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The Celtic influence on English

Updated: Apr 10

No one would describe English as a Celtic language. The roots are well and truly Germanic , but there has been enough influence from Latin and French over the last thousand years to have transformed it into a linguistic out-lier: a "Romano-Germanic" language. We're on our Jack Jones in this. So what influence, if any, does Welsh have on English? You might be surprised...

March 1st. Happy St David’s Day. This has always been one of my favourite days of the year, partly because over the years I’ve known many good people who bear the name of this saint, not least my own wonderful brother, and I am fortunate to have many Welsh friends, so it’s always been a chance to send greetings, if nothing else. It also feels like spring is well and truly springing on this date.


On this occasion, I’m taking the opportunity to take a linguist’s look at the significance of the date, or rather, of the centuries-old relationship between English and the language of our neighbours over the Severn.


Celtic words in English

Billy Connolly once had a dalliance with philological history, noting that ‘penguin’ is one of only four words in the English language that come from Welsh. What are the others, everyone instantly wondered? His answer:

“Cardiff. City. Nil.”


Like all the best absurdities, there is a whiff of truth to this. There are precious few words that have seeped from Welsh into English, and penguin is indeed one of them. Pen is head and guin means white. If you have spent time in Wales, Cornwall and/or Brittany, you might have been struck by the number of place names that have the common prefix “Pen-“. It means both head and headland, or even hill: Pen-y-fan and Penarth in Wales; Penzance or Pentewan in Cornwall, or Penmarch in Brittany.


Ten points if you can tell me which town on England’s south coast is known as Penn an Bluw in the Cornish language*. Hint: bluw apparently means ‘parish’, but could refer to the colour of the football kit the town’s Premier League team now wears…


At this point I should probably be more specific. For the purposes of this post I am using “Celtic” in a generic sense, meaning Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These three, along with the now defunct Cumbric, are known as the Brittonic group of languages, just one subsection of the larger Celtic branch of the Indo-European language family tree.


If this post were dealing only with the Welsh words that have been absorbed into English, it would be very short:

bard (bardd)

gull (gwylan)

crumpet (crempog)

iron (haearn)

lawn (llan)


That’s about it.


Place names

If you have ever wondered about the commonly occurring elements in Welsh place names, you might have looked up ‘Llan’ and found it to mean ‘church’. This has evolved over the centuries; primarily meaning a grassed enclosure (lawn), the secondary sense is a sacred enclosure or churchyard - hence the present meaning: church.


Speaking of place names, it is notable that there are more Welsh words appearing here than in everyday words. We’ve already mentioned “Pen-“ as a prefix meaning hill, but there are several rivers that have names of a Celtic origin: Avon (river), Derwent (clear water), Tees (warmth, excitement), Trent (strongly flooding), Tyne (river).


Related fact: Most linguists agree that the river Thames was named by a tribe of people who pre-date even the Celts. The Bell-Beaker people (worth a quick internet search if you are not familiar with these ancient ancestors of ours) spoke a language newly-descended from the original common language of most of Europe and the near east: Proto Indo-European. Thames is a derivation of their word for ‘dark’.


There are also several places ending in “-combe”, which means valley, as does the modern-day Welsh word “cwm”. Boscombe, Widdecombe, Ilfracombe and so on.


Celtic influence on English grammar

Given that English has borrowed so few items of vocabulary from our only land neighbours, it is remarkable that the Celtic languages have had such a significant impact on our grammar system. The two most egregious examples are:

· the meaningless ‘do’

· the present continuous tense


Question forming in English

As a native speaker of English, you have probably never considered anything strange about the wording of the question:


Do you speak Italian?

Or:

Did they have a good time?


A problem arises if and when you attempt to translate them word-by-word into French, German, Spanish, whatever. You soon realise that the initial “Do” or “Did” is utterly meaningless and may as well not be there. You have to imagine how the sentence would be formed without this extra “do”, and then you can go word for word: “Speak you Italian?”

Parles-tu italien? (Fr) ¿Hablas italiano? (Esp) Sprichst du Italienish? (Ger)


Forming negatives in English

The same is true for negative phrases:

I don’t speak Italian.

They didn’t have a very nice time, no.


Once more, you quickly come to realise that “don’t / doesn’t / didn’t” etc. have absolutely no meaning in any other language that you are translating your English sentence into.

Except one other…

That’s right, Welsh has this same construction.


The emphatic ‘do’

Incidentally, there is a third way in which an extra Celtic “do” can be added to a sentence, but this time it is not meaningless; it is there to add extra emphasis to the main, meaning-carrying verb:

I did do my homework!

Do have another helping of dessert!




This usage gradually started to creep into English – as influenced by Welsh and Cornish – from the time of Chaucer, writing in the late 1300s, who used this “extra do” form extremely rarely. In the Canterbury Tales it appears once and once only:

“Fader, why do ye wepe?” (Father, why do you weep?)


By the late 16th century, when William Shakespeare was writing, it was firmly established in English:

"Conscience doth make cowards of us all." [Hamlet]

"And oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse."

[King John]


The present continuous

My students must be sick of hearing my most over-used grammar mantra:

“Most foreign languages only have one present tense, whereas English has two: the present simple and the present continuous.”


The following two questions have completely different meanings, wouldn’t you agree?

· What are you doing? (present continuous)

· What do you do? (present simple)


A native speaker would understand that the first question is asking about your actions right now, whereas the latter is probably enquiring about what you do for a living.


Similarly:

· I’m doing the washing up. (present continuous)

· I do the washing up. (present simple)


Again, this is unambiguous: the former sentence is used for what you are in the middle of doing now, but the second one tells of a habitual action.


I always try to spin this as good news: in French and German, you only need to learn one phrase to cover both of these bases. Put simply, there is no present continuous tense. Spanish is a half-way house situation: the present continuous form does exist, but is used much less (and less systematically) than in English.


Once again, it is Welsh that we have to thank for enriching English in this way.



So, the next time that you claim not to know any Welsh at all, be aware that modern English has been heavily impacted by this and related Brittonic languages. It is both impossible and pointless to try to imagine what English would have sounded like without the influence of these and other languages, which in terms of proportion of entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, have had a hugely greater effect. That can be the subject of another blog-post…



* Penn an Bluw is the Cornish for Brighton




Andrew Wenger, with grateful thanks to Nia Jarvis, Welsh expert, for putting me right on a couple of details


Due to issues of both supply and demand, we do not currently offer a course in the Welsh language. Maybe this is a gap that should be filled.

Please use this form to make contact with us to find out about learning this, or any language you desire. We are most readily set up for French, German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese classes, but we can and occasionally do match learners to teachers of less commonly-studied languages. Welsh would be an exciting first...

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