Brittonicisms in English

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Brittonicisms in English are the linguistic effects in English attributed to the historical influence of Brittonic speakers.

The Romano-British inhabitants of England after the Anglo-Saxon influx and political dominance, together with the continual contact over the 1500-year period between English and Brittonic languages (i.e. the Roman-era British language and its descendants), have affected the English language.

The research into this topic uses a variety of approaches to approximate the Romano-British language spoken in Sub-Roman Britain on the eve of the Anglo-Saxon arrival. Besides the earliest extant Old Welsh texts, Breton is useful for its lack of English influence.[1]

The Brittonic substratum influence on English is considered to be very small, but a number of publications in the 2000s (decade) suggested that its influence may have been underestimated. Some of the developments differentiating Old English from Middle English have been proposed as an emergence of a previously unrecorded Brittonic influence.[2][3]

There are many, often obscure, characteristics in English that have been proposed as Brittonicisms. White (2004) enumerates 92 items, of which 32 are attributed to other academic works.[2]

History of research

The received view that Romano-British impact on English has been minimal on all levels became established at the beginning of the 20th century following work by such scholars as Otto Jespersen (1905)[4] and Max Förster (1921).[5] Opposing views by Wolfgang Keller (1925)[6] Ingerid Dal (1952),[7] G. Visser (1955),[8] Walther Preusler (1956),[9] and by Patricia Poussa (1990)[10] were marginal to the academic consensus of their time. Perhaps more famously, Oxford philologist and author J.R.R. Tolkien expressed his suspicion of Brittonic influence and pointed out some anomalies in support of this view in his 1955 valedictory lecture English and Welsh,[11] in which Tolkien cites Förster.[12]

Research on Romano-British influence in English has intensified in the 2000s (decade), principally centering on The Celtic Englishes programmes in Germany (Potsdam University) and The Celtic Roots of English programme in Finland (University of Joensuu).[13][14]

The review of the extent of Romano-British influence has been encouraged by developments in several fields. Significant survival of Brittonic peoples in Anglo-Saxon England has become a more widely accepted idea thanks primarily to recent archaeological and genetic evidence.[15][page needed] According to a previously held model, the Romano-Britons of England were to a large extent exterminated or somehow pushed out of England — affecting their ability to influence language.[16][17] There is now a much greater body of research into language contact and a greater understanding of language contact types. The works of Sarah Thomason and Terrence Kaufman[18] have been used in particular to model borrowing and language shift. The research uses investigations into varieties of "Celtic" English (that is Welsh English, Irish English, etc.) which reveal characteristics more certainly attributable to "Celtic" languages and also universal contact trends revealed by other varieties of English.

Old English

Diglossia model

Endorsed particularly by Hildegard Tristram (2004), the Old English diglossia model proposes that much of the native Romano-British population remained in England while the Anglo-Saxons gradually took over the rule of the country. Over a long period, the Brittonic population imperfectly learnt the Anglo-Saxons' language while Old English continued in an artificially stable form as the written language of the elite and the only version of English preserved in writing. After the Norman conquerors removed Anglo-Saxon rule, the language of the general population, which was a Brittonicised version of English, was eventually recorded and appears as Middle English.[19][20] This kind of variance between written and spoken language is attested historically in other cultures, notably Latin, and may occur commonly. For instance, Moroccan Arabic (Darija) and other colloquial varieties of Arabic have not had a literary presence in over a millennium; the substantial Berber substratum in Darija (and likewise, the Coptic substratum in Egyptian, the Western Aramaic and Hebrew substrata in Levantine, the Syriac and Persian substrata in Iraqi, etc.) would not have appeared in any significant Arabic works until the late 20th century, when Darija, along with the other varieties of Arabic, began to be written down in quantity.[13]

Substantive verb – consuetudinal tense byð

This claim depends on assuming that Old English is unusual as a Germanic language in its use of two forms of the verb to be; however, all other Germanic languages also exhibit the two verbs be with similar semantics, and so the evidence probably is more suggestive of a common inheritance than substratum influence – though this substratum influence could be claimed also for many parts of the European mainland, formerly Celtic but now Germanic. The b- form is used in a habitual sense and the 3rd person singular form, byð, has the same distinction of functions and is associated with a similar phonetic form in the Brittonic *bið (Welsh bydd, Middle Breton bout, Cornish boaz).[21] Biðun, the 3rd person plural form, is also used in Northern texts and seems to parallel the Brittonic byddant. Though the claim is made that the biðun form is particularly difficult to explain as a Germanic language construct, but is consistent with the Brittonic system, the form fits into regular Germanic to Anglian sound changes.[22]

Transition to Middle English

Change from syntheticism towards analyticism

The development from Old English to Middle English is marked particularly by a change from syntheticism (expressing meaning using word-endings) to analyticism (expressing meaning using word order). Old English was a highly synthetic language. There are different word endings for case (roughly speaking, endings for the direct object of a sentence, the subject of a sentence and similarly for two other grammatical situations (not including instrumental)) varying for plural forms, gender forms and two kinds of word form (called weak and strong).[23] This system is partially retained in modern Germanic languages. Brittonic, however, was already a highly analytic language and so Brittonic peoples may have had difficulty learning Old English. It has been suggested that the Brittonic Latin of the period demonstrates difficulty in using the Latin word endings.[24] Today, Welsh and English are conspicuously analytic compared with the Indo-European languages of Western Europe.[25]

Language innovations occurred primarily in texts from Northern and South-Western England — in theory, the areas with the greater density of Brittonic people. In the Northern zone of that period, there was partial replacement of the Anglo-Saxon rule by Norse invaders. This situation can variously be seen as mitigating the emergence of Brittonic English or as the direct cause of the Northern language innovations i.e. Middle English creole hypothesis. However, the attrition in word endings, as witnessed by the loss of the nasal endings (m,n), began before the Norse invasion.[19]

The effects of accent, which may or may not have been substratal,[26] together with Norse influence is perhaps the most accepted hypothesis explaining inflexion attrition.[27]

  • Innovations in the Northern zone texts[19]
    • Old English had case and gender word endings for nouns, pronouns and adjectives while at the time Brittonic did not have these endings. The endings in English were lost.
    • Old English had several versions of the word 'the' while at the time Brittonic only had one. The variations of 'the' were lost in English. The lack of different forms of 'the' is an unusual language feature shared only by Celtic and English in this region.
    • English developed a fixed word order, which was present earlier in Brittonic
  • Innovations in the South Western zone texts[19]
    • Rise of the periphrastic aspect, particularly the progressive form (i.e. BE verb-ing: I am writing, she was singing etc.). The progressive form developed in the change from Old English to Middle English. Similar constructs are rare in Germanic languages and not completely analogous. Celtic usage has chronological precedence and high usage.[28] Celtic Englishes employ the structure more than Standard English. E.g. "It was meaning right the opposite", Manx English[29]
    • DO-periphrasis in a variety of uses. Modern English is dependent on a semantically neutral 'do' in some negative statements and questions, e.g. 'I don't know' rather than 'I know not". This feature is linguistically very rare. Celtic languages use a similar structure, but without dependence. The usage is frequent in Cornish and Middle Cornish — e.g. "Omma ny wreugh why tryge", "You do not stay here" — and it is used in Middle Breton.[13] "Do" is more common in Celtic Englishes than Standard English.[30]

Various possible Brittonicisms

Loss of wurth

In Old English, constructions using wurth were used where today motion verbs like go and become are used instead, e.g., "What shall worthe of us twoo!"[31] This use of motion verbs occurs in Celtic texts with relative frequency e.g. "ac am hynny yd aeth Kyledyr yg gwyllt" = "and because of this Kyledyr went mad" (Middle Welsh)[2][32]

Rise in use of some complex syntactic structures

English construction of complex sentences uses some forms which in popularity may suggest a Celtic influence. Clefting in Old Welsh literature predates its common use in English by perhaps 400 years — depending on the dating of Welsh texts.[19] Cleft constructions are more common in Breton French than Standard French and more common and versatile in Celtic English than Standard English.[33] Clefting may be linked to the rise of a fixed word order after the loss of inflections.[19]

Uses of himself, herself etc.

Celtic and English have formal identity between intensifier and reflexive pronoun. They share this feature only with Maltese, Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian in Europe. In Middle English, the old intensifier "self" was replaced by a fusion of pronoun + "self" which is now used in a communication to emphasise the object in question e.g. "A woman who is conspicuously generous to others less fortunate than herself."[34]

Northern subject rule

The Northern subject rule was the general pattern of syntax used for the present-tense in northern Middle English. It occurs in some present-day dialects. The 3rd person singular verb is used for 3rd person plural subjects unless the pronoun, "they", is used and it is directly adjacent to the verb, e.g. "they sing", "they only sings", "birds sings". This anti-agreement is standard in Modern Welsh — excepting the adjacency condition. It had general usage in Old Welsh and therefore, presumably, in Cumbric.[35]

Lack of external possessor

English does not make use of an external possessor construction. The only other "European" languages without the external possessor are Lezgian, Turkish, Welsh, Breton.[36] All continental languages do have external possessors, including the Scandinavian languages (e.g. Swedish: internal - "Hon tvättade hans hår"; external - "Hon tvättade håret på honom"). Old English used the external possessor, e.g., Seo cwen het þa þæm cyninge þæt heafod of aceorfan. "The Queen then ordered the King the head to be cut off" but Modern English must use the internal possessor "The Queen then ordered the King's head to be cut off".[37][38]

Tag questions and answers

The statistical bias towards use of tag questions and answers in English, historically, instead of simply yes or no has been attributed to Celtic influence.[39][40] Celtic languages do not use yes and no. Answers are made by using the appropriate verb.[example needed] It has been suggested that yes is a fossilised tag answer[2] (a combination of gea (=yes) and si (=it may be)[41][page needed] making the 's' in yes seemingly redundant). Theo Vennemann has had a central role in the modern examination of this issue.[citation needed] He is also known for his work on the Vasconic substratum theory and suggests some syntactic structures can be used to diagnose a pre-Celtic substratum language — that is Semitic/Afro-Asiatic.[42]


Among the phonetic anomalies is the continued use of w, θ and ð in Modern English (win, breath, breathe). English is remarkable in being the only language (except Welsh/Cornish) to use all three of these sounds in the region. The use of the sounds in Germanic languages has generally been unstable and the continual influence of Celtic may have had a supportive effect in preserving English use.[43][44] The legitimacy of this evidence has been disputed.[3]


  1. German 2001, pp. 125–41.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 White, David L (2010), "On the Areal Pattern of 'Brittonicity' in English and Its Implications", in Tristram, Hildegard (ed.), The Celtic Englishes IV (PDF), Potsdam University<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Isaac 2003.
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  9. Preusler, Walther (1956), "Keltischer Einfluss im Englischen", Revue des langues vivantes (in German), 22: 322–50CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
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  11. (Tolkien 1983)
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  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 19.5 Tristram, Hildegard (2004), "Diglossia in Anglo-Saxon England, or what was spoken Old English like?", Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, 40: 87–110<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
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  22. Tolkien 1983.
  23. "Magic", Old English (course handout), Virginia<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  24. German 2001, p. 130.
  25. Tristram, Hildegard (2002), "Attrition of inflections in English and Welsh", in Filppula, Markku; Klemola, Juhani; Pitkänen, Heli (eds.), The Celtic Roots of English, Studies in Language, 37, Joensuu: University of Joensuu, Faculty of the Humanities, pp. 111–49, Welsh and English are the most conspicuously analytic languages of Western Europe's Indo-European [...] languages<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
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  28. Filppula 2010, p. 441.
  29. Filppula, Klemola & Paulasto 2008, p. 176.
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  33. Filppula 2010, p. 444.
  34. Lange, Claudia, "Reflexivity and Intensification in Irish English and Other New Englishes", in Tristram, Hildegard (ed.), The Celtic Englishes (PDF), IV, Potsdam University, p. 261<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
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  36. Vennemann, Theo (1–4 July 1999), "On the rise of 'Celtic' syntax in Middle English", in Lucas, Peter J; Lucas, Angela M (eds.), Middle English from tongue to text: Selected papers from the Third International Conference on Middle English: Language and Text, held at Dublin, Ireland, Bern: Peter Lang, pp. 203–34 Check date values in: |year= / |date= mismatch (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  37. Vennemann, Theo (2005), "English – a German dialect?"", in Filppula, Markku; Klemola, Juhani; Pitkänen, Heli (eds.), The Celtic Roots of English (PDF), Studies in Language, 37, Joensuu: University of Joensuu, Faculty of the Humanities, p. 18<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
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  41. Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  42. English - a German dialect? Prof. em. Theo Vennemann, Ph.D. Rotary Club Munich International. 7 November 2005. [1]
  43. th and w: Tolkien 1983.
  44. θ and ð: Tristram, Hildegard (2002), Lenz, Katja; Mohlig, Ruth (eds.), The politics of language: Links between Modern Welsh and English, pp. 257–75<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.


  • Filppula, Markku; Klemola, Juhani; Paulasto, Heli (2008), English and Celtic in Contact<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
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  • German, Gary (2001), "The genesis of analytic structure in English: the case for a Brittonic substratum", Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours, 24<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Isaac, Graham R (2003), "Diagnosing the Symptoms of Contact: Some Celtic-English Case Histories", in Tristram, Hildegard LC (ed.), The Celtic Englishes III, Heidelberg: Winter, pp. 46–64<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel (1983), "English and Welsh", in Tolkien, Christopher (ed.), The Monsters and The Critics, London: Harper Collins, pp. 162–97<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.

See also