The Celtic Influence on Old English

Farnas Noman

Nothing would seem more reasonable than to expect that the conquest of the Celtic population of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons and the subsequent mixture of the two peoples should have resulted in a corresponding mixture of their languages; that consequently we should find in the Old English vocabulary numerous instances of words that the Anglo- Saxons heard in the speech of the native population and adopted. For it is apparent that the Celts were by no means exterminated except in certain areas, and that in most of England large numbers of them were gradually assimilated into the new culture.

Celtic Place-Names and Other Loanwords

When we come, however, to seek the evidence for this contact in the English language, investigation yields very meager results. Such evidence as there is survives chiefly in place-names. The kingdom of Kent, for example, owes its name to the Celtic word Canti or Cantion, the meaning of which is unknown, while the two ancient Northumbrian kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia derive their designations from Celtic tribal names. Other districts, especially in the west and southwest, preserve in their present-day names traces of their earlier Celtic designations. Devonshire contains in the first element the tribal name Dumnonii, Cornwall means the ‘Cornubian Welsh’, and the former county Cumberland (now part of Cumbria) is the ‘land of the Cymry or Britons’. Moreover, a number of important centers in the Roman period have names in which Celtic elements are embodied. The name London itself, although the origin of the word is somewhat uncertain, most likely goes back to a Celtic designation. The first syllable of Winchester, Salisbury, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Lichfield, and a score of other names of cities is traceable to a Celtic source, and the earlier name of Canterbury (Durovernum) is originally Celtic.

But it is in the names of rivers and hills and places in proximity to these natural features that the greatest number of Celtic names survive. Thus the Thames is a Celtic river name, and various Celtic words for river or water are preserved in the names Avon, Exe, Esk, Usk, Dover, and Wye. Celtic words meaning ‘hill’ are found in placenames like Barr ( Welsh bar ‘top’, ‘summit’), Bredon (cf. Welsh bre ‘hill), Bryn Mawr (cf. Welsh bryn ‘hill and mawr ‘great’), Creech, Pendle (cf. Welsh pen ‘top’), and others. Certain other Celtic elements occur more or less frequently such as cumb (a deep valley) in names like Duncombe, Holcombe, Winchcombe; torr (high rock, peak) in Torr, Torcross, Torhill; pill (a tidal creek) in Pylle, Huntspill; and brocc (badger) in Brockholes, Brockhall, etc.

It is natural that Celtic place-names should be more common in the west than in the east and southeast, but the evidence of these names shows that the Celts impressed themselves upon the Germanic consciousness at least to the extent of causing the newcomers to adopt many of the local names current in Celtic speech and to make them a permanent part of their vocabulary.

Outside of place-names, however, the influence of Celtic upon the English language is almost negligible. Not more than a score of words in Old English can be traced with reasonable probability to a Celtic source. Within this small number it is possible to distinguish two groups: (1) those that the AngloSaxons learned through everyday contact with the natives, and (2) those that were introduced by the Irish missionaries in the north. The former were transmitted orally and were of popular character; the latter were connected with religious activities and were more or less learned. The popular words include binn (basket, crib), bratt (cloak), and brocc (brock or badger); a group of words for geographical features that had not played much part in the experience of the Anglo- Saxons in their continental home—crag, luh (lake), cumb (valley), and torr (outcropping or projecting rock, peak), the two latter chiefly as elements in place-names; possibly the words dun (dark colored), and ass (ultimately from Latin asinus). Words of the second group, those that came into English through Celtic Christianity, are likewise few in number.

In 563 St. Columba had come with twelve monks from Ireland to preach to his kinsmen in Britain. On the little island of lona off the west coast of Scotland he established a monastery and made it his headquarters for the remaining thirty-four years of his life. From this center many missionaries went out, founded other religious houses, and did much to spread Christian doctrine and learning. As a result of their activity the words ancor (hermit), (magician), cine (a gathering of parchment leaves), cross, clugge (bell), gabolrind (compass), mind (diadem), and perhaps (history) and cursian (to curse), came into at least partial use in Old English. It does not appear that many of these Celtic words attained a very permanent place in the English language. Some soon died out, and others acquired only local currency. The relation of the two peoples was not such as to bring about any considerable influence on English life or on English speech. The surviving Celts were a submerged people. The Anglo-Saxon found little occasion to adopt Celtic modes of expression, and the Celtic influence remains the least of the early influences that affected the English language.


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