Episode 30: The Celtic Legacy

We explore the linguistic legacy of the native Celtic Britons on Modern English. The historical legacy of the legendary Celtic king named Arthur is also examined.

10 thoughts on “Episode 30: The Celtic Legacy

  1. Hi,

    The word “dun” is not obsolete – you just need to hang around a few more ‘horsey’ people. It’s still used as a horse colour term, even if it’s not in common use in daily parlance among the rest of society…although, even my husband, who is less ‘horsey’ than I am, knew what it was.

    We’re enjoying the podcasts and, while we’re relatively late to the party, that just gives us more episodes to look forward to. 😉

    Cheers,
    Laetitia

    • Thanks for the note. Over the years of doing the podcast, I have learned that no English word is obsolete. It seems that just about every old word lingers on in certain contexts or certain dialects.

      • Hello,

        “Dun Cow” is the name of some pubs.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dun_Cow
        Wikipedia says: Book of the Dun Cow (MS 23 E 25) is an Irish vellum manuscript dating to the 12th century. It is the oldest extant manuscript in Irish. Celtic connection there.

        “Brock the badger” is fairly popular in some (older) English children’s literature.
        e.g. SIX TALES OF BROCK THE BADGER by Alison Uttley (Author) (1941)
        A bit of etymology for “badger” and “brock” in this BBC Article.
        http://www.bbc.co.uk/gloucestershire/content/articles/2006/03/20/brock_feature.shtml

        In the bilingual place names in Wales all (most?) river names start “Afon” (river in English). For example, Afon Teifi, Afon Clywedog etc. So, somewhat amusingly, the famous “River Avon”, on which Shakespeare’s Stratford developed, translates to “River River” in English.

        Fascinating series.

        Clive

  2. I came her to say what Laetitia already said; though I wouldn’t limit its use to horses. Also wanted to say that I don’t recall “tor” being used anywhere other than place names. I was expecting to hear the word “dune” mentioned; it’s often cited as an example of Celtic in English. But now that I look into it, it may have come into Germanic before the period discussed in the podcast. It is cognate to English town and survives in many place names, e.g. London, Dundee, and the retirement village Dunworkin.

  3. Oops I jumped in too early there, of course the word “dune” is covered in great detail later on. I think I confused episodes 29 and 30. That’s what happens with binge listening!

  4. Fascinating stuff. Clearly given the lack of contemporary sources we will never know what exactly went on in those ‘lost years’.

    But there is a real enigma here, especially if we accept the currently popular idea that the population remained largely intact and a small group of Germanic invaders just plonked themselves on top of the social structure. In pretty short order it seems the language and culture of that tiny elite — and an illiterate elite at that — had almost completely supplanted that of the natives, despite a vast numerical inferiority.

    This was a feat neither the Romans nor the Normans managed, in spite of the might and organisational genius of both of those cultures.

    I can’t think of another example in history where such a thing has occurred.

    I’m afraid I remain highly sceptical of this scenario.

  5. Hi Kevin,
    Let me first say that I have been enjoying this podcast immensely. It’s very well done, and I appreciate the effort you put into it.

    I wanted to ask you if you had seen this documentary by Dr. Francis Pryor, and the BBC.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0-N05K_MKY
    The Anglo-Saxon Invasion, the History of Britain.
    Its premise is similar to the ideas you touch on in this particular episode. It goes to the far end of the spectrum, however.
    A quick synopsis of its most salient points-at least the ones I took away-are:
    There was no real invasion of the island by Anglo Saxon tribes.

    Germanic admixtures that show up in genetic analysis could very well be from the Scandinavian invasions centuries later.

    Archaeological evidence shows no real evidence of any invasion-the typical types of deposits from the wholesale destruction of settlements.

    They contend that there was a mass migration during the time frame in the podcast-one from the west of the island to the east.

    That Bede made up the Anglo-Saxons to establish an origin myth for the current cultural make up of the island in his day.

    The Romano Celtic population decided to “re-brand” themselves culturally and linguistically to keep current with trends and cultural shifts occurring on the mainland.

    And perhaps most germane to this podcast, they posit that they reason English lost most of its verb inflexions was due to the influence that Celtic syntax and language had on English. In other words, and to paraphrase, the linguist in the documentary states that the interface between most of the Romano Celtic population learning a new language, assimilating it, and also making errors in assimilating English, is the reason for English losing inflexions.

    When I was going through my undergrad in Anthropology, and learning the scientific method, we were taught that we have to be open to new paradigms and theories, if the evidence seems credible. But I felt that this current theory proposed by Pryor leaves a lot of questions as to why the population would go through this process so thoroughly, especially linguistically (the dearth of Celtic words in English that you discuss is particularly salient in my mind), without some sort of drastic pressure acting on it. Not to say that it’s impossible. I would need more before I accept it, though. I also feel like he, perhaps intentionally, doesn’t mention anecdotal evidence from Sidonius Apollinaris and Gildas.
    Anyway, I was wondering what your thoughts on it were. I know that this comment is similar in Geoff’s, so forgive me if you’ve already touched upon it.
    Thanks!

    • Hi David. I think another listener forwarded the same link to me at some point a few months back. I watched most of it, but I don’t recall all of the specific details. In preparing the podcast material, I use the generally accepted historical view of events. In the case of highly disputed subject matter, I try to note that there are competing views. Frankly, I don’t really think there is that much dispute about an Anglo-Saxon invasion (or mass migration) to Britain around the 5th and 6th centuries. To suggest otherwise is to ignore a great deal of contemporary evidence from that time period and the period immediately thereafter. For example, Gildas wrote about the Anglo-Saxon invasions and the consequences during the time in which those events occurred. It is difficult to believe that he was just making it all up. There was also a significant migration of Celtic-speaking Britons to Brittany during this period. They were obviously leaving for a reason. Also, the legend of Arthur throughout the Celtic world was tied to the consequences flowing from the loss of much of Britain to the Anglo-Saxons.

      I am open to contrary theories – even radically different theories. But I also follow the words of Carl Sagan – “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I am not sure that “extraordinary evidence” has been provided to support some of these theories.

      • Hi Kevin,
        Thank you so much for taking the time to reply!
        I agree that Pryor’s proposal leaves a lot of important questions unsatisfied.
        I did find the comments on linguistics compelling. I wonder if a process has played out this way across Europe for thousands of years- as indigenous populations started speaking the new “prestige” indo-european languages.
        Do you think the interface between speakers of old European neolithic languages learning the new languages could be responsible for the many of the sound shifts that have happened?
        I find myself wondering if the spread of the Kurgan culture was one mostly of prestige, rather than warfare, and if many of the original populations simply took on the new cultural mantles that were spreading, rather than distinct populations moving from region to region.

        • I don’t think the specific dynamics that caused the various sound shifts are known for certain, but it seems plausible that the interaction between different language groups would have contributed to phonological changes. I also agree that linguistic prestige contributed heavily to the expansion of Indo-European languages.

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