perfect.

Good luck and un abrazo fuerte! (XOXOXO)

Mauro S, Desarrollador PHP. Buenos Aires, Argentina.


Next time you say dad or mum (father and mother are of Germanic origin) just note that you are speaking British (Welsh) and there are more than a few other examples. There is also a good case to say that the peculiarly ungermanic nature of the grammar of "English" is because it is the old British language, of which Welsh is a surviving dialect, relexicalised with words of other origins and grammatically evolved over time.

What Oppenheimer's research suggests is that the Germanic settlers were relatively few in number, but large in political influence. The archeological evidence suggests that continental germanic incursions began with peaceful trading followed by conquest after considerable cultural alignment had already taken place in the South.

It's no surprise that we British, particularly the ones who live in the subjugated area called England, have been conned into thinking that we are Germans. How many German dynasties have we been ruled by, right up to the present day?

Of course the ruling germanic monarchs have wanted us to see ourselves as germanic, and their propagandists have done a damn good job of picking up where Bede left off in convincing us that we are a bunch of germanic expats.

Your article shows just how good a job has been done; but to your credit, considering the lack of linguistic knowledge that you possess, you have achieved some balance within the limits of your knowledge.