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) 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 (Markia). This is a strong indication that in those days the Bretons spoke a different language than the rest of northern France. If we suppose that the Bretons spoke a similar language to the rest of northern France, e.g. nearby Normandy, during the Roman Empire and before, then the latinization (transition of '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 Breton language differed significantly from the rest of Gaul before the arrival of the Romans.


Some etymologists find it problematic that PIE-words are difficult to define precisely. However, words with a precise, well-defined meaning are a modern invention. Typically, in the very old PIE language most words had a very broad meaning, even figurative ones, simply because the number of PIE words was very limited. A more precise meaning depended upon the context, the local situation and the region. Especially this regional context puzzles etymologists. Similar examples can be found in the Arab languages: the Arab word for ‘white’ in Morocco is understood in Egypt as ‘bones’. The word Kelt is however too close to *Kel to be ignored. The early appearance of the word Kelt, in ancient Greek texts, leads us to suppose that its meaning is close to its basic PIE meaning (upper, superior).


Caledonia is a word that emerged in the Latin texts of the Roman period. 'Cale' = *Kel = higher, upper. 'donia' = *tun (a German substrate word!) = hill, mountain. *tun evolved into 'town' (fortified hilltop). Caledonia means: higher hills or highlands. The '-donia' part is the same word as in 'The Downs' (hills in south England) or even like in 'Snowdonia'.

Substrate words are local, non Indo-European words that locally were absorbed by the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language. As the second part '-tun' is a German substrate word, we can be almost certain that the name Caledonia originated from proto-English, not from proto-Welsh, nor from an alleged 'pre-Celtic' language. Warning: this explanation is not (yet) widely accepted. Many authors like the 'pre-Celtic' supposition.

Adds to the mystery.




[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.






go on


[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, homeland of the Celts?

Before the Roman conquest, the British are supposed to be Celts. The whole theory of the 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 a 'single people' nor for a common language.

Until quite recently the consensus among historians and linguists was that the ancient birthplace of the Celts was in central Europe, and that their language spread from that area towards 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 developed on the Atlantic seaboard (from Portugal to the Orkneys, but especially in Ireland and Britanny) and spread eastwards from there. 

The ancient homeland of the Celts is called Celtica. Some (like Stephen Oppenheimer) believe that Celtica was situated in the south of France, most others believe that it was in south Germany (Bavaria). Eventually, the 'Celtic zone' comprised all of Britain, including Ireland, most of France, Belgium and southern Germany.
There is certainly no genetic link between all those regions. In fact, the opposite is true. The genetic diversity is great. For example, people from the region of Paris didn't like to be called 'Gauls', according to Caesar. They preferred the word 'Celts'. They differ genetically a lot from those other Celts, the Bretons, who live in the most western part of France: Brittany.
There is no proof for a single language [1]. Again: what we know of the ancient local languages indicates the opposite. Caesar is quoted saying that "the people of Aquitaine could give the Romans lessons in good Latin". Yet they were portrayed as Celts. The Occitan language group is also called the Roman language group (Occitan-Romance), or is a part of it. 

What we know is that there was a common Celtic culture. A common culture is what Europeans have today. A common culture 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'

No relation with common modern words is given. Is that due to politics? But the similarity with an old proto-Indo-European (PIE) word is quite too obvious. Consider following words: col (fr)/ cult / culture / culminate / helmet / hill and more. Those words are derived from the Indo-European word *kel meaning “sticking out”, height, superior. *Kel must have existed in a lot of variations, slight differences in pronunciations (*kwel meant 'turning' - the Latin word 'colere' is derived and means 'farming, turning the soil' - cultura is derived form colere. The earliest meaning is agriculture).
Probably the oldest and broadest meaning of *kel is: a movement from a ‘flat’ or ‘normal’ situation to a ‘higher’ or ‘more evolved’ situation.

Beautiful Hallstatt

The origin of the Celtic civilization most probably lies 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 Kelt has no relation with the word Gallic or Gaul.

Cultures do not come out of the blue. It is clear that the Celtic culture was influenced by Greek culture. Another probably important participant or precursor is the north of France region. This region had the money to induce superior art. It was (and is) a rich agricultural region where technological research could be financed. It is not a coincidence that the Gothic art emerged in this part of Europe. This was probably the reason why Caius Julius Caesar quoted the 'Gauls' of Northern France saying that "they preferred to be called Celts." According to them, they invented Celtic art. The salt mines in Austria (Hallstatt, Salzburg) provided the region the money to elevate this Celtic art up to its highest and most luxurious level. From there it was re-exported back to the west.


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 meat each other in that region. It is therefore possible that Hieronymus' native language was German. 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 Trevirians, 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.

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 theory that the German language was spread from the north (Scandinavia) 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."

All this gives us a clear proof that 'Celts' as a people never existed. They spoke languages as various as High German, Low German, continental Brythonic, proto-Dutch (Low German), Insular Brythonic and proto-English. But all these populations shared the same culture, known as the Celtic culture.