Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English
This is episode 30, The Celtic Legacy.
In this episode, we’re going to explore the impact of the Celtic languages on modern English,
and we’re going to look at the ultimate fate of the native Britons when they encountered
Now this may seem like a straightforward topic, but actually it’s a topic that’s perplexed
historians for centuries.
The true legacy of the Celts in Anglo-Saxon England is still the subject of much debate.
So I’ll try to put the pieces together for you as best I can to determine how much modern
English owes to those original Celtic Britons.
Now last time, we looked at the actual evidence from the period of the Anglo-Saxon invasion
to try to determine what happened between the years 410 and 600.
That two-century period marks the time during which the Anglo-Saxons conquered much of the
area we know today as England.
And based upon that evidence and the accounts of later writers, a very general view emerged.
And that view was that an Anglo-Saxon onslaught began sometime around the year 450, give or
take a few years.
And over the next few decades, the Anglo-Saxons conquered much of the region of Eastern Britain.
And in the process, the native Romano-Britons and Celtic Britons were either killed or displaced.
The result was the complete Anglo-Saxon dominance and control over Eastern Britain.
And then the Anglo-Saxons began to move westward, expanding their territory.
But sometime around the year 500, the native Britons began to piece together some significant
victories in these border regions.
Around that time, they won a decisive victory at a place called Mons Bodonicus in Latin
or Mount Baden or Baden Hill in later English.
And that victory basically stemmed the tide of the Anglo-Saxon invasion.
For a while, there was a period of relative peace between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons.
But sometime around the year 550, another onslaught began and the Anglo-Saxons began
a new campaign into Western Britain.
And that meant a new round of killing and displacement occurred.
Now most of the native Celtic-speaking Britons who survived fled to the west to Cornwall
and Wales and north into modern Scotland or even south across the Channel into Brittany
in northern Gaul.
And the net result of all of this was a large portion of central and southern Britain under
the control of the Anglo-Saxons.
And along the way, the native Celtic-speaking Britons were effectively wiped out from these
So that’s the traditional view of events during this period.
So why did these historians assume that the native Celts had been completely displaced
from these regions?
Well it was based in part on the descriptions of people like Gildas.
He described how many of the native Britons had been killed by the invaders and how most
of those who survived had fled to the west or across the seas.
And he noted that most of the towns and cities had been devastated and abandoned.
So we have a contemporary account which was very compelling.
But there’s no evidence that Gildas actually traveled into the regions which had been conquered
by the Anglo-Saxons.
And even he noted that he was writing several decades after those initial battles had occurred.
And keep in mind that he wasn’t really writing a proper history.
He was writing a sermon about how bad the Anglo-Saxons were and how much of a mistake
it had been to invite the men to begin with.
Now we know that some of his early history was wrong, especially his account of the construction
of Hadrian’s Wall.
So for much of his history he was basing his accounts on the descriptions of others.
And it’s possible that these accounts were exaggerated.
Or that he exaggerated his account in order to emphasize his point.
But beyond the writings of Gildas, some of the best evidence that the Celts had been
wiped out was the fact that there are so few Celtic words in English.
As a general rule, when two groups of people encounter each other, and they each speak
different languages, there’s a significant amount of borrowing between the languages.
Over time, one language may die out, but the surviving language usually retains a large
number of words from the other language.
And it may even borrow some grammar from the other language.
So theoretically, English should have a heavy Celtic influence.
The Anglo-Saxons conquered a Celtic-speaking people on a Celtic-speaking island.
And Celtic languages have continued to exist next door on the island to this day.
So where is all that Celtic influence that we should expect to see?
Well, the traditional view is that it’s not really there.
According to that view, the Anglo-Saxons only borrowed a handful of Celtic words.
Depending on who you ask, maybe a dozen, maybe a couple of dozen, but very few no
matter how you count them.
Now compare this to Latin, as it slowly replaced the Celtic languages in Gaul.
Of course, the Latin spoken in Gaul eventually evolved into French.
And it’s estimated that there are over 500 Celtic words in modern French.
But again, the Anglo-Saxons in Britain only borrowed a dozen or so.
So let’s try to identify those Celtic words in English.
And let’s begin by noting that the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, the original Germanic
tribes, they encountered Celtic-speaking tribes on the continent.
And back in episode 17, we looked at some of those Celtic words which were acquired
by the Germanic tribes very early on, long before the Anglo-Saxons headed to Britain.
And that included words like breaches and ben, b-i-n.
We also have the word rich from the Celtic word rics, meaning king or ruler or powerful.
We’ve come across that word several times, and we’ll see it again a little later in this episode.
So the Anglo-Saxons had a few Celtic words in their vocabulary when they first arrived
And then, once they were in Britain, they picked up a few more words.
A few of those words existed in Old English, but have long since disappeared.
For example, the Old English word bonnock meant a bit or small piece of something.
It came from an almost identical word in the Celtic languages, which meant a small cake.
And the Old English word brock meant badger, and it too was borrowed from the Celts.
And the Old English word done meant a dull, greyish-brown color.
It also was borrowed from the Celts, but all of those words have long since disappeared
Another possible borrowing from the Celtic languages was the word brat, as in, don’t
be a little brat.
This etymology is disputed, but the Celtic languages had a word brat, which meant a cloak.
And according to some etymologies, it later came to mean a makeshift or ragged garment,
and then came to be associated with beggars, and later came to mean a beggar’s child,
and then even later it referred to an annoying child.
So if this etymology is correct, the word brat can be traced back to the native Celtic-speaking
But most of the Celtic words which were borrowed by the original Anglo-Saxons, and which still
exist in modern English, were terms related to the geography of the region.
As the Anglo-Saxons settled in, they borrowed local words for certain places and geographical
So, for example, the word crag meant rock, and can still be found in English.
The word tor meant hill or mound or rock, and that word still exists in English, mainly
in certain parts of England.
Interestingly, that word tor was probably borrowed from the Romans during the earlier
period of Roman rule.
Now Latin had the word turris, which meant high structure, and that Latin word ultimately
gave us the English word tower.
So Celtic tor and English tower are cognate if that etymology is correct.
Some other Celtic words for locations or geological features can still be found buried within
For example, the Celtic word lin or lindo meant lake, and the Romans combined that word
lindo with the Latin word colonia meaning colony.
The result was the name Lincoln, the name of a town, which is the ultimate origin of
the surname Lincoln.
The Celtic word cum meant a valley, and that word still exists in a handful of place names
that end in com, either c-o-m-b or c-o-m-b-e.
And the Celtic word for river was avon, and that word appears in a variety of river names
And a lot of other modern place names derive from Celtic names, names like London, Devon,
Dover, Kent, York, Carlisle, Lancaster, Cornwall, Cumberland, and also the river Thames, which
meant dark river in Celtic.
So the fact that we have a lot of place names borrowed into English isn’t really surprising.
The Anglo-Saxons tended to use existing words for place names.
And when Europeans settled in North America, they did basically the same thing.
That’s why we have so many place names in the United States that are derived from Native
But while English borrowed Celtic words for certain place names, it didn’t borrow Celtic
words into the basic vocabulary of English.
And except for a few more place names, there don’t appear to be any other Celtic words
in the original vocabulary of Old English during the first few centuries after the Anglo-Saxons
arrived in Britain.
And that’s why the traditional view has been that the native Celtic-speaking populations
were generally wiped out by the Anglo-Saxons.
The Germanic tribes arrived, they picked up a few Celtic words for the names of places
around them, and that was about it.
The Celts were then killed or driven out, and no more Celtic words entered the vocabulary
of Old English.
Well, that traditional view has been challenged in recent years.
The modern view is a bit more complicated, and there are still as many questions as there
As scholars have poured over the evidence from this period, the 5th and 6th centuries,
they increasingly believe that the relationship between the native Celtic-speaking Britons
and the Anglo-Saxon invaders was far more complicated.
And what happened varied from one region to the next.
So let’s examine the evidence, and let’s try to piece together what happened to the
native Celtic-speaking Britons.
Let’s begin with some of the archaeological research.
Now through the years, archaeologists have uncovered many Anglo-Saxon settlements.
They’ve also uncovered a lot of cemeteries, and this research is important for two reasons.
It provides obvious archaeological evidence, but with respect to the bones that have been
studied within some of those graves, it also reveals some genetic evidence.
Now the archaeological evidence provides mixed results, depending on the region where
the settlements were located.
Within those settlements, researchers have found pottery and jewelry, and other items
which are distinct from those associated with Roman Britain before the Anglo-Saxon invasion.
And those newer artifacts tend to match the types used in the North Sea region on the
But what’s interesting is that researchers don’t generally find a sharp contrast between
the earlier Roman and Celtic objects and the later Anglo-Saxon objects.
In other words, we don’t go from Roman and Celtic objects one day, and then all of a
sudden a clean break, and we just have Anglo-Saxon objects the next day.
But we would expect to see that type of clean break if the Romano-Britons were wiped out.
But instead, the evidence tends to show a more gradual introduction of Anglo-Saxon objects
mixed in with older objects.
But what about those cemeteries?
Well, we would expect to see mass graves of dead Romano-Britons if something akin to a
genocide had occurred.
But those have never been discovered.
And within the graves that have been discovered, the bones that have been analyzed also reveal
a much more complex result.
Within many of the supposedly Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, the bone evidence isn’t always
Isotope analysis of teeth found in those cemeteries has revealed that some of the corpses were
indeed immigrants from northern Europe, but others were local people, not Germanic invaders.
Now many researchers thought that modern DNA evidence would finally provide us with some
definitive answers to these questions.
If the native Britons had been wiped out by the Anglo-Saxon invaders from northern Germany
and Denmark, then DNA evidence on these ancient bones should confirm that.
And in fact, since people didn’t tend to move around very much during the Middle Ages,
many researchers believe that there should still be noticeable differences in the DNA
of people in England and the DNA of people in other parts of Britain.
But the DNA research has also yielded mixed results.
One of the first DNA studies was conducted back in 2002, and it actually appeared to
confirm some of these traditional assumptions.
This 2002 study used Y-chromosome DNA samples from men living in central England, Wales,
Norway, and modern Frisia or Friesland.
And this study concluded that DNA evidence was consistent between the various English
towns, and also consistent between the English towns and the Frisian towns.
But there were very distinct differences between the English Frisian groups and the
Welsh groups, and the Norwegian groups were very different as well.
So this particular study concluded that there had been a substantial migration of people
from the Germanic regions of northern Europe to southern and central Britain, enough to
affect well over half of the gene pool of England.
Now again, this was what a lot of people expected to find.
But several more studies have been conducted in the years since 2002, and none of them
really confirmed the results of that first study.
A 2003 study used a lot more samples and a much larger sampling area.
It concluded that there were some genetic differences noticeable between the populations
of England and Wales, but the differences were minor.
And while there was some evidence of Germanic invasions in England, the evidence suggested
a much smaller invasion.
And it also suggested that Viking influence on the overall DNA was just as great if not
greater than the Anglo-Saxon influence.
The bottom line is that this study didn’t match the traditional view of the Anglo-Saxon
conquest at all.
Now a 2005 study used mitochondrial DNA as well as Y-chromosome DNA, so that meant that
it included females as well as males.
It also used modern DNA as well as DNA from bones found in ancient burial sites.
And this study also failed to establish connections between English DNA samples and the samples
from northern Germany.
And in 2006, an Oxford genetics professor named Brian Sykes published a book called
Blood of the Isles.
He also looked at mitochondrial DNA as well as Y-chromosome DNA.
He found that the overall genetic makeup of the entire British Isles was basically
That there were no significant differences between the populations of England and Wales.
Nor was there any significant differences between those people and the people of Scotland
He even concluded that the genetic evidence suggests a massive migration shortly after
the last Ice Age ended around 10,000 BC and that most of the original DNA came from the
modern Basque region in northern Spain.
Remember that the Basque language is one of the few non-Indo-European languages in Europe.
Now Sykes also concluded that as Britain was invaded by various peoples over the centuries
speaking many new languages like the original Celts and the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons
and the Vikings, none of them had a significant impact on the overall DNA of the British Isles.
The languages may have changed and the power may have shifted among the different groups
but the overall genetic makeup remained basically the same.
And this implied that the overall number of invaders was always very small.
And specifically with respect to the Anglo-Saxons, Sykes concluded that their contribution to
the overall genetic pool was less than 20% even in the heart of the original Anglo-Saxon
regions in eastern Britain.
Now Sykes’ study was basically confirmed by a separate book released by the British
doctor and geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer.
He released his book, The Origins of the British, the same year as Sykes’ book and he basically
took the same view as Sykes.
And just to show you how all this research leads to conflicting results, in 2011 a study
suggested that British DNA was the primary result of an even earlier migration by early
hunter-gatherers from the Middle East.
But then the very next year, 2012, another study refuted those findings.
So the bottom line is that the DNA research has yet to reveal a definitive answer as to
whether the native Britons were wiped out by the Anglo-Saxons.
But the vast majority of the DNA studies suggest that the overall DNA of the British Isles
is much more alike than it is different.
And it doesn’t provide any clear evidence of a geographical divide between the Celtic
regions and the English regions.
So all of that research has tended to chip away at that traditional view of the Anglo-Saxon
So we’ve looked at the archaeological evidence and the DNA evidence.
But what about the linguistic evidence?
As we’ve already seen, the Anglo-Saxons adopted very few words from the native Celtic-speaking
But that doesn’t mean that the native Britons were vanquished.
They could have still been there, just in the background, relegated to second class
or lower status, and pushed to the fringes of Anglo-Saxon society.
The Anglo-Saxons could have rejected Celtic words and Celtic culture except where they
needed it to survive.
They might have borrowed words for towns and rivers and other locations.
Those were basic landmarks.
But when it came to the actual language itself, Celtic influences were rejected.
So let’s try to put all the pieces together and see if we can make some sense out of this
And as we do that, a more complex picture starts to emerge.
It appears that the Anglo-Saxon invasion or uprising began in the eastern part of Britain.
We know that from both the written accounts and the archaeological record.
By the year 500, the Anglo-Saxons had conquered and occupied most of the eastern one-third
The western one-third was still occupied by native Celtic-speaking Britons.
And the middle one-third was a transitional region.
Another piece of evidence which confirms this settlement pattern is the names of the
various towns and cities throughout Britain.
One of the ways in which the Anglo-Saxons identified a particular place was with the
The suffix “-ing”, and its related suffix “-ling”, meant of or from.
And it was used to indicate that someone or something originated from a particular place.
If you enjoy science fiction movies, you probably are familiar with the term earthling.
It refers to the people from planet Earth.
What you might not know, though, is that the word earthling is an Anglo-Saxon word from
Now its context has changed through the years.
It originally meant a ploughman or someone who lived on the land and worked the earth
or the soil.
The modern use of the term as an inhabitant of the planet Earth originated in the 16th
And its one of the few words which still exist in modern English with that original Anglo-Saxon
suffix to indicate the place where someone was from.
By the way, certain people in Scandinavia sailed up and down rivers and creeks and small
bays, and those waterways were called veiks.
These people sometimes robbed and plundered.
And since they were from the veiks, they were called veikings, or thanks to the later English
vowel shift, the vikings.
But again, we see that same Germanic-ing ending to indicate where they originated.
Well, the Anglo-Saxons used the same suffixes for place names.
For example, Hastings meant the people of Hesta, or the home of Hesta’s people.
Hesta may have been an early leader or founder of the settlement.
And Redding meant the people of Reata, or the home of Reata’s people.
Again, Reata may have been an early leader who founded the settlement.
Sometimes the suffix was combined with tan, T-O-N, which meant a fenced off estate or
And it’s an early version of the modern English word town.
So ing-tan meant the people from the town of, or estate of someone.
And this gives us town names like Wellington, Donington, and Washington.
In fact, the small town of Washington in northern England meant the estate of the descendants
And we don’t know who Huesa was, but we do know that the name of the town is the ultimate
origin of the surname of George Washington.
And that means that it’s the origin of Washington, D.C., and Washington State, and the many other
towns and cities named after George Washington in the United States.
Now sometimes the Anglo-Saxons combined the ing ending with ham, H-A-M.
Ham is an early version of the word home, or homestead.
So ing-ham meant the people from the home of someone.
So Birmingham meant home of Bearham’s people.
And that same ending gives us town names like Buckingham and Nottingham in the same
Well, all of those towns with that Anglo-Saxon suffix ing, whether it be ing or ing-tan or
ing-ham, they tend to be heavily concentrated in the eastern one-third of Britain, especially
in the southeast.
Now, there are certainly exceptions, but the fact that those endings are so concentrated
in the east indicates very early settlements in those regions by the Anglo-Saxons.
And it also indicates that they didn’t use existing Celtic place names.
In fact, they often didn’t use existing Celtic towns at all.
They established new settlements with their own Anglo-Saxon names.
In other words, they lived in their own separate enclaves.
It’s actually very likely that the Saxons largely displaced the native Celts in the
southeast of Britain.
The earliest invasions occurred there, and the total number of Anglo-Saxons was probably
at its greatest in that region.
And the concentration of town names with the ing ending in that region also suggests that
this is where the early Anglo-Saxons settled in the greatest numbers early on.
But as you move westward, the likelihood of a complete displacement of Celts is much lower.
Some of the native Romano-Celtic Britons fled westward to escape the Anglo-Saxons in the
east, and as they moved west, they helped the western Britons fortify their defenses
so that when the Anglo-Saxons began to move westward later on, they likely encountered
And we have some evidence of this process in the writings of Gildas.
He had described the devastation by the Anglo-Saxons early on, but then he mentioned a series of
British victories under a leader named Ambrosius Aurelianus.
And he mentioned that victory at Mount Baden, which halted the Anglo-Saxon advance for several
And later Britons in the west thought that the leader who defeated the Saxons at Mount
Baden was named Arthur, but we’ll explore this connection a little later.
Now with respect to those battles mentioned by Gildas, we don’t know where they were fought,
but many historians think those battles occurred in and around this transitional region in
the middle of Britain.
And in this transitional region between the Anglo-Saxon east and the Celtic-speaking west,
we should expect to see evidence of blended communities in which both groups lived in
close proximity to each other.
And if we look closely, we can see some evidence of that.
Once again, town names provide some clues.
In his book, The Etymologicon, Mark Forsyth notes that there are several towns in this
region, the West Midlands and Central Britain, where the town names are a blend of Celtic
and Anglo-Saxon names.
And that suggests that Celtic-speaking Britons were living with or at least in close proximity
to the Anglo-Saxons.
So let’s look at some of those blended town names.
Now a Celtic word for hill was pen.
And that word appears in the name of the town of Pensax in this particular region.
As I said, pen meant hill and sax was a reference to the Saxons.
And it was used to indicate a Saxon settlement.
So this town name combined the Saxon suffix with the Celtic prefix.
Now some linguists and historians believe that this type of combined name indicates
that Saxon settlers were living in close proximity to the native Celtic-speaking people.
And in the process, the Saxons took a Celtic word for hill, which they heard and knew,
and they added it to their own Saxon name.
And the result was Pensax.
By the way, these same two words also form part of the name of a town in southern England
The sixpenny part comes from the same two root words as Pensax.
They’re just reversed to create Saxpen.
And then they were further anglicized to become sixpenny.
Now very near the town of Pensax is a village called Minneth Wood.
Minneth was another Celtic word for hill or mountain.
And wood is obviously an English word.
So once again, we see in the name Minneth Wood a blending of a Celtic word and an Anglo-Saxon
Another example of this type of blending is the name of a large hill in northern England
called Pendle Hill.
Once again, we have that same Celtic word pen meaning hill.
But the Angles, who were the dominant Germanic tribe in this region, they apparently interpreted
pen as the actual name of the hill.
So they called it Pen Hill, which eventually became Pendle.
By the late Middle Ages, this original meaning was once again lost, and the people started
calling it Pendle Hill, apparently unaware that hill was already part of the name Pendle.
So today, Pendle Hill literally means hill, hill, hill.
But once again, we see Celtic terms blending in with English terms.
As we can see by now, the Celts had a lot of words for hills, and they also had the
word prae, which meant hill, and they had another word, din, which meant the same thing.
Now that word din was part of the original name of London, which was Londinium.
Well that Celtic word was a very old Celtic word, and it was also used by the Celtic-speaking
tribes back on the continent.
And the early Germanic tribes had picked it up along the way as well.
So this was another word which passed from the continental Celts to the early Germanic
And that word actually passed into Old English as dune, with the same original meaning, hill
So the Anglo-Saxons brought the word dune with them when they arrived in Britain.
And when the Anglo-Saxons encountered a large hill in the West Midlands of England, they
called it Praedun.
Once again, they combined the Celtic word prae, meaning hill, with the Old English word
dune, meaning hill, and the result was Praedun.
And just as with Pendle Hill, the original meaning was lost through the years, and eventually
people started calling it Praedun Hill.
So again, the literal meaning of the hill’s name is hill, hill, hill.
And once again, we see Celtic words mixing with Old English words, implying some degree
of contact between the two groups.
By the way, the Old English pronunciation of dune changed through the years.
It eventually became down in modern English.
As a noun, it still has its original meaning.
In its plural form as hills, we see it in place names like Berkshire Downs, Dorset Downs,
and the Kentucky horse racing track, Churchill Downs.
The Anglo-Saxons used the term of-dune to mean the process of traveling from the top
of a hill to the bottom.
Of-dune was eventually shortened to just dune, and that’s the origin of the preposition
down, as in down the hole or down the hatch.
And you may be wondering if there’s a connection to the modern English word dune, as in sand
And the answer is yes, there is a connection, in a roundabout way.
The early French borrowed that same word from the Germanic tribes back on the continent.
And that French version of the word came into English after the Norman conquest as dune,
d-u-n-e, and that’s the version which is typically used in the context of a sand dune.
So all of that means that words like down, downs, and dune all come from the same root
as the dun in London.
They all come from a Celtic word meaning hill.
So as we see this type of blending of Celtic and Old English terms, we may have evidence
of Celtic-speaking Britons living in close proximity to the Anglo-Saxons.
In the East, Anglo-Saxon town names dominate, like those ending in ing.
And in the far west, Celtic names dominate.
But we find these blended names in the central regions in between.
So this was likely a transitional region with Celtic speakers and Germanic speakers living
side by side.
And we may have additional evidence of this in the words which the Anglo-Saxons used to
refer to the Celtic Britons.
As we know by now, the Anglo-Saxons were a mixture of West Germanic tribes.
But despite whatever tribal differences may have existed between them back on the continent,
when they arrived in Britain, they found themselves surrounded by people who were very different
From the Anglo-Saxon perspective, the native Celts spoke an odd language, they worshipped
strange gods, they had unusual religious practices, and they had different legal traditions and
So it appears that an us-versus-them attitude developed very quickly among the Anglo-Saxons.
And they viewed the native Britons as different, and perhaps even a little strange.
And they soon developed a word for those native Celtic-speaking Britons, with their strange
gods and languages and customs.
Ironically, the Anglo-Saxons called them foreigners.
And this is significant for two reasons.
It illustrates how the subtle differences between the various Anglo-Saxon groups began
to disappear very quickly once they were on the ground in Britain and they were mixing
But it also illustrates how they perceived the native people who they encountered.
For the Anglo-Saxons, Britain was now Anglo-Saxon land, and those other people who were already
there with their strange culture, well, they were now the foreigners.
The tables had basically been turned.
The Old English word for foreigner was hwela.
And this was what the Anglo-Saxons called the native Celtic-speaking Britons.
They called them hwelas.
And that term later evolved from waelus into welsh.
Early on, that term was applied to the Celtic Britons throughout the island, no matter where
But over the centuries, as the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms grew, and the Celtic regions shrank,
the only places where the native Britons held on was in the west and in the far north.
And that’s why today, this western region of Britain is known as Wales, and its inhabitants
are the Welsh.
But early on, the term Welsh wasn’t associated with any particular region of Britain.
It could refer to the natives regardless of where they lived.
Now if you’re familiar with British history and Celtic history, you may be saying, what
Many Celtic-speaking Britons held on there as well, and a Celtic language continued to
be spoken there until very recently.
So why wasn’t this place also called Wales?
Well, it kinda was.
The wal in Cornwall comes from that same Old English word, waela, which gives us Welsh
The original Celtic tribe that inhabited the region of Cornwall was called the Cornuig.
That was their native Celtic tribal name.
Now the corn part meant horn, and in fact, that root word corn was cognate with the Latin
word cornu, which also meant horn.
And if we go all the way back to Grimslaw, Latin cornu and English horn are cognate thanks
to that sound shift where the k sound became an h sound in the Germanic languages.
So obviously we’re looking at a word with very deep Indo-European roots.
And so the corn in the name of the Cornuig tribe meant horn, and the tribal name meant
the people of the horn.
Now if that sounds kinda weird, look at Cornwall on a map.
It’s a peninsula that sticks out into the ocean, and it resembles a horn.
So just like the name of the Angles came from the fact that their homeland looked like a
fish hook, the name of the Cornuig came from the fact that their homeland looked like a
Well, when the Anglo-Saxons encountered these people, they called the Cornuig the Cornwaelus,
literally the Corn Welsh or Corn Foreigners.
Over time, the name evolved into Cornwall.
So within the modern names Wales and Cornwall, we can still see how the original Anglo-Saxons
viewed the native Celts as foreigners.
By the way, as a quick digression, the hazelnut was a very common and popular nut back in
But the Romans had introduced a new nut there which was grown in Italy and Gaul.
The Germanic tribes back in Germania called this new imported nut a foreign nut, using
the same word, wæle.
They combined wæle, meaning foreign, and nutu, meaning nut, and this produced the word
So Welsh, Wales, Cornwall, and walnut all have the same Germanic root, meaning foreign
And if you’re a fan of the movie Braveheart, you’ll know that the Scottish leader who
fought the English was William Wallace.
Well, there really was a William Wallace, and ironically, even though the surname Wallace
is a Scottish surname, it originates from the same Germanic root word, meaning foreigner.
Now, you might be inclined to believe that the Anglo-Saxons applied this word meaning
foreigner to the native Britons after several centuries, after the Anglo-Saxons had established
their own kingdoms and they began to concern themselves with outside threats.
But that doesn’t appear to be the case.
In fact, it appears that the Anglo-Saxons used the term for the Britons very early on.
In fact, we see evidence of this early use in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the historical
record maintained by the later Anglo-Saxons.
Now even though the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was written many years later, its account
of this period provides a clear shift in terminology from Britons to Welsh.
The native people are initially referred to as the Britons in the entries up through the
But after that date, the terminology shifts to Welsh, and that term is used from that
However, if the later chroniclers were relying upon old records, and if they were maintaining
that original terminology, then this term Welsh, meaning foreigner, was adopted very
In fact, based on that evidence, the term Welsh appeared shortly after the initial Anglo-Saxon
invasion or uprising around the year 450.
So the Anglo-Saxons called the native Britons Wales, or Welsh, to mean foreigners.
But over time, the meaning expanded, and it eventually was used to mean slave, especially
in southwestern Britain.
And that shift in meaning is picked up from later Old English texts.
And the fact that the term Welsh was being used by Anglo-Saxons to mean a slave or serf
is very important because it implies that the Anglo-Saxons were the masters and the
native Britons were the slaves.
And that means that Britons were still living among the Anglo-Saxons.
And if we go back to the last episode, one of the passages from Gildas stated that some
of the most unfortunate Britons had been taken into slavery by the Saxons rather than being
killed on the spot.
So we have strong evidence that some native Britons remained in the Anglo-Saxon regions
as forced servants.
And we have even more confirmation of this in a set of laws which were issued by the
Anglo-Saxon King of Wessex in southwestern Britain in the late 600s.
The king was Enoch, and his laws were some of the first laws issued in the English language.
And those laws made specific provisions for the quote Welsh who were living there.
The Welsh were divided into different categories depending upon whether they were free or unfree,
and depending upon whether they owned land and how much land they owned.
So we know that the Celtic Britons were living under Anglo-Saxon rule in Wessex, but we don’t
know how many were there.
The later historian Bede also made reference to the fact that native Britons were living
under the rule of the Anglo-Saxons.
He noted that around the time of Enoch’s laws, many of the Britons who were the subjects
of the West Saxons began to celebrate the Catholic Easter.
So by referring to these British subjects, we have further confirmation that the native
Britons were living among the West Saxons in Wessex.
Another piece of evidence is the fact that Welsh names were common among the political
and religious leaders of Wessex.
Names like Cadwala, Mull, Cadda, Conbran, Catwal.
And the existence of those names among people in prominent positions in Wessex implies some
degree of intermarriage between Celts and Saxons, and the family names were thereby
Interestingly, those names began to disappear after the 8th century, implying that the power
of the Celts faded over time.
Now a few Celtic names also appear in other areas, even in Kent in the east and Northumbria
in the north.
And there may have even been Celtic names in the other regions as well, but early written
records are more lacking in those areas.
By the 10th century, the laws of London sentenced a runaway slave to be stoned, quote, like
a Welsh thief.
And in 11th century Cambridge, the compensation for slaying a Welshman was set at half of
the compensation required for killing an Englishman.
So all of these Anglo-Saxon laws imply that Celts were still living among the Anglo-Saxons.
But unfortunately, there’s no evidence of the language spoken by those native Britons.
But it’s unlikely that their Celtic language would have died out overnight.
So we can conclude that, at least for a while, Celtic languages were being spoken in the
vicinity of Old English, especially in these western regions.
But that leaves us with that original mystery.
If the Anglo-Saxons were exposed to the Celtic languages, why aren’t there more Celtic
influences in English?
Well maybe there are.
Maybe we’re just looking in the wrong places.
In the book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter argues that the Celtic influence
is there, maybe not in the vocabulary, but in the grammar.
And he points to two aspects of modern English grammar which can only be found elsewhere
in the Celtic languages.
The first example is the way modern English uses the word do and its variations did and
Of course, we can use do to express emphasis, as in, I do like it, I really do.
And that isn’t necessarily unique to English.
But what is unique is the way we use it in so many other contexts.
I mean, it really permeates the English language in a way that’s very unusual compared to
So whenever we ask questions, there’s often a do in there somewhere.
So how do you do that?
Where did you go?
What did he say?
What do you like to eat?
When does she get here?
Did you go outside?
Does it surprise you?
Do you like it?
So there always seems to be a do hanging around.
And when we make negative statements, we routinely stick a do or a did in there somewhere.
Like, I do not like it.
He does not have any.
You do not look well.
It does not work.
She did not see him.
Again, English has this persistent use of do.
But if you really think about it, that do doesn’t really do anything in those examples.
In fact, it wasn’t there in Old English, at least not in the many ways we tend to use
And in fact, no other languages use do like English does today except, you guessed it,
Celtic languages like Welsh and Cornish.
Those Celtic languages in Britain had this same type of grammatical feature when the
And after several centuries, by the period of Middle English, this piece of Celtic grammar
may have spread to English.
And today, it’s a very prominent feature of English.
And John McWhorter also points to another aspect of English grammar to show the Celtic
This other aspect has to do with our basic present tense verbs.
If you were asked to conjugate a basic verb like listen in present tense, you would probably
say I listen, you listen, he, she, it listens.
That’s technically the way to conjugate that verb in English.
But if I asked you what you’re doing right now, you wouldn’t say, I listen.
You would say, I am listening.
And I wouldn’t say, I speak.
I would say, I am speaking.
That basic verb form, like I speak, or I listen, or I read, I sleep, that was the basic verb
form of present tense in Old English.
And it’s the basic verb form of present tense in other languages, including other
But in modern English, we rarely use it.
We almost always use the verb phrase, am speaking or am listening.
Now we do sometimes use that basic form of the verb, if you want to indicate that you
do something on a regular basis.
So if I asked you what you do whenever you find out there’s a new episode of the podcast,
you might say, I listen.
And if you ask Paul McCartney what he does for a living, he might say, I sing, or I play
guitar, or I write songs.
So we do use that basic form of the verb in present tense.
But it’s been relegated to this limited situation, where we’re indicating that something
happens on a regular basis.
Otherwise, the default form in modern English is that longer, more complicated verb phrase,
am singing, am playing, or am writing.
Again, this ing verb phrase wasn’t used that way as the default form in Old English.
And it’s not used that way in other Indo-European languages, with one exception.
Of course, it’s the Celtic languages.
The Celtic languages in Britain had this same type of present tense conjugation.
So McWhorter argues that this feature of modern English occurred when the Anglo-Saxons encountered
the Celtic-speaking Britons.
That in fact, they did live together, at least in parts of Britain.
And that some of the aspects of the Celtic languages changed English during the period
of Late Old English and Middle English.
So that by the time we get into the Middle English period, this feature of English had
If you’re interested in exploring this research further, check out John McWhorter’s book,
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.
It’s available as an e-book and also as an audio book.
Now all this research, the genetic research, the archaeological research, and the linguistic
research, it all suggests that the traditional view of the Celtic legacy was wrong.
The Celtic Britons were not completely wiped out in England.
And Old English was not immune from Celtic influences.
Instead, at least in parts of England, there was a blending of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon peoples
and languages and cultures.
But make no mistake, the Anglo-Saxon influences dominated.
There might be a bit more Celtic influence on English than we once thought, but it still
pales in comparison to the influences of Old Norse and Norman French.
And that suggests that the Celts were not fully integrated into the Anglo-Saxon society.
They likely lived at the margins, as slaves and serfs.
And even when they were free, they held a far inferior status in Anglo-Saxon society.
But their influences still came through.
And if we look close enough, we can see those influences.
And those influences sometimes found their way into English culture in strange and roundabout
In fact, when we think of medieval England, after the Norman conquest, many of us instinctively
think of the legendary figure of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Now those legendary stories have become synonymous with medieval Britain, yet these stories didn’t
originate with the Anglo-Saxons.
They originated with the Celts.
And in fact, they originated as stories of resistance against the Anglo-Saxons during
this early period in the 5th and 6th centuries.
So I want to conclude this episode about the Celtic legacy by exploring how the early
Celtic resistance movement gave rise to the legendary figure of King Arthur, a king of
all of Britain.
In the aftermath of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, many Celtic Britons had apparently been relegated
to slaves within the new Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
And the only places where they maintained their independence were on the western fringes
of the island and in the far north and across the sea in Brittany.
But many of these Celtic Britons saw this as a temporary condition.
They imagined that the tide would one day turn and that Britons would once again rise
up and reclaim their island.
But in order for this to happen, the Celtic Britons needed a hero, a hero that would one
day return to fight the Saxons.
And this appears to be the origin of the early legends in Wales and Cornwall and Brittany
about a military leader named Arthur, a leader who had supposedly fought the Saxons and a
leader who would one day return to fight them again.
As we saw in the last episode, the actual written accounts from this period are very
limited and none of the sources from this period actually mention a king or a military
leader named Arthur.
But shortly after this period, written references to Arthur start to pop up throughout the Celtic
And at least early on, the references suggest that Arthur was an actual person, a real-life
So was there really a Celtic leader named Arthur who fought the Saxons?
Well there have been numerous books written about this subject and I’m certainly not
going to provide a definitive answer here, but let’s look at the evidence to see how
this mysterious figure emerged.
There seems to be a general agreement among historians that something happened in the
late 5th century and early 6th century which led to the creation of these later stories
And we know by now that the only contemporary accounts of events from within Britain during
this period was the Sermon of Gildas.
And Gildas mentioned that the Britons had fought back against the Saxons and they won
that great victory at a place called Mons Bodonagus in Latin or Mount Baden in English.
But he didn’t say where that battle occurred and he didn’t say who the military leader
was who won that battle.
Perhaps he didn’t mention the name because he was writing to the people of his day and
they all knew who the leader was.
But based on later writings, it becomes apparent that the Celtic Britons considered this a
It became legendary in the minds of many Britons because it proved that the Saxons could be
And those later sources gave credit for the victory to a leader named Arthur.
In the years after Gildas, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms began to rise again and the Celtic
kingdoms squabbled amongst themselves and they were unable to mount an effective defense.
And they soon lost the remainder of western Britain to the Saxons except for Cornwall
And it was in these regions and in Brittany that the legend of Mount Baden and Arthur
really started to grow.
Just as the Anglo-Saxons completed their conquest in the 7th century, the first historical references
to Arthur appear.
A Welsh poem from the early 7th century called Eegadothan makes reference to a shadowy figure
And in praising a soldier who’d fought bravely against the Saxons, it conditions the praise
by noting that, quote, he was no Arthur.
And a later chronicle of events compiled from a variety of Welsh sources also makes reference
The chronicle, which is called the Welsh Annals, probably began in the 9th century.
But the first entries date all the way back to the 5th century.
So they were written down at a later date.
And we don’t know what the original sources were, so we don’t know how reliable those
early entries are.
But for the year 518, the Welsh Annals specifically state that a military leader named Arthur
won the Battle of Baden against the Saxons.
Now if this entry is accurate, it’s the first reference to Arthur being the victor at Baden.
The Annals also state that Arthur and Medraught were killed at a separate battle in the year
Now many historians believe that Medraught was an early version of Mordred, the traitor
who challenged Arthur’s power and who was the primary villain in the later legends.
Again, we can’t say with certainty how accurate these references are, but it seems clear that
the legend of Arthur was in place and was growing quickly.
And then we get to the big reference to Arthur, the source that’s often cited as the first
real reference to the figure that we would come to know in the later accounts.
And that reference comes to us via a Welsh monk named Ninnius.
In the year 828, he published a history which he called the History of the Britons.
It’s a fascinating book, but it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a history.
It actually mixed folklore with history.
But despite the fact that Ninnius takes a lot of liberties, he does appear to mix in
some actual history with his stories.
So it’s difficult to determine what’s history and what’s legend.
But the reason why the book is important to the history of Arthur is because it provides
a specific list of Arthur’s battles.
The list of battles probably came from a long lost battle song which commemorated certain
And Ninnius says that Arthur fought, quote, with the kings of Britain, but he doesn’t
identify Arthur himself as a king.
And Ninnius then lists each battle and of the last one he writes, quote, the twelfth
battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur.
And no one struck them down except Arthur himself.
And in all the wars he emerged as victor, end quote.
So by this point, in the 9th century, Arthur had clearly become associated with that legendary
victory at Mount Badon.
And tales of Arthur and his victory at Badon thrive not only in western Britain but also
in Brittany and northern Gaul.
And in fact, the legend of Arthur may have been greater in Brittany than in Britain itself.
In the 11th century, a monk in Brittany named William wrote about the life of a Breton bishop
and later saint who was one of the many who migrated from southern Britain in the wake
of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.
And in his history, William wrote that the Saxon’s pride was, quote, limited for a while
through the great Arthur, king of the Britons, end quote.
He then writes that this same Arthur won many glorious victories in Britain and in Gaul.
Now William’s history is notable because it’s the first source to describe Arthur as a king
and it says he won victories in Britain and in Gaul.
Now this has led some historians to conclude that William was actually referring to a British
king who was hanging out in Gaul named Riothamus or Riothamus using the Latin pronunciation
at the time.
Now I mentioned Riothamus in the last episode because a bishop in Gaul named Sidonius wrote
a letter to him which referenced the Bretons in northern Gaul and I noted that the later
Frankish historian, Giordanus, called Riothamus the king of the Britons even though he was
fighting in Gaul.
So is there a possible link between this guy Riothamus and the later figure of Arthur?
Well there is an interesting linguistic connection and to understand this connection we have
to consider the name Arthur.
First where did the name Arthur come from?
Well no one knows for sure but it could be a personal name or family name.
There is a Celtic name, Archer, which means bear.
Maybe that was the source of the name.
There’s also a Roman family name, Artorius, so maybe that was the source.
But it’s also possible that the name Arthur wasn’t initially a personal name at all.
It may have been a title.
In fact many prominent people of this period were named after their title and later generations
often mistakenly assumed that the title was a personal name.
So for example, according to later writers, the British king who invited the Saxons into
Britain in the first place was called Vortigern and some later linguists have concluded that
the name Vortigern was really a title which meant overlord.
Well some historians believe that Arthur was also initially a Celtic title.
In the Celtic languages, the word Arthur meant high or supreme and reeks meant king.
In fact we’ve come across reeks a lot in this podcast.
It’s cognate with rex meaning king in Latin where it produced later words like royal and
And it’s cognate with the English word rich and you might also remember from our look
at the Goths that it ultimately produced the reek in Puerto Rico and even the rih in
Well here it is again.
The Celts used their version of the word reeks to mean king as well.
And again the supreme king in the Celtic languages was a combination of the word arthu and reeks
and that produced a new word, Arthri.
Arthri meant the supreme king and it may have been the original title of a prominent
figure who was considered a king of the Britons, either a real person or a legendary figure.
And Arthri may have become Arthur.
So you may be asking what does all that have to do with that guy Rheothamnes who was also
called a king of the Britons.
Well Rheothamnes is also a title not an actual personal name and the title also means supreme
king and in fact it’s composed of the same two Celtic words which make up the title Arthri.
And if you have a hard time hearing the connection between Arthri and Rheothamnes, all you have
to do is reverse the two Celtic root words.
High king is arthu plus re producing Arthri.
But when you reverse those two root words you get re plus arthu and that gives you Rhearthu
or thanks to a Latin translation Rheothamnes.
So Arthu and Rheothamnes can both be derived from the same Celtic title meaning high king
or supreme king with the two Celtic root words simply being reversed between the two titles.
And we can combine that linguistic connection with Jordanus who described Rheothamnes as
king of the Britons even though he was in Gaul.
And we can then add in William’s history who talks about Arthur and gives Arthur the
same title as Rheothamnes, king of the Britons.
And William specifically notes that Arthur won victories in both Britain and Gaul.
So when we put all those pieces together you can see why some historians have concluded
that this guy Rheothamnes was in fact the original Arthur.
And maybe he was but the reality is that there probably was no single Arthur.
The legendary figure of Arthur was likely a combination of several prominent figures
associated with the Celtic resistance during this period.
And Rheothamnes was likely one of those figures especially in the versions of the stories
told in Brittany.
As I noted earlier the legends surrounding this mysterious figure of Arthur were as popular
in Brittany in northern France as anywhere in Britain itself.
And throughout Brittany during this period it’s recorded that people sang songs about
Arthur and his battles against the Saxons.
And by the 11th century the Bretons had become allied with their neighbors, the Normans.
And these were the same Normans who invaded England in 1066 under the leadership of William,
Duke of Normandy.
And here’s where the story of Arthur comes full circle.
We always refer to the Norman conquest of the Anglo-Saxons in 1066.
But in actuality about one-third of William’s army was actually Breton, not Norman.
In fact the entire left flank of William’s army at the Battle of Hastings was Breton.
They were William’s allies in northern France and they were descendants of the Bretons who
had fled the Anglo-Saxons several centuries earlier.
And throughout that period in exile in northern France they had developed songs and poems
and stories about the legendary figure of Arthur.
And part of their support of William was based on political alliances and perhaps opportunism.
But for the rank-and-file Breton soldiers it may also have been a matter of vengeance.
As the descendants of Bretons who had fled the Saxon onslaught over five centuries earlier,
they now had their opportunity to return to their ancestral homeland.
To bring the fight back to the Saxons.
And they did so singing the songs of Arthur.
After the Norman conquest, the songs of the Bretons blended with the poems and legends
of the Cornish and the Welsh.
The story of Arthur was now almost fully realized.
In the figure of Arthur the Normans didn’t choose a Norman hero or a Saxon hero.
They adopted a Celtic British hero.
And whether it was intentional or not, it was definitely good propaganda.
It helped the Normans to depict the Saxons as treacherous occupiers.
And in the wake of the Norman conquest, the feudal system was introduced into Britain.
And that included a new class of military leaders called knights.
And it included the medieval concept of chivalry.
And we now have the full transition of Arthur.
From a dark age Celtic warrior fighting against the Anglo-Saxons to a medieval British king
surrounded by castles and knights and bound by the medieval code of chivalry.
From here, the Welsh writer Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain
And this was the first proper telling of the myth of Arthur.
His history covers the early Anglo-Saxon period from the Roman withdrawal to the Saxon
And he tells the story of Arthur as he bravely fought and defeated the Saxons.
In fact, Arthur defeats almost everyone along the way.
He defeats the Picts and the Scots.
And after he marries Guinevere he sails to Iceland and Ireland where he conquers the
peoples in those regions as well.
Then he invades Norway and Denmark and adds them to his empire.
He then turns his attention southward to Gaul.
And as we might expect at this point he conquers Gaul too.
And then he decides it’s time to teach Rome a lesson as well.
So he fights and defeats a giant and then he leads his soldiers into battle against
And you guessed it, he beats the Romans too.
And he even decides to cross the Alps and invade Rome itself.
But then he gets the news that Mordred has seized power back in Britain and is living
Mordred has formed an alliance with the Saxons and the Picts and the Scots.
So Arthur returns to Britain and he fights several battles against Mordred.
And Mordred is killed but ultimately so is Arthur.
And at death Arthur’s body was taken to the Isle of Avalon.
And that’s Geoffrey’s story in a nutshell.
And Geoffrey’s story was expanded by later writers.
But the popularity of Geoffrey’s story was so great that almost all the later versions
are roughly based around his original version.
Of course Geoffrey wasn’t really an historian.
He only used history as a backdrop to set the scene.
His main focus was on telling a good story.
And perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that Geoffrey himself was part Welsh and part
He’d grown up with the legend of Arthur on both sides of the Channel.
And he fused those elements together into the first proper telling of the legend of
Now the later French poet Chrétien de Troyes added the characters of Lancelot, Galahad,
And he introduced the quest for the Holy Grail.
And he also invented the name Camelot and said that Arthur’s court was located there.
And all these stories ultimately culminated with Sir Thomas Mallory’s La Mort d’Arthur
And Mallory gives us the final version of the story complete with Merlin and the sword
Excalibur and the affair of Guinevere and Lancelot.
So as we look back at the most legendary of British kings, the once and future king
of all of Britain, we see part of the legacy of the Celts.
I mean they didn’t really disappear from Anglo-Saxon England.
They were always there.
We see it in the ancient legends.
We see it in DNA research.
We see it in the place names and old legal codes.
And we even see it in the English language if we look hard enough for it.
So with that, I’m going to conclude this episode.
Next time, we’ll complete our look at the 5th and 6th centuries by turning our attention
back to continental Europe to see what was happening to the Saxons who remained back
in northern Germany.
And we’ll examine the emergence of the modern High German dialects during this period.
And then we’ll look at the rise of the Frankish kingdom in Gaul.
And with it, we’ll look at the surprising number of English words which can be traced
back to the Franks.
So all of that will be in the next episode.
So until next time, thanks for listening to the History of English Podcast.