May 26, 2007

Tolkien on walh

In response to my post on "Dialect variation in the terminal flourishes of Flemish chaffinches", John Cowan sent a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien on the Germanic root of words such as Welsh, Walloon, Vlach and walnut, to correct the impression that it might have meant "foreigner" in general rather than "speaker of Celtic or Latin" in particular.

This comes from Tolkien's essay "English and Welsh", originally a lecture given at Oxford in 1955:

It seems clear that the word walh, wealh which the English brought with them was a common Germanic name for a man of what we should call Celtic speech. But in all the recorded Germanic languages in which it appears it was also applied to the speakers of Latin. That may be due, as is usually assumed, to the fact that Latin eventually occupied most of the areas of Celtic speech within the knowledge of Germanic peoples. But it is, I think, also in part a linguistic judgement, reflecting that very similarity in style of Latin and Gallo-Brittonic that I have already mentioned. It did not occur to anyone to call a Goth a walh even if he was long settled in Italy or in Gaul. Though 'foreigner' is often given as the first gloss on wealh in Anglo-Saxon dictionaries, this is misleading. The word was not applied to foreigners of Germanic speech, nor to those of alien tongues, Lapps, Finns, Esthonians, Lithuanians, Slavs, or Huns, with whom the Germanic-speaking peoples came into contact in early times. (But borrowed in Old Slavonic in the form vlach it was applied to the Roumanians.) It was, therefore, basically a word of linguistic import; and in itself implied in its users more linguistic curiosity and discrimination than the simple stupidity of the Greek barbaros.

Its special association by the English with the Britons was a product of their invasion of Britain. It contained a linguistic judgement, but it did not discriminate between the speakers of Latin and the speakers of British. But with the perishing of the spoken Latin of the island, and the concentration of English interests in Britain, walh and its derivatives became synonymous with Brett and brittisc, and in the event replaced them.

[Update -- Ben Zimmer writes:

It's not surprising that Tolkien would have in-depth knowledge of the word walh and its reflexes in English like Walloon and walnut. Tolkien worked on the staff of the OED in 1919-20, researching entries in the range waggle to warlock. See Peter Gilliver's piece in the OED's June 2002 newsletter, "J. R. R. Tolkien and the OED."


Posted by Mark Liberman at May 26, 2007 08:01 AM