Arrant Pedantry

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Celtic and the History of the English Language

A little while ago a link to this list of 23 maps and charts on language went around on Twitter. It’s full of interesting stuff on linguistic diversity and the genetic relationships among languages, but there was one chart that bothered me: this one on the history of the English language by Sabio Lantz.

The Origins of English

The first and largest problem is that the timeline makes it look as though English began with the Celts and then received later contributions from the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and so on. While this is a decent account of the migrations and conquests that have occurred in the last two thousand years, it’s not an accurate account of the history of the English language. (To be fair, the bar on the bottom gets it right, but it leaves out all the contributions from other languages.)

English began with the Anglo-Saxons. They were a group of Germanic tribes originating in the area of the Netherlands, northern Germany, and Denmark, and they spoke dialects of what might be called common West Germanic. There was no distinct English language at the time, just a group of dialects that would later evolve into English, Dutch, German, Low German, and Frisian. (Frisian, for the record, is English’s closest relative on the continent, and it’s close enough that you can buy a cow in Friesland by speaking Old English.)

The inhabitants of Great Britain when the Anglo-Saxons arrived were mostly romanized Celts who spoke Latin and a Celtic language that was the ancestor of modern-day Welsh and Cornish. (In what is now Scotland, the inhabitants spoke a different Celtic language, Gaelic, and perhaps also Pictish, but not much is known about Pictish.) But while there were Latin- and Celtic-speaking people in Great Britain before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, those languages probably had very little influence on Old English and should not be considered ancestors of English. English began as a distinct language when the Anglo-Saxons split off from their Germanic cousins and left mainland Europe beginning around 450 AD.

For years it was assumed that the Anglo-Saxons wiped out most of the Celts and forced the survivors to the edges of the island—Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland. But archaeological and genetic evidence has shown that this isn’t exactly the case. The Anglo-Saxons more likely conquered the Celts and intermarried with them. Old English became the language of government and education, but Celtic languages may have survived in Anglo-Saxon–occupied areas for quite some time.

From Old to Middle English

Old English continues until about 1066, when the Normans invaded and conquered England. At that point, the language of government became Old French—or at least the version of it spoken by the Normans—or Medieval Latin. Though peasants still spoke English, nobody was writing much in the language anymore. And when English made a comeback in the 1300s, it had changed quite radically. The complex system of declensions and other inflections from Old English were gone, and the language had borrowed considerably from French and Latin. Though there isn’t a firm line, by the end of the eleventh century Old English is considered to have ended and Middle English to have begun.

The differences between Old English and Middle English are quite stark. Just compare the Lord’s Prayer in each language:

Old English:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod
to becume þin rice
gewurþe ðin willa
on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg
and forgyf us ure gyltas
swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge
ac alys us of yfele soþlice
(source)

(The character that looks like a p with an ascender is called a thorn, and it is pronounced like the modern th. It could be either voiceless or voiced depending on its position in a word. The character that looks like an uncial d with a stroke through it is also pronounced just like a thorn, and the two symbols were used interchangeably. Don’t ask me why.)

Middle English:

Oure fadir that art in heuenes,
halewid be thi name;
thi kyngdoom come to;
be thi wille don,
in erthe as in heuene.
Yyue to vs this dai oure breed ouer othir substaunce,
and foryyue to vs oure dettis,
as we foryyuen to oure dettouris;
and lede vs not in to temptacioun,
but delyuere vs fro yuel. Amen.
(source)

(Note that u and v could both represent either /u/ or /v/. V was used at the beginnings of words and u in the middle. Thus vs is “us” and yuel is “evil”.)

While you can probably muddle your way through some of the Lord’s Prayer in Old English, there are a lot of words that are unfamiliar, such as gewurþe and soþlice. And this is probably one of the easiest short passages to read in Old English. Not only is it a familiar text, but it dates to the late Old English period. Older Old English text can be much more difficult. The Middle English, on the other hand, is quite readable if you know a little bit about Middle English spelling conventions.

And even where the Old English is readable, it shows grammatical inflections that are stripped away in Middle English. For example, ure, urne, and urum are all forms of “our” based on their grammatical case. In Middle English, though, they’re all oure, much like Modern English. As I said above, the change from Old English to Middle English was quite radical, and it was also quite sudden. My professor of Old English and Middle English said that there are cases where town chronicles essentially change from Old to Middle English in a generation.

But here’s where things get a little murky. Some have argued that the vernacular language didn’t really change that quickly—it was only the codified written form that did. That is, people were taught to write a sort of standard Old English that didn’t match what they spoke, just as people continued to write Latin even as they were speaking the evolving Romance dialects such as Old French and Old Spanish.

So perhaps the complex inflectional system of Old English didn’t disappear suddenly when the Normans invaded; perhaps it was disappearing gradually throughout the Old English period, but those few who were literate learned the old forms and retained them in writing. Then, when the Normans invaded and people mostly stopped writing in English, they also stopped learning how to write standard Old English. When they started writing English again a couple of centuries later, they simply wrote the language as it was spoken, free of the grammatical forms that had been artificially retained in Old English for so long. This also explains why there was so much dialectal variation in Middle English; because there was no standard form, people wrote their own local variety. It wasn’t until the end of the Middle English period that a new standard started to coalesce and Early Modern English was born.

Supposed Celtic Syntax in English

And with that history established, I can finally get to my second problem with that graphic above: the supposed Celtic remnants in English. English may be a Germanic language, but it differs from its Germanic cousins in several notable ways. In addition to the glut of French, Latin, Greek, and other borrowings that occurred in the Middle and Early Modern English periods, English has some striking syntactic differences from other Germanic languages.

English has what is known as the continuous or progressive aspect, which is formed with a form of be and a present participle. So we usually say I’m going to the store rather than just I go to the store. It’s rather unusual to use a periphrastic—that is, wordy—construction as the default when there’s a shorter option available. Many languages do not have progressive forms at all, and if they do, they’re used to specifically emphasize that an action is happening right now or is ongoing. English, on the other hand, uses it as the default form for many types of verbs. But in German, for example, you simply say Ich gehe in den Laden (“I go to the store”), not Ich bin gehende in den Laden (“I am going to the store”).

English also makes extensive use of a feature known as do support, wherein we insert do into certain kinds of constructions, mostly questions and negatives. So while German would have Magst du Eis? (“Like you ice cream?”), English inserts a dummy do: Do you like ice cream? These constructions are rare cross-linguistically and are very un-Germanic.

And some people have come up with a very interesting explanation for this unusual syntax: it comes from a Celtic substrate. That is, they believe that the Celtic population of Britain adopted Old English from their Anglo-Saxon conquerors but remained bilingual for some time. As they learned Old English, they carried over some of their native syntax. The Celtic languages have some rather unusual syntax themselves, highly favoring periphrastic constructions over inflected ones. Some of these constructions are roughly analogous to the English use of do support and progressive forms. For instance, in Welsh you might say Dwi yn mynd i’r siop (“I am in going to the shop”). (Disclaimer: I took all of one semester in Welsh, so I’m relying on what little I remember plus some help from various websites on Welsh grammar and a smattering of Google Translate.)

While this isn’t exactly like the English equivalent, it looks close. Welsh doesn’t have present participial forms but instead uses something called a verbal noun, which is a sort of cross between an infinitive and gerund. Welsh also uses the particle yn (“in”) to connect the verbal noun to the rest of the sentence, which is actually quite similar to constructions from late Middle and Early Modern English such as He was a-going to the store, where a- is just a worn-down version of the preposition on.

But Welsh uses this construction in all kinds of places where English doesn’t. To say I speak Welsh, for example, you say Dw’i’n siarad Cymraeg, which literally translated means I am in speaking Welsh. In English the progressive stresses that you are doing something right now, while the simple present is used for things that are done habitually or that are generally true. In Welsh, though, it’s unmarked—it’s simply a wordier way of stating something without any special progressive meaning. Despite its superficial similarities to the English progressive, it’s quite far from English in both use and meaning. Additionally, the English construction may have much more mundane origins in the conflation of gerunds and present participles in late Middle English, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Welsh’s use of do support—or, I should say, gwneud support—even less closely parallels that of English. In English, do is used in interrogatives (Do you like ice cream?), negatives (I don’t like ice cream), and emphatic statements (I do like ice cream), and it also appears as a stand-in for whole verb phrases (He thinks I don’t like ice cream, but I do). In Welsh, however, gwneud is not obligatory, and it can be used in simple affirmative statements without any emphasis.

Nor is it always used where it would be in English. Many questions and negatives are formed with a form of the be verb, bod, rather than gwneud. For example, Do you speak Welsh? is Wyt ti’n siarad Cymraeg? (“Are you in speaking Welsh?”), and I don’t understand is Dw i ddim yn deall (“I am not in understanding”). (This is probably simply because Welsh uses the pseudo-progressive in the affirmative form, so it uses the same construction in interrogatives and negatives, much like how English would turn “He is going to the store” into “Is he going to the store?” or “He isn’t going to the store.” Do is only used when there isn’t another auxiliary verb that could be used.)

But there’s perhaps an even bigger problem with the theory that English borrowed these constructions from Celtic: time. Both the progressive and do support start to appear in late Middle English (the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), but they don’t really take off until the sixteenth century and beyond, over a thousand years after the Anglo-Saxons began colonizing Great Britain. So if the Celtic inhabitants of Britain adopted English but carried over some Celtic syntax, and if the reason why that Celtic syntax never appeared in Old English is that the written language was a standardized form that didn’t match the vernacular, and if the reason why Middle English looks so different from Old English is that people were now writing the way they spoke, then why don’t we see these Celticisms until the end of the Middle English period, and then only rarely?

Proponents of the Celtic substrate theory argue that these features are so unusual that they could only have been borrowed into English from Celtic languages. They ask why English is the only Germanic language to develop them, but it’s easy to flip this sort of question around. Why did English wait for more than a thousand years to borrow these constructions? Why didn’t English borrow the verb-subject-object sentence order from the Celtic languages? Why didn’t it borrow the after-perfect, which uses after plus a gerund instead of have plus a past participle (She is after coming rather than She has come), or any other number of Celtic constructions? And maybe most importantly, why are there almost no lexical borrowings from Celtic languages into English? Words are the first things to be borrowed, while more structural grammatical features like syntax and morphology are among the last. And just to beat a dead horse, just because something developed in English doesn’t mean you should expect to see the same thing develop in related languages.

The best thing that the Celtic substrate theory has going for it, I think, is that it’s appealing. It neatly explains something that makes English unique and celebrates the Celtic heritage of the island. But there’s a danger whenever a theory is too attractive on an emotional level. You tend to overlook its weaknesses and play up its strengths, as John McWhorter does when he breathlessly explains the theory in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. He stresses again and again how unique English is, how odd these constructions are, and how therefore they must have come from the Celtic languages.

I’m not a historical linguist and certainly not an expert in Celtic languages, but alarm bells started going off in my head when I read McWhorter’s book. There were just too many things that didn’t add up, too many pieces that didn’t quite fit. I wanted to believe it because it sounded so cool, but wanting to believe something doesn’t make it so. Of course, none of this is to say that it isn’t so. Maybe it’s all true but there just isn’t enough evidence to prove it yet. Maybe I’m being overly skeptical for nothing.

But in linguistics, as in other sciences, a good dose of skepticism is healthy. A crazy theory requires some crazy-good proof, and right now, all I see is a theory with enough holes in it to sink a fleet of Viking longboats.

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Relative What

A few months ago Braden asked in a comment about the history of what as a relative pronoun. (For my previous posts on relative pronouns, see here.) The history of relative pronouns in English is rather complicated, and the system as a whole is still in flux, partly because modern English essentially has two overlapping systems of relativization.

In Old English, there were a few different ways to create a relative pronoun, as this site explains. One way was to use the indeclinable particle þe, another was to use a form of the demonstrative pronoun (roughly equivalent to modern English that/those), and another was to use a demonstrative or personal pronoun followed by þe. Our modern relative that grew out of the use of demonstrative pronouns, though unlike the Old English demonstratives, that does not decline for gender, number, and case.

In the late Old English and Middle English periods, writers and speakers began to use interrogative pronouns as relative pronouns by analogy with French and Latin. It first appeared in texts that were translations from Latin around 1000 AD, but within a couple of centuries it had apparently been naturalized. Other interrogatives became pressed into service as relatives during this time, including who, which, where, when, why, and how. All of these are still in common use in Standard English except for what.

It’s important to note that what is still used as a nominal relative, which means that it does not modify another noun phrase but stands in for a noun phrase and a relative simultaneously, as in We fear what we don’t understand. This could be rephrased as We fear that which we don’t understand or We fear the things that we don’t understand, revealing the nominal and the relative.

But while all the other interrogatives have continued as relatives in Standard English, what as a simple relative pronoun is nonstandard today. Simple relative what is found in the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but at some point in the last three or four centuries it fell out of use in the standard dialect. Unfortunately, I’m not really sure when this happened; the Oxford English Dictionary has citations up through 1740 and then one from 1920 that appears to be dialogue from a novel. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that in the US, it’s mainly found in rural areas in the Midland and South. As I told Braden in a response to his comment, I’ve heard it used myself. A couple of months ago I heard a man in church pray for “our leaders what guides and directs us”—not just a beautiful example of relative what, but also an interesting example of nonstandard verb agreement.

As for why simple relative what died out in Standard English, I really have no idea. Jonathan Hope noted that it’s rather unusual of Standard English to allow other interrogatives as relatives but not this one.1Jonathan Hope, “Rats, Bats, Sparrows and Dogs: Biology, Linguistics and the Nature of Standard English,” in The Development of Standard English, 1300–1800, ed. Laura Wright (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2000). In some ways, relative what would make more sense than relative which, since what is historically part of the same paradigm as who; what comes from the neuter form of the interrogative or indefinite pronoun in Old English, while who comes from the combined masculine/feminine form, as shown here. And as I said in this post, whose was originally the genitive form for both who and what, so allowing simple relative what would make for a rather tidy paradigm.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Hope and other have argued that standardized languages—or perhaps speakers of standardized languages—tend to resist tidy paradigms. Irregularities creep in and are preserved, and they can be surprisingly resistant to change. Maybe someone reading this has a fuller explanation of just how this particular little wrinkle came to be.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Jonathan Hope, “Rats, Bats, Sparrows and Dogs: Biology, Linguistics and the Nature of Standard English,” in The Development of Standard English, 1300–1800, ed. Laura Wright (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2000).
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