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    Language in the British Isles

Celtic and Germanic
Present-day contact
Literature on language contact

P-Celtic languages

Welsh    Cornish    Breton

Contact among languages has always been a feature of social life in Britain and Ireland. Archaeology tells us that long before the Celts, neolithic peoples populated these islands. This is clearly evidenced on the Salisbury plain where Stonehenge is located and Co. Meath in Ireland where Newgrange is to be found. Nothing is known of the language(s) spoken by these neolithic peoples. What is known is that in the course of the first millennium BC the Celts began to arrive in Britain and Ireland. Their language was adopted by the population already in these islands. In Ireland this Celtic language developed into Irish, the earliest stage of which is Old Irish (600-900), preceded by Ogam, a type of Runic script used for inscriptions on stone in the first few centuries AD. In Britain, the Celtic language is known as Brythonic and was spoken throughout Britain when the Romans arrived in 55 BC. Pictish, spoken then in central and northern Scotland, was probably not of Indo-European origin. This died out in the course of the first millennium AD.

Celtic and Germanic

The Roman period in Britain lasted until 440 when the last legions left the island to return to the Italian mainland and defend the empire there. In 449 – as we are informed by the Venerable Bede in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum ‘A church history of the English people’ – Germanic tribes arrived in Britain (though some had certainly visited the island before this date). With their coming the seed of the later English language in Britain was laid.


There are not many loan words from Brythonic in Old English – dry ‘magic’ is one of them – but there was nonetheless an influence of the former on the latter, most probably as a result of long, low-level contact between Celts and Germanic tribes, chiefly in south and central England where they were in continuous contact over many centuries. Some syntactic features in modern English may well be traced back to this contact, for instance, the use of possessive pronouns with parts of the body, e.g. my leg, my teeth (cf. Irish mo chos, mo fhiacla) and the use of progressive forms to express a continuous verbal action, e.g. I’m reading a book (cf. Irish Tá mé ag léamh leabhair).

More details on this contact can be found in the following article which is available here in PDF form:

Early contact between English and Celtic


From the 8th century onwards, both England and Ireland were subject to incursions by Scandinavians (Norwegians and Danes). After a period of initial plundering, many came to settle in various parts of the British Isles. The Scandinavian settlements in England are chiefly in the north-east of the country (as evidenced by placenames) and in Ireland the main settlements were at the estuaries of major rivers, such as the Liffey (Dublin) or the Suir (Waterford). A form of the Norse language – Norn – survived until a few centuries ago in the north of Scotland.


The linguistic impact of the Scandinavians on both English and Irish was considerable. There are many loanwords in both languages which can be clearly traced to the contact with these people. In English the contact was more intensive as they could in all probability understand the Scandinavians – speakers of a closely related Germanic language – and even borrowed morphological material, a sure sign of intensive, face-to-face contact among speakers. In English, the plural pronoun forms in initial th-, i.e. they, them, their, are of Scandinavian origin as is the plural form of ‘to be’, are.

Information on the impact of the Scandinavians on Ireland and the Irish language can be found in the following book:

More information can be found in books on Old Irish, such as Thurneysen’s Grammar of Old Irish or in the relevant chapter of Stair na Gaeilge.


An indirect influence, i.e. that of a written language on Irish, can be found after the Christianisation of Ireland in the 5th century. Latin loanwords are common in the ecclesiastical area, e.g. aifreann ‘mass’ from offerendum ‘offering’, cill ‘church’ from cella ‘cell, small church’, peaca ‘sin’ from peccatum ‘sin’. The Latin influence lasted for several centuries and in a way never ceased as this classical language, along with Greek, was used as a source for creating words, especially specialised vocabulary.


At the end of the 12th century, the Anglo-Normans of west Wales came to Ireland and began to settle in the country after the defeat of the local Irish chieftains. The Anglo-Normans settled mainly in the countryside, building fortified castles, so-called Norman keeps, to live in. They spoke a variety of northern French which had been continued in England after it was first taken there in the wake of the invasion of England in 1066. In the course of time, the Anglo-Normans switched from their variety of French to Irish, influencing the language in the process.

There are many borrowings into Irish in this period. Some of these are very common words, such as páiste ‘child’ < AN page and garsún ‘boy’ < AN garçon. These would suggest that what happened in many cases is that the words were not borrowed by the Irish from the Anglo-Normans, but rather that these words were used by the latter when speaking Irish. The variety of Irish the Anglo-Normans spoke was then adopted on a more general level by the surrounding Irish. This sociolinguistic scenario is termed ‘imposition‘ (Guy 1990) and may have applied in other parts of the Celtic world, e.g. in Scotland with the Scandinavians who, with time, may have imposed their variety on Gaelic on the surrounding native population (Stewart 2004).

The Anglo-Norman loans in Irish show certain key features, such as the metathesis / simplification of affricates (first group below) and the appearance of a long vowel in the last syllable of a word (second group below). The latter fact is evidence of word-final stress which was typical of Anglo-Norman and which may well have been responsible for the rise of this stress pattern in Munster Irish (O’Rahilly 1932, see also the discussion in the PDF file accessible via the link below).

In some instances, the borrowings may have been made by the native Irish in contact with the Anglo-Norman variety of their language. This would explain why in some cases, sounds of Anglo-Norman were interpreted as being lenited forms of Irish ones. Such ‘misinterpretations’ led to the reversal of this apparent lenition as can be seen in the following table.


More details on this contact can be found in the following article which is available here in PDF form:

Assessing the relative status of languages in medieval Ireland

Studies of imposition as a type of language change:

Guy, Gregory R. 1990. ‘The sociolinguistic types of language change’, Diachronica 7: 47-67.
Stewart, Thomas W. 2004. ‘Lexical imposition. Old Norse vocabulary in Scottish Gaelic’, Diachronica 21.2: 393-420.

The following two articles represent the most detailed treatment of borrowings from Anglo-Norman into Irish:

Risk, Henry 1968-1971. ‘French loan-words in Irish (i)‘, Études Celtiques 12: 585-655.
Risk, Henry 1974. ‘French loan-words in Irish (ii)’, Études Celtiques 14: 67-98.

Present-day contact

Nowadays Britain is a multi-cultural country and Ireland is fast becoming one. The present-day linguistic landscape has been the subject of a number of books in recent years, all of which have titles referring to languages in the British Isles. The latter is an inclusive geographical term referring to the islands of Britain, Ireland and smaller islands / groups such as Man, Orkney, Shetland and the Channel Islands.

In Ireland the development of Irish since the demise of Anglo-Norman in the 15th century has been in the shadow of English, the language to which the vast majority of the native population shifted in the following centuries. Information on the influence which English has had on Irish can be found in the relevant module of this website: English influence on Irish.

Language contact includes contact between different varieties of a single language, even if these are quite far apart. In Ulster there has been consistent intermingling between speakers of Ulster Scots and those of more general varieties of English (stemming from Ulster itself and from settlers from northern England). These speakers have been in Ulster since the 17th century when the major plantation of settlers from Britain took place.

Literature on language contact


Trudgill, Peter (ed.) 1984. Language in the British Isles. Cambridge: University Press.

Britain, David (ed.) 2007. Language in the British Isles. (new edition of Trudgill (ed.) 1984). Cambridge: University Press.


Price, Glanville (ed.) 2000. Languages in Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Blackwells.

Ureland, P. Sture and George Broderick (eds) 1991. Language Contact in the British Isles. Proceedings of the Eighth International Symposium on Language Contact in Europe. Tübingen: Niemeyer.


Filppula, Markku, Juhani Klemola and Heli Pitkänen (eds) 2002. The Celtic Roots of English. Studies in Language, Vol 37. University of Joensuu: Faculty of Humanities.

Lockwood, W. B. 1975. Languages of the British Isles, past and present. London: André Deutsch.


Jackson, Kenneth 1953. Language and history in early Britain. Edinburgh: University Press.

(new edition: Gillies, William (ed.) 1994. Language and history in early Britain. Dublin: Four Courts Press.)

Wagner, Heinrich 1959. Das Verbum in der Sprachen der britischen Inseln. [The verb in the languages of the British Isles] Tübingen: Niemeyer.


Ball, Martin J. and James Fife 1993. The Celtic languages. London: Routledge.

Ayto, John and Ian Crofton. 2005. Brewer’s Britain and Ireland. The history, culture, folklore and eteymology of 7,500 places in these islands. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

P-Celtic countries

For information on the Q-Celtic languages, apart from Irish, please consult the modules on Scottish Gaelic and Manx. The following section contains some information on the P-Celtic languages, namely Welsh, Cornish and Breton.


Flag of Wales with the red Welsh dragon on a green and white background (added by the House of Tudor [1485-1603]).

The Welsh language (in Welsh: Cymraeg) is spoken in two main varieties, in present-day Wales (in Welsh: Cymru), a northern and a southern one. The northern variety is regarded as somewhat more conservative and is spoken in largely rural areas. The southern variety is spoken in many urban centres such as Swansea and in regions traditionally associated with heavy industry such as coal-mining. Although nowhere like on a par with English in Wales, the Welsh language is nonetheless in a much healthier state than Irish. It is spoken by many tens of thousands of young people as a native language, something which is not true of Irish.

Welsh and Irish belong to separate branches of insular Celtic. The P-Celtic character of Welsh is evident in the many correspondences in initial /p-/ to Irish words which begin with /k-/ (hence the term ‘Q-Celtic’), e.g. pen versus ceann ‘head’, pedwar versus ceathair ‘four’, pemp versus cúig ‘five’. Other sound correspondences also exist which show that words are cognate (derive from the same root historically), e.g. Welsh /gw/ and Irish /f/, cf. gwen and fionn respectively, both meaning ‘fair’.

Further features show the common ancestry of both languages. Welsh, like Irish, has verb-initial position in unmarked declarative sentences. This feature has been studied in detail by many grammarians as in the following example.

Welsh also has a comparable system of initial mutation, though what is lenition in Irish corresponds to two mutations in Welsh, one which voices sounds (the soft mutation) and one which fricativises sounds (the spirant mutation). Because the Welsh sound system has remained relatively stable over many centuries, the present-day system of mutation is quite regular in contrast to Irish which shows consonant shifts and mergers.

More information on Welsh in present-day Wales, on the syntax of the language and on the the sound system of Welsh is provided in books such as the following.



There are many descriptions of modern Welsh available for readers interested in the grammar of the language. The following are two well-known examples.


Williams, Stephen 1980. A Welsh grammar. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

King, Gareth 2002 [1993]. Modern Welsh: A comprehensive grammar. 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

King, Gareth 2000. The Pocket Modern Welsh Dictionary. A Guide to the Living Language. Oxford: University Press.

The Welsh Academy English-Welsh Dictionary.


Flag of St Piran, a Cornish abbot of the 6th century taken to be of Irish origin.

The Cornish language (in Cornish: Kernewek) was a contiuation of Brythonic in the south-west of England where the presence of the Germanic tribes, who invaded Britain in the 5th century AD, was not too strongly felt. But after many centuries the language finally succumbed to the pressure of English with the last speakers living in the 18th century. The final speaker of the language is supposed to have been Dolly Pentreath who died in 1777.


During the 20th century a certain revival of the language took place, starting with the publication of Handbook of the Cornish Language in 1904 by Henry Jenner (see picture below). Together with Robert Morton Nance (1873-1959) he founded the Old Cornwall Society in 1920, one of a group of such societies the members of which later formed a federation with a journal Old Cornwall (from 1925 onwards).

Nowadays, enthusiasts attempt to use Cornish as a medium for everyday communication in Cornwall (in Cornish: Kernow). Whether this will be successful is a matter which only time can tell. There are a number of practical hurdles to this, not least the disagreement on the orthography to be used. One suggestion (by the scholar Ken George) is for his Kernewek Kemmyn ‘Common Cornish’. Others favour the somewhat earlier Kernowek Unyes ‘Unified Cornish’ which is reputedly closer to Late Cornish (George is more faithful to Middle Cornish). Criticism of George’s system was put forward by the writer and lexicographer Nicholas Williams who favours his ‘Unified Cornish Revised’ which he claims is closer to the phonetics of Cornish. Williams is noted for his work on the language, having produced many linguistic studies, a dictionary and a translation of the New Testament into Cornish, Testament Noweth.

A further system is Curnoack Nowedga ‘Modern Cornish’ devised by the writer Richard Gendall. This is based largely on 18th century sources and is supposed to overcome the shortcoming of Unified Cornish. The latter received support from the organisation Agan Tavas ‘Our Language’.

There is a considerable body of publications on Cornish which stem from the second half of the 20th century. Among these are grammars and overviews of Cornish culture. A project has been initiated to translate the bible into Cornish, see the information at the relevant website The Cornish Bible / An Bibel Kernewek.

There is also an official body, the Cornish Language Board / Kesva an Taves Kernewek, and a more general cultural organisation called Gorseth Kernow, roughly ‘The bard meeting of Cornwall’, which supports the Cornish language.

Works of general interest on history, language and culture in Cornwall include the following by the scholars Martyn F. Wakelin and Peter Berresford Ellis:


A study of revived Cornish and various dictionaries are also available:



A grammar of Modern Cornish which has gone through a number of editions is that by Wella Brown:

Wella Brown 2001. A grammar of Modern Cornish. 3rd edition. The Cornish Language Board. [image shows second edition]

As of 1993 there is a journal entitled Cornish Studies. More information can be obtained from the website of the Institute of Cornish Studies.


This flag was designed in 1923 by Morvan Marchal (1900-1963), a Breton patriot. The nine horizontal stripes are said to represent nine traditional dioceses of Brittany, five French and four Breton. The design in the upper left-corner can vary slightly across different versions of the flag.

The received wisdom on Breton (in Breton: Brezhoneg) is that it is not a continuation of Gaulish (the continental Celtic language spoken in ancient Gaul, see section of module on the Celtic languages which deals with Gaulish) but an import from the south-west of Britain around the middle of the first millennium AD. The argument goes that the Germanic tribes in West Saxony (south central England) had exerted pressure on the Celts in the south-west of England (present-day Devon and Cornwall) and that some of these moved across the English Channel to nearby north-western France bringing a Celtic language to later Brittany (in Breton: Breizh).

Notable Breton scholars, such as Léon Fleuriot, doubt whether this is the entire story and assume that a certain amount of Gaulish must have continued to exist in Brittany and mixed with imported varieties of P-Celtic from Britain. The earliest documents in Breton go back to the late 8th century (the Leyde manuscript).


There are four main dialect regions in Brittany – Leoneg (French léonard), Tregerieg (French trégorrois), Gwenedeg (French vannetais), and Kerneveg (French cornouaillais) – of which vannetais can be quite divergent. For instance /h/ there corresponds to /z/ elsewhere.

A useful overview of the present-day spoken language is found in the following two studies:

McKenna, Malachy 1988. A handbook of modern spoken Breton. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Ternes, Elmar 1992. ‘The Breton language’, in Donald Macaulay et al. The Celtic languages. (Cambridge: University Press), pp. 371-452.

In the early 19th century a new system of orthography was developed by Le Gonidec and was finalised for the dialects of Kernev, Léon and Trégor in 1911. The dialect of Gwenedeg / Vannetais was initially dealt with by alterations to this system. However, in 1941 a unified orthography, called Peurunvan, was developed which accommodated all four dialects in one system.

Like Welsh and Cornish, Breton is a P-Celtic language. It shares many of the structural features of the other Celtic languages (including the Q-Celtic languages), most notably the initial mutations. The language has changed considerably over time and has come under the influence of French, seen for example in the presence of voiced sibilants. The phonology of Breton is thus quite different from that of the other Celtic languages. Historical overviews of pronunciation and grammar are available in the following books:

Hemon, Roparz 1975. A historical morphology and syntax of Breton. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Jackson, Kenneth H. 1967. A historical phonology of Breton. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Structural features of grammar which Breton shares with the other Celtic languages include the system of inflected pronouns (called in ‘prepositional pronouns‘ in Irish studies) and a well-developed system of aspect, e.g. in the use of a progressive form like Irish and Welsh.

Various educational books on Breton are available, in both French and German.


The following two were both published in English in Cork in the late 1970s and represent convenient introductions to the grammar and lexis of the language.


Delaporte, Raymond 1977. Brezhoneg ... Buan hag aes. A beginner’s course in Breton.. Adapted from the French by Per Denez. Cork: University Press.

Delaporte, Raymond 1979. Elementary Breton-English Dictionary – Geriadurig Brezhoneg-Saozneg. Cork: University Press.