An English Lesson - The Mongrel Language

The old Celtic tongues

2ooo years ago there were two main strands of language spoken in the British Isles. Brethonic, versions of the Welsh and Cornish that remain today and Goidelic, the Irish and Scottish Gaelic. The Cymric language was spoken from the Scottish lowlands southwards, through Cumbria, the Midlands right down to Kent. If you look around the area you can still get some idea of its influence in the place names where their linguistic resonance still echos.The terms for many features in the landscape retain their former names, crag, cwm, tor, bog and loch all coming from the original Celtic words.

Glasgow comes from Glas Coed, the Blue Wood, Avon means river, Dover from Dyrfr.The Brethonic words caer a fort and Pen, the head or end, appear in places like Carlisle and Penrith. At this time a settlement in the southeast Llundain was begining to emerge, later to be known as London. Many places were derive from their original Celtic names which were either translated into the new language of the invaders or adaptations of the native name. Originally known as Rhydychen (literally Oxen-ford) but now recognised as Oxford.

Bring on the Romans

Things then took a dramatic change in 43 AD with the arrival of the Romans. For the next 400 years Latin was the spoken language of commerce and church with many of its influences still found in Welsh today. The word for arm - braich in welsh and braccio in italian. Bridge, comes from ponte and pont and word for the sea in welsh is mor where in italian it's mare. A number of foods have similar soundings to them, for instance honey, mel in Welsh and miele in Italian. or milk, laeth and latte. Although not exact matches in some cases there is a definite link between the languages.

After 410 AD the Romans became frustrated with the nibbling at their western borders by the Picts, Vikings, Danes, the Saxons and promptly left. Whether it was the Celts who invited the Saxons to oust the Danes or vice versa however both parties arrived and began carving out a niche for themselves, both in the landscape and within the language. The Danish had such words as honning, melk and kniven (honey, milk and knife), here the beginings of English as we know it started. Over the next 300 years there was a constant state of flux. Danes taking more land in the north, the Saxons expanding in the south. Eventually the Celtic tribes in the north were cut off from each other and either wiped out or assimilated into the Danish tribes, leaving the area roughly corresponding to Wales and Cornwall as the last strongholds of the once common language. It was during this time that the Welsh name for England was coined "Lloegr" meaning "the lost lands".

Harold and Norman

Then in 1066 Harold had a right time of it. Initially his army romped across the country to defeat the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Then with a depleted army marched back south to suppress the invading William the Bastard of Normandy at Hastings. Here unfortunately for him he was killed and with it his kingdom. For the next 300 years French became the language of court, while the peasants still spoke Anglo Saxon. This explains why we quite often have two words for a single item. Food again provides an excellent example. The peasants would tend the animals, while the lords ate the meat. So we have sheep, cows and pigs from the Old English and mutton (mouton), beef (boeuf) and pork (porc) from the French. This has given us a two tier language where the use of French derived words tends to be considered pretentious or arty  While it would be perfectly acceptable to "abhor" something, you would be more likely to say you "hated" it.

The Anglo Saxon words, are our vulgar, down to earth way of speaking. When someone swears or uses coarse language you will hear reference to "using the Anglo Saxon".

Ogham Script
Ogham Script

Modern Language

Eventually, over time English developed into the form we have today but along this journey we picked up many words an phrases that are common to other languages but now appear regularly in our own. The Empire greatly influence our way of speaking and introduced many new words and concepts to us. India gave us personal hygiene with shampoo as well as pyamas, curry and veranda, Kop, veld, commando, aardvark and trek come from South Africa, while America still exerts a great and ever growing influence over our daily use of the language.

Modern technology has also had its effect too, television has exposed us like at no other time to the influences of other countries use of English and even computer games have had made their effects known. Text speak rendering most children these days illiterate, reducing our once rich language to a series of letters and exclamation marks. Its quite ironic really that the brevity of modern text speak is in a strange way echoes the Ogham script of 2000 years ago. Here a series of lines and crosses were used. I guess we have perhaps come full circle. I think that UK English will go the way of Latin, becoming obsolete and making way for newer, Americanised versions of the language, The word is an evolving thing and language has always changed over time.

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Comments 9 comments

Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 7 years ago from UK

Brilliant hub! I'm absolutely fascinated by our language and it's roots, and I drive my children mad explaining where words come from and how they link in with other languages. We were in Wales a few weeks ago and I noticed that the word for church is eglws. 'Oh, that's just like eglise in French!' I exclaimed, as the kids rolled their eyes and yawned! I agree with you completely about text speak. Our language will continue to alter until everyone speaks an Americanized shortened version. Too sad.


knell63 profile image

knell63 7 years ago from Umbria, Italy Author

My nieces are the same talking about elevators,sidewalks, trunks and gas, what's wrong with lift, pavement, boot and petrol. Aparently, I was told "this is the new way". Perhaps they are right, I am sure Chaucer would have had a hissy fit if he saw what we have done with his language.

Welsh for a dress - ffrog, English slang - a frock.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 7 years ago from UK

Gaelic for beach -tra, Welsh - traith, Cornish English - Strand


knell63 profile image

knell63 7 years ago from Umbria, Italy Author

My favourite translations are corgi and dwrgi, obviously the little royal dog - meaning dwarf (cor) dog (ci) and dwrgi is an otter, a water dog. Dwr (water) and ci meaning dog.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 7 years ago from UK

You're a mine of information! I'm glad I'm not the only one who looks at words in this way.


knell63 profile image

knell63 7 years ago from Umbria, Italy Author

Thank you, but I am not sure all those nearest and dearest to me would call it information. Most commonly said is a head full of ...... well you know.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

This is an awesome Hub! I took a French class for fun and the instructor started out by telling a story of teaching English to some French people and one of them said, "Hey! This just French poorly pronounced!" :) Not exactly. But it made a humorous point.

Thanks for this article. I enjoyed it thoroughly.


Adrian 5 years ago

Brilliantly done article. Thank you!


knell63 profile image

knell63 5 years ago from Umbria, Italy Author

Thanks Adrian, I am glad you enjoyed the article.

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