Roman Empire and Germanic Tribes Influence on Isolated Celtic Languages in Britain

The impact on isolated languages in Britain by the Roman Empire’s invasion and eventual withdrawal in the 5thCentury, followed by the invasion of the Anglos, Saxons, and Jutes is an important chapter in the eventual creation of Old English. Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, found its way into the daily lives of citizens in Britain, and remnants of their languages impact can be found through place-names, naming systems and stone graffiti. Many Empire’s throughout history have invaded and conquered territory, which had an impact on the smaller villages isolated languages. The Celtic languages were a great example of this as they were heavily impacted and influenced by the invasion of the Roman Empire. Another empire who had a similar significant impact on languages, albeit in another part of the world, was the Persian Empire. In John McWhorter’s book, What Language is (and What it isn’t and What it Could be) he compares the languages of Old Persian and Pashto and explains how they evolved (or didn’t evolve) throughout history. Analyzing the pattern of these two languages give us great insight into how the isolated Celtic languages reacted in a similar way with the invasion of the Roman Empire, followed by the Anglo-Saxons, which would eventually lead to the creation of Old English.

Old Persian was an immensely complicated language whose structure is closer to modern Pashto than modern Persian-Farsi. The reason for this being that Old Persian underwent a change due to Persia’s expansion as an empire. When the Persian Empire conquered countries, their language went through a change by the citizens in the territories, which is interesting as Old Persian wasn’t imposed on the people by King Darius, because he and other leaders mainly conducted business and trades using Aramaic. However, the common people who resided from different regions of the empire, all spoke different languages, and needed a way to communicate with another, so they learned and used Persian. While learning the language, they simplified it in a way that was easier to use for them. This phenomenon has been referred to as “Persian Conversion” (McWhorter 21). After this conversion, Old Persian eventually became modern Persian-Farsi, while Pashto remained unchanged as their tribal language never needed to convert because it always remained isolated.

The Roman Empire and their Latin language influence were another example of this “Persian Conversion”. Before Rome invaded Britain the isolated Celtic languages were developing from their Indo-European roots. Eventually, Celtic separated into two different branches: P Celtic (=Brythonic) and Q Celtic (=Goidelic), which were derived from the different reflexes of the Indo-European voiceless labiovelar. (Schmidt 68) Furthermore, the specific Celtic languages which fell into these categories were as follows: P Celtic languages, such as Welsh, Breton, and Cornish, and Q Celtic languages such as Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. The Roman Empire impacted these isolated languages by immersing them in Roman traditions and Latin. The immersion resulted in the Brythonic vocabulary borrowing approximately 800 words from Latin during the four centuries of Roman rule in Britain. (Schmidt 77)

The vocabulary borrowed by the common people were usually words that the people in that part of Britain didn’t have words for yet. An example of the Brythonic language borrowing from Latin is the word vacuus, which means “empty, or vacant”. Vacuus eventually when adopted through the Celtic languages became guak in Cornish, and similarly gwak in Breton. Alan G. James writes about this particular word borrowing stating, “The borrowing would have occurred when Latin was a spoken, and vernacularized, language in at least part of Brittania, and the original context may well have again involved vessels or containers, whether in trade, domestic, or ritual use” (James 6). There’s other clear evidence of word borrowing with the adoption of Latin words into the Celtic-speaking building from Rome’s engineering and construction, specifically Hadrian’s Wall and Antoine’s Wall. Mūrus, which is Latin, became muro into the Brittonic language and later mur in neoBrittonic. Mur, is a word that describes a wall, particularly a large stone one, which ties in the significance of Hadrian’s and Antoine’s Wall and why the people would’ve adopted it for that specific purpose. This also provides evidence to McWhorter’s “Persian Conversion” theory as the peoples in this region have simplified or changed the language to meet their specific needs and also adopted new words into their vocabulary they didn’t have previously.

Another language impacted by Latin was Welsh. Stefan Zimmer wrote the article Dating the Loanwords: Latin suffixes in Welsh (and Their Celtic Congeners) which provides much detail into how Roman rule brought Latin loanwords, which were from adopted Latin suffixes, to Britain (and specifically for this article, Welsh people). Zimmer breaks down suffixes that were borrowed by Welsh speakers into three categories: loan suffixes without Celtic language equivalents, loan suffixes which were or became identical with corresponding Celtic language suffixes and finally Celtic language suffices whose productivity was enhanced by Latin loanwords with identical or very similar Latin suffixes. An example of a Latin suffixes borrowed into Welsh was the suffix, -daut in Old Welsh, which was extracted from old loanwords ending with Latin -tatem. (Zimmer 266) The Latin loanwords and suffixes worked their way into the Welsh language was similar to every other province in the Roman Empire; through the concentration of Romans in garrisons, cities, towns, commerce and the different military institutions. (Zimmer 263) An example of words being adopted are the terms awdwrdod (translated to ‘authority’ in English), which is a Welsh word adopted from the Latin word auctoritas;ciwdod (transalated to ‘city’ in English) adopted from the Latin word, civitatem. The phenomenon of the Latin influence on the Welsh language is particularly amazing due to the surprising lack of Roman expansion in Wales. Zimmer writes further on this stating, “Within the territory of Wales, there was only one Roman town, and a small one: Venta Silurum, Caerwent. After the withdrawal of Roman legions, were still alive for a certain time.” (Zimmer 263) Zimmer goes to acknowledge the evidence for the Roman influence after the Empire left, due to Latin names of local rulers, as well as Latin funerary inscriptions. Once again, this another great example of how an Empire’s influence in a part of the world, even somewhere as small as a single town, can slowly influence the way people speak, and how it can evolve their language.

The Roman’s Latin influence on the Celtic peoples was not solely limited to inanimate objects and routine vocabulary; Latin also had a more personal impact, specifically the influence of the Latin personal naming system on the Celtic naming system. In the seventh century B.C. Latin moved from a single-name identification to a binomial system. From there, the Latin-naming system further developed into trinomial with the creation of cognomina (Mullen 39). Cognomina initially was used throughout the Roman Empire as a nickname, but later it developed into the third name of Roman citizens when it became a hereditary identifier. The introduction of this allowed the citizens to be more creative with their names, which brought out more originality in naming their children (Mullen 40). In contrast with this highly sophisticated naming system, the Celtics relied primarily on a single naming system up until the Roman Empire invasion and subsequent Latin influence. In a case study completed on the city of Bath in Britain, there was plentiful evidence found on curse tablets that Celtic names used this single naming system, with few exceptions. These few exceptions were instances of the Latin binomial naming system which included Celtic names from Roman Britain and were recorded 28 times in the study. To put that number into context, it was only 6 percent of the names found through curse tablets, tombstones, and other stone inscriptions in Bath (Mullen 40). The trinomial format was found to be an even rarer occurrence in the study, with the only instances being individuals who were Romano-Celts and members of upper-class society. While rare, this still provides adequate evidence of the influence of Latin on the naming system in Roman Britain. However, it must be noted that due to the small sample size from the study the full extent of this influence may never be known as Latin was the only written language at the time in Roman Britain and the only evidence previously stated relies heavily on the influence it had on the upper class. The lower working-class peoples may not have adopted this phenomenon or were as receptive to it as those in high ranking positions. It’s also necessary to note that it’s difficult to understand how the natives felt about the Romanization due to their being no literature to capture the attitudes of the people at the time. Therefore, the only way to reconcile, or attempt to explain, why the Celtic peoples began to change their naming system is through the archaeological records.

The Romans had made a lasting impact on Britain, but there reign in Britain was unsustainable, even though they were unable to recognize or reconcile with that fact. David Carlson wrote an article, “Claudians Britain and Empire”. In the article, Carlson is concerned with the writings of the Greek poet, Claudius Claudianus, who was tasked to write about Rome’s dominion over Britain. Carlson explains that Claudius’ writings were greatly exaggerated, especially the references to the conquering of Britain, and how it highlights Rome’s ability to maintain mastery over the large span of its Empire. Carlson refutes much of Claudius’ writings by comparing it to actual history. Carlson notes there were many factors which led to the Romans leaving Britain, but it can easily be boiled down to the fact they spread themselves to thin, which not only weakened the infrastructure of the Roman Empire, but also made it difficult to control. To illustrate the exaggeration of Claudius’s writings of the Roman Empire’s greatness, in one poem Claudius wrote, “This is the city which, spring from humble beginnings, has stretched to either pole, and from one small place extended its power…” (Carlson 320). Claudian and the Romans considered Britain the end of civilizations reach, and that their conquering of it validated the Roman Empire. However, the Roman Empire’s desire for continuous expansion ultimately brought their downfall at the beginning of the 5th Century.

With Rome leaving Britain, this created a vacuum which was filled by the Germanic tribes of the Anglos, Saxons and Jutes (Anglo-Saxons). One of the interesting factors to note is the sheer rejection of Latin and Brittonic (which was the Celtic vernacular spoken by Britons at the time) by the Anglo-Saxons. In an article titled, “Why Did the Anglo-Saxons Not Become More British?” by David Ward-Perkins, he explores reasons and attitudes of the Anglo-Saxon tribes. Ward-Perkins writes, “The Germanic invaders absorbed very little of the native culture of Britain; and, by an act of supreme arrogance, they even termed the Britons “wealas’, or ‘foreigners’, in their own island.” (Ward-Perkins 514) Their attitude is why many historians in Britain claim the English lineage begins with the Germanic invasion. Their lack of respect for the Britons combined with their lust for absolute domination is what impacted the Celtic languages and culture most. Further in Ward-Perkins’ article he quotes a late 19th Century Victorian Anglo-Saxonist Edward Freeman who emphasized the Anglo-Saxons brutal ways impacted Britain in his book, Old English History for Children, Freeman writes, “Thus there may doubtless be some little British and Roman blood in us, just as few Welsh and Latin words crept into the English tongue from the very beginning. But we may be sure that we have not much of their blood in us, because we have so few of their words in our language…it has turned out much better in the end that our forefathers did thus kill or dive out nearly all the people whom they found in the land…I cannot think that we should ever have been so great and free a people as we have been for many ages.” (Ward-Perkins 521) Freeman’s sentiment rebukes that Britons were the true racial and moral ancestors of the English, instead giving credit to the Anglo-Saxons. (Ward-Perkins 521) Freeman appears to be justified in his claim as there is no way to dispute the Anglo-Saxon’s influence on Britain, which was exacerbated by the rapid disappearance of the Roman Empire and its influence. Ward-Perkins writes further on this stating, “Roman ways of doing things disappeared peculiarly fast, and with exceptional totality. Towns, coinage, architecture in brick and stone, complex industries, and even basic technologies like the use of the wheel for pottery production, all vanished during the fifth century, probably along with widespread literacy in Latin. Some things survived from Roman times, in both the British and the Anglo-Saxon areas of Britain, and scholars have been able convincingly to document the persistence of field-boundaries, of estate structures, of systems of assessment and tribute collection, and eve of political units.” From the rapid disappearance of the Romans and eventual occupation of the Anglo-Saxons, the Celtic languages underwent a change from Common Brittonic (a mixture of the Celtic languages and Latin) to Old English.

The four dialects of Old English were bred from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain, they were Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish and West Saxon. The Anglo-Saxon takeover of Britain is another useful example in illustrating McWhorter’s “Persian Conversion”. What makes their invasion so much more interesting than the Roman invasion is that initially the Anglo-Saxons wanted nothing to do with the Britons except to take their land, women, and anything else they found valuable. The biggest difference is that the Anglo-Saxons were fairly slow in their takeover of Britain. The Anglo-Saxons also left large amounts of the Eastern part of Britain alone and only spread as far North as where Hadrian built his wall. One of the other large changes that occurred with the Anglo-Saxons invasion that was different from Roman rule, was the abandonment of most Roman social mores. Examples of this were that political, social and ecclesiastical life from the fifth-century onwards no longer revolved around towns as the towns themselves vanished along with any and all signs of economic sophistication. (Ward-Perkins 528) Changes such as these are what slowly shifted the culture and language toward Old English and away from the previous isolated Celtic languages. McWhorter’s “Persian-Conversion” example stops here as we’ve seen the progression of the isolated Celtic languages become influenced by the Roman Empire, followed by the Anglo-Saxons, created Old English.

Throughout history the impact invading cultures have on isolated areas and languages is evident in how the isolated language evolves throughout time. The isolated Celtic languages are one of many examples of this, and fortunately there is historical evidence that chronicles these changes as they occur over time. The Roman Empire’s influence in Britain in the form of ecclesiastical services, agriculture, military and construction cannot be understated. Latin became the prestige/power dialect in Roman Britain and stayed that way until its sudden disappearance and exodus of the Roman Empire from Britain. The vacuum left and filled by Anglo Saxons helped facilitate the creation of Old English, which many historians argue is the beginning history of the English people. McWhorter’s “Persian Conversion” is a simple way to understand the pattern Old Persian’s journey to becoming Modern Persian, and subsequently it can also be shown in how the isolated Celtic languages grew from small tribal languages to an entirely new language from the influence of the Roman Empire and the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain.

Works Cited

Carlson, David R. “Claudian’s Britain and Empire”, 395–402 C.E.” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 134, no. 2, 2013, pp. 305–336., Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.

Frere, Sheppard, and Michael Fulford. “The Roman Invasion of A. D. 43.” Britannia, vol. 32, 2001, pp. 45–55. JSTOR, Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.

James, Alan G. “Elements of Latin Origin in P-Celtic Place-names between the Walls”. The Journal of Scottish Name Studies 8, 2014, pp. 1–50, Accessed 2 Oct. 2020

McWhorter, John H. What Language Is: (and What It Isn’t and What It Could Be). Gotham Books, 2012.

Mullen, Alex. “Linguistic Evidence for ‘Romanization’: Continuity and Change in Romano-British Onomastics: A Study of the Epigraphic Record with Particular Reference to Bath.” Britannia, vol. 38, 2007, pp. 35–61. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

Richard Glyn Roberts. “Welsh Studies: Language and Linguistics.” The Year’s Work in Modern Language Studies, vol. 73, 2013, pp. 293–297. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

Timofeeva, Olga. “Non-Finite Constructions in Old English With Special Reference to Syntactic Borrowing from Latin.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 111, no. 4, 2010, pp. 503–507. JSTOR, Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.

Ward-Perkins, Bryan. “Why Did the Anglo-Saxons Not Become More British?” The English Historical Review, vol. 115, no. 462, 2000, pp. 513–533. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

Wollman, Alfred. “Early Latin Loan-Words in Old English.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 22, 1993, pp. 1–26. JSTOR, Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.