Celtic influences on English: rather limited?

August 17, 2021 by Alison Tunley

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Such are the vagaries of the Twitter algorithm you can never quite be sure what will pop up on your timeline. Sometimes it successfully manages to supply you with content that genuinely piques your interest and so it was that a tweet by the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice Naomi Long appeared in my feed, claiming that the English verb “twig” originates from the Irish “tuigim” meaning “I understand”. This kind of etymological nugget is like catnip for a linguist, although the truth (as so often) turns out to be a little more complex. It is certainly not impossible that this word has Gaelic roots. Stan Carey, who has written about language for Macmillan Dictionary, is one proponent who does not rule it out. The OED, however, is more sceptical and does not even mention Irish, as a possible etymological source for twig, stating instead “origin unascertained”. That is something that questions the origins of English as well as the Celtic influences.

 

Whatever the truth for this lexical item, it got me thinking more broadly about possible Celtic influences on English and made me wonder why I had not come across more examples like this. English of course has its origins in a Germanic language brought to Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, which was subsequently shaped by the Northern Germanic languages spoken by the Scandinavian Vikings. After the Norman conquest, the language was heavily influenced by Anglo-Norman developing into what is now referred to as Middle English. Later still, Early Modern English (familiar to most people from the works of Shakespeare) incorporated lots of loan words from Latin and Ancient Greek as well as borrowings from French, German and Dutch. All these linguistic influences on English syntax and vocabulary are fairly well-known, but throughout this period the Celtic languages continued to be spoken around the island’s fringes and it is perhaps surprising that they have not had a greater impact on their linguistic neighbour.

 

Celtic Cross

Apart from the unsurprising influence of Celtic on geographical place names, there seem to be relatively few lexical borrowings. Wikipedia gives a few each for Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Gaulish, including the splendid corgi from the Welsh for dwarf + dog (cor + ci), and shindig from Scottish Gaelic to skip or jump around (sìnteag). However, given the proximity of these languages to English over an extended period, the lists are remarkably short.

A few grammatical structures potentially have a Celtic influence, including English’s fondness for phrasal verbs, which are semantic units consisting of a verb and a particle, e.g. “drop out”, “fall apart” etc. However, many historical linguists believe these are more likely to be Norse in origin. Another grammatical form sometimes attributed to Celtic is the use of periphrastic “do” in English. This occurs in formulations such as “Did she finish the project on time?” and “He does understand, doesn’t he?” And a further feature that marks English out from its Germanic relatives is the use of the continuous aspect, where a form of the verb be is used with a present participle, e.g. I’m going to school rather than simply I go to school. John McWhorter, writing in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, emphasises just how odd these constructions are and suggests that the most likely explanation for their development is contact with the Celtic languages.

There are two major sticking points for this theory. The first is timing. The continuous tense and periphrastic do first appear in late Middle English and are not widespread until the sixteenth century or later, over a thousand years after English first co-existed in geographical proximity to the Celtic languages. The second flaw in the argument goes back to the lack of lexical borrowings – these are generally more likely than syntactic borrowings. So, why would we see such key grammatical influence with minimal impact on vocabulary? The most likely conclusion seems to be that Celtic influence on English really has been relatively small.

 

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, by McWhorterJohn (2009) Avery Publishing Group

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