Celtic Influence on the English Language

One of my forays into something akin to Celtic Studies was a paper I wrote last spring for my linguistics class. It focused on the possible Celtic language influence on English using a book by John McWhorter as the basis and drawing in other histories of English and reviewers of those histories for a more well-rounded look.

I found the arguments fascinating and thought I should share. The words below are taken from the paper, with some paragraphs removed for the sake of keeping it short(er), although that does affect the flow.

The history of the English language has been generally accepted for decades. However, since the turn of the millennium, there has been a controversial train of thought gaining ground within the field of linguistics. It stems from John McWhorter and his tongue-in-cheek book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, which Fred C. Robinson said is “daringly innovative” (132).

The book discusses introductions to and changes to the English language that have influences besides Anglo-Saxons, Jutes, Normans, or Latin. Instead, it focuses on lesser-known ideas of influences on English. It begins with and focuses the largest percent of its time on the most widely disputed idea: a Celtic influence on the English language. Although there has been scholarship on Celtic influences on English before, McWhorter’s work took the idea to a more general audience.

McWhorter approaches the topic by first laying out his general argument, then going into specifics about the aspects of English that are not seen in other Germanic languages, giving his opinion on some assumptions he finds in other works about the history of English, and finally discussing what is considered evidence when looking at this issue.

His general argument is that Celtic languages, specifically Welsh and Cornish, have had an influence on English. The examples he uses to demonstrate this influence are the use of do in ways that do not appear in other Germanic languages and the phrasing “he is feeling better” instead of “he feels better,” which is used by almost all other Germanic languages.

“Well,” McWhorter says, “Welsh and Cornish, spoken in Britain long before English, and spoken alongside it for more than fifteen hundred years, have both the do and the –ing usages. Most scholars of The History of English insist that this is just a coincidence. I will show that it is not” (xxi-xxii).

The use of do in questions and negation, sometimes called the meaningless do, is shown through examples to mirror the Welsh use of do. In Germanic languages and in most other Indo-European languages, the sentence “she does not talk” would literally translate into English as something like “she not talks” or “she no talk,” which sounds unconventional to the native English speaker.

In addition, the question “does she talk?” would be more akin to “she talk?” or “talk she?” in other Indo-European languages.

However, in Welsh, “did I open?” is “nes I agor?” and “I did not open” is “nes I ddim agor,” in which the Welsh nes means do. In addition, an affirmative usage of the word is used in Welsh—“nes I agor”—that is similar to the affirmative use of the word do that is no longer used in contemporary forms of Standard English.

However, McWhorter says that “our sense that to speak fake ‘Olde English’ means sticking ‘dosts’ and ‘doths’ all over the place corresponds to a Middle English reality, which persists for centuries afterwards” (6).

For McWhorter, the similarities between the use of do in the two languages and the rarity of such usage within the Indo-European languages shows the impact of the Celtic languages on English. In addition, there have been some scholars as early as 1938 making similar/the same argument as McWhorter, such as Walther Preusler, who “was one of the earliest scholars to make explicit claim that periphrastic do in English is due to Celtic influence” (Filpula 57).

The geographical distribution of the origins of these uses of do and –ing is also used as evidence of a possible Celtic influence, since they originated in areas bordering upon the Celtic speaking communities. Markku Filpula quotes a scholar from 1967 stating that “Continuous tenses [progressive form] tend to be used more in bilingual or formerly Celtic-speaking areas than other parts of the country” (61).

Donka Minkova, who reviewed three books on the history of English published in 2006, states that “proponents of a Celtic-contact source of do point out that the earliest instances of affirmative ‘empty’ do are found in thirteenth-century South-Western Middle English and that the current distribution of unstressed affirmative do in declarative sentences is also associated with the South-West of England” (902).

Therefore, it is accepted that the areas in which these linguistic phenomena can first be seen are areas in which there was language contact between Celtic languages and Old English.

McWhorter states that “the scholars working in the traditional vein seem unable to arouse genuine interest in changes in the language that they cannot trace step-by-step in the documents starting as soon as they emerged” (51).

However, “following changes in English starting from when they hit the ground in casual speech is a luxury available only from documents dating from when English was written more or less as it was spoken. Old English was almost never written that way” (52).

Therefore, using documents as the only basis for, or proof for, changes in the English language, at least for before Middle English, is not an entirely accurate way of coming to conclusions. Instead, McWhorter believes language contact should be considered when thinking about changes in the language: “the Celtic impact must be embraced in the frame of mind of, say, a paleontologist who reconstructs the behavior of dinosaurs from fragmentary but indicative clues” (52).

The history of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon people and knowledge about language change during language contact should be considered when looking at the history of the English language.

What do you think of McWhorter’s ideas? Do you think a Celtic language influence on English is possible?

Works Cited

McWhorter, John. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. Penguin Group: New York, 2008. Print.

Minkova, Donka. “Review Article.” Language. 85.4 (2009): 893-907. Print.

Robinson, Fred. C. “Review: The State of Language.” The Sewanee Review. 118.1 (2010): 132-135. Print.


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