Celtic Influence on the English Language

Claire Lovis

Copyright 2001

While Anglo-Saxon culture and language spread swiftly across east and central Britain during the 6th and 7th centuries, corners of the isle retained the languages of the previous dominant culture, the Celtic peoples who are believed to have begun arriving around 600 BC. Today, the people who inhabit these areas take a pride in preserving these languages as a way of protecting their heritage. However, the Celtic peoples who invaded Britain are believed to have integrated with the people who previously inhabited the island, absorbing elements of the language spoken by this group, much in the way that the Normans were later to adopt many English words in order to adapt to their new homeland. The Celts had already spread their influence across most of central Europe and interacted with the Germanic tribes. Their languages were not retained in Europe for the most part, but their influence can be seen through subtle changes – in France for example, the use of Latin was modified through the local influences of Celtic languages. Dialects spoken in northern Spain are heavily influenced by Celtic to this day (due to influences both prior to the Celts arriving in Britain, and on their return after fleeing the Anglo-Saxon invasions). There is also a noticeable correspondence between northern Italian place names and similar names in Cornwall, starting with tre (a Celtic word for a farm or settlement).

Celtic words in OE come from three identifiable sources – from the continent (usually words associated with conflict and battle – the Celts were often used as ‘armies for hire’), loans taken over after settlement (usually place names), and words from Ireland frequently associated with the Christianisation of Britain. The Celtic language group has been categorised as part of the Indo-European group of languages, yet some studies have shown that there are features of Celtic language syntax that is not Indo-European, and in fact shares much in common with the Hamito-Semitic group of languages. This would indicate a fusion of native and newly imposed language on people who used their own grammar patterns to make sense of an unfamiliar language, and reflects the extent to which the Celts spread themselves across the continent. Not a great deal is known about those who inhabited the British Isles before the Celts, but it is interesting to think that their languages, lost forever, may survive in some way through the preservation of other languages.

However, the Anglo-Saxons terrorised rather than integrated with the Celts, and so their languages became isolated in corners of the isle, until the efficiency of the Norman conquest created a linguistic hierarchy with Celtic languages entrenched firmly at the bottom. The pockets of land that remained dominantly Celtic are divided linguistically into two branches – Goidelic (Gaelic) and Brythonic (British). The Goidelic languages consist of Irish, Highland Scottish and Manx. The Brythonic is made up of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Of these, perhaps Welsh is the one to survive most strongly in the present day, mainly due to the efforts of the Welsh seeking to preserve their culture and identity part from the English.

The social stigma attached to the worth of Celtic languages in British society throughout the last thousand years seems responsible for the dearth of Celtic loan words in the English language, a language renowned for its borrowing of words from many other languages. Celtic languages were viewed as inferior, and words that have survived are usually words with geographical significance, and place names. Adopted words include bucket, car, crockery, noggin, gob, slogan and flannel, truant and gaol (although these words entered general English usage at a later date – certainly post-Norman conquest). The survival of the Celtic languages has been a matter of pride, and they have survived mainly where numbers were large enough to enable it’s survival through everyday usage, as well as having their importance emphasized through the establishment of a body of literary work. Unfortunately, the various branches became geographically isolated, preventing any opportunity at standardization as an alternative to the centralized English social and political structure.

For the most part, Celtic influence on the English language is mostly apparent through place names. For generations, the language of the Celts was referred to as ‘British’ – the language of the Britons, the native inhabitants of the land. Some names that survive are the names of rivers such as the Thames and the Yare, and important Roman towns such as London, York and Lincoln. A number of names are compounds of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon words. Two Celtic words for "hill" bre and pen appear in a number of names. Brill in Buckinghamshire is a combination of bre and OE hyll. Breedon on the Hill in Leicestershire is a combination of bre and dun, both Celtic words, and Brewood in Staffordshire is combined with OE wudu. Pensax in Herefordshire means "hill of the Anglo-Saxons", giving an indication of the proximity but isolation in which Celtic communities would have existed until they were gradually pushed to the corners of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons. The use of "Combe" or "Coombe" as part of many place names comes from the Celtic word kumb, which meant "valley", and was adopted into OE. The word tor is used mainly in the south-west of Britain, means "rock", and is used in conjunction with the granite peaks on Dartmoor and Bodmin moor – Hay Tor, Hound Tor etc, and was incorporated into the name of the coastal town ‘Torquay’. Bodmin itself is a compound of the Cornish words bod "dwelling" (which may have come into English as "abode") and monegh ‘monks’. The name Cornwall is an Anglicized form of the original name for the people who inhabited the far south-west of Britain kern either being a tribal name, or a word meaning "rock", and "wall" coming from OE weahlas meaning (rather inappropriately) "foreigners". Parallel names are common in the south-west as well – for example St. Ives is also known by its Cornish name of Porthia.

The meaning of the name Bodmin is an interesting one, as it makes a connection with the fact that Celtic loanwords generally come from place names where they have survived for centuries, being adopted by each invading group as they arrive, but that also a number of loanwords have connections with religious terms. There is considerable evidence to suggest that a number of words were brought over from Ireland by the Christian missionaries, and that their survival was due to the strength of British Christianity that for a while exceeded that of the Roman church. The word "cross" (Gaelic crois), was used alongside OE rood for several centuries before it eventually became part of the English lexicon. Another loan word is dry "magician, sorcerer", which comes from OIr. drui (pl. druid). Many of these words were loans from Latin but came to Britain by way of the missionaries. OIr. anchara ‘anchorite’, comes originally from Latin as does stær ‘history’.


While the contribution of Celtic languages to the English language seems disproportionate to the importance and longevity of Celtic culture within British society over time, it is important to remember that the place names that have been created are still a useful reminder of the ways in which past society viewed their surroundings, and the names they chose feature the characteristics of the land as it was observed by those who lived during that time. At the same time, the lack of apparent word sharing is indicative of how effective a social and political tool language can be by creating a class system through language usage. England was able to effectively unite as a world influence by enforcing a standard language throughout the country. However, the very social stigma that suppressed the use of Celtic language is the same stigma that prevents us learning the full extent of the influence those languages have had on English. The nature of the Anglo-Saxon invasions indicates that isolated pockets of Celtic peoples would have been scattered all over the country (not all of them ran to the hills), and existed side by side in separate communities, eventually inter-marrying and becoming absorbed into Anglo-Saxon culture. The apparent lack of Celtic words in OE may be because we do not yet understand how the languages of these people merged together and developed until these groups came to share a common language.


For further reading

 Bailey, Richard W. Images of English: A Cultural History of the Language. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol 1. The Beginnings to 1066. Ed. Richard Hogg. 1992

Ellis, P. Berresford. The Cornish Language and its Literature. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1974.

Hodge, Pol. The History of Cornish in the Parish of St. Stephen in Brannel. Cornwall: The Cornish Language Board, 1998.

Jackson, Kenneth. Language and History in Early Britain. London: Edinburgh University Press, 1953.

Leith, Dick. A Social History of English. London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.

Machan, Tim William & Scott, Charles T. (eds). English in its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Millward, Celia M. A Biography of the English Language. 2nd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1996.

Reaney, P.H. The Origins of English Place Names. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960.