jump to navigation

Badgers, Pigs and Asses: Celtic in English May 10, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

While I was on the ass, going to feed my dun hog, carrying only a matlock and some bannock, I saw a brock coming down from the tor that’s shaped like a bin’. It is not exactly poetry. But this sentence might stand as a memory aid for students of English. The interest lies not in the meaning of the sentence, contrived as it is. But rather in the strange collection of words that go to make it up: ass, dun (black or dark), hog, matlock (an agricultural tool), bannock (pictured: bread in Scotland and parts of Northern England), brock (badger in several English dialects), tor (a hill) and bin. These eight words have one simple thing in common. Not one is English in origin. Instead, all were borrowed into the language from the British Celts about fifteen hundred years ago and they tell us a good deal about a difficult period of British history.

Before squeezing what information we can from these Celtic relics, it is important to remember what Britain was like when ass, dun and their companions entered the English language. In about the year 400 AD, most of Britain was inhabited by the British Celts, a people whose descendants include the Cornish and Welsh, and who spoke a language (or languages) that we can call ‘British Celtic’. However, very shortly after 400 AD a massive invasion took place and several different Germanic peoples attacked the island and settled most of it. Over a matter of generations these different Germanic tribes grew together and became the English, or the Anglo-Saxons as the early English are sometimes called. Their language was Old English and sometime, early on in the history of this language, the English borrowed the eight British-Celtic words listed above. Several documents record the English invasions of the early fifth century. But almost no texts record its aftermath. We know that the English conquered most of Britain because of the end result, England. But we have few clues about what the conquest was like or what happened to the original inhabitants, the British Celts.

This is where the language archaeologists come in: their task to find out anything they can about this period of history known, because of its obscurity, as the Dark Ages. First they trawl the language, both modern English, dialects, and what records we have from earlier history and create a list: the eight words that appear in the first paragraph – a handful of other words have also been suggested, but these are more controversial. With this list to hand they then set about making deductions, some tedious, some probably wrong, but others of crucial importance for understanding early Celtic history.

A key point that arises from their studies is that the English adopted words from the British Celts that are concerned largely with the countryside and with rural life. This is surprising because we usually borrow from other languages what we do not have in our own. For example, Amerindian words that have entered English tend to be ones that describe things that early pioneers had never seen – tepee, moccasin, pocosin… But this kind of explanation does not work in the case of Britain, for the Germanic invaders that arrived there were themselves from rural backgrounds and had grown up in landscapes not unlike those found in the island. The one obvious explanation is that the British Celts who lived with the English in the early years of the conquest had a strictly servile role. And their new masters adopted only those words from British Celtic that were absolutely necessary for communication with the enslaved native population: ‘Get an ass!’ ‘Kill the hogs!’ ‘Go to the flour bin!’… Much as many ranch owners in the southern United States have a limited but effective Spanish vocabulary.

A second key point depends on the words that were not borrowed. The British Celts were an advanced people with a high standard of life and had many things that the English, coming from one of the most barbaric parts of ancient Europe, would never have seen before: cities, books, churches, theatres, factories, bureaucracy… But the early English were not interested in learning these words. They seemed to have felt no admiration for a civilisation that was more sophisticated than their own. Indeed, they (on the basis of later sources) actively despised the British Celts. Certainly you would be hard pressed to find another example from European history were an invading culture took a measly eight words from a people that it displaced. Irish and Japanese have contributed far more to English.

The work of language archaeologists is obviously not precise. They are forced to talk in generalities not specifics. But in the case of the English invasions several other disciplines back their findings up. Archaeology points to the disappearance of British-Celtic culture in what is today England in the early fifth century. The study of place-names show that remarkably few British-Celtic place-names survived the English invasions – it is difficult to find another European example where the turn over of names was so quick and thorough.  Admittedly, in the last generation several linguists (the always provoking and entertaining Andrew Breeze chief among them) have tried to turn this around and to show that there is a greater survival of British Celtic words than we have previously understood. There have even been attempts to show that British Celtic influenced Anglo-Saxon cases, Anglo-Saxon word order, Anglo-Saxon tenses, and the Anglo-Saxon use of the auxillary ‘do’. Personally, Beach finds these arguments either unconvincing or too slight to alter the bleak landscape painted by dun and its seven brothers. Contrary opinions welcomed! Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Then there is history. Few documents survive. But those that do suggest that the invasions were not a gentlemanly affair. Two examples are worth quoting here. One is a short poem that was written by a British Celt at the height of the wars for Britain:

‘The barbarians [the English and other enemies] push us back to the sea,

the sea pushes us back to the barbarians,

Between these two deaths we are either drowned or slaughtered’.

The second is from a British-Celtic writer of the sixth century Gildas who describes the coming of the English. ‘All the major towns were laid low…; cut down the inhabitants… as the swords glittered all around and the flames crackled. …There was no burial to be had except in the ruins of houses or the bellies of beasts and birds… A number of the wretched survivors were caught in the mountains and butchered wholesale. Others, their spirit broken by hunger went to surrender to the enemy. They were destined to be slaves forever, if, indeed, they were not killed straight away, the highest boon.’

So next time you drop something in the bin, call someone a silly ass, or put the potato peelings together to feed the hogs spare a thought for those poor British Celts who once lived in what is today England.


14 May 2012: Tony writes: ‘I think you probably meant ” mattock ” rather than ” Matlock “… perhaps you were thinking of Derbyshire, or even ( yum yum ) subconciously imagining Bakewell tarts…..something I do all the time. The replacement of Celtic language by Anglo-Saxon is a great mystery , especially in the light of the most modern thinking about the whole A/S invasion. Might I recommend Oppenheimer’s  ” The Origins of the British ” , which explains that genetically , the A/S left a very small trace indeed , suggesting a very small invasion ; and Francis Pryor’s ” Britain AD ” , which concurs that archaeologically the “invasion ” is almost undetectable. They also both incline to the idea that there was already a Germanic element settled in SE England well before the Romans leave. They both conclude that Gildas , on whom the whole A/S Fire and Slaughter invasion hypothesis is based , is unreliable as history , and far too much has been made of his remarks, if only because they are the only remarks we have. But that makes the almost total evaporation of the British language even more startling….’ Then Stephen D: ‘The first, at least, does rather alter your landsacpe. Welsh tad, father: English dad. Pwsig, a cat: puss Neither of these are Germanic at all Also: Cors, a marsh: causeway, Trwll, a spinningwheel: trolling, spinning for fish Corwgl: coracle Craig: crag Gwylan: gull Cwm: coombe Glyder: clitter, tumbled rocks Pen gwyn, white head: penguin (possibly at first a name for the great auk) Scadan, a herring: shad (a sort of herring that spawns in fresh water) There may be others: I have my doubts about punt (the boat) and quagmire.’ [Beach replies] Dad seems to appear at the end of the Middle Ages in English and others here would appear to be late borrowings too. At that point their appearance in English is a little like the appearance of, say, Irish words. Others are more difficult to dismiss though in this way. Thanks! Stephen and Tony!