Saturday, April 08, 2017


I prefer to think Brythonic, just from the appearance and the romance of it, but that's a bad reason scientifically, so I'll stick with the more generally-accepted form Brittonic.  The Brittonic languages are a substrate of the English language which were largely overrun by Anglo-Saxon elements from the 6th C on. They are Celtic, and related to but not the same as the Goidelic languages that became what we currently call Celtic.  Their relation is farther back.

All this comes up because of Grim's interesting post about Anglish, a fun exercise in imagining an English more fully Germanic, uninfluenced by Norman French. I have written about this substrate before. In fact, the discussion of hydromyms, especially rivers, is one of my oldest posts. It belonged originally to a now-defunct blog I had before this one. If you like this sort of thing at all, check that link, which includes a further link to the interesting theories of Theo Venneman, who claims to have identified toponyms from Brittonic throughout Europe. There is a good deal of argument for how much Brittonic actually remians in English, and how much is stretching a point.

I forgot one piece.  I alluded to it but did not elaborate; that is the theory that the idiosyncratic us of do and did in English is originally a Brittonic bit.  Nice Germanic languages don't have this. Do you have any fish? Haben Sie keine Fische? There's nothing related to any "do" in that.  I didn't make... Ich machen nicht... again, there is no "did" in it. In fact, not only do Germanic languages not have this, none of the 6000 languages of the world have this - except Welsh and Cornish, suggesting that some relative of those languages was able to keep that oddity in their speech despite being overrun by Germanic tribes who didn't have that.  The theory is not universally accepted, but it's a good start.


Grim said...

...a substrate of the English language...

Arthur would probably be upset to hear it put that way. It's a Gaelic language from a family whose other branch is Goidelic; he is first attested in Y Gododdin, which is in the Medieval Welsh that is descended from the Old Brittonic tongue.

But I'll grant you Brythonic. Science isn't everything; sometimes, a sense of romance will carry you farther.

jaed said...

Do you have any fish? Haben Sie keine Fische?

Interesting that "Have you any fish?" is also perfectly good English. I wonder how far back the two forms go in English. Is the second one newer, maybe influenced by exposure to German? Or is the first one an (old) addition?

Thon Brocket said...

"Have you any fish?" is standard Scots and Ulster English. No "do"; also no "got".

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, the northern forms would be more like the Goidelic strain. I suppose London could have gone either way and eventually forced much of the Brythonic element out as its dialect became increasingly dominant, but anything west of there, in what was eventually Mercia and Wessex, would not have been much affected by what was happening up north.

Texan99 said...

Old-fashioned English lacked the "do/did" usage; you won't see it in Shakespeare or the King James Bible. We still register "Have you any fish" as proper English, but it sounds formal or archaic. In colloquial English we'd more naturally say "Do you have any fish?" We would no longer say "Went you to market this morning?" but it's comprehensible and wouldn't have raised eyebrows in 1600. If McWhorter et al. are correct about this usage having crept in from Celtic or Welsh or whatever, I wonder why it began to happen just after Shakespeare? Was it transforming our Teutonic tradition all along, but masked or overpowered by the Norman/French influence starting in the 11th century?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That's interesting... I don't have an answer, but I do have some bits. Doth is used in Shakespeare, I'm quite sure, though I believe you that it is not usual or common. Shorter OED has usage for that type of "do" starting at Spenser, though it says it comes from OE. I will fall back on it's putative relationship to Cornish and Welsh in the western and southern parts. But I confess I can't give you more, and don't know where McWhorter gets his theory. I will look that up when I get a chance.

Grim said...

If McWhorter et al. are correct about this usage having crept in from Celtic or Welsh or whatever, I wonder why it began to happen just after Shakespeare?

A plausible reason: because just after Shakespeare, the English turned to Scotland for their kings. That's how French became important in England in the first place, after all; why shouldn't the Stewarts have had a similar effect, albeit lesser given that they were invited and thus less in need to suppress existing forms to prove their dominance?

jaed said...

Hmm. The King James seems to have a split usage: "doeth" for "do" as a main verb, and "doth" when it's a helper verb:

- "God thundereth marvellously with his voice; great things doeth he, which we cannot comprehend."


- "The north wind driveth away rain: so doth an angry countenance a backbiting tongue."

Now I'm wondering whether it used to be two words, and the two were unified sometime after the 17th century.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The entire first chapter of McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is "We speak a miscegenated grammar: The Welshness of English." To quote it at any length would certainly infringe copyright. He notes that Middle English useless "dosts" and "doths" come from Welsh "nes" and continue to the time of Shakespeare. Hamlet III, iv, 120-122 Gertrude to Hamlet:
Alas, how is't with you
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with th'incorporal air do hold discourse.

Which he answers a few lines later

My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time, and makes as healthful music.

He gives other examples of Welsh influence that are not generally credited by History of English folks. So i would direct you to that book to see if you find his argument persuasive.

jaed said...

To the etymology site!

Which says: Use as an auxiliary began in Middle English. [So "doth" would be the newer form. Maybe.] Periphrastic form in negative sentences ("They did not think") replaced the Old English negative particles ("Hie ne wendon").

So maybe the periphrastic form ("Do you have any fish?") leaked over from its initial use in the negative ("I don't have any fish")?

Texan99 said...

Did you run across "do" as a common way of forming a question, though? Or should I say, Ran you across "do" that way?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"Nes" was used at the beginning of sentences, which was apparently unusual.

"Have" as an auxiliary verb is not uncommon in German: Hast du nicht sehen, so I'm not seeing the uniqueness here. I will read the chapter in detail and see what the bibliography says as well.

jaed said...

Here's a couple:

"Doth the wild ass bray when he hath grass?"
"And Jezebel his wife said unto him, Dost thou now govern the kingdom of Israel?"
"After whom is the king of Israel come out? after whom dost thou pursue? after a dead dog, after a flea."

(yay searchable text files ;-)

Texan99 said...

Yes, definitely used that far back, then. For negatives, too, I suppose.

jaed said...

There are some of those:

"Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this."
"Doth not he see my ways, and count all my steps? "
"The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider."