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Pre-Celtic and Celtic languages

Celtic influence on English

Pre-Celtic Britain is difficult to recognize as the Romans in their four centuries of rule obliterated any remains of former peoples. For Ireland, however, the picture is somewhat better as this island was not Romanised and so the historical tradition is less broken. Thus one knows that there were four invasions of Ireland, associated with the following peoples: 1) the Cruthin, 2) the Érainn (known also as the Fir Bolg, maybe identical with the Belgae in Britain), 3) a group of tribes among which are the Lagin and 4) finally the Goidels, whose name eventually gives us the term Gael both for Celtic inhabitants and the variety of their language spoken in Ireland and Scotland (Goidelic, later termed Gaelic). The term Cruithin is probably a Gaelic form of Priteni, i.e. Britons found in Ptolemy’s geography, the material for which can be dated to roughly the first century A.D. The term Goidel appears to be a borrowing from Welsh Gwyddel the modern term for ‘Irishman’, known from the seventh century.

Language remains

In Britain the Celtic (pronounce: /keltɪk/, not /seltɪk/) influence is only felt indirectly. There are very few Celtic loan words in Old English; the word dry [dry:] ‘magician’ (cf. druid) is one of them. The largest body of evidence for Celtic culture is onomastic, for instance the names of Kent and London are probably Celtic. Parts of word names may also stem from this source, e.g Avon ‘river’ or Bray ‘hill’.


From the North and North-West of Britain comes the soundest evidence for the survival of a non-Celtic and probably non-Indo European language. This is Pictish, the language of the people known as the Picts. The first reference to them is made in 297 AD together with the Hiberni, both mentioned as enemies of the Britanni, the Celts of southern Britain. The term Scoti is later used for Hiberni, this giving us modern Scotland, Scottish, etc. The term is problematic as it means ‘painted’ or ‘tattooed’ in Latin and may be a corruption of the original name of the people for themselves. If the term is taken to denote all the people north of the Clyde and Forth then the Picti refer to two distinct groupings, one Celtic and the other non-Celtic. In the sixth century, Christianity was introduced from the West of Scotland, probably via Ireland into this part of the country and the Picts were Gaelicised in the process. Their language would appear to have survived unimpaired. But in the ninth century with the arrival of the first Scandinavians the Pictish empire was practically destroyed and the people, driven out of the area, killed or assimilated by later Scandinavians.

Language remains

The only surviving pieces of Pictish are a few inscriptions. From these it is clear that the language is non-Indo-European and thus like Basque it is to be seen as a language isolate which was left over after the spread of Indo-European peoples into almost all parts of Europe.

Celtic influence on English

In recent years much research has been done on the possible influence of British Celtic on early forms of English. The influence was a low-level one, not in the area of vocabulary, but of phonology and syntax with the transfer forms appearing only towards the end of the Old English period and the beginning of the Middle English period.

Ball, Martin J. and James Fife (ed.) 1993. The Celtic languages. London: Routledge.

Jackson, Kenneth 1953. Language and history in early Britain. Edinburgh: University Press. See Gillies.

In general the demise of inflections is linked to the phonetic reduction of unstressed syllables in Old English. This tendency to reduce such syllables may go back to contact with British Celtic which also showed the same feature. Some grammatical features of later English are shared with Celtic, but not with other Germanic languages, e.g. the widespread use of continuous tenses, e.g. I am thinking about linguistics, compare German Ich denke über Linguistik nach, lit. ‘I think over linguistics after’. Another feature is the compulsory use of personal pronouns with items of so-called ‘inalienable possession’, e.g. My tooth is sore, again compare German Mir tut der Zahn weh, lit. ‘To-me does the tooth soreness’. This is also true of general expressions of relevance in English, e.g. All his money was stolen, compare German Ihm wurde das ganze Geld gestohlen, lit. ‘To-him was the whole money stolen’.

A good overview on this topic is the following, along with another book (currently in press with Routledge) by the same authors.

Filppula, Markku, Juhani Klemola and Heli Pitkänen (eds) 2002. The Celtic roots of English. Studies in Languages 37. Joensuu: University Press.

In addition one should mention the many articles by Theo Vennemann who has researched these issues intensively. A good introduction into the type of argumentation used here is the following article.

“On the rise of ‘Celtic’ syntax in Middle English”, in: Peter J. Lucas und Angela M. Lucas (eds), Middle English from tongue to text: Selected papers from the Third International Conference on Middle English: Language and Text, held at Dublin, Ireland, 1-4 July 1999 (Studies in English Medieval Language and Literature, 4), Bern: Peter Lang, 2002, pp. 203-34.