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What Really Happened to English? Examining the Celtic Hypothesis


Despite linguists’ skepticism that Insular Celtic languages had very little impact on English during their language contact of nearly three-hundred years, it can be shown through substratum and superstratum contact features that the Celtic languages of the British Isles had a rather large impact on the English language. Most linguists believe influence beyond lexical borrowing is highly doubtful because few have looked outside the grammatical scope of Indo European. With help from discussion among some of the leading linguists on the Celtic Hypothesis, we can hypothesize that Celtic had a very real influence not only on English words, but also grammatical structure, syntax, and literature.


Table of Contents

1.1 Introduction

2.1 Substratum Contact Features: Periphrastic Do

2.2 Substratum Contact Features: Verbal Noun, Northern Subject Rule, & Internal Possessor

2.3 Substratum Contact Features: Embedded Inversion

3.1 Superstratum Contact Features

4.1 What Really Happened?

5.1 Mutual Reinforcement Hypothesis

6.1 Conclusion


1.1 Introduction

English is the official language of the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, and about fifty other countries in the world, many of which have other official languages in addition to English. Many English scholars say these other languages that coexist along side English have had very little influence on the language. For example, before European settlers came to North America, all people living on the continent spoke primarily a Native American language. When English appeared there within the last few centuries, the languages were forced to co-exist. Besides a restricted number of nouns (tomahawk, squaw) and place names, Native American languages have not had any influence on English. In most language contact situations, languages influence one another. Sometimes these influences are great such as the Norman French influence on English from the late eleventh century to about 1470, which left behind grammar, phonemes, and a plethora of new words. Other times the influence of one language on another is quite insignificant like the language contact situation between English and Native American languages. Many linguists believe this was true of the language contact situation between Celtic languages and English. Before Anglo Saxons brought their language to the British Isles in the fifth century, Celts lived there, speaking their Brythonic and Goidelic Celtic languages. However, when the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes brought over their Germanic dialect that we call Old English, the languages were forced to coexist on the Isles for nearly three hundred years. Many scholars cite the etymology of English words and discover their root in Celtic languages. For many, belief of linguistic influence stops there. However, there is a select group who believe that the influence was much greater. John McWhorter (2008) argues for the progressive gerund in English having its roots in Celtic languages and Johan Van Der Auwera (2002) both agrees and disagrees with McWhorter’s theories and argues further the Celtic origin of English periphrastic do. Markku Filppula (2000) discovers embedded inversion of modals, nouns, and verbs in some dialects of English have some Celtic syntactical influence. Wolfgang Kuhlwein (1998) believes much Old English poetry was influenced by Celtic Rhetoric. Of course, the influence goes both ways. English influenced Celtic languages by being the power language. Kevin Rottet (2005) argues English’s influence on the Brythonic Celtic language, Welsh and its phrasal verbs. Theo Vennemann (1999) argues for four specific English structural features and discovers these syntactic features are manifestations of Semitic substratum that entered English through Insular Celtic influence. With evidence as overwhelming as these authors’ works, linguists and scholars of English history should force themselves to reexamine Celtic’s rather profound influence on English through extensive language contact.

2.1 Substratum Contact Features: Periphrastic Do

McWhorter (2008) proposes the reason so many linguists have trouble with accepting any kind of theory that says Celtic had a remarkable influence on English is because they are too scientific and unwilling to accept possibilities. Linguists decree, “Where is the textual evidence in Old English? If Celtic languages had any kind of influence on English periphrastic do, why was it not until Middle English, after the Norman invasion in 1066, that English started writing periphrastic do?” And the answer is the installation of do did not happen all at once. McWhorter (2008) hypothesizes that periphrastic dostarted out as vernacular speech. No man was going to write a vernacular with quill and ink on parchment, especially since those who did the writing were educated individuals that most likely spoke a standard form of Old English. We will never be able to see or hear the speech of an illiterate farmer who more than likely used a vernacular form of Old English containing a periphrastic do when he might need to communicate with neighboring Celts. English’s closest relative is Frisian, a relative of Dutch spoken by hundreds of thousands of people in the Netherlands. Bill Bryson (1990) says Angles, one of the first Anglo Saxon invaders, spoke Frisian, which is very similar to Old English. Due to little linguistic alteration in the history of Frisian, most Frisians are able to read Beowulf “almost at sight” (Bryson: 1990: 46). McWhorter (2008) takes such evidence and claims Frisian to be English’s closest relative because it too shed much of Proto-Germanic’s case markings. Frisian had no contact with Celtic languages, so if English hadn’t underwent this Celtic influence so long ago, our question syntax might be similar to Frisian’s in (1).

(1) “Do we eat apples?”

Ite wy appels?

Eat we apples

Van Der Auwera (2002) agrees with McWhorter (2008) and says that of all the Germanic languages, English has had the longest prolonged contact with Celtic languages. She illustrates the appearance of periphrastic do in Early Middle English in (2).

(2) “The bishop of Winchester had them come here.”

ϸe  biscop    of Wincestre … dide heom cumen ϸider

The bishop of Winchester     did  them   come there

Van Der Auwera (2002) discusses periphrastic do‘s use in negative and emphatic assertions in Modern English, but this excerpt shows English used to use periphrastic do in nonemphatic, positive assertions as well. This data is similar to evidence put forth by McWhorter (2008). He shows on page 6 that Welsh uses what he calls “meaningless do” in emphatic, nonemphatic, negative, and positive sentences, and questions:

(3) “Did I open?”            Nes i agor?

“I did not open. Nes i ddim agor.

“I opened. Nes i agor.

Although Welsh has a different word order than English, we can see Welsh uses nes “do” in every type of utterance, affirmative, negative, and question sentences. Middle English was more like Welsh in that sense. Middle English “You wept” would come out something like: Thou dudest wepe.Early Modern English still had this meaningless do in nonemphatic, affirmative statements evidenced in Shakespeare’s plays. The following is Gertrude in Hamlet Act III, scene IV, lines 134-135.

“Alas, how is’t with you

That you do bend your eye on vacancy,

And with th’incorporal air do hold discourse”

Thus, Modern English must have discontinued the use of periphrastic do in affirmative, nonemphatic statements sometime within the last few centuries.

Van Der Auwera (2002) describes other uses of periphrastic do in English besides negative statements and questions. Southwestern American English often uses do in nonemphatic, affirmative statements expressing generic/habitual aspect. She gives the Modern English example “Fred does the washing up.” This data is a case of periphrastic do because it creates a more analytical construction in which the verb following periphrasis is a verbal noun. Van Der Auwera (2002) contends the theory of English’s periphrastic do having Celtic origin would be stronger if there were a cleaner-cut division of periphrasticdo use between Celtic and Germanic languages. She states that colloquial forms of German use their version of periphrastic tun “do” as well as Dutch, which uses its do equivalent “deed.” Germanic languages have use of a verbal noun that is similar to English’s. Modern Dutch expresses “Jan is doing the dishes” as

(4) Jan   doet de     afwas

Jan does the off.washing

Some scholars get distracted because of periphrastic do‘s use in some Germanic language vernacular dialects as well. McWhorter (2008) gives the example in (5).

(5) Er   tut  das schreiben.

He does that write.

However, this do‘s use is entirely optional and adds emphasis to wherever the speaker places it in the sentence. Also Germanic use only sees periphrastic do in the present tense, and we know all too well that English’s do is in the present and past negative and questions, is not optional, always precedes the verb, and doesn’t give emphasis to anything. Some say that English’s use of periphrastic do merely evolved one step further than German’s, but if this were true, why is English’s use of do periphrasis unique among the Germanic languages? With the number of Germanic languages and their many, many dialects, one would think one of the dialects would have sporadically started making do periphrasis mandatory similar to English—none did.

To blur the line between Germanic or Celtic origin of periphrastic do even more, not all Celtic languages have the relevant do. Though, Van der Auwera (2002) does say, “In Celtic ‘do’ periphrasis is very prominent” (288). She lists two subtypes. One where periphrastic do precedes the verbal noun, common in Old Irish, Middle Breton, Middle and Late Cornish, and Middle Welsh whose construction of “I enjoyed myself yesterday” looks like

(5) (mi) wnes i fwynhau ddoe,

(I)  did   I  enjoy   yesterday.

The second type of periphrastic do use in Celtic languages is when the verbal noun comes first proceeded by a relative particle and then periphrastic do. This word order is characteristic of eastern Brythonic (Cornish, Welsh, and Breton) and less common in the Goidelic languages (Gaelic, Manx, Irish).

Van Der Auwera (2002) concedes that there are French examples of periphrastic do as well, however, she says that these uses are “highly specialized” as shown in Do listen to me! Or me faites entender, translating literally as “And yet me do listen” (291). This phrasing can be understood as an emphatic way of telling someone to listen to you. Van Der Auwera (2002) also remarks that causative uses of periphrastic do are not common among Celtic languages, but Latin makes a causative use of facere “to do,” as do its daughter languages.  “My father makes me work” translates to French in (6).

(6) Mon père me  fait travailler

My father me does work.

Van Der Auwera (2002) states there is a large, but not yet complete consensus that periphrastic doin English developed from a causative use. This is pretty damning evidence for the Celtic hypothesis, as “causative uses of ‘do’ verbs in Celtic are rare or nonexistent” (Van Der Auwera: 2002: 290). Early Modern Irish sentence constructions of do + verbal noun were probably prompted by English construction. However, like English, periphrasis is strong in Celtic while it is weaker in non-English Germanic and Romance languages. Causative uses are important in French and Dutch, and Van Der Auwera (2002) claims there has been a contact-instigated influence between French causative doand Dutch’s.

Van Der Auwera (2002) details a certain type of language contact situation that is needed for the development of auxiliaries. In Korean,  words with Chinese and Japanese origins  outnumber native Korean words. A standard strategy for making foreign nouns into Korean predicates is by combining them with hata “do”. The same is true of Hindi do‘s combination with English nominals, as well as Persian with Arabic and Turkish with Dutch. In all language contact situations given, it’s the socially/culturally inferior language that develops this do to verbalize foreign nominals. If a similar situation were true of Celtic and Old English contact, one would not only expect the manifestations of auxiliaries in general, but also for periphrastic do to combine with foreign elements in Celtic. Since this does not help uncover the geneses of English do, it’s safe to say that English periphrastic doresulted from more than just the dynamics of language contact.

Van Der Auwera (2002) discusses the hypothesis that English and Celtic were both givers and receivers. This is what she calls the mutual reinforcement hypothesis, which claims English and Celtic influenced grammatical uses in the other language; therefore, periphrastic do reinforced its use in the other language, i.e., Celtic reinforced English, and English reinforced Celtic periphrasis. She states periphrastic do appears earlier in Welsh texts than in English. English relevant doappeared around the thirteenth century, and Welsh appeared earlier than that, though no date or time span is given. This supports a hypothesis of Welsh having a greater influence on English in the periphrastic do sense. Though Celtic’s earlier use was not used in a systematic way, she notes that do is more established in Middle Welsh than in English of the same time period. And though this does not necessarily mean that Celtic periphrastic do is older, it seems to be a more plausible hypothesis.

Many linguistic scholars believe that English sporadically started using periphrastic do and the progressive. The problem is, however, that few have looked hard at languages outside the Germanic branch. If they did, they would see that few have a periphrastic do, and even fewer have do and a progressive present tense. Those languages that do use do are Japanese, Persian, and Nanai—spoken in Siberia. Of all of these periphrastic uses, none require its use in the past and present tense when in the negative and when asking questions. Mandatory periphrastic do is unique to the languages that shared the British Isles with English. Robert Penhallurick (1996) provides data that illustrates three variants that are matched in present tense: He (goes/do go/’s going) to the cinema every week. He notes the first matches standard English, the second parallels the output in neighboring rural English counties to the south, and the third reflects Welsh structural influence. He shows the same example in Welsh and discovers that Welsh uses “be” plus Welsh’s version of a gerund to express habitual action, shown in (7) (Penhallurick: 1996: 311).

(7) Mae ef yn mynd i’r      sinema bob wythnos.

He     is   going to the cinema every week.

Therefore, it is unrealistic to think that a group of languages that had those two same grammatical elements had no impact on English’s periphrastic do or present participle.

2.2 Substratum Contact Features: Verbal Noun, Northern Subject Rule, & Internal Possessor

Theo Vennemann (1999) develops a similar theory of origin when it comes to English’s progressive construction. “One may object that the progressive . . . may have originated in English independently of its existence in Insular Celtic. However the explanandum remains that among all Germanic languages, only English has undergone [the verbal noun] development” (355). English is the only Germanic language to have developed in a place where the native languages use the progressive as their base present tense, and English is the only Germanic language to use its verbal-noun as its only truly present tense. Go figure.

Vennemann (1999) discusses the influence of Semitic languages on both Celtic and Proto-Germanic. Due to trade relations on the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, Hamito-Semitic languages had differing degrees of influence on Celtic and Proto-Germanic. Vennemann (1990) proves that Hamito-Semitic influence had a greater effect on substratum in Celtic and a greater effect on superstratum in Proto-Germanic. That is, Hamito-Semitic had more an influential impact on Celtic grammatical structure and Proto-Germanic lexicality. Germanic has been shown to have many words with Semitic etymologies that are shared by no other Indo-European languages, including Celtic. The Insular Celtic syntax had a radical transformation due to Semitic influence. Despite traces in Old Irish poetry, Insular Celtic syntax no longer shows the Indo-European characteristic of head-final word order. Its word order is quite unlike other Indo-European languages and more similar to the Semitic languages Arabic and Hebrew.

Vennemann (1999) translates Pokorny’s Keltischer Urgescichte und Sprachwissenschaft which says that Insular Celtic’s system of tense and aspect is very much unlike other Indo-European languages (1959: 155). Their construction of the progressive, “be” + preposition + verbal noun is much like the construction in Basque and Egyptian. Vennemann (1999) also notes that aside from the alikeness of the periphrastic progressive construction, there are striking similarities that exist between Insular Celtic and English’s functional range.

Vennemann (1999) also discusses the Northern subject rule that happens to English dialects spoken in Northumberland, Cumberland, Durham, and Westmoreland areas. The rule states that verbs take the typical third-person “s” in all forms except when adjacent to a personal pronoun in the sentence. He illustrates this rule with the following sentences: They peel them and boils themand Birds sings(Vennemann: 1999: 356). Interestingly enough, this Northern subject rule has a similar construction in Brythonic Celtic languages. Their rule is that the third-person-plural form of a verb is used only whennhw “they” is explicitly said. When it isn’t explicitly stated, the third-person-singular form of the verb must be used, and if there is no overt subject, third-person-plural agreement is used. Vennemann (1999) cites (8) from King (1993).

(8) maent “[they] are”

maent hwy “they are”

mae ‘r bechgyn “the boys are”

The first line is the no-overt subject rule where the verb has a third-person-plural agreement. The second is when hwy “they” is explicitly said where the verb has a third-person-plural agreement, and the third is when hwy “they” isn’t explicitly stated, but the subject is still third-person-plural, yet a third-person-singular agreement is used.

Vennemann (1999) cites Kemola (2000: 337) calling this type of agreement “extremely rare” (Vennemann:1999:357). The only other languages in which such a subject-verb agreement like this is found is Arabic and Hebrew. Arabic’s lack of grammatical concord is as follows: the verb agrees with the subject in gender and number, but if a plural pronominal subject is explicitly said, it is optional to put the verb in the plural or singular. Hebrew verbs also agree in gender and number with the subject, but if a list of subjects follows a verb that governs them, then the verb must be in the singular.

There is a last contact feature that Vennemann (1999) discusses. It is the internal possessor construction’s replacement of the sympathetic dative. In German, nouns have a case marking, indicating them as the subject (NOM) , indirect (DAT), or indirect (ACC) object. This external possessor construction is illustrated in (9).

(9) “The queen cut off the king’s head.”

Die Königin schlug dem König        den Kopf           ab.

The queen      cut       the king-DAT the   head-ACC off

English dropped this use of case markings when sentence structure became more strict, so English adopted the internal possessor construction. Evidence of the internal possessor construction can be found in Old and Middle English (10) is Old English and (11) is Middle English.

(10) “He cut off their hands and their noses.”

He cearf of heora handa    heora nosa

He cut   off  their  hands and their noses.

(11) “His legs they cut off immediately.”

Hys legges hy corven of anon

His legs   they cut    off immediately

The internal possessor construction began appearing as early as late Old English. The loss of the sympathetic dative can not just be a consequence of English’s loss of case markings because the sympathetic dative could easily have survived just as the directional dative did with verbs of giving. Examples of the directional dative are in (12) and (13).

(12) Josh gave Lindsey the book. Josh gave her the book.

*Josh broke Lindsey’s arm. Josh broke her the arm.

(13) Josh gave the book to Lindsey. Josh gave it to her.

*Josh broke the arm to Lindsey. Josh broke the arm to her.

Other Germanic languages, Swedish and Norwegian, where cases were neutralized like in English, the external possessor construction is not lost and is actually transformed into locative prepositional phrases. Of course, the sympathetic dative is also preserved in Germanic languages that have retained their case distinctions like Icelandic.

This leads us to conclude that English integrated the internal possessor construction through borrowing. And which languages have such a construction? You guessed it—Celtic. Insular Celtic to be exact. Vennemann (1999) calls this a “contact phenomenon” and displays examples of the internal possessor construction in Middle Welsh (13) and Early Modern Irish (14) (361) .

(13) “He had broken his arm.”

Mae e   wedi torri   ei  fraich

is     he ADJ break his arm

(14) “Cut off my head”

ben        mo chend    dim

cut-off  my   head from-me

Vennemann (1999) holds to his claim that the internal construction was a hand-me-down contact feature from Semitic languages by further examining Hebrew and Arabic’s use of external construction which have been highlighted in (15) Hebrew and (16) Arabic (363).

(15) “and he cut off his head with it.”

wajjikråt       -bah       ‘œt   -rōšō

and-cut-off-he with-her ACC head-his

(16) “Mary broke her neck.”

kasarat Mary raqabatahā

broke  Mary neck-her

We can only assume that English’s ousting of the sympathetic dative with the internal possessor construction is exactly what happened when the Celtic languages endured their language contact situation with Semitic languages.

2.3 Substratum Contact Features: Embedded Inversion

Filppula (2000) discusses the influence of Celtic languages on inversion in embedded questions in some regional dialects of English: Tyneside, Hebridean English, Welsh English, Southern-Hiberno-English, and Northern-Hiberno-English. He introduces three different hypotheses for this inversion. The first predicts that embedded inversion was retained from earlier forms of English, possibly from when English had a very robust verb-second property. He says that this hypothesis is undermined by the marginal status of embedded inversion in earlier forms of English. Embedded inversion turns out to be quite rare in Early Modern English, as evidenced Table 1 (Filppula: 2000: 442). The second hypothesis says that this is a simple vernacular inversion caused by simplification. Filppula (2000) agrees that there is evidence to support embedded inversion is to some extent a feature of general vernacular, but in some varieties, embedded inversion is more prominent than in other varieties. The third, and the hypothesis for which Filppula argues most, is that the inversion is caused by an elementary transfer from Celtic languages.

Embedded inversion has been described as a feature that is mostly typical of vernacular or colloquial forms of English. These inversions are typical of vernaculars in the British Isles, but Filppula (2000) points out that it is common enough in other forms of English colloquial speech. Embedded inversion has very close parallels in Celtic substratum languages, which have verb-raising in both root and embedded clauses. Filppula (2000) sites an example of Old Irish which keeps the word order of direct questions in indirect questions. It’s particularly transparent in the case of Yes/No questions. “Were you content?” in Old Irish is An raibh tú sásta? An is the question participle (QP), so a literal translation would be identical to English, besides the question participle an. In an embedded question: “He asked you if you were content,” Old Irish retains this verbal/nominal inversion in (17).

(17)  Chuir sé   ceist        ort    an  raibh  tú sásta

Put    he question on.you QP were you content

Irish doesn’t have the standard English way of stating an embedded question with if or whether. The inversion is retained in word order of Wh-questions as well. The direct Wh-question has the same word order as an English Yes/No question, though it is embedded under a different layer consisting of the relative clause structure. A is Old Irish’s relative particle (RP) in (18) and (19).

(18) Where did you see it?

Cé      an   áit      a bhfaca  tú  é

Where the place RP  saw   you it?

Again, this inversion is retained in an embedded Wh-question.

(19) He asked where you saw it

Chuir sé     ceist        cé    an  áit      a bhfaca tú é

“Put   he question where the place RP saw you it.”

Similar structures exist in other Celtic languages, which are directly parallel to the six regional dialects that Filppula (2000) mentions. The yes/no questions’ correspondence is complete, while the wh-questions in Old Irish require the use of a relative participle signaling the relative clause structure. Filppula (2000) believes this accounts for the greater degree of use in embedded yes/no questions than in embedded wh-questions of the six regional varieties of English.

3.1 Superstratum Contact Features

In his article Celtic Influence on Old English Rhetoric, Wolfgang Kuhlwein (1998) examines the contextualized rhetoric in Old English poetry, contrasting it with Old High German, Icelandic, and Nordic texts and comparing it to Welsh and Cornish texts. He states that the frequency of five rhetoric characteristics have a “full-scale exploitation of the semiotic repertoire of iconic, indexalic, and symbolic relationships between language and the world to which it relates” are mirrored in a large diversity of Old English and Celtic texts and are missing entirely or radically different from Germanic texts (Kuhlwein: 1998: 231). There is a sharp contrast between the way Celtic and Old English texts used these macro- and micro-structures and how Germanic language texts used them.

The first is the interweave of human and supernatural/nonhuman elements. Kuhlwein (1998) sites specific examples from Old English’s Battle of Maldon written in 991 A.D. The poem frequently describes the warriors as wælwulfas “wolves of the blood-drenched battle ground”, which shows an intermixing of human and supernatural elements. As does the Welsh manuscript The Dream of Rhonabwy in which a battle is waged between humans and ravens. In the manuscript the ravens are depicted as having wrath, fierceness, high spirit, and courage. The nature of human and non-human merge in the ravens, as they are equipped with human emotions. Kuhlwein (1998) says that this form of rhetoric prevails over most Celtic poetry. In contrast, he sites the Old Nordic text Völundarkvidha where females from another world called Valkyries marry human mates. This mixing of human with non-human is inherently different than both the Celtic and Old English texts.

The second rhetoric component that Kuhlwein (1998) discusses is the strong emphasis on color. Again, in Old English Battle of Maldon, color plays an important role as the wolves’ gloomy grayness, the silvery shine of the water, and the darkness and blackness of death are all weaved together to contrast the end of the scene where a strong feeling for the color effects of light, luminescence and glow are detailed. In the Welsh text The Dream of Rhonabwy, the description of the youth shows an acute awareness and sensitivity to color. The youth literally have a craving for color and light. Kuhlwein (1998) sites examples such as “a mighty lance, speckled yellow,” “a scarf of blue satin”, and “a brooch of gold.”

A sociocultural evaluation is the third rhetoric microstructure that Kuhlwein highlights. In the Old English poem Hildebrandslied, the poet has a sociocultural evaluation where he equalizes the prospect of fighting and receiving honor for it. In the Welsh text The Book of Aneirin, there is a gathering of strength and energy when the poet rallies to the banner, a sociocultural evaluation. Kuhlwein (1998) states that sociocultural evaluation and ethical values are prevalent through most Germanic texts, but it’s usually from the combatants’ point of view. It is rarely ever an explicit, personal comment from the poet. He sites specific examples from the Germanic language texts Bragarædhur and Gylfaginning where the reader/listener expects to find a personal sociocultural evaluation at  the endings of sagas and tales. Kuhlwein gives two other forms of rhetoric evident in Celtic and Old English texts and lacking in Germanic ones, unity shinning through surface plurality and personal emotion/involvement.

This textual phenomenon can be attributed to the trilingual environment in which these texts were written. Nearly two centuries before the first Anglo Saxon invasion, Roman mercenaries who were of Germanic descent married woman of Celtic descent. They ultimately settled down in Roman forts and raised children in a Latin-Germanic-Celtic environment. Emphasis was given to Germanic and Celtic. It was the Celtic speaking mother who raised the children and instilled the Celtic language and culture. These interlingual families outlived the Anglo Saxon conquest, and by nearly a century later, Irish, a Celtic language, took the lead in Christianizing northern England, excelling in educational and cultural leadership. These mercenaries are to whom many Anglo Saxons flocked to receive their education.

4.1 What Really Happened?

Kuhlwein (1999) also discusses that after the Anglo Saxon invasions, many Celts were enslaved or killed, but those who weren’t, fled to the outskirts of the British Isles to escape the invasions. Many scholars say Celtic languages had very little impact on Old English since the language contact was kept to a minimum, but McWhorter (2008) full-heartedly disagrees. He says that many historians believe that the “Anglo Saxon invaders routed the Celts in more or less a genocide” (11). The genocide of a people expanding an area about the size of New England would only be possible with present-day weaponry. The Anglo Saxon invaders had only swords and spears, so the genocide of an entire people seems highly unlikely. Bryson (1990) compares the writers of this era claiming that there was a total genocide of Celts to historians of the Elizabethan era writing about Elizabethan England based on hearsay evidence. The writing historians during these invasions lacked evidence of a genocide of an entire people because the news they received was unsubstantial and irregular. Modern comparative genetics is able to reconstruct the migration of human beings since the emergence of Homo sapiens by tracing mutations of mitochondrial DNA in women and the Y chromosome in men. These tests show that only four percent of British men and essentially no British woman have DNA that is traceable to migrations across the North Sea. This proves that the Germanic invaders were not men who brought their wives and children with them on the invasions, as bringing them would bulk up the total number of people on the voyages. Thus, McWhorter (2008) corroborates Kuhlwein’s (1998) theory that Germanic invaders settled down with Celtic women, giving birth to bilingual children. McWhorter (2008) furthers the claim that Celts were well integrated into Anglo Saxon society by discussing the laws that were put forth by Ine, the seventh-century king of Wessex, an era before any man considered himself to be king of England as a whole. His laws indicate a Britian in which Celts are in large numbers, referring to them as the Wealhs“Welshmen.” Ine also created legislation on their behalf, proving the integration of Celts in Anglo Saxon society. However, this integration was not exactly full. This name given to Celts was not what they called themselves, which was Cymry. Though Wealhs translates as “Welshmen” to us, Wealhs actually meant “foreigner” with a tacit implication of “slave.” However, Ine created legislation on behalf of these “slaves,” referring to them as respectable landowners and horseman serving the king.

5.1 Mutual Reinforcement Hypothesis

Thus, the genocide story has fallen apart. We must assume that these Celts who were integrated into Anglo Saxon society were forced to speak Old English, sprinkling their Celtic grammar into it. But what kind of influence did English have on the Celtic languages besides just reiterating doperiphrasis, according to Van Der Auwera (2002)’s mutual reinforcement hypothesis? Otto Jespersen (1961) identifies phrasal verbs as “one of the most characteristic traits of the English language (323). Rottet (2005) examines Welsh’s prolonged contact with English and states that it has had a rather profound influence on Welsh speakers use of phrasal verbs. However, the evidence is blurred because of the fact that Brythonic Celtic languages have a similar construction of a phrasal verb: verb + adverb. Rottet (2005) gives quite a few examples of these verb + adverb constructions highlighted in (20) (42).

(20) mynd i lawr “go down”

mynd i mewn “go in”

mynd i ffwrdd “go away”

mynd i bant “go off”

mynd i fyny “go up”

Mynd is the infinitive verb “to go.” The  i “to” in these data attaches to a noun object. i lawr means “down.” lawr is a variation on the word llawr “floor” and ffwrdd is a variant of ffordd “road.” These i+ noun object constructions are inherently directions, thus resembling something quite like English phrasal verbs. In Welsh, pronominal direct objects are placed differently into the sentence than in English. English’s “break it down” looks like (21) in Welsh.

(21) torri   i lawr              ef

break to floor (down) it

Brythonic’s daughter languages include Welsh, Cornish, and Breton; it split into these three distinct, yet extremely close dialects in the sixth century. The latter is the only language not to have had prolonged, intensive language contact with English, which proves to be very helpful in discovering English’s influence on Welsh phrasal verbs. Breton phrasal verbs distinguish between dynamic and static adverbs, Breton d’an nec’h means “up” when motion is implied, but en nec’h is used for “up” when location only is intended. The biggest difference between phrasal verbs in Welsh and Breton is their frequency of use. Because Breton has quite a few single word verbs that express the same thing as many of its potential phrasal verbs, a limited number of verbs of motion enter into a phrasal verb construction in Breton, while Welsh “constructs new combinations quite productively” (Rottet: 2005: 47).

Rottet (2005) gives quite a few patterns that lend themselves to prove that English’s phrasal verbs did have a large impact on Cornish and Welsh phrasal verbs. The first is when Welsh speakers add an adverb to a verb that customarily does not take a particle. Rottet (2005) calls these additions as “pleonastic claquing of particle” (53). Welsh similarly has a lot of one-word verb phrases that are semantically identical to phrasal verbs in the verb + i + adverb construction, but often times, a Welsh speaker will choose the use of the phrasal verb over the one-word verb. And then there is complete lexical borrowing on behalf of Welsh, such as in the example in (22) from Owen (1993: 65).

(22) If he were in the chapel, he would be kicked out at once.”

Dase fo yn     y capel,            mi fase yn cael y kick out yn syth

If     he were in the chapel,    would be        kicked out  at once.

However, nominal phrasal verbs are the most frequent direct borrowings into Welsh, such as in the example in (23) (Rottet: 2005: 60).

(23)   criw  o dwyllwyr, comiwynyddion a dropowts.

“crew of deceivers, communists,  and dropouts.”

The rendering of English phrasal verbs in Welsh is only one kind of linguistic element that English has had influence on in Modern Welsh according to Rottet (2005).

Of course, we couldn’t conclude a manuscript about the influence of Celtic on English without surveying a sample of the many, many authors that argue for lexical borrowing only. They are linguistic researchers who choose not to buy into the overwhelming amount of evidence that Insular Celtic languages had a profound effect on English. Stalmaszczyk (1997) believes that the amount of Celtic influence on English was minimal and applies only to a rather expansive list of vocabulary, and only a handful of these words exist in the language today. Loreto (2000) documents a few scholars saying that Latin words borrowed into English during this time were most likely from Latin-speaking Celts. It’s strange if these scholars truly believe that Anglo Saxons would borrow Latin words from Celts but not Celtic words. Loreto (2000) believes that many of the words that scholars say are of Celtic origin have multiple etymologies due to the number of languages spoken in the British Isles during this time. Lovis (2001) finds that Celtic loanwords come from three identifiable sources: the continent—words associated with battle and conflict, loans taken over after settlement—usually place names, and words associated with the Christianization of the British Isles—usually of Irish origin in particular.

6.1 Conclusion

The hypothesis of Celtic contact influence on English is more widely accepted among non-British scholars. One would think that acceptance of a theory among scholars would not depend on the nationality, institutional environment, or native language of each scholar, but in the case of Celtic influence on English it apparently does. The work and textual analysis presented in this manuscript are all only possible theories in the eyes of most scholars of the English language. The difference in acceptance of such theories lies in the difference of opinion of how much coexistence English and Celtic really had. Many historians believe that the Anglo Saxons only terrorized the Celts, never really integrating with them. This seige, according to some historians, made the Celts flee to the outskirts of the Isles, keeping language contact at a minimum. However, historians and linguists who believe the genocide of an entire people is highly unlikely and that the Anglo Saxons had to have had some integration with the Celts, believe in greater influence of Celtic languages on English. Within the last thirty years though, Linguists have been able to develop research methods that bring them closer to being able to judge some theories more plausible than others. There will, however, probably never be a true consensus.


Bryson, Bill. 1990. “The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way”. Harper Collins: New             York.

Filppula, Markku. 2000. “Inversion in Embedded Questions in Some Regional Varieties             of English”. Generative Theory and Corpus Studies ed. by Ricardo Bermúdez, David             Denison, Richard M. Hogg, C. B. McCully, 439-453. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de             Gruyter.

Jerpersen, Otto. 1961. A Modern English grammar on historical principles. Vol 2. London:             Allen and Unwin.

Kemola, Juhani. 2000 “The Origins of the Northern Subject Rule – A Case of Early contact?”

Tristram 2000.329-346

King, G. 1993. Modern Welsh: A comprehensive grammar. London: Routledge.

Kuhlwein, Wolfgang. 1998. “Celtic Influence on Old English Rhetoric-A Case Study of the             Interface between Diachronic Contrastive Rhetoric and History of Art”. Studia Anglica             Posnaniensia 33.213-243.

Loreto, Todd. 2000. “Where Have All the Celtic Words Gone?”. English Today 3:63. 6-10.

Lovis, Claire. 2001. “Celtic Influence on the English Language”.  Unpublished ms. Retrieved             March 15, 2010, from the University of Toronto’s website:             http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/6361Lovis.htm

McWhorter, John. 2008. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the Untold Story of English. New             York: Penguin Group.

Owen, Daniel. 1993. Rhys Lewis. Cardiff: Hughes

Penhallurick, Robert. 1996. “The Grammar of Northern Welsh English: Progressive Verb             Phrases“. Speech Past and Present: Studies in English Dialectology ed. by Juhani             Klemola, Merja Kytö, Matti Rissanen, 308-342.

Pokorny, Julius. 1959. “Keltische Urgescgichte und Spracjwissenschaft.” Die Sprache 5.152-164

Rottet, Kevin J. 2005. “Phrasal Verbs and English Influence in Welsh”. Word 56:1. 39-70.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet

Stalmaszczyk, Piotr. 1997. “Celtic Elements in English Vocabulary-A Critical Reassessment”.            Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, 32. 77-87.

Van Der Auwera (2002), Johan & Inge Genee. 2002. “English do: On the Convergence of             Languages and Linguists“. English Language and Linguistics 6:2. 283-307.

Vennemann, Theo. 1999. “Atlantis Semitica: Structural Contact Features in Celtic and             English”.Historical Linguistics 1999 ed. by Laurel J. Brinton, 351-369. Amsterdam:             John Benjamins.


Racial Dynamics: Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”

*Published in The Fogdog Review Winter 2010

The concluding line to Toni Morrison’s only published short story “Recitatif,”  ‘‘What the hell happened to Maggie?” is a curious one indeed (Morrison 2698).  Instead of bringing about a resolving conclusion, this question advances the reader’s curiosity to the nostalgic memory of Maggie, a mute woman who worked in the kitchen at the orphanage in which the story’s two main characters, Roberta and Twyla, were raised. The ambiguous childhood memory of Maggie figuratively and literally becomes the central conflict between Twyla and Roberta’s friendship. Neither of the girls ever truly knew Maggie well and neither saw Maggie after leaving St. Bonny’s orphanage, but the memory of the orchard in which the bowlegged Maggie fell reoccurs every time the girls reencounter one another in adulthood. Maggie is not an active character in the story; she is a mere memory for Twyla and Roberta. Instead, Maggie’s character works as a symbol for both Twyla and Roberta’s companionship and conflict and their similarities and differences.

Twyla, the story’s narrator, tells the story from a first person point of view. However, her narration is challenged as Morrison explores the memory of Maggie in the orchard, making Twyla reevaluate this incident every time she encounters Roberta. Twyla and Roberta disagree about the incident in the orchard, and this disagreement forces Twyla to wonder if her memory is deceiving her. The orchard becomes an important setting, as it is the place where Twyla and Roberta become both victims and victimizers. When she first mentions the orchard, Twyla says, “I don’t know why I dreamt about the orchard so much. Nothing really happened there. Nothing all that important, I mean,” (Morrison 2686).  Here, Twyla’s remark is a bit confusing and is indeed something to look at. As David Goldstein-Shirley says in his article “Race and Response: Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’:”

This comment is most problematic. The entire narrative comprises Twyla’s recollections of past events. If, as readers naturally assume when reading a first-person account, the narrator is speaking to them in the present, then why would Twyla say that nothing really happened in the orchard? Telling a retrospective story, she ought to know that the incident with Maggie, which obsesses her throughout the story, is not only significant but crucial (Goldstein-Shirley).

Yes, as the audience progresses further and further into the story, they find that important events did take place in the orchard, and that Maggie’s humiliation, as well as their own, become a central theme to the story. When first discussing the orchard, Twyla describes it as having hundreds of apple trees and being “fat with flowers,” (Morrison 2686). They would watch the older, intimidating girls dance to the radio there. Twyla then describes a particular day when Maggie hurries through the orchard to catch her bus but falls, and all the older girls laugh at her. Twyla feels some sting of guilt as she ventures to say, “We should have helped her up, I know, but we were scared of those girls,” (Morrison 2686). Twyla realizes, here, the hierarchal power at St. Bonny’s and her own position in it. Twyla and Roberta were intimidated by and frightened of the older girls. Looking back on it, however, Twyla realizes the older girls were merely acting tough even though they were “poor little girls [who] fought their uncles off,” (Morrison 2686). At St. Bonny’s, the older girls group together to victimize Roberta, Twyla, and Maggie. Twyla and Roberta then victimize Maggie by calling her names because they fear being voiceless and powerless like Maggie. They identify themselves with the older, victimizing girls instead of coming to Maggie’s aid.

Twyla and Roberta are able to be victimizers because they have each other. They share the fact that their mothers have left them at St. Bonny’s, Twyla’s because she “danced all night and Roberta’s [because she] was sick” (Morrison 2685). Although each girl is lucky that her parents are not dead, both feel the pain of abandonment and this feeling becomes a key reason as to why the girls become so close despite their racial differences. Although the girls were very close at St. Bonny’s, Twyla describes their meeting again at a diner called, “Howard Johnson’s” as being much less warm. Their racial separation seems to be a much larger issue. When Roberta and Twyla later discuss their militant meeting, Roberta says, ‘‘Oh, Twyla, you know how it was in those days: black-white,” (Morrison 2693). In Newburgh, not only do the two women live in separate sections of a racially segregated community, but also they are of different socio-economic classes. Roberta married a wealthy man that worked with “computers and stuff,” and Twyla married a fireman (Morrison 2693).

When the town becomes divided because of the bussing controversy, the racial and economic differences between Twyla and Roberta become even more apparent. Twyla becomes an advocate for bussing while Roberta vehemently opposes it. Their disagreement over what exactly happened to Maggie is reflected in this public confrontation. Twyla begins to argue with Roberta while Roberta is picketing, and a large mass of people surround Twyla’s car and begin throwing rocks at it. Twyla responds to this aggressive action by saying:

Automatically I reached for Roberta, like in the old days in the orchard when [the older girls] saw us watching them and we had to get out of there, and if one of us fell the other pulled her up and if one of us was caught the other stayed to kick and scratch, and neither would leave the other behind. My arm shot out of the car window but no receiving hand was there (Morrison 2695).

At this point, Twyla identifies with the helpless feelings that Maggie had in the orchard that day. At St. Bonny’s, Twyla and Roberta were close friends because of their feelings of abandonment, but here, Roberta abandons Twyla. Because she gropes for Roberta’s hand only to find it not there, Twyla relates to the same humiliation that Maggie had in the orchard. Roberta then compares Twyla to one of “the big girls on the second floor” by telling Twyla that she is “the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground,” (Morrison 2686, 2695).

The hierarchies that existed back in the orchard at St. Bonny’s now exist in this historical, public scene. These hierarchies, however, are different. The power hierarchies in the orchard concern intimidation and powerlessness, but in the bussing scene, they concern race. Twyla had previously described Maggie as “sandy-colored,” so when Roberta described Maggie as being black, Twyla at once rejects this idea (Morrison 2686). This, however, can lead readers to question the validity of Twyla’s memory. “The problematic accusation also calls into question the completeness of Twyla’s storytelling,” (Goldstein-Shirley). Upon later thought, Twyla admits, “I actually couldn’t be certain. She wasn’t pitch-black, I knew, or I would have remembered that. What I remember was the kiddie hat, and the semicircle legs,” (Morrison 2697). Because Twyla was unsure of which race Maggie actually belonged to, it is obvious that race was not a factor in the St. Bonny’s orchard. “During their childhood, this bond conceal[ed] complications of race and class,” but now with where each of the women are in this tightly-knit community, race takes on a whole new meaning (Androne 136). Elizabeth Abel even says, “Roberta is skeptical about racial harmony.” Is it her overbearing mother’s fault for her abrupt discrimination, or was it her uprising in social class? Regardless, Maggie’s humiliating fall in the orchard begins to take on racial significance because of it.

At Twyla and Roberta’s last meeting at the diner where they run into each other, Roberta confesses to having lied about the two of them kicking Maggie when she was already down on the ground. Twyla had already concluded that she had not kicked Maggie like Roberta said but admits to having wanted to. Her wanting to kick Maggie when she was already down is due to the fact that Twyla connects Maggie with her mother. “Maggie was my dancing mother,” (Morrison 2697). “Twyla and Roberta revise their memories of Maggie in order to transfer their anxieties and anger toward their mothers onto her,” (Androne 134). Twyla connects her repressed hostility toward her irresponsible mother with the pity she had for Maggie. At the diner, Roberta concedes that she had also wanted to kick Maggie. She too identifies her feelings of abandonment with Maggie, comparing Maggie with her mother as well even though Roberta’s mother  is the opposite of Twyla’s mother, Mary. Moreover, both Twyla and Roberta identify themselves with Maggie. “I knew she wouldn’t scream, couldn’t—just like me—and I was glad about that,” says Twyla as she compares her own feelings of helplessness to Maggie’s (Morrison 2697).

The way in which Toni Morrison creates an inactive character such as Maggie, and turns her into a central symbol brings about interesting questions regarding the racial fissure that divides Roberta and Twyla. Through Maggie, the woman begin to release their tumultuous and repressed feelings of St. Bonny’s because of Mrs. Itkin, Twyla and Roberta’s caretaker, nicknamed Big Bozo, and their mothers’ neglect. By connecting themselves with Maggie, a woman they formerly suppressed, they gain a greater understanding of themselves, each other, and their racial differences. However, “What the hell happened to Maggie?” is still a lingering question on their minds (Morrison 2698). It is one that will never be answered, and the women will never be as complete as they would have been if they had not abandoned Maggie and eventually each other.

Works Cited

Abel, Elizabeth. ‘‘Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation,’’ inCritical Inquiry, Spring, 1993, pp. 471–98.

Androne, Helane Adams. MELUS, Summer2007, Vol. 32 Issue 2, p133-150, 18

Revised Memories and Colliding Identities: Absence and Presence in Morrison’sRecitatif” and Viramontes’s “Tears on My Pillow.”.

Goldstein-Shirley, David. ‘‘Race and Response: Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’,’’ in Short Story, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 77–86.

Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Volume E. 7th ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton & Company, 2007. 2684-98.


Comments on: "What Really Happened to English? Examining the Celtic Hypothesis" (2)

  1. Just a few remarks:
    – Van Der Auwera goes by the first name of Johan which would suggest he is a ‘he’ rather than a ‘she’, in Belgium that is ;-). http://webh01.ua.ac.be/vdauwera/picture.html.
    – The French use of “faire” is in my personal opinion far from being periphrastic. It marks that the subject gets something done on his behalf “Je l’ai fait venir”: I had him come.
    Other than that, thanks for this nice article on a much debated topic.

  2. … so if English hadn’t underwent this Celtic influence so long ago, our question syntax might be similar to Frisian’s …

    I stopped reading when I came to this linguistic gem.

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