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.


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 Over the years of doing the podcast, I have learned that no English word is obsolete.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


      • The Dun Cow at Salthouse in Norfolk was the first pub I bought a pint at. Was 15. Got drunk.

        Also “dun” survives in the bird name “dunnock” – “-ock” is a diminutive …. so it’s the archetypal birders’ “little brown job”!

  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.

    • I suspect the “duns” in Dundee and Dunworkin might have different origins…

      Unless you were “dark” about your employment

  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.

    • The British and Indigenous Australians…. Although most First Nation Australians were also nearly wiped out by disease, and assimilation policies. Listening to this episode made me realise that not many indigenous words, other than place names and some flora and fauna have made their way into Australian English. And most indigenous language has been lost other than in a places that were only ‘recently’ introduced to English

  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.

    • Hi Paul, I like your theory of organic growth and I am sure there is a lot in it.
      What makes me cautious is the paucity of Celtic place names. Granted there are more in the west but even in places that must have taken the German tribes a good while to plant their axes in like Somerset or Shropshire they are in the minority. Given the population level was reasonably high when the Romans left it might suggest the locals did not hang around too long when Hengist and Chums came calling..

  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.

      • Maybe you covered this off in the later episodes as you forecast – I’ve only just got to episode 30 – but there is a clear difference in meaning between the form of the verb with ‘have/has’ – the present perfect tense – and the simple past tense – the one word form. It isn’t just a personal choice to drop the auxiliary.

        If I say, “A person has come into the house” there is a clear implication that the person is still in the house, whereas “A person came into the house” tells me nothing about their current whereabouts, only that their entry happened at some point in the past. I had to explain this to my non-native-speaker students of English in Italy many years ago and they seemed to find it pretty comprehensible. I would lay good money on both you and Suzanne differentiating between the 2 forms in this way without thinking about it.

        A different but related use of the present perfect occurs when we are talking about repeated actions in the past as in “I have visited Italy several times” with the implication that it is possible I will do so again. If I say, “I visited Italy in the 1980s” there is no necessary relationship to the present (or future). I guess the key is in the tense names – the action in the present perfect is completed (perfected) but has implications or consequences in the present whereas the action in the simple past is simply past.

        Great podcast – thanks. I’m enjoying the blend of history and language.

  11. So I know I’m coming in years late, but I wanted to reconfirm your hypothesis above that almost every supposedly obsolete word seems to survive in some dialect somewhere.

    In this case it is the word “bannock”, which is still in common usage in most of Canada (I also suspect in many regions of the US). The Scots brought the word with them to Eastern Canada, and from there it spread West all the way across the plains and North to the Arctic.

    While you still have Scottish descendants making bannock and calling it such, where it really caught on is among many of the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people of Canada. Bannock became a staple in the diet of some of the indigenous population, partly because it was energy dense and made for hearty trail rations, and later because the ingredients were cheap when many faced undernourishment due to brutal government policies.

    This days bannock is seen more as a treat, “soul food”, often served at parties and other special occasions, especially with big groups of people. You can buy awesome bison burgers on bannock buns at the Calgary Stampede, which is almost a good enough reason to go on its own, in my book. Recipes are readily available online, it’s dead simple to make, so I highly recommend giving it a try. Eat it hot, dip it in jam.

    • Also, as mentioned by folks above, “dun” is common jargon where I’m from (Western Canada) among people dealing with horses (and sometimes other livestock), as an identifier. As in;

      “Which horse did you need shod?”
      “The dun mare”

      But, unlike “bannock”, outside of this specialized context I would not say that the word “dun” is commonly used or even known of here.
      Interestingly enough, like “bannock”, I would guess that “dun” has higher usage among First Nations people than descendants of British immigrants. But that is just a feeling based on personal exposure to the word, nothing more.

      • Dun in English = donn, meaning dark in Irish.
        Example, an droimeann donn (the little brown droimeann cow).
        Blackthorn bush = Draighean donn.

        Dun in English = dún (pronounced dune), meaning a fort on a hill in Irish. Examples, Dundalk, Dungannon, Dundrum, Dungarvan.

    • Thanks for the note. For reasons like this, I no longer say that a particular word has “disappeared” from English. I may suggest that a word had disappeared from ‘standard’ English, but it probably lives on in one or more local dialects.

  12. I’m also from Western Canada and had bannock at school, but I always thought it was a Native word, and not a Celtic one.

    As for “dun”, I’ve only ever heard it in the context of the colour “dun-white”, such as in Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley:

    “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

  13. Of Kevin’s listeners, I must be the only person with a geology background. A rock that consists mostly of the mineral olivine is known as a “dunite.” Although olivine is–not surprisingly–olive green in color when fresh, it is stable at very high temperatures and pressures and thus weathers readily at the Earth’s surface. The weathering rind of these olivine rocks takes on a dull beige color. As an undergrad, one is taught that the name dunite comes from an old British name for dull brown, namely “dun.”
    The field work for my master’s thesis was in east-central Norway and consisted of mapping a 5 x 5 km-square body of dunite. Its origin was in the Earth’s mantle, but it was thrust into the overlying crust during collision of proto-European and the North American tectonic plates in mid-Paleozoic time.
    I’ve always had a soft spot for dunite and chuckled when I first heard Kevin mention that dun was obsolete.

  14. This podcast mentioned that Cornwall may have been called that because the land looks like a horn (cognate with cornu). A podcast or two ago you said that the land of the Angles was called that because the land makes an angle there.

    It would only look like a horn or an angle from a high altitude. From sea level, the land looks like any other piece of shoreline.

    While it’s fairly easy to see land as an angle from sea level, I’m certain there are hundreds of bits of coastline along the English channel that can similarly be called an angle. Using that criteria, practically anybody living along the coast could be called an Angle.

    It’s much harder to know that Cornwall looks like a horn just from sea level observation using only ancient navigational tools. Unless they had amazingly good mapping skills 2,000+ years ago, it would be hard to chart that Cornwall is a large peninsula that widens on the landward end.

    • In the name ‘Cornwall,’ the connection between ‘corn’ and ‘horn’ appears to be universally accepted in all of my sources. However, further research suggests that the name may be derived from the many headlands or small protruding peninsulas that are found along the Cornish coast. Those protruding headlands (and not the region as a whole) may have resembled horns and thus gave rise to the name ‘Cornwall.’

  15. I was thinking about the possibility of grammatical borrowing from Welsh and I have my doubts. For one thing grammatical borrowing would seem to be relatively rare. But I took out a copy of Chaucer and read (insofar as I could) several pages and found no instance of either do support (what at least one linguist I knew called the use of do as a pro-verb) or progressive aspect. Now if these structures hadn’t appeared by Chaucer’s time it seems to me highly unlikely that they were borrowed from Celtic after that time. The period from 1550 to 1600 was a time of enormous change in the English language. See David Lightfoot’s “Principles of Diachronic Syntax” for details. I suspect these changes took place during that era. I used to own the book, but can’t find it to check.

  16. Kevin,

    A most interesting episode. I was interested to note that the words you had as ‘disappearing’ are marked as belonging to northern dialects of English, and were so marked even in Tudor days. Presumably they didn’t come across to the US, though they did make it to Canada. Perhaps the north of England with the longer survival of the British-speaking Kingdom of Strathclyde had more cultural interaction with their language at parity. The northern dialects even maintained shepherd’s counting words consisting of British numbers survived in a mutilated local forms: 1) Yan 2) Tan 3) Tethera 4) Mether 5) Pip – compare with Welsh: 1) un 2 dau (3 tri (4 pedwar (5 pump.

  17. I find the whole mystery of Anglo-Saxon “invasion” and the lack of Celtic influence on what became Old English fascinating. While you presented a logical reason why Vulgar Latin grew to eclipse Frankish German, I still done see how Old English escaped without more Celtic words besides place names. I don’t think it’s anything lacking in this episode, I think it’s something we’ll never fully know.
    Another interesting thing this episode made me think of was the idea of a bloodless Anglo-Saxon invasion. In the episode of Secrets of the Dead called King Arthur’s Lost Kingdom they state that the archaeological evidence shows few if any skeletons with battle wounds in the early Anglo-Saxon period. While I don’t think there was an invasion, with a massive population replacement or genocide, there must have been many battles as the Anglo-Saxons expanded their influence and kingdoms.

  18. I was wondering if there were any sources specific to this episode? In the resources link, I didnt see any specific Celtic ones, but I would love to delve further into this.

    • Hi Rebeckah. As always, I used lots on different sources for this episode, but a few of the primary resources for the information on the Celts were the following books:

      ‘The Anglo-Saxon Age, c.400-1042’ by D.J.V. Fisher;
      ‘King Arthur: The Man and the Legend Revealed,’ by Mike Ashley; and
      ‘The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650,’ by John Morris.

      I think Mike Ashley’s book is really interesting and provides a good historical overview of the period.

  19. Fascinating episode, as always. However, I do have my doubts about the idea of grammatical borrowings in English from Celtic. It just seems a bit unlikely for me that a language would affect another language’s basic grammar without leaving much of an impact on its vocabulary. It just feels like vocabulary should be much more prone to change and more susceptible to outside influence than grammar, and I believe that is reflected by most historical examples of linguistic contact. Also, there are only so many ways that a language can express the continuous aspect, so the fact that English and Celtic languages happen to be similar in this specific regard could easily be coincidental – I imagine it’s not too hard to find such similarities between any two randomly selected languages of the world.

  20. I have been listening regularly and enjoying the series while noticing the odd issue particularly in the vexatious area of English grammar (what’s a mood? What’s a tense? Which is the conditional? Depends on what language you’re referencing.)
    Since I’m only up to Episode 30, the topics below may have already been addressed after later episodes, but in case they weren’t, here are a couple of observations:
    The capital of Scotland is Edinburgh, but in Gaelic is Dun Eideann. Apparently a dun was a hillfort and the name derives from what is called the Celtic Common Britonnic language. The Dun was dropped and replaced by an Old English word burh that also means a fort. This spelling probably also accounts for the difference in pronunciation between Scots (burrah) and North Americans (burg), but that’s a whole other topic!
    The Dun, while also a colour, has quite another meaning. It survives in the name Dunedin (New Zealand) which was originally New Edinburgh. There is a myriad of place names in Great Britain that include dun, din, or den, not to mention the original Latin syllable in classical place names like Lugdunum (Lyon) that suggest that this word was also Indo-European in origin.
    Secondly, you cite from McWorter’s book the use of the verb ‘to be’ in a tense I would call the “present progressive”. I would add that the construction is seen in most tenses in the English language. “What were you doing?” may be called the imperfect (a past tense). The song “She’ll be coming round the mountain” illustrates the future, but it can be used in any tense including this one: “I have been doing this for years,” that raises the interesting paradox of combining the (present) perfect (tense of completion) with an auxiliary that implies progressive action (incompletion). None of which seems to change the point that McWorter was making.

  21. Hi Kevin,
    I discovered this wonderful podcast not long ago, so I’m only up to Episode 30 so far. Your podcast is an excellent blend of history and language that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
    The Old English “Brock” (to use its current spelling) has not disappeared from English, certainly not in Great Britain, where it’s a sort of nickname for a badger.
    Keep up the great work!

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