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  Early contact between Celtic and English

An area which has received particular attention from scholars like the present author and his Finnish colleagues Markku Filppula and Juhani Klemola is that of early contact between Celtic and English (Hickey 1995, 2002a, 2002b; Filppula, Markku 2002, 2003; Filppula, Klemola and Pitkänen (eds), Klemola 2000). The following three sections are taken from some recent publications and argue for possible Celtic influence in early English through contact with Celtic.

The northern subject rule
Internal possessor construction
Emphatic and reflexive forms
The development of the progressive

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Early English and the Celtic hypothesis

The northern subject rule

Among the various features of non-standard English syntax one which has received considerable attention in recent years is what has been dubbed the Northern Subject Rule (Ihalainen 1994: 221). Basically this is an agreement pattern between verbs and preceding subjects whereby a preceding pronoun blocks the use of an inflectional -s on a verb, irrespective of the person or number of the verb (although some dialects have relative scales for different points in verbal paradigms). The pattern can be seen in sentences like We meet and talks together in the morning before doing the dinner. Inflection is also favoured by preceding nouns as in The workers gets extra timeoff at Christmas. This agreement pattern is well-attested in northern Middle English and Middle Scots (Mustanoja 1960: 481f.). In areas of England south of an approximate line from Chester to the Wash (Klemola 2000: 336) the distribution of this type of agreement is uneven. East Anglia favours zero marking on all persons, while other southern dialects show a free use of inflectional -s with adjacent pronominal subject, something which is rare in the north.

Klemola (2000) and Vennemann (2001) have both considered the distinct possibility of influence by northern forms of Welsh (in Cumbria, Westmoreland and other parts of the far north of England) on English dialects there, leading to the grammatical rule which states (approximately) that verb agreement is only found when the preceding subject is a personal pronoun. The first point to note in this connection is that such agreement rules are rare cross-linguistically (Klemola 2000: 337). However, in P-Celtic languages, notably in Welsh (and not in Irish) there is an agreement rule whereby plural forms of the present are only used with verbs when the pronoun nhw ‘they’ follows the verb immediately. In all other cases the singular of the verb is found (Klemola loc. cit.; King 1993, Williams 1980: 94f.). In essence this is the Northern Subject Rule: the plural forms of Welsh (maen ‘is’-PL in the following) correspond to the s-less forms of English, the Welsh verbal singular (mae ‘is’-SG in the following) is the equivalent to the s-inflected verbal forms of English: Maen nhw’n dysgu Cymraeg ‘They are learning Welsh’, Mae Trevor a Sian yn dysgu Cymraeg ‘Trevor and Sian are learning Welsh’. In his examination of this subject Klemola stresses that the occurrence of the Northern Subject Rule is greatest in regions of northern Britain which were bilingual areas with Brythonic Celtic in the Old English period.

Notwithstanding the remarkable parallel to P-Celtic, one can also find internal arguments for the rise of the Northern Subject Rule. One reason for the occurrence of something like this lies in the nature of verbal morphology in the late Old English period. The decline in inflectional morphology which progressed steadily during the Old English period (not evident to any great extent in the West Saxon koiné) meant that language learners towards the end of the period were faced with a difficulty in analysing the remaining inflections in some systemic way. By a process of abduction (Andersen 1973) language learners are likely to have hit on a number of alternative interpretations of these moribund inflections. In the northern areas which were either close to Welsh-speaking districts, or indeed bilingual regions, there would probably have been an embryonic Northern Subject Rule which would then have spread to monolingual English speakers and hence become firmly established.

The scenario of decaying inflections in Old English (Hickey 1995) actually strengthens the contact view because it offers a further reason for the establishment of the Northern Subject Rule and hence bolsters the contact case as part of this convergence context.

Internal possessor construction

The development in Celtic and English of a constructional type in which possessive pronouns are used in cases of inalienable possession is, as Theo Vennemann has repeatedly pointed out (Vennemann 2000: 404, 2002) a remarkable structural parallel between the languages. This is the type which is to be seen in sentences like He injured his finger, compare German Er verletzte sich den Finger, lit. ‘He injured himself the finger’ and Irish Rinne sé dochar ar a mhéar, lit. ‘did he damage on his finger’. What is striking in the European context is that the internal possessor construction is only found in two areas, both of which are on the edge of the continent, i.e. in the British Isles (in English and Celtic) and in the south-east of Europe (in Turkish and Lezgian, a South Caucasian language).

In Irish the exclusive nature of the internal possessor construction is not that obvious. It is equally common for a locative preposition to be used to denote possession, as in An baile seo againne [the town this at-us] ‘our town’. This type of structure has an internal motivation: In Irish a locative expression with ag ‘at’ is used to express possession, i.e. the verb ‘to have’. The central structural function of prepositional pronouns combined with nouns to express verbal notions is very common in Irish as in the following sentence: Rinne sé dearmad faoi [did he forget-NOUN under-him] ‘He forgot him’. This type of structure is, however, an unusual feature in the Indo-European context so that the question of its origin can also be placed.

In the context of the current paper, the question must be asked: is there an internal motivation in English for the development of the internal possessor construction in English? The answer is clearly ‘yes’, seeing as how the case marking of Old English quickly went into decline at the end of this period and shortly afterwards. The inherited Old English type involves a dative of relevance as seen still in modern German, e.g. Er legte ihm die Krone aufs Haupt [he laid him-DATIVE the crown on the head] ‘He laid the crown on his head’. The demise of overt dative marking (contrasting with the accusative) can be said to have provided an impetus for alternative marking of possession. In this situation the likelihood of the adoption of a strategy from Celtic with which Old English was in contact (Hickey 1995) was much increased.

Emphatic and reflexive forms

English and the Celtic languages share a further structural feature of their grammar. In these languages there is a single form for an emphatic and a reflexive pronoun (Welsh hun). The following Irish examples show the use of féin as a reflexive and an intensifier.

The development of the progressive

The case just discussed shows the necessity of distinguishing in this context between internal motivation for a category and the presence of an internal pattern similar to that in a contact language. In Old English the decline in inflectional marking offers internal motivation on two fronts for speakers in the late Old English period: (i) the reinterpretation of moribund verbal suffixes as with the Northern Subject Rule and (ii) the search for an alternative for a category, inalienable possession, which was losing its overt marking. With the categories to be discussed now, one is dealing with the expansion of a pattern which was already embryonically present in Old English.

The concern of the present section is with the development of the progressive form in English. There are basically three views on this (Filppula 2002b): (i) it was an independent development in English (Curme 1912, Nickel 1966, Visser 1963-73, Mitchell 1985), (ii) it arose under the influence of Latin, perhaps via French (Mossé 1938), and (iii) it results from contact with Celtic (Keller 1925, Dal 1952, Preußler 1956, Wagner 1959, Braaten 1967, Ó Corráin 1997).

As has been pointed out by many authors previously (see Mittendorf and Poppe 2000: 119) a type of progressive structure in which a gerund was governed by a preposition existed in Old English: ic wæs on huntunge ‘I was hunting’ (Braaten 1967: 173). This type of structure is also found in vernacular German, with an infinitive, as in Ich bin am Schreiben [I am at write-INFINITIVE] ‘I am writing’.

In this context a further consideration is necessary which Mittendorf and Poppe deal with in their examination of the progressive (2000: 120-2). This is the typological perspective. As noted by other scholars such as Comrie (1976: 98) and Bybee and Dahl (1989: 77) progressive aspect is frequently expressed — in many unrelated languages (Mittendorf and Poppe, loc. cit.) — by means of a locative structure meaning to be ‘at’ and ‘in’ an activity. Furthermore, the step from structures like ic wæs on huntunge to I was hunting is small, involving only the deletion of the preposition. The fully developed progressive form appears in Middle English, but the apparent time delay between the contact with Celtic in the Old English period and the surfacing of the progressive later can be accounted for by the strong tradition of the written standard in Old English and should not be given as an argument against Celtic influence as some authors are inclined to do, see Nickel (1966: 300), for instance, and Dal (1952: 113) who rightly explains the time gap.

The progressive is found in all Celtic languages and is clearly represented by the Irish structure ag + verbal noun as in Tá mé ag caint léi, lit. ‘is me at talking with-her’. This in itself is a good example of a locative expression for the progressive aspect and is typologically parallel to the Old English ic wæs on huntunge.

In summary one can say here that in both Old English and Celtic one had a progressive aspect, realised by means of a locative expression and with a similar functional range (Mittendorf and Poppe 2000: 139). Both languages maintained this aspect and English lost the locative preposition and increased the syntactic flexibility and range of the structure, perhaps under the supportive influence of contact with Celtic.


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