English and Celtic in Contact

Semitic —> Celtic —> English: the transitivity of language contact

Theo Vennemann

The thesis that English has been structurally influenced in its historical development by Celtic substrata has a long tradition; cf. Preusler 1956 and Tristram 1999 for overviews of research in this domain. Even older is the thesis that Insular Celtic in its turn has been structurally influenced in its historical development by Hamito-Semitic substrata; cf. Morris Jones 1900, Pokorny 1927-30, Gensler 1993, Vennemann 1995: §1.

The research strategy for discovering Celtic influences in English is this: Wherever English deviates structurally from general Germanic (including Anglo-Saxon Old English) and also from other contact languages, chiefly Scandinavian Germanic and French, while at the same time agreeing with Insular Celtic, especially Welsh, that feature is interpreted as owed (directly or indirectly) to Celtic influence.

However, an interesting question arises immediately: Considering that Germanic and Celtic are both Indo-European languages, how did Insular Celtic come to differ in its structural type from general Indo-European in the first place, and indeed sufficiently so to drag English too away from its Germanic and indeed Indo-European typology?

The non-Indo-European structural features of Insular Celtic have all been shown by Morris Jones and Pokorny to occur in Hamito-Semitic, and by Gensler to form a characteristic bundle of isoglosses just of Hamito-Semitic and Insular Celtic. Thus, we have a second research strategy, this time for discovering Hamito-Semitic influences in Insular Celtic: Wherever Insular Celtic deviates structurally from Indo-European (in particular, where it is sufficiently known, from Continental Celtic), while at the same time agreeing with Hamito-Semitic, that feature is interpreted as owed (directly or indirectly) to Hamito-Semitic influence.

What follows from this for the study of English? An answer was suggested by Pokorny (1959: 161, my translation): “It is interesting to note that very many of the above-mentioned non-Indo-European elements of Insular Celtic have also, via Celtic, passed into English which has thereby received an un-Germanic, even a downright non-Indo-European character.”

I have taken up Pokorny's suggestion of transitive loaning and studied a number of shared Semitic-Celtic-English features in this context (Vennemann forthc. 2001, 2002, forthc.), viz. the rise of the verbal noun and the progressive verbal aspect, the subject disagreement rule (for English: the Northern subject rule), the lack of the external possessor construction, and the development of word-order. In the present paper I would like to dicuss this model of structural language development in the British Isles (cf. the title of Wagner 1959 for this formulation) and present additional material.


Gensler, Orin David. In press. The Celtic-North African linguistic link: Substrata and typological argumentation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Rev. version of ‘A typological evaluation of Celtic/Hamito-Semitic syntactic parallels’, unpubl. Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1993, available from University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, no. 9407967.]

Morris Jones, John. 1900. “Pre-Aryan syntax in Insular Celtic”, in: J. Rhys and D. Brynmor-Jones, The Welsh people, London: T. Fisher Unwin, Appendix B, pp. 617-641.

Pokorny, Julius. 1927-30. “Das nicht-indogermanische Substrat im Irischen”. Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 16.95-144, 231-266, 363-394; 17.373-388; 18.233-248.

Pokorny, Julius. 1959. “Keltische Urgeschichte und Sprachwissenschaft”. Die Sprache 5.152-164.

Pokorny, Julius. 1927-30. “Das nicht-indogermanische Substrat im Irischen”. Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 16. 95-144, 231-266, 363-394; 17. 373-388; 18. 233-248.

Preusler, Walther. 1956. “Keltischer Einfluss im Englischen”. Revue des Langues Vivantes 22. 322-350.

Tristram, Hildegard L. C. 1999. How Celtic is Standard English? (= [Publications of the] Institut lingvisticeskich issledovanij, Rossijskoj akademii nauk). St. Petersburg: Nauka.

Vennemann, Theo. 1995. “Etymologische Beziehungen im Alten Europa”. Der GinkgoBaum: Germanistisches Jahrbuch für Nordeuropa 13. 39-115.

Vennemann, Theo. Forthcoming 2001. “Atlantis Semitica: Structural contact features in Celtic and English”, in: Laurel Brinton (ed.), Historical Linguistics 1999: Selected Papers from the 14th International Conference on Historical Linguistics (Current Issues in Linguistic Theory), Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 351-369.

Vennemann, Theo. Forthcoming 2002. “On the rise of ‘Celtic’ syntax in Middle English”, in: Peter J. Lucas and Angela M. Lucas (eds.), Middle English from tongue to text: Selected papers from the Third International Conference on Middle English: Language and Text, held at Dublin, Ireland, 1-4 July 1999, Bern: Peter Lang.

Vennemann, Theo. Forthcoming. “Syntax und Sprachkontakt: Mit besonderer Beruecksichtigung der indogermanischen Sprachen des Nordwestens”, paper read at the Indogermanische Syntax conference, Wuerzburg, 29 September - 3 October 1999), in: Alfred Bammesberger and Theo Vennemann (eds.), Languages in Prehistoric Europe, Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Wagner, Heinrich. 1959. Das Verbum in den Sprachen der Britischen Inseln (Buchreihe der Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, 1). Tuebingen: Max Niemeyer.

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