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Review of  English and Celtic in Contact

Reviewer: David Stifter
Book Title: English and Celtic in Contact
Book Author: Markku Filppula Juhani Klemola Heli Paulasto
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 20.2180

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AUTHOR: Filppula, Markku; Klemola, Juhani; Paulasto, Heli
TITLE: English and Celtic in Contact
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2008

David Stifter, Institut für Sprachwissenschaft, Universität Wien

This book contains the results of two projects undertaken by the authors, three
scholars of English, between the years 2000–2002 and 2005–2008 about ''English
and Celtic in Contact'' and ''Vernacular Universals vs. Contact-Induced Language
Change''. For a long time, questions of language contact tended to revolve around
identifiable layers of loanwords. The very rare loanwords from early medieval
Celtic languages in Standard English (StE) could thus be taken as indicating a
very small amount of interaction with the native inhabitants of Britain during
the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the island. More recent theories about language
contact, however, especially those of Thomason & Kaufman 1988, have demonstrated
that different types of language contact have different outcomes, leaving traces
in quite diverse areas of grammar. Borrowing of words is only one of those
traces. Based on these new theories, as well as on new findings in British
archaeology, the authors set out to assess anew the relationship between English
and its Celtic precursor and neighbor languages. The authors' basic tenets are
that ''First, the demographic and sociohistoric circumstances surrounding the
adventus Saxonum in the early mediaeval period were such that linguistic contact
influences were not just possible but inevitable. The principal source of the
Celtic substratal influences were the Britons who, after a period of extensive
bilingualism, shifted to English and were gradually assimilated to the
Anglo-Saxon population in the course of the first two or three centuries
following the adventus. Secondly, the same type of language shift process, with
largely similar outcomes, has taken place in the modern period in those areas of
the British Isles and Ireland where English has gradually replaced the
indigenous Celtic language as the dominant language'' (p. 245).

The book is divided into two chronological parts. The first part discusses the
''Early Celtic Influences in English'' (7–132), from the beginning of contact
until the late middle ages. The 'earliest contacts', primarily those with
British Celtic languages, cover a period of almost a thousand years, that is, a
period twice as long as that of the 'modern contacts'. After a concise survey of
''The Historical Background to the Early Contacts'' (7–23), in which the
conflicting interpretations by 'Anglo-Saxonists' and 'Celtomaniacs' regarding
the fate of the native population in the face of the Anglo-Saxon advancement are
presented, the focus turns to ''The Linguistic Outcomes of the Early Contacts''
(24–132). This features selected items from the domains of syntax, phonology and
lexis. The presentation follows the basic order 1. the problem, 2. possible
explanations (with and without Celtic substratum) proposed in earlier
scholarship, 3. conclusion with the solution that has the greatest probability
in the eyes of the authors. The following presumably contact-induced features
are discussed in the section on ''Grammar'' (24–118):

1. ''The Internal vs. External Possessor Constructions'' (see below)
2. ''The Old English Distinction between the *es- and *bheu-forms of the Verb
'be''': Old English is unique among the attested Germanic languages, but similar
to the Insular Celtic languages, in having two different present indicative
paradigms for the verb 'to be', the functional difference perhaps being that
between non-habitual and habitual. Too new to have been included in this chapter
is Schumacher 2007. While mainly concerned with Celtic-Germanic contact in
prehistoric Central Europe, Schumacher also makes the valuable observation that
the opposition between a plain present and a habitual present in the verb 'to
be' in Old English must be inherited from Proto-West-Germanic; its preservation
in Old English can be ascribed to contact influence from British.
3. ''The Northern Subject Rule'' (see below)
4. ''Periphrastic DO'': In StE the use of the construction ''to do'' + verbal stem
instead of the plain verb is confined to negation and interrogation, but in
various dialects the construction is also used for affirmative statements.
5. ''The Progressive (or -ing) Form'': The progressive construction ''is X-ing'' is
structurally similar to verbal-noun constructions in Celtic languages.
6. ''The Cleft Construction'': In the Insular Celtic languages with their word
order VSO and with their lack of contrastive intonation clefting constructions
are the primary or only method of putting focus on constituents. English shows a
notable propensity to the same construction.
7. ''Relative Clause Structures'': Contact-clauses without an overt relative
marker may have their models in Insular Celtic relative constructions.
8. The final section treats ''Other Grammatical Features with Possible Celtic
Origins'': ''The Development of the Self-forms as Intensifiers and Reflexives'',
''Comparative nor'', ''The Cumbric Score'' (i.e. peculiar numerals mainly used for
counting sheep in Cumberland), and ''Pronoun Exchange and Other Related Phenomena''.

The possible effects of the contact situations on ''Phonology'' (118–123) are less
easy to pinpoint. This section is accordingly much shorter. A case can perhaps
be made for the retention of interdental fricatives in English, as opposed to
almost all other Germanic languages, this being due to the presence of
equivalent sounds in the British languages. In this regard it is worth
remembering that in the early medieval period interdental fricatives were an
areal feature uniting practically all of Western Europe, from the very south to
the very north, including languages like French. The claim that interdental
fricatives are exotic in the context of European languages, is unfounded: in the
early middle ages all Germanic languages had them, Insular Celtic and Western
Romance had them, and today Greek, Albanian and Finnish dialects have them. The
only language groups where they have been absent from all diachronic stages are
Slavic and Baltic. But see also the World Atlas of Language Structures, which
also lists 'th'-sounds among uncommon consonants (;
author: Ian Maddieson). Other areas of influence in phonology are harder to
assess. Perhaps some ''low-level'' phenomena can be ascribed to Celtic substratal
or adstratal influence, like allophonic lenition of word-internal consonants or
vowel reductions which, in consequence, caused attrition of inflectional ending
and thus enhanced the change of English from a predominantly synthetic to a
language of a predominantly analytic type.

''Lexis'' (123–131) is also treated with rather quickly. ''Onomastics'' (placenames
and personal names) is important as a body of evidence, inasmuch as the received
view, according to which the Anglo-Saxon invasion was accompanied by large-scale
population displacement (ethnic cleansing), predicts that even this type of
loans should be negligible. This is not the case, however. The number of
non-onomastic ''Lexical Borrowings'' is conspicuously small in the Old English
period, but the authors argue that in later stages and regional variants of the
language many more instances of borrowing from Celtic languages can be found
(see below). The possibly much greater number of loans in the Middle and Early
Modern English periods must not be mistaken as evidence for substrate influence,

The second part of the book is devoted to ''Celtic Influences in the Modern Age''
(135–220). It deals with the outcomes of the contacts in those areas where
language shift has taken place relatively recently (i.e. mainly in the past
two-, three hundred years). Accordingly, the so-called 'Celtic Englishes' (= CE)
receive the main attention. StE is awarded less attention than in the first
part. The section about the history and sociological background to the contacts,
entitled ''The General Nature of the Celtic-English Interface in the Modern
Period'' (135–167), is considerably longer, the section on ''The Linguistic
Outcomes of the Modern Contacts'' (168–220) considerably shorter than the
corresponding sections of the first part, despite or because the evidence and
the material basis is much better. The features identified for the CEs are less
controversial, because their geographical distribution and the structural
correspondences between the precursor languages and the local variants of
English make substratal phenomena much more certain. Nevertheless the authors
duly mention other explanations (usually with reference to universal tendencies)
as well.

The grammatical features (168–204) discussed are deviant ''Definite Article
Usage[s]'', '''Absolute' Uses of the Reflexive Pronouns'', ''The 'Progressive' Form
of Verbs'', ''Perfect Markers'', ''Habitual Aspect Markers do and be'', ''Inversion
[of word order] in Indirect Questions'', ''Focusing Constructions'', ''Prepositional
Usage''. These are followed by accounts of ''Phonology'' (204–208) and ''Lexis''
(209–219). While structural similarities may connect several different regional
variants of English, phonological peculiarities and specific vocabulary are
rather confined to single regions. It is striking that many of the peculiarities
of modern 'Celtic' Englishes fall in the same categories as those claimed and/or
identified for the medieval English language, thereby giving indirect support to
the substratal hypothesis as such. The authors also make the point that certain
conspicuous features of English that set it apart from more standard Germanic
languages are reinforced by the modern contacts with Celtic languages. On the
other hand, the unifying influence of the modern media is rather quickly
eliminating local traits nowadays in favor of StE.

In the summarizing epilogue ''The Extent of Celtic Influences in English''
(221–260), the authors outline again the previous debate and new perspectives on
the question and they reassess the extra-linguistic and linguistic evidence in
the light of what was argued in the book, as well as the implications for areal
and typological linguistics.

Both parts of the book are interspersed with illustrations (maps and tables),
which are reproduced from other sources. The quality of reproduction is not
always the best; sometimes the scales have been reduced so as to render
illegible the captions.

This book is a good introduction to the state of research on linguistic contacts
between English and its Celtic neighbor languages. Given the authors' interest
in the matter, it comes as no surprise that they are sympathetic with Celtic
substratum explanations in many instances. One may not want to follow the
authors in their conclusions in each instance (see below for a few critical
remarks), even if one belongs to the 'Celtophiliac' side oneself, but the
authors always present the pros and cons, critical and supportive voices
evenhandedly, thus making the book a good first guidance through previous

An understanding of the mechanisms of the change from Celtic languages to
English in parts of Britain may be helpful for the understanding of similar
language replacement in other geographical settings. One can find implications
and models for other situations of language contact and language replacement,
and what this means for the victorious and the conquered languages and their
speech communities. I am thinking, for example, of ancient and early medieval
Gaul, where a study of the – admittedly few – historical source texts reveals a
situation similar to that of Britain only shortly later: it appears that the
Gaulish language retained a vigorous existence until rather late in the Roman
provincial period, but severe social disruptions in late antiquity gave the
language a decisive, lethal blow that must have led to a rather abrupt end.

It is clear that the chances and successes of language replacement depend not on
linguistic, but on social factors, but it is not sociolinguistics alone that
will be able to explain why a particular language wins out in the end. External
factors – 'historical' in the widest sense of the word – must not be neglected.
In the case of the rapid decline of Irish it was the Great Famine in the middle
of the 19th century that dramatically accelerated the development that was
already on its way, and in the case of Gaulish I believe that it was the
Germanic incursions of the 4th and 5th centuries that disturbed the social
order, which in consequence led to a drastic limitation and decline of the
societal functions of Gaulish. In the case of the downfall of British against
the invading Anglo-Saxons, I wonder if epidemics at the beginning of the 6th
century weakened the position and strength of the defenders.

Where the authors of this book go beyond an overview of previous scholarship, it
becomes apparent that occasionally they are treading foreign ground, especially
where historical linguistics is involved. In syntactic studies of Insular Celtic
it has been an observable trend to use constructions of the modern languages as
the basis for comparative research. This is partly because the modern languages
are much more atypically Indo-European (or Standard Average European, for that
matter) in their appearance than their older stages, and they offer the 'nicer'
examples for certain structural phenomena. But this may also entice scholars to
take modern constructions for diachronically granted and to project them back to
the early medieval period or even beyond. A similar tendency can be encountered
in this book at occasions, too. In the following I will concentrate on this
aspect of the book, coming – as I do – from historical linguistics myself.
Almost all of those points upon which I will make critical remarks have to do
with a certain lack of awareness of historical linguistics.

In chapter 2.2.3. the authors contemplate the possibility for a Celtic origin
for the so-called Northern Subject Rule. By this rule, the verb takes the ending
-s in all persons, singular and plural, unless a personal pronoun immediately
precedes it, e.g. ''birds sings'' or ''they peel them and boils them''. This
coordination of 3sg. verbs with plural subject nouns has a parallel (though not
a perfect one) in the British languages, illustrated by the authors with
examples from Modern Welsh. The authors are aware that there is some
disagreement about the antiquity of the lack of concord between verb and
subject, but they are content with citing a few authorities who claim that the
construction may go back to Common British, or, in their own words, ''that the
agreement pattern dates back to the sixth century or earlier'' (p. 48). This is
blatantly wrong. Had the authors taken a look at the oldest extant sources of
the British languages, they would have noticed that the construction was only
just developing during the Old British period (8th–12th century). Even though
the textual witnesses for Old Breton and Old Welsh are very scarce and contain
very few verbal forms (Old Cornish does not add to this question), there are
just about enough instances to allow a glimpse at the situation concerning verb
and subject concord in these languages (see Fleuriot 1964: 415–6). We find
examples of the inherited concord pattern, first in Old Welsh:

(1) imguodant ir degion 'the nobles asked [pl.] each other' ('Surrexit'
memorandum, Chad 2, 8th–10th c.)

The same in Old Breton (note that in the two examples only the verbs are Breton,
the rest of the sentences is Latin; all Old Breton quotations belong to the
ninth-century glossator A of the Venerable Bede's De temporum ratione):

(2) dimicent Iudei templum suum 'the Jews despise [pl.] their own temple'
(Angers 477, 52a)

(3) simul s(un)t it dechreuin epacte et anni incarnationis 'it is at the same
time that the epactae and the years of the incarnation begin [pl.]' (Angers 477,

This situation obtains also in the early Middle Welsh tale of 'Kulhwch ac
Olwen'. The following Old Welsh example has plural concord with the predicate:

(4) [...] hou bein atar ha beinn cihunn reliqua 'if they [pro-drop] were [pl.]
birds that were [pl.] equal to the others (?)' ('De Mensuris et Ponderibus',
Oxoniensis Prior 22b, around 820)

Other instances in Old British conform with the later distribution of singular
and plural forms or show a hesitancy between the two systems. In sentence (5),
which is Old Welsh, the verb stands in a relative clause where the rules of
concord may have been given up earlier; sentences (6)–(8) are Old Breton:

(5) [...] cymreith ha bryein [...] arod|es breenhined hinn ha touysso|cion Cymry
[...] '[...] the law and privilege [...] which these kings and princes of the
Cymry [...] gave [sg.]' ('Privilege of Teilio', Book of Llandaf, 12th c.)

(6) pop eil gueith int dou bissex a bidont in. en(ecad). gueid alall is tri
'every second time it is [pl.] two leap years that are [pl.] in a nine-year
cycle; the other time it is [sg.] three' (Angers 477, 74b)

(7) dadarued epac(dou) XXV, int rid ou mod [...] '25 epactae take place [sg.],
they are [pl.] free as to their mode [...]' (Angers 477, 79a)

(8) is petguar blidan iu em 'it is [sg.] four years that it is' (Angers 477, 75b)

These examples suffice to demonstrate that coordination of singular verbs with
plural nouns was only just beginning to develop in the individual British
languages and that in no way was it an established rule in the Common British
language of the 6th century. It is probably a coincidence that the singular
verbs are followed by numerals in the cited examples. In sentence (8) the
subject 'four years' could also be regarded as an adverbial expression. In that
case the singular verb could be justified.

A similar lack of examples for the earliest attested stages of the Insular
Celtic languages characterizes chapter 2.2.1 about the internal-possessor
construction. In the internal-possessor construction the possessor assumes the
form of a possessive pronoun, e.g. He broke _his_ leg. Compare with this the
German external-possessor construction where the possessed object is introduced
by the article: Er brach sich _das_ Bein. As in the German example, the
possessor is expressed by a datival pronoun (sich) for the indirect object. The
internal-possessor construction, which is found in English and in the British
languages, appears to be typologically rare. External constructions are only
found marginally in modern English: He looked her in the eyes. In the present
book, an example for the internal type is cited from Old Irish (p. 34), viz.

(9) Benaid a chend de 'he cut [recte: cuts] his [poss. pron.] head off' (several
times in Táin Bó Cúailnge Rec. 1)

It is quite correct that the object 'head' is accompanied by the possessive
pronoun, as is typical for the internal-possessor construction. But the authors
seem to be quite unaware that this example is multifaceted and allows for
different structural analyses. First of all, on the synchronic Old-Irish level,
we may note that this sentence is at the same time also an example for the
external-possessor construction. Since Old Irish lacks independent personal
pronouns and lacks the dative case, the only way to indicate indirect objects is
through the use of prepositional phrases involving prepositions inflected for
person and number. That is what de (dé) is, the masc. 3sg. form of the
preposition de 'from, off'. The translation of the sentence given is therefore
misleading; synchronically correct would be 'he cuts his head off him', with
both an internal and an external possessor. Things look differently if we look
at the sentence from a diachronic angle. A good deal of all 3sg. masc./neut.
pronominal prepositions simply continue the plain prepositions, accented and
used adverbially. The almost litteral translation '[he cuts]V [his]POSS
[head]OBJ [off]ADV' therefore reflects the structure of a historical preform of
the sentence, projected back and reconstructed for an earlier period when Irish
(or rather Goidelic) still made free use of adverbially used prepositions. At
the same the sentence sheds light on one way in which plain prepositions came to
be used as 3sg. masc./neut. pronominal prepositions in Old Irish, namely in
internal-possessor constructions with adverbial complements that were
reinterpreted as expressing also an external possessor. But there is another way
to look at the sentence from a diachronic point of view. Although this has
nothing to do with the present problem, I will mention it nevertheless. The
reconstructable preform of the sentence, viz. *binati esyo kwennom de, looks
like a construction with tmesis of the compound verb, with the members of the
tmetic verbal phrase inverted in contrast to what is assumed to be the normal
word order of such constructions, viz. *de esyo kwennom binat(i). The question
poses itself whether one of the two sentences is an emphatic variant of the
other, or whether this is just coincidence. In short, fiddling around with this
sentence, which actually does not exactly illustrate what the authors want it to
illustrate, opens up a can of worms that is better left closed for the moment.

Occasionally, the authors' reluctance to critically assess earlier scholars'
opinions may lead to unexpected conclusions by non-specialist readers. In
chapter 2.2.4, which is concerned with the origin of the DO-periphrasis in
English, the authors are inclined to favor the hypothesis that this construction
has something to do with contact influence from British Celtic languages. In the
section on previous scholarship they report without comment that a number of
people have suggested a similar origin also for the periphrastic
tun/doen-constructions in southern German and Dutch (pp. 58–59). This is
nonsense as it implies that periphrastic do-constructions had been a feature if
not of the Common Celtic language, then at least of Gaulish. There is in fact in
the existing corpus of ancient Celtic languages not the slightest piece of
evidence to support the notion that the ancient Celtic languages on the
Continent had in this respect the same syntactic structure as their much later
Insular Celtic relatives.

The last topic to which I want to turn concerns lexis. In order to counter the
received view that English had only taken up very few loanwords from Celtic
languages the authors refer to the studies by John Davies who in the 1880s
published a series of articles in which he claimed a Celtic provenance for no
less than 1500 words in various English dialects. One should always treat
etymological work of the 19th century or earlier with some caution. In any case,
the authors cite a few examples of Davies' findings, and they present them with
sympathy. This sympathy is not well-founded in all of those cases. The first
word they cite is the dialect word bullin 'a receptacle for bottoms of yarns
made of straw'. Davies derived this from Welsh bwlan, bylan 'budget, vessel made
of straw to hold corn and wool &c, fig. squat person'. The authors have
overlooked that the word lacks a Celtic etymology, and that Geiriadur Prifysgol
Cymru (GPC, the Dictionary of the University of Wales) in its turn suggests a
loan from Middle English bolle (which must also be the source of Modern Irish
bulla 'bowl', bullán 'a hollow in a stone'; the phonotactically impossible u in
the first syllable of which betrays its foreign origin). Furthermore, almost all
disyllabic Welsh words beginning with bw- are loans from English. In inherited
words /u/ in the first syllable of polysyllabic words had been reduced to schwa
already in Proto-British; this surfaces as y in Welsh.

A similar phonological problem besets the next item for which a Welsh origin is
claimed. This is (work-)bracco 'fond of work; unwilling to work; the power and
will to work', allegedly derived from Welsh brac 'ready, free, generous, prompt,
glib, open; light (of soil)'. Again, the Welsh word has no known etymology, it
is attested only from the middle of the 17th century onwards, and, what's more,
in inherited words a voiceless stop is phonologically impossible in word-final
position. This, again, suggests a foreign origin for the Welsh word.

The next item is caukum 'a practical joke, a foolish frolic'. The authors
compare this with Welsh coeg. They cite the meanings 'vain, empty, false,
deceitful, mean, evil, good-for-nothing; arrogant, scornful, sarcastic' from
GPC. This is only half the story, though. The word also means 'blind, one-eyed,
squinting, having defective eyesight', which incidentally is the original
meaning. The word makes a perfect etymological equation with Old Irish cáech
'one-eyed' and Latin caecus 'blind', as GPC rightly points out in the top
section of the dictionary entry. The primary semantics and the phonological
make-up of the word are too far removed from its presumed English congener to
make a loan relationship plausible.

The only genuine loan from a British language among the words cited by the
authors is the fourth, claud, a North Country dialect word for 'ditch, fence'.
This looks very much like the native Welsh word clawdd with the same meaning, a
word with a good Celtic pedigree.
It is clear that John Davies' list of possible Welsh loans into English dialects
is urgently in need of critical evaluation, a fact which the authors themselves
are aware of.

To sum up: This is not the definite guide to all aspects concerning the Celtic
bones of the body of English, neither do the authors see it as such. As I tried
to highlight in the foregoing discussion, there is still research to be done and
there are still questions to be answered, for example, on the historical
dimensions of the matter, especially as regards the typological makeup of the
oldest stages of the Insular Celtic languages. Also, the authors point out that
other areas of mutual influence between the languages may be identified in the
future. But no one working on the relationship between the Insular Celtic and
English languages, and between Britons, Gaels and Anglo-Saxons, for that matter,
will get around using this book as the first starting point for all further
work. This book points out the directions which research will have to take in
the future.

Fleuriot, Léon. (1964) _Le vieux breton. Éléments d'une grammaire_. Paris:

Schumacher, Stefan. (2007) Die Deutschen und die Nachbarstämme: Lexikalische und
strukturelle Sprachkontaktphänomene entlang der keltisch-germanischen
Übergangszone. In Hans Hablitzel and David Stifter, eds. (2007) _Johann Kaspar
Zeuß im kultur- und sprachwissenschaftlichen Kontext_. Wien: Praesens Verlag,
167–207 (online:

Thomason, Sarah & Kaufman, Terrence. (1988) _Language Contact, Creolization, and
Genetic Linguistics_. University of California Press.

David Stifter is research scholar at the Department for Indo-European
Linguistics at the University of Vienna with a focus on Celtic languages.

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