How old is English?



[1] Roland ('Hruotland' or in English 'Great-land') was around 778 the chief paladin of Charlemagne, his personal friend and one of the most important persons of the Frankish kingdom. He was count of the Breton March. A March (mark or margin) was a border region, in this case, with Brittany. This border had to be guarded. A similar mark-land in Britain at the time was the kingdom of Mercia (read: Markia) (=Markia). This is a strong indication that in those days the Bretons spoke a different language from the rest of northern France. If we suppose that the Bretons spoke a similar language as the rest of northern France (e.g. nearby Normandy) during the Roman Empire and before, the latinization (transition from 'Gaulish' to French) should have happened in Brittany at a similar pace. In other words, there would be no need for a mark-land. The very presence of a 'mark county' is the proof that the original Brythonic language differed significantly from the rest of Gaul before the arrival of the Romans. This means that Gauls from outside Brittany could not understand the Gaulish from inside Brittany.
Abbé (father) Henri Grégoire presented a report in 1794 wherein he described the language situation in France, wherein he complained about the 'too great diversity' and wherein he plead for one single uniform language, the (dialect) of Paris, which he deemed to be only decent 'free' language, fit for a republic.

[2] At the end of his life he could speak, read and write to perfection Latin, Greek and Hebrew, as well as his unknown native language (German?). He translated most of the Old Testament in Latin. He corrected and translated parts of the New Testament from Greek into Latin as well.

[3] Romans had the same attitude towards geography as some modern Americans. They knew some people within the Empire spoke Latin 'with an accent'. Just like some Americans believe today that the French speak English at home, but with a French accent, Germans speak with a German accent and in England people speak a weird sort of English.

 [4] Strabo (Greek: Στράβων; 63-64 BC – ca. AD 24) was a Greek historian, geographer and philosopher. Strabo wrote in Greek.


[5] "Roman History", Book 39 section 49. Many translators, however, avoid this subtlety by translating Celts as Germans. Dio Cassius wrote in Greek.


Celtica, where Celts never spoke Celtic

Before the Roman conquest, the British are commonly supposed to have been Celts. The whole theory of a language transition in Britain is based upon this 'Celtic fact'. The assumption is that the Celts were a 'people', and the Britons were a part of that people. The Celts were some sort of nation, sharing a single culture and language, albeit divided politically amongst themselves.

No proof has ever been given for the assumption that Celts were a distinct people
with a distinct (alleged Celtic) language.

Until quite recently the consensus among historians and linguists was that the ancient birthplace of the Celts was in central Europe, and that this people and its language spread from that area to the east and the west.  There are still a few scholars who cling to that theory, but nowadays many distinguished archaeologists (such as Francis Pryor or Barry Cunliffe) regard it as completely discredited.  A new consensus is emerging that the Celtic languages (Brythonic) developed on the Atlantic seaboard (from Portugal to the Orkneys, but especially in Ireland and Brittany) and spread eastwards from there. 

The supposed ancient homeland of the Celts is called Celtica. Some writers (such as Stephen Oppenheimer) suggest that Celtica was situated in the south of France, but most others believe in the classic location: that it was in south Germany (Bavaria). Many historians still believe that at its greatest expansion, the 'Celtic zone' comprised all of Britain and Ireland, most of France, Belgium, southern Germany and from there eastwards into Turkey. They are wrong.
There is certainly no genetic link between all those regions. In fact, the contrary is true. There is great genetic diversity. So there is no genetic indication to believe that a people spread from Bavaria to the east and to the west.
There is no proof for a single language in Gaul [1]. Again: what we know of the ancient local languages indicates the opposite. Caesar wrote that three languages were spoken in Gaul, in addition to Occitan (Latin) and Greek he knew about.

What we do know is that there was a common Celtic culture. A common culture is what Europeans have today and does not imply a single language, not today, not 2000 years ago. Celtic was a fashion, a civilization.

Etymology of the word Celt

Etymology dictionaries agree that the word Celt was noted for the first time in Greek and Latin.

In fact "Kelt" is better - the Roman character 'C' is to be pronounced as 'K'.
The modern character 'K' is a recuperation of the ancient Greek character 'K'

The origin of the word 'Celt' is the Greek word γάλα, gala. Gala means 'milk' (compare: Galaxy). The Greeks portrayed all northern Europeans as 'milk-faces'. It could have something to do with the fact that north-Europeans are much more dependent on diary products.  More likely is that they had 'pale faces' or skin. The Greeks used the words Galto, Galatai and Kelto. This has nothing to do with what we think to be 'Celtic'. That mistake was made the last two hundred years, but Helmut Birkhan, Helmut Birkhan (1997). (Kelten: Versuch einer Gesamtdarstellung ihrer Kultur. Verlag der Österreich. ISBN 3-7001-2609-3. p. 301 Vienna University) made the correct connection. Celt is the same word as Keltoi, Celtae, Galli and Galatai, Galatoi. 'Galli' is the Roman version. The Romans knew that '-oi' was a Greek suffix to indicate that it were men, people and that the 't' was interlaced to facilitate pronunciation. If one strips those from 'galatoi' then 'gala' remains. The Romans took the word 'gala' for granted for these 'northerners', not hindered by the fact that it means milk in Greek. For the Romans, all Greek stuff was a source of science.

Many people today assume that the Celts spoke a 'Celtic' (Brythonic) language and that they spread as far as Turkey. But that assumption is wrong: the Greeks came in contact with people who most probably spoke a form of Germanic. The Romans took over the Greek word Galtoi as a loanword when they came in contact with Germanic speaking tribes who had conquered north Italy (the Boii for example). Galtoi became Galli in Latin and their region was now called Gallia. We are still speaking about northern Italy. 

The Romans came later in contact with the Volkai in southern France. They were a Germanic speaking elite who had taken over the region. Volkai is to be pronounced Wolkai but the Romans could not say 'w' so they changed it in 'gw' or 'gu' or 'g'. Wolkai became Gwolkai and later Galcus, Gallus. Their land was called Gallia(Gaul). So, the words Gallia (north Italy) and Gaul (southern France) have two very different origins, albeit that both refer to Germans. The land of the Volkai (from 'walkers' or 'folk') in southern France became in Germanic speaking Europe (England included) a synonym for '[our] foreign southern lands'. The region became famous for you could, as a Germanic speaking person, emigrate to it (to your brothers) if you were fed up with the cold northern climate.  Call it Benidorm avant la lettre. The word Wolkai eventually became Wahl, or Walloon or Welsh. After a while the term referred to all southern non-Germanic speaking populations, regardless the language since the German elite became eventually linguistically completely locally integrated. So, Walachia (which is called Romania today) was called 'Welsh' because it was a region where a Roman language was spoken, situated south (actually: south-east) to Germanic speaking populations.

It was Julius Caesar who introduced the word 'Germani' as a people.  Before him, most northern populations were portrayed as 'Celts' by the Romans regardless their language. Note that even Caesar did not imply a language there: for him being German had much more to do with a certain mentality and probably not a good, civilised one. He situated the barbaric Germans far into ... Germany. That is why he never wrote: the Sequani speak German. The Sequani could not be uncivilized because they had asked him to be a judge. Asking Caesar to intervene was clearly a mark of high intelligence. So, being a German was all about (a bad) mentality in those days, the attribution 'language' would come much later, at the end of the Roman Empire. Caesar, Tacitus and Strabo spoke about 'being of Germanic stock' when they discussed the Belgians. This meant: the language was Germanic, but the mentality clearly not.

Caesar noted that people of the middle of France, south of the Belgians and north of the people of Aquitaine, preferred to be called 'Celts'. This information seems to be utterly redundant. So why did he write it? We know that Caesar was asked to intervene and to settle a dispute between the tribe Haedui and the Sequani. Caesar took that opportunity as an excuse to conquer Gaul and yes, the dispute was quickly and finally settled. It must have been one of these two 'Gallic' tribes who told Caesar: "Listen, we are not Gauls (Walsh). We prefer to be called Celts (Germanic speakers)." They implied: "Why not Gauls (Walsh)? Because Gauls (Walsh) are people to our south. We speak a different language (the Volkai are already fully integrated, speak no longer our tongue.)." Given their location the Sequani are the most likely candidates to have said so. That explains why Caesar mentioned in the beginning of his book: "Between Aquitaine and Belgium lives a people whom we call Gauls, but who prefers to be called Celts." Note that Caesar's word 'Gaul' possibly referred to the Germanic speaking elite in the south of France (Volkai and others).
Today we gladly assume that this region spoke a Brythonic language which is also called today 'Celtic language'. It is just that historians have no precise idea of how far this intermediate region stretched. French historians of the past saw the region as big as possible, easily stretching from the Pyrenees into modern North-Germany. The reason for that assumption was nationalism .

We know that Caesar entered Gaul via the southeast route: he followed the valleys of the Rhone and Saone to the north (see map). We think now that the tribes in the Saone valley spoke a mixed Brythonic/Germanic language, though Germanic based (as English is), fading out to much more pure Germanic to the east ( red zone on the map) and to complete Brythonic to the west (purple zone). It was a single language, intermediate in character which has vanished since. In other words: the people of the Saone valley (territory of the Sequani at the time) had strong bonds with the Germanic speaking world to their east. It is possible that they were the ones who declared that they preferred to be called Celts. The word 'Celt' was probably the only generic word they had for 'Germanic speaking population'. Note that the word 'Deutsch' means: 'people's [language]'. Could they say: "We are 'the people' and the Gauls are to the south of us?" Could Caesar write: "Between Aquitaine and Belgium lives a people whom we call Gauls, but who prefers to be called 'the people'." ? Every people calls itself 'people'. The sentence would have been ridiculous.
The Sequani did not use the word 'German' for themselves. 'German' means armed man, warrior, brute. No people in the world calls itself 'brutal warriors'. The Sequani saw themselves as peaceful. "Gauls are our southern neighbours, we are Celts."

In modern times the Sequani are regarded as Celts, thus spoke allegedly a Brythonic language. Their etymology is unknown in ... Celtic. However, there is a convincing alternative possible in Germanic:
Sekwanjaner: pgm: *sek, 'oneself' + pgm: *wanjan, 'to be friendly', akin to modern wean, both proto-Germanic (pgm). Thus, Sequani would be a Germanic endonym meaning 'who is friendly to oneself' or, with another word: our people. How weird is this?

language zones of Gaul
Probable language zones in Gaul in 60 BC

The map shows a completely different Gaul from what French historians like to present. They prefer a Gaul where everyone spoke the very same Brythonic, not to say Celtic, language, from the Pyrenees up to the Rhine. They are prepared to accept a number of dialects in that region, because dialects are believed to be an integral part of a language group. They interpret Caesar's words that "the Belgians, the Aquitanians and the Gauls 'themselves' differ by their languages", as strongly diverging dialects of the same Brythonic language.
However, the reality was very different. The vast majority of the 'Gauls', that is the people who were supposed to speak Brythonic, spoke either mixed languages or languages other than Brythonic such as Germanic, Basque or Occitan-Roman. Only the people of Brittany (today: French Bretagne) spoke relative pure Brythonic. The latter explains the relative isolation of the Bretons, an isolation that lasted beyond the Middle Ages.

Compare the administrative Roman regions in Gaul on this old German map with the language situation above: isn't that a coincidence?

Celtic culture

We make a stiff difference between Celtic culture, which indeed was present from the shores of the Black Sea to Ireland and the alleged 'Celtic' language, say Welsh and Gaulish which remained an affair of the Atlantic coasts. Somehow it seems for some people very difficult to dissociate language and culture.

Beautiful Hallstatt

The origin of the Celtic civilization may indeed lie in Austria (the Salzburg region with its salt mines). Its most early occurrence is called the Hallstatt culture. This culture is believed to have emerged in south-east Germany or central Europe. The word Celt has no relation with what many of today's historians believe to be Gallic or Gaulish. Celtic culture has its roots in south-German culture while the alleged Celtic language remained mostly on the Atlantic shore regions. This is the reason why we prefer the word Brythonic for what is commonly known as 'Celtic language'. Confusion reigns for the moment.

The salt mines in Austria (Hallstatt, Salzburg) provided the region the money to elevate  Celtic art up to its highest, most original and most luxurious level.

Germanic Celts

St. Jerome wrote at the end of the 4th century in a comment to "the epistle of St Paul to the Galatians" that the Galatians (Turkey) spoke the same language as the Treveri, which is German (Comentarii in Epistolam ad Galatos, II:3.). Several Roman writers (Caesar, Strabo, Tacitus) mentioned the German origin of the Treveri. For Tacitus' phrase click here .

The story of the Galatians is reasonably well attested. They migrated south through the Balkan, looted a part of Greece (281 BC) and were eventually convinced to settle in West-Anatolia (Central-west Turkey). See: Wikipedia for Galatia (although there too, they are considered to be Gauls)

St. Jerome had visited both regions and knew what he was talking about: St. Jerome or Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus became famous for his translations of the Bible [2]. The word 'Galatoi' has therefore nothing to do with 'Gauls' but is a synonym of 'Keltoi' (Celts). But even the Romans confused them with Gauls and called them sometimes 'Galli'. Gauls were for the Romans the inhabitants of the imperial administrative region between the Pyrenees and the Rhine river. A specific or single language was not implied [3].
Remark here that Hieronymus wrote that he was born in Strido Dalmatiae (in the northern region of modern Slovenia) close to the border of Pannonia (modern Austria).  Today, German and Slavonic meet each other in that region. It is therefore possible that Hieronymus' native language was Germanic. After all, the Germanic tribe of the Scordisci lived to the south of Hieronymus' birthplace.

This can explain his completely redundant remark about the Galatians: "Hey, they speak a similar language as back home... mmm, I'll write as the Treverians, that will be more clear".  Trier was the capital of the west Roman empire in those days. Hieronymus stayed for two years in Trier when he was a student in Christian sciences.

A language specialist has for me more credibility than some Romans who were little interested in language, not even their own. Let's not forget that the official Roman language in the eastern part of the Empire always was Greek.
Galatians were Celtic Germans who had migrated to Anatolia (Turkey).

Do we have other evidence that Celtic Germans existed?  Yes, we do.

The Bastarnae or Basternae (Ancient Greek: Βαστάρναι or Βαστέρναι) were a tribe of  Germanic origin which, between not later than 200 BC and until at least AD 300, inhabited the region between the eastern Carpathian mountains and the Dnieper river (corresponding to the modern Republic of Moldova and western part of southern Ukraine).
Greco-Roman writers of the 1st century AD are unanimous that the Bastarnae were, in their own time, Germanic in language and culture. The Greek geographer Strabo [4] says the Bastarnae are "of Germanic stock". The Roman geographer Pliny the Elder (ca. AD 77), refers to "Bastarnae and other Germans". Tacitus stated: "The Peucini, however, who are sometimes called Bastarnae, are like Germans in their language, way of life and types of dwelling and live in similar squalor and indolence...."

Livy, the Roman historian,writing in ca. AD 10, may imply that the Bastarnae adhered to the Celtic culture. Relating events of ca. 180 BC, he describes them then as "similar in language and customs" to the Scordisci (see below), a tribe of Illyria described as Celtic by Strabo. Germanic or Celtic? Probably both. The Bastarnae probably migrated from the west to their known location next to the Black Sea.

The Scordisci (Greek,"Σκορδίσκοι") were a tribe centred in what would become the Roman Provinces of lower Pannonia, Moesia and present-day Serbia at the confluence of the Savus (Sava), Dravus (Drava) and Danube rivers. They were historically notable from the beginning of the third century BC until the turn of the common era. At their zenith, their influence stretched over regions comprising parts of the present-day southeast Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their language was most probably German as it was described as "similar to the Bastarnae". However, their culture was Celtic. The Scordisci were original inhabitants of the region, not migrants. The importance of the early attested presence of a Germanic language in this vast region to the southeast of modern Austria will be revealed in the section spread of agriculture" .

The presence of the Germanic speaking Scordisci so far south contradicts the commonly stated hypothesis that the German language originated in the north of Europe (Scandinavia) and spread from there to the south between 450 BC and 150 BC.

The conclusion is that:
(a) Celtic has nothing to do with a specific language like Brythonic (such as proto-Welsh). There never was a Celtic people or ethnicity, only a culture.
(b) The culture originated from rich southern Germany or Austria, where the salt mines provided the means to develop it to its highest level, from where it subsequently spread (peacefully) to the west and to the east. However, it is likely that this 'west' (northern France / Belgium) contributed significantly to the Celtic culture via cultural exchanges.

All zones are approximate.

The Greek historian Herodotus placed Celtica at the source of the Danube (German Bavaria). This was of course hearsay, but the information is surprisingly precise. He seemingly thought that the source of the Danube was situated north of the Pyrenees. However, there was a vast Celtic region north of the Pyrenees.

According to Strabo [4], the Romans introduced the name Germani, because the Germanic tribes were the authentic Celts (γνησίους Γαλάτας). Strabo noticed the similarity between the Latin words 'Germanus' (a noun referring to the people) and 'germanus' (an adjective - meaning offspring, descendant, having the same ancestors, therefore : authentic). Although there is no etymological relation, he must have known that the (south) Germans were acknowledged as authentic Celts by the Romans.

At the time Strabo wrote his Geographica, the whole region south of the Danube has been for at least 50 years firmly in Roman hands. Stating that this region was Celtic speaking and that those Celts were later replaced by 'real' northern Germans or that a language change had been imposed, is therefore preposterous. The empire would not have allowed it. The region remained loyal to Rome up to the last days of the empire.

Dio Cassius (155-225 AD) says that the Suebi (a German tribe deeper in Germany) "dwell across the Rhine - though many cities elsewhere claim their name - and that they were anciently called Celts." Earlier he had explained [5] "...very anciently both peoples dwelling on either side of the river [Rhine] were called Celts.". Understand with the last sentence: Germans lived on both sides of the Rhine. Do we need more proof that the word Celt was used for Germanic people (too) prior to the alleged clarifications of Julius Caesar?

All this gives us the clear insight that 'Celts' as a people distinct from the Germans, even politically divided,  only existed in the mind of modern historians. the historic Celts spoke Germanic languages as various as High German, Low German, proto-Dutch (Low German), proto-English and Danube Germanic. But the European regions north of the Pyrenees, in north Italy and the Alps and north of the Balcan shared the same culture, known as the Celtic culture.

What about Celtiberians?

Celtiberians were Spanish Celts. It was Strabo who by quoting Ephorus mentioned the presence of Celts in Spain. Ephorus or Ephoros (Ancient Greek: c. 400 - 330 BC), of Cyme in Aeolia, in Asia Minor, was an ancient Greek historian. Ephorus lived long before Caesar learned the world the (wrong) distinction between Celts and Germans. As a Greek, Ephorus must have used the word Celt like all Greeks did at the time: Celts are people with a milk-like complexion, probably with blond or red hair and possibly light coloured eyes. So where in Spain was he referring to? The answer can be found in Galicia, northwest Spain. There, even today, a surprising number of people have blond hair. Especially the girls can be of a stunning beauty. Ephorus must have heard of these human characteristics in the northwest of Spain. Of course, neither language nor culture was implied by Ephorus. That would be 'understood' much later, since the 16th century AD when university professors began to believe that they knew everything.