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.

19 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. 😉


    • 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 Over the years of doing the podcast, I have learned that no English word is obsolete.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.
        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.

        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.


  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.
    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.

    • 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.

  6. I really enjoyed this episode, especially as I’ve been a “fan” of Arthur since about seven or eight. I hadn’t come across the theory about the British king in Gaul you refer to, but that’s fascinating.

    One piece of place-name evidence, even in the south-east, is the number of names with the element wal-, such as Walton which often (though annoyingly not always) means the “ton” of the Welsh.

    I think to say the Anglo-Saxon arrival never happened is going too far, but I suspect it was a lot more complex than traditionally made out, probably consisting of trading links, federati settlements, raiding and some actual invasion, and the subsequent fighting may have been partly a free-for-all between all the various power-groups (Arthur’s described as having to whip the British kings into line, as well as fighting the Saxons). It seems entirely possible, though, that many of the existing population simply adopted Anglo-Saxon language, culture and identity, alligning themselves with where the power was. Perhaps the ones who were killed, displaced or enslaved were the ones who refused to do so.

    • Thanks for the thoughts. The Arthurian legend is a recurring theme in the podcast. As you probably know, Arthur was a regular source of material for Medieval writers and poets. So the development of the legend and its representation in literature is explored throughout the Middle English period of the podcast. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to explore the ultimate origins of the story in this episode.

  7. My personal theory is that when the Vikings and/or the Normans invaded the identity of Briton vs Anglo-Saxon merged against a common invader, Throughout most of England they simply merged into the more powerful and dominant Anglo-Saxon Identity. Cornwall and Cumbria retained the Brythonic language and identity, though Cumbria lost it’s language, Cumbric earlier and has a much less “Celtic” identity than does Cornwall.

    The latest DNA evidence is fascinating. It shows a strong Germanic presence in the East of the country that declines towards the West. The Bulk of British DNA seems to connect to Spain, in particular the Basque Country. This is probably from the Pre-Celtic people who first came to Britain after the Ice age receded.

    • Interesting theory. It does appear that many of the distinctions between Saxons and Celts had eroded by the time of Alfred the Great.

  8. It’s interesting that in Irish English and also West Country English (both influenced by Celtic) people still sometimes use the construction ‘do + verb’ e.g. ‘I’m not so old as you do hear them say’. Or ‘do be + verb’ as in ‘And who is the gentleman does be visiting there’?’ While living in the UK, I often heard the unstressed ‘do’ used these ways by people speaking standard English but perhaps reverting to syntax learned early.
    These particular examples I have taken from an in-depth discussion on Stan Carey’s blog: https://stancarey.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/do-be-doing-bes-habitual-aspect-in-irish-english/
    and for West Country here: http://www.meertens.knaw.nl/books/synmic/pdf/kortmann.pdf

    • Thanks for the comments. (Sorry for the delay in posting your comments. Any post with outside links has to be manually approved which was the reason for the delay.)

  9. Hi kevin Great seris!….My own view on the Anglo Saxon ‘Invasion’ is that the Germanic tribes of the continent, traded using the sea as their conduit. England had resource and became a natural trade route. Over the years Germanic peoples set up temporary/seasonal, then permanent trade camps on the English East coast to trade more effectively.

    Permanent settlements of Germanic tribes, trading with locals, then increased in size untill I think some tribes would literally be split by the Channel waters. When military pressure grew on the continental side of the tribe, it would be an obvious move to join your kinsfolk across the water. The Germanic tribes had been settled a long time, been ‘part of the landscape’ by this time and simply then grew in size as time went on. No need for a sudden mass ‘invasion’, its was an organic process over a great span of time, with the occasional ‘surge’ when circumstances dictated.

  10. I have recently found your podcasts and I am enjoying them immensely. Now we are getting into areas where I have actually read the books you reference, which is great. I read Sykes’ book “Saxons, Vikings, and Celts” awhile ago and more recently read Oppenheimer’s “The Origin of the British”. The most recent one I have read is McWorter’s “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue”, which I really enjoyed and reference a lot. You have helped me understand these readings even better. Also, the Irish and the Scots use the term Ard-Ri for high king, and the lessor kings are Ri (I see it also spelled Ard Righ). My assumption was this term is older than the time frame of this podcast. But then a lot of my reading on the subject of that time period are historical novels. I have a question in regards to the GO grammar discussion. I have noticed that I use the word “have” in a written sentence (as I did right here) rather than saying “I noticed”. Another example – I have processed your request. (This occurs when I write business emails.) Is this more formal or are we dropping words in speech but not writing?

    • Thanks for the comments. With regard to the use of “have,” it was really a grammatical development that developed during the Middle English period. I am not sure that it is disappearing, but it is common to drop it in certain contexts. I am planning a episode about the development of English syntax and verb phrases during the Middle English period. It will probably be somewhere around Episode 120-125.

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