January 14, 2007

Are we ready yet to let a historian claim that English is a Celtic language with Germanic words?

There has long been a kind of secret society of scholars who consider English grammar to be deeply imprinted by Celtic language's structure. The idea is that the reason that English is, in terms of its grammar, a kind of twisted sister in the Germanic family (an Anglophone doesn't precisely feel "at home" when learning German, whereas a Swede, Frisian or even Afrikaans speaker does) is because the Celts who learned the language of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes learned it in a Celtic-infused way, and their way gradually became THE way English was spoken by everybody.

The more extreme advocates even claim that English is Celtic grammar with Germanic words. As you might expect, this idea has never penetrated mainstream work on English in any serious way (although none other than J.R.R. Tolkien was a fellow traveller). As such, I was fascinated to run across a casual espousal of the Celtic Hypothesis by a nonspecialist.

It's in Roger Osborne's oddish and fine new Civilization: A New History of the Western World, in which he describes post-fifth century Britain as "a combination of British and Germanic cultures -- the resulting language, for instance, was Germanic in vocabulary, but Celtic in construction." (p. 41)

Where Osborne picked this up is unclear: he happens to give only a very broad "Useful Sources"-type list of bibliography for his chapters. However, he certainly didn't get this from any standard source on the history of English, in which it is regularly stated that the Celts were overwhelmed by Germanic speakers and left no imprint on English beyond place names.

Yet I am not taking this as an occasion to do a grand old Language Log-style post highlighting Osborne as one more non-linguist disseminating linguistic falsehoods to the general public. That's because I have come to think that the Celtic Hypothesis crowd is, in fact, on to something.

Take the way English uses DO in negative sentences like HE DOESN'T KNOW, or interrogative ones like DO YOU LIKE CHEESE? It seems so ordinary to an Anglophone, but what language have you ever learned that used DO like that?

It wasn't a Germanic one, for example. German and the rest do use DO in a fashion related to this (nonstandard German ER TUT DAS SCHREIBEN "He writes that"). But those who have had German classes may well not have known that -- it's strictly nonstandard, rather than perfectly formal as it is in English. And no Germanic language uses DO obligatorily, rather than optionally, in ALL negative and interrogative sentences as English does.

And forget Romance, Arabic, Chinese. In fact, some of the only languages on earth (among 6000) that use DO in this way are Celtic ones spoken in Britain (as well as Celtic prodigal son Breton over in France, which was brought from Britain in the fifth century A.D.). In the late, great Cornish, for example, "Do you love?" was GWRA CARA?, in which GWRA was the DO word.

There are a passel of English grammar features like this, weird as Germanic goes but perfectly ordinary as Celtic. And on top of that, the wonders of the ongoing project tracing the migrations and blendings of humans since the emergence of our species via variations in DNA are currently deep-sixing the old idea that Celts somehow "disappeared" in most of Britain and wound up huddling on the margins in Wales or giving it the old college try in Cornwall but dying out eventually.

Rather, modern Brits are, genetically, full to bursting with chromosomal Celticity (a recommended source is Stephen Oppenheimer's new The Origins of the British). The Celts held on just fine -- and increasing evidence suggests that one of their most vibrant legacies has been leaving many of the features of their notoriously unique languages in English.

Not so many that English is really Celtic with Germanic words -- that is a tasty notion in its counterintuitiveness, but ultimately cannot stand. However, there is increasing evidence that there is enough Celtic in English that standard treatments might well one day start covering it substantially.

As such, I was tickled, albeit perplexed, to find a historian writing casually as if the Celtic Hypothesis were accepted canon -- because I have come to hope that someday it will be.

Posted by John McWhorter at January 14, 2007 02:57 AM