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History of the English Language Part I: Iron Age Britain

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Our journey through the history of English starts with Britain during the iron age. For Britain, this period started around 750 BC and continues up until the Roman invasions between 43 and 87 AD.

celtic roundhouse the history of the english language
A Celtic roundhouse, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Celts

The earliest known written reference to the people living on the British Isles was around 330 BC by the Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia. Although Pytheas’ works are lost to history, they are referenced by later writers. Pytheas referred to the lands as either Bretannike or Pretannike, and its peoples as either Bretani or Pretani.

The people Pytheas described we would now call the Celts or Celtic tribes. These were not the only Celtic people in Europe. Celtic tribes lived on the continent from Gaul (modern-day France) to Iberia (moden-day Spain). These different Celtic people were related, although their languages had already branched off into different groups.

Celtic Languages

The Celtic tribes that lived in the British Isles and those that lived in modern-day Brittany spoke insular Celtic languages, while those on the remainder of the European continent spoke continental Celtic.

The insular Celtic languages can be further broken down into Brythonic and Goidelic Celtic, sometimes referred to as P and Q Celtic. The Brythonic Celtic languages would become the basis of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. The Goidelic Celtic languages would become Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. Pictish was also spoken in the area that is now Scotland until 1100 AD. This is considered to be a Brythonic Celtic language, although that classification is disputed.

celtic language tree the history of the english language
The Celtic language family tree Uploaded to Wikibooks by, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A Celt By Any Other Name

Pretani, or Bretani, (as Pytheas called the inhabitants of the British Isles) appears to be a Celtic word in origin meaning the painted or tattooed folk. This likely referred to the blue dye that the Celtic tribes used to decorate their bodies. Whether this is a name that the Celtic people chose for themselves or were given is not agreed upon. These Brittonic people did not however call themselves Celtic which entered English in the 16th or 17th Century from either French or Latin.

Similarly, the names of Celtic tribes were recorded by the Romans meaning that we do not know what these tribes actually called themselves.

The Impact of Celtic on English

Although we start our journey here, these languages did not form the basis for modern English. They may however have had several significant impacts on English as we will discover as we move forward through history.

One area where the Celtic languages have survived is in geographical place names. Many place names in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland are made up purely of Celtic words. In England, some places contain Celtic words. Further, as Britain colonised the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, many of these topographical names have found their way into these countries too.

Place Description
Aberdeen, Abertawe (Swansea), Aberystwyth
From Celtic *aber- meaning river mouth.
Arden (forest)
From ardu meaning high
Avon (river)
From abona meaning river. Thus river avon literally translates as "river river".
Axe (river), Axminster, Axmouth, Exeter, Exmouth
All derived from iska meaning water.
Bredon, Breadon
From first syllable of briga meaning hill.
Brent, Brentford
From brigant meaning high or lofty.
Carlisle, Cardiff
From caer meaning fort.
From criu meaning river crossing.
From Din Ediyn meaning Ediyn's fort.
From glascau meaning blue hollow.
From inver meaning river mouth or confluence (where two rivers meet).
From lindo meaning pool.
Thought to be from mamm meaning breast (as in the shape of a hill).
From Pictish perth meaning bush, wood or copse.
Severn (river)
Thought to be derived from sabrina, the name of a Celtic princess.
Tame, Teme, Thames (rivers)
From tames meaning dark.
The river thames the history of the english language
The river Thames in London Diliff, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What Came After?

The iron age ended in Britain with the Romans invading and occupying much of England.

Find Out More

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