The Birth of Britain
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Britain was founded by Celtic peoples but who are these Celts?
In order to answer that question we'll have to delve back through history a little and ask ourselves "who were the Celts?"
     Western Europe has been inhabited for many thousands of years but we know little - and nothing of the languages spoken there - before the introduction of writing into the area from the Middle East in the first millennium BC. By around 500 BC writing had reached both Spain (via North Africa) and Italy (via Greece). A number of written texts have survived from this period so it is from about this time that we begin to get some idea of what languages were being spoken.
     The vast majority of the modern languages of Europe belong to the Indo-European family of languages, descended from a common ancestor - that is, they all started off as no more than regional dialects of a single language. As far as we know, the first Indo-Europeans to reach western Europe were the Celts. By 500 BC Celtic languages were spoken in Austria, Switzerland, southern Germany, northern Italy, most of France, much of Spain, Britain and Ireland. A related group of Indo-European languages, which we call Italic, was spoken in much of Italy. One of these languages was Latin, the language of the Latinii, destined later to become the most important language in Europe. But in 500 BC it was only the local language of the small city of Rome. The most important language of Italy at that time was Etruscan, spoken in what is now Tuscany. Etruscan was not an Indo-European language at all and it is not related to any other language we know of. With the spread of Roman power in the following centuries the Etruscans and others began turning to Latin, abandoning their ancestral languages.

At the dawn of European history the Celts who had settled in present-day France were known to the Romans as Gauls, and were described by Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars.
     Other Celtic tribes had invaded Italy, establishing there a city they called Mediolanon (now modern Milan) and they sacked Rome itself in 390 BC.
     The ancient Celts themselves left few records - their tradition was one handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth rather than of being committed to writing - so accounts of the Celts originate mostly from Roman and Greek writers of the time. But the Celts also had dealings with other cultures bordering on on their territories, enabling us to piece together a fair picture from archeological evidence as well as from the various historical accounts. These records are supplemented and corroborated by early Irish literature, including the epic tales of the Ulster Cycle.
     At one time, during the Hellenistic period, Celtica extended all the way from Britain and the Iberian Peninsula in the west across Europe to Asia Minor in the east, where a district still known as Galatia recalls the former presence there of Celtic-speaking Gauls. Not until 192 BC were the Roman armies to conquer the last remaining Celtic kingdoms in Italy.
     Today the Celtic languages that have survived into the modern era are limited almost entirely to the British Isles and Brittany where these tongues are spoken by a total of about two million people. The Celtic sub-family is made up of three groups of languages: the Continental (primarily Gaulish), the Brythonic (also called British), and the Goidelic (also called Gaelic).

Origins of the Celts

The Celts called themselves 'Kelton', which means 'the hidden ones'. The Greeks called them 'Keltoi' and from this came the Latin name 'Celtae'. The Romans also referred to them as 'Galatae' and 'Galli'.
     The first literary reference to the Celtic peoples is by the Greek Hecataeus Hecataeus in 517 BC. By about 400 BC central and western Europe was dominated by Celtic tribes, the most feared of all the so-called 'barbarian' peoples beyond the urbanity of Greek and Roman civilization.
     It is believed by some that these early Celts were head-hunters. "Amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world." - Paul Jacobsthal, Early Celtic Art. The 'cult of the severed head' is documented not only in the many sculptured representations of severed heads in La Tene carvings but in surviving Celtic mythology. These Celtic headhunters venerated the image of the severed head as a continuing source of spiritual power. If the head is the seat of the soul then possessing the severed head of an enemy, honorably reaped in battle, added prestige to any warrior's reputation. According to tradition the buried head of a god or hero named Brand [?Brandus ?Brennus] protected Britain from invasion from across the British (now English) Channel.
     Some scholars think that the Urnfield culture represents an origin for the Celts as a distinct cultural branch of the Indo-European family. This culture was pre-eminent in central Europe during the late Bronze Age, from circa 1200 BC until 700 BC. This period saw a dramatic increase in population in the region, probably due to developments in technology and agricultural practices. The spread of iron-working led to the development of the Hallstatt culture (circa 700 to 500 BC). The Hallstatt culture gave way to the La Tène culture, the final stage of the Iron Age.
    The Celtic peoples possessed vibrant cultures, and developed superb artistic styles originally influenced by the La Tène decorative and metal-working practices of Greek, Etruscan, and Scythian communities with whom they frequently traded. This led to a blossoming of an unique Celtic artistry, characterised by complex flowing lines and patterns. The 'art nouveau' of the 19th century was derived from this Celtic style.

The Celts and the Romans - First Contact

From their heartland in central Europe, the Celts settled northern Italy, France and Britain, and these were the 'Gauls' encountered by Caesar. One group crossed into Anatolia and north-western Turkey; these were the Galats or Galatians,  whose descendants were to receive an epistle from St. Paul.
     The first historically recorded encounter with the Celts comes from northern Italy around 400 BC, when a previously unknown group came down from the Alps, displacing the earlier Etruscans from the fertile Po valley. The Romans sent three envoys to the beseiged Etruscans to study the new Celtic force. We know from Livy's The Early History of Rome that the Celts' first encounter with Rome was quite civilized:

[The Celts told the Roman envoys that] this was indeed the first time they had heard of them, but they assumed the Romans must be a courageous people because it was to them that the [Etruscans] had turned to in their hour of need. And since the Romans had tried to help with an embassy and not with arms, they themselves would not reject the offer of peace, provided the [Etruscans] ceded part of their superfluous agricultural land; that was what they, the Celts, wanted . . .  If it were not given, they would launch an attack before the Romans' eyes, so that the Romans could report back how superior the [Celts] were in battle to all others . . . The Romans then asked whether it was right to demand land from its owners on pain of war, indeed what were the Celts doing in Etruria in the first place? The latter defiantly retorted that their right lay in their arms: To the brave belong all things.
     The Romans' response was to ally themselves with the Etruscans. Whereupon the Celts scattered the combined Etruscan and Roman armies and then marched south to Rome to lay seige to the capital of the Roman Empire. Seven months of seige resulted in negotiations wherby the Celts promised to abandon the seige in return for a tribute of one thousand pounds of gold. The historian Pliny relates that this was very difficult for the city to muster and that when the gold was being weighed out the Romans claimed the Celts were cheating with faulty weights. It was then that the Celts' leader, Brennus, threw his sword into the balance and and uttered the words vae victis "woe to the defeated". Never before had Rome been subjected to such humiliating defeat and the Celts made a magnificent step into the limelight of history.
     Other Roman historians tell us more of the Celts. Diodorus notes that:
Their aspect is terrifying . . .  They are very tall in stature, with ripling muscles under clear white skin. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse's mane. Some of them are cleanshaven, but others - especially those of high rank, shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth and, when they eat and drink, acts like a sieve, trapping particles of food . . .  The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer. These cloaks are striped or chequered in design, with the seperate cheques close together and in various colours.

[The Celts] wear bronze helmets with figures picked out on them, even horns, which made them look even taller than they already are . . .  while others cover themselves with breast-armour made out of chains. But most content themselves with the weapons nature gave them: they go naked into battle . . .  Weird, discordant horns were sounded, [they shouted in chorus with their] deep and harsh voices, they beat their swords rhythmically against their shields.

     Up until now the Celts had had free reign and by 200 BC were establishing their first planned urban centres but now the new, tightly disciplined Roman armies under Caesar were about to turn the tide. The Romans' avowed aim was to take over all the Celtic lands and to dominate the world.
     Celtic territories gradually began to fall to unrelenting pressure from the Romans to the south, and from Germanics to the north and east. Gaul, the last of the free Celtic territories, was finally subjugated by Julius Caesar in the Gallic Wars (58-51 BC) and the final routing at Dijon effectively destroyed the remainder of Celtic authority in Europe. The age of the Roman Empire had dawned. In the course of Roman conquest, Celtic speech yielded to Latin, and by the 5th century AD Celtic would have virtually disappeared from continental Europe.

The Language of the Celts

The Celtic tongues, like most European languages, were derived from an universal common language spoken probably between 3000 BC and 2000 BC. Celtic was part of the Celto-Italic group of Indo-European tongues. (Some of the characteristics which differentiated Italic from Celtic were its use of -on, -os (as in Greek) instead of -um, -us (as in Latin) and the use of 'x' instead of 'ks' or 'sk'. There was also the lack of a 'p' in Celtic and the use of  'a' in place of the Italic 'o'. )
     The Celto-Italic group devolved into so-called 'p' and 'q' Celtic (the precursors of Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Gaulish on the one hand, and Irish on the other and into various Italic languages. Although Latin was only one of numerous Italic languages it was Latin alone which ultimately survived due to the Romans' military-economic predominance. It was Latin - originally the language of the Latinii - which was to give rise to today's Romanic languages (Italian, Spanish, etc.).
     The first wave of Celtic immigrants to the British Isles were the q-Celts, Goidels. It is not known exactly when this immigration occurred but it may be placed sometime between 2000 BC to 1200 BC. At a later date, a second wave of immigrants took to the British Isles; they were the 'p-Celts', the British. Goidelic ultimately led to the formation of the three Gaelic languages spoken in Ireland, Mann and, later, Scotland. British eventually gave rise to Welsh and Cornish, and surviving on the Continent as Breton, spoken in Brittany.
     The label q-Celtic stems from the differences between this early Celtic tongue and the later p-Celtic. The differences between the two Celtic branches are simple in theoretical form. Take for example the word 'ekvos' in Indo-European, meaning horse. In q-Celtic this was rendered as 'equos' (compare Latin 'Equus') while in p-Celtic it became 'epos' (compare modern Welsh 'Ebol'), the 'q' sound being replaced with a 'p' sound. The first group is called 'q-Celtic' because the Indo-European [kw] sound was written as 'q' (now written as 'c') in these languages. The second group is called 'p-Celtic', because this [kw] sound developed into a 'p'. For example, the Irish word for 'four' is 'ceathair', whereas the Welsh is 'pedwar' and the Breton, 'pevar'.
     The rules of pronunciation for all the Celtic languages are complicated. For example, the final sound of a word frequently brings about a changed initial consonant in the next word, as in Irish fuil, “blood,” but ar bhfuil, “our blood.” Another example is Welsh pen, “head,” but fy mhen, “my head.” In order to look up a word in the dictionary, one has to be familiar with these rules of phonetic change, or mutation.
     Words of Celtic origin that have been absorbed by English include bard, blarney, colleen, crock, dolmen, druid, glen, slogan (battlesong), twig (to understand), and whiskey. An interesting feature of Celtic languages is that in several characteristics they resemble some of the non-Indo-European languages. These characteristics include the absence of a present participle and the use instead of a verbal noun or gerund (found also in Egyptian and Berber), the frequent expression of agency by means of an impersonal passive construction instead of by a verbal subject in the nominative case (as in Egyptian, Berber, Basque, and some Caucasian and Eskimo languages), and the positioning of the verb at the beginning of a sentence (typical of Egyptian and Berber).

The Continental Celtic Languages

Continental Celtic, which includes all Celtic idioms on the Continent with the exception of Breton, died out following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century AD. The principal example of this group is the now extinct language Gaulish, for little remains of any other Continental Celtic tongues. Gaulish was once the language of Gaul proper (now modern France).
     Evidence of Gaulish is found both in words and in personal and proper names referred to by ancient Greek and Latin writers as well as in more than a hundred Gaulish inscriptions from France and northern Italy (ranging in date from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD). Coins and Greek and Latin inscriptions in Europe also preserve Celtic place-names and personal names. Yet the material as a whole is quite limited, furnishing only a number of proper names, a small vocabulary, and certain indications regarding the sounds and grammar of Gaulish and of Continental Celtic in general.

The Brythonic Languages

The Brythonic group includes Breton, Cornish (now extinct), and Welsh. They are all descendants of British, the Celtic language of the ancient Britons of Caesar’s day. The emergence of Welsh, Cornish, and Breton from British as separate languages probably took place during the 5th and 6th centuries AD and was a result of divisive Germanic incursions into Britain. Welsh and Breton have discarded the originally numerous Indo-European cases for the noun and use only one case. The accent in Welsh and Breton generally falls on the next-to-last syllable, with the exception of one Breton dialect that has the accent on the last syllable.
     Breton today is spoken by more than 500,000 people in Brittany, most of whom are bilingual, speaking also French. It is not surprising that Breton, unlike Welsh, has many loan words from French. Breton is not directly descended from ancient Gaulish but from the Celtic dialects taken by Welsh and Cornish immigrants from the British Isles who were fleeing the Germanic invasions and found refuge in Armorica (now Brittany) in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Surviving literary documents in Breton go back only as far as the 15th century but the earlier stages of the language are known through glosses and proper names.
     Cornish, once the Celtic language of Cornwall, became extinct in the late 18th century Cornish proper names in manuscripts of the 10th century AD are the oldest recorded traces of the language. A number of Cornish place-names have survived, and some Cornish words appear in the English spoken in Cornwall today. Modern efforts to revive Cornish have so far had little success.
     Medieval maps show that Wales was then known as 'North Wales' whereas Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset, were shown as 'West Wales'. The word 'Welsh' is derived from the Saxon word 'wealas' meaning 'foreigner' or 'slave' and was applied by the English to all the native British.
     Welsh, called Cymraeg by speakers, and known as 'British' until the name was hijacked by the English for political advantage, is today the language of over 600,000 people, chiefly in Wales but also in the United States, Canada, and Patagonia (Argentina), where a number of Welsh people migrated. In Pictish times several Irish colonies were established in present-day Wales. The local inhabitants called the Irish arrivals 'Gwyddel', hence 'Goidel' and 'Gael'. The modern language was also to a material extent affected by Irish immigrants into the west of the country in the late middle ages. Until relatively recent times Welsh was also widely spoken in the Lancashire, Merseyside, and Shropshire areas of England. Most speakers of Welsh in Britain also use English. The oldest extant Welsh texts are from the 8th century AD.

The Goidelic Languages

The third group of the Celtic sub-family is Goidelic, to which Irish (also called Irish Gaelic), Scots Gaelic, and Manx belong. The term Erse is used as a synonym for Irish and sometimes even for Scots Gaelic.
     All the modern Goidelic tongues are descendants of the ancient Celtic speech of Ireland. It is thought that the Celtic idiom first came to Ireland shortly before the Christian era. An official language of Ireland, Irish is spoken natively by approximately 75,000 people; roughly a third of Ireland’s population can speak and understand it to some degree. Most speakers of Irish also use English.
     Scots Gaelic is the tongue of about 60,000 persons in the Highlands of Scotland and an additional 3,000 in Canada. Most of these people also speak English. Gaelic speech began to reach Scotland in the late 5th century AD when it was brought by the Irish invaders of that country. However, a truly distinctive Scots Gaelic did not appear before the 13th century. The chief difference between Scots Gaelic and Irish results from the Norse and Welsh influence on the former. There are four cases for the noun (nominative, genitive, dative, and vocative) in Scots Gaelic.
     Manx is a dialect of Scots Gaelic that was once spoken on the Isle of Man, but it has almost entirely died out there. First recorded in writing in the early 17th century, Manx does not have an important literature. It shows a strong Norse influence. 

The 'Celtic Twilight'?

As the Roman war machine finally gained a decisive foothold in Britain in the 1st century AD this marked the beginning of the end of Celtic Britain. Only along the Atlantic fringe of Europe was Celtic culture to survive in distinct form. 
     From about 500 AD, as Roman military power waned, Germanics, predominantly Anglo-Saxons, entering the British heartland from the east, began to fragment and push back the Celts to the west, south-west and north of the island. Cultural differences soon began to emerge among the Celts in these regions and these soon gave way to the formation of new dialects: Cornish (in Cornwall and Devon), Welsh (in Wales) and Cumbrian (in Cumbria and parts of Scotland). Many of the Celts in the south-west fled across what was then known as the British Channel to Brittany (where the Breton language developed).
     The Celts were ceasing to exist as an united people.