Early English and the Celtic hypothesis

Raymond Hickey

in The Oxford Handbook of the History of English

Published in print November 2012 | ISBN: 9780199922765
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

Early English and the Celtic hypothesis

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  • Linguistics
  • Historical and Diachronic Linguistics



This article examines Celtic influence on early Old English, an issue that has recently been debated in detail, and re-examines arguments presented in studies of language contact and change. Scholars argue that Brythonic, the language spoken in England by the Celts at the time of the Germanic invasions, had a significant effect on the development of English. This is known as the Celtic hypothesis. The standard wisdom on contact and transfer has been based on the notion that the language with more status influences that with less. In other words, borrowing is from the superstrate into the substrate, as seen with Latin and French borrowings into English. However, this is a simplistic view of possible influence in a contact scenario. Vocabulary, as an open class with a high degree of awareness by speakers, is the primary source of borrowing from the superstrate. However, borrowing from closed classes in language, chiefly phonology and syntax, often characterises influence of a substrate on a superstrate. A number of key phenomena are considered in this light and reassessed in terms of possible origin.

Keywords: Old English; Celts; Celtic hypothesis; language contact; language change; Brythonic; Germanic invasions; borrowing; Northern Subject Rule; dental fricatives

Article.  4564 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Historical and Diachronic Linguistics

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