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Celtic Inhabitants of Britain

The first inhabitants of the British Isles were not English speakers at all. They were part of an ethnic grouping known as the Celts.

However, not many Celtic loan words survived to become a part of Anglo-Saxon English. The Old English word rice--a noun meaning "kingdom" (cf. Ger. Reich), is almost certainly Celtic in origin, but this word was probably adapted by Germanic tribes on the continent long before the Anglo-Saxons settled in Britain. A few other Old English words such as ambeht ("servant"), and dun ("hill, down") might be Celtic loan-words, but scholars are still uncertain. Algeo (277) suggests about a dozen other Celtic words are probably genuine borrowings from the Celtic peoples during the Anglo-Saxon period, including these mostly archaic terms:

  • bannuc ("a bit")
  • binn ("basket, crib")
  • bratt ("cloak")
  • brocc ("badger")
  • cine ("gathering of parchment leaves")
  • clugge ("bell")
  • dry ("magician")
  • gabolrind ("geometric compass")
  • luh ("lake")
  • mind ("diadem")

The Anglo-Saxons borrowed these words and used them for a few centuries, but these later fell out of common use. They simply didn't "stick" linguistically.

In general, two types of Celtic loan words were likely targets of permanent Anglo-Saxon adaptation before the Norman Conquest:

(1) Toponyms or place-names. For instance, Cornwall, Carlisle, Avon, Devon, Dover, London, and Usk are all originally Celtic names. Other places like Lincoln and Lancaster are semi-Celtic in origin; i.e., they have a -coln ending that originally comes from Latin colonia or a -caster ending that originally comes from Latin castra via Celtic ceaster, which were Latin loan words the Celts borrowed from the Romans, but which in turn the Anglo-Saxons adopted as loan-words from Celtic languages. Many Celtic toponyms are hidden in the first syllable of other modern names, such as the first syllable of Lichfield, Worcester, Gloucester, Exeter, Winchester, and Salisbury. Other general geographic features--cumb (a combe, a valley) and torr (projecting hill or rock, peak, as in modern Glastonbury Tor)--attach themselves to a large number of place-names.

(2) Latin words the Celts borrowed from Rome, which were in turn borrowed by the Anglo-Saxon invaders--including words like candle (Latin candelere, "to shine") and ass (Latin asinus).

Possibly the word cross and the verb cursian (which gives us and the Anglo-Saxons the ability "to curse") were originally Celtic words--though cross may have been borrowed from the Old Norse. Less used today, the word "anchorite" comes from Celtic ancor ("hermit").

Ironically, the largest number of Celtic borrowings occurred not during the Anglo-Saxon period, when the Angles and Saxons first lorded it over the conquered Celts, but they occurred centuries later during the Middle English period. Algeo notes these Johnny-come-lately Celtic terms include Scots Gaelic words--such as clan and loch. In the 17th century or thereafter, Scots Gaelic also offered words like bog, cairn, plaid, slogan, and whiskey. Welsh words like crag also appeared at about this time. In the 17th century, Irish Gaelic offered English words such as banshee, blarney, colleen, and shillelagh. More recently, words like cromlech and eisteddfod have entered English from Welsh as well (277), leading up to perhaps a couple hundred Celtic loan words if we generously count second- and third- hand borrowings of originally Celtic words imported from Romance languages like French, Italian, and Spanish sources later in the Renaissance.


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