Thursday, October 2, 2014

The ancient clans of Britain

Celtic clan-indicators have long held a fascination for me. They all seem to have originated as glottal-stop prefixes. A glottal-stop is the sound in the middle of uh-oh, and of butter in some English dialects. Think of that line from “Right Said Fred” (the song, not the band): “Bu’ i’ did no good; wew I never fough’ i’ would!” Hmmm. You have to say it out loud to get the full effect…

 In modern surnames, the stop is represented by the Irish O-apostrophe, and with closed lips it’s usually perceived in Ireland and Scotland as M-apostrophe – and indeed that’s how it was written until recent times: M’Arthur, M’Allan, M’Innis. In the 18th Century that was gradually changed to Mc or Mac: MacArthur, Macallan, McInnis. In Wales, with the lips still closed but with a slightly different delivery, the sound was usually perceived as either ‘p or p’, depending – and written ap as a prefix to surnames; ap-Rees and ap-Harry. (Priest and Parry, in later versions.)

The Celtic languages and dialects were relatively late comers to the spoken languages of Britain, and they were never spoken all over the Island(s). Between the very first settlers of Britain – described in the preceding blog to this one – and the Celtic settlers lie thousands of years and hundreds of generations, and an unknown number of other immigrant groups speaking other languages.

As far as I can tell, there has been little enquiry into the languages of Britain before the Celts – or even before the arrival of the Roman Empire. The whole of Britain is supposed to have been speaking one or other of the Celtic languages when the Roman armies arrived, but that’s unlikely to have been the case. After all, the whole of the territory under Rome’s rule didn’t speak Latin by the end of its 20 generations of occupation.

All the local nobles and administrators probably did, just as their successors spoke Anglo-Saxon by the end of those Germans’ occupation, and Scandinavian in the northern regions by the end of the Vikings’ occupation, and French for generations after the Norman conquest. But the bulk of any society doesn’t adopt a new language every time it’s conquered.

The peasantry is far too conservative to do that, and invaders don’t come in large enough numbers to change an entire population’s speech. Anyway, slaughtering the natives is never as sensible as enslaving them. Somebody has to till the fields and milk the cows and provide sexual services to the new masters. Genocide is a wasteful self-indulgence. The Roman Empire practised ethnic cleansing once in a while, but the Celts and the other foreign rulers didn’t.

The British peoples who were invaded and conquered by Rome two thousand years ago – were they radically different from either their distant descendants or their distant ancestors? There is no convincing reason to think so, whether in their basic DNA, or their language, or their clan-identities.

It would take an overwhelming invasion of the whole of Britain to alter those things to any significant degree, and there is no proof of such an invasion in the past. Histories claim that the Celts did come in overwhelming numbers – but the failure of any Celtic speech to survive east of the present borders makes that an implausible claim. Codswallop, in other words.

Actually, there is one important piece of evidence against a totalitarian invasion, although it has rarely if ever been taken into account. That evidence is the fact that English is unique in western Europe in its absence of grammatical genders. No le and la, die, der and das, -en and -et, or their Latin or Celtic equivalents: just plain old the. No grammatical genders for any nouns, ever.

On a typical farm, foreign male occupiers and their native female companions will call things by their respective names for them. That’s how genders arose in every western language but English. But when populations survive foreign invasions intact, a need for male and female grammatical genders never does arise. It’s worth saying again… English is unique in western Europe in its absence of linguistic genders. That didn’t come about by accident. English has always been the language of the native British, since Day One.