Tag Archives: Terminology

The Celts. For Real.

English: Vector version of a design from the B...

English: Vector version of a design from the Book of Kells, fol. 29r. Traced outlines in black and white representing three intertwined dogs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neo-Pagans are not Celts.

Since I’ve ranted about who the Celts weren’t, I thought I should say who they actually were. The term ‘Celt’ has been abused for quite a long time now; people buy Celtic music, wear Celtic designs, and imagine themselves as part of a great Celtic identity. This is twisted into odd forms of nationalism, neo-paganism, and Christianity. It might seem vaguely ironic that the term is used by both pagans and Christians, but the reality is that they are both wrong, so what’s the difference?

The Term is the Thing…

I must be quite clear on this point, and you must pay attention, as this is crucial; we are speaking here of terminology. Detach the word ‘Celt’ from any image or concept it might arouse in you mind; words are used to denote concepts, and sometimes those words are misused. This misuse might lead to one word being used to describe many individual and separate physical things and abstract concepts. It may be that no connection between these discrete and individual things exists, except for that word. While certain groups of people who specialise in the field of studying these things might grasp this fact, in popular culture the separate identities of these things are muddled and mixed because only one word is used. This mess is compounded by fashion, arbitrary notions of nationalism, and, sometimes, outright deceit. But just because something is popular does not mean that it is true (just look at that whole ‘god’ phenomenon; I mean, seriously, are we not over that yet?).

If you want a very basic example of this, look at Goths. A few hundred years ago the Goths were a migratory nation wandering around the Roman Empire generally taking things over. Nowadays ‘Goth’ refers to a non-violent post-punk subculture which is more likely to feel oppressed than go oppress other sub-cultures. ‘Gothic’ also denotes a type of architecture that has nothing to do with either the Goths (had swords) or the Goths (have ipods). The term is also applied to a type of literature, which may have influenced the Goths (tend to have piercings), but not the Goths (tended to pierce people), and may have itself drawn some inspiration from Gothic architecture. So, here we have a term that describes a certain style of writing, a certain style of building, and a certain style of fashion, none of which are really connected to the original meaning of the term which denoted a bunch of folk from northern Europe who moved to sunnier climates.

Now that we are clear on that…

There are, essentially, four things the term ‘Celt’ is attached to –

1. A historical ethnic group.

2. A family of languages.

3. Archaeological material (well, not really; I get to this in a moment).

4. A bunch of fanciful modern nonsense about faeries, druids, new-age Christian hokum, spirituality, and an economic bubble.

Let’s all agree to ignore 4. So, what are these three Celtic things, and how are they all ‘Celtic’  but not about the Celts? The problem lies with 17th and 18th century scholars (many of the world’s problems are the fault of these guys). These people were working in the dark, fumbling around with artifacts, languages, and cultures, attaching names that made sense at the time, but no longer do. All they had to work with were the histories handed down by propagandists, politicians, and priests (hardly the most trustworthy of folk), and the things they dug up, and had to make some sense out of it all. Certain elements of this process were easy; the ancient Romans and Greek were very helpful in leaving tons and tons of things in the ground and in books to be found by these scholars. Sadly, these scholars believed everything the Romans and Greeks wrote in these books. So when it was said that there were a people called the Celts, and that they were barbarians, it was believed. Almost everyone in Europe who was not Roman or Greek was labelled a Celt, because it was easier to think of great empires and cultures in opposition, civilisation in contrast to barbarity, bad guys versus good guys, us against them. Utter nonsense, of course, but that’s basically the way it was thought of for centuries.

So, history, archaeology, and culture were all muddled up by these scholars, creating a new version of the myth of the Celt (Caesar got there first in many respects, but more on that later). Then, in the 19th century, simply because academics love making things far more complicated than necessary, philologists decided to name a group of languages, which until then didn’t really have much in common with the ‘Celts’ of the historians or archaeologists, Celtic. To make matters worse, around this period racism was becoming tremendously popular, and nationalism was really taking off. Nations had to invent identities, foundation myths, reasons for why you are not one of us. Utter nonsense again, of course, but people are stupid. Certain peoples looked back and picked the bits of history they like; the anti-monarchical French liked to identify themselves as Gauls, ‘Celts’ who had resisted the imperial ambitions of a certain Roman; the English liked the idea of being made up of various peoples who had kicked the crap out of the Britons, ‘Celts’ who had been conquered by Romans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and Normans; and the Irish, being not-English, began to identify themselves as ‘Celts’, something which the neighbours agreed with as they had a fondness for kicking the crap out of Celts. Did the Celts of France, Britain, and Ireland have anything in common? No. And yes… It’s complicated.

Language timothy, language.

Latin survives today as Portuguese, Romanian, French, Spanish, Occitan, Catalan, and the various Italian dialects mostly because the Romans were very, very good at killing some people, and educating those who were left. Sadly, a great number of these people spoke various forms of what is called ‘Celtic’. They didn’t call it Celtic, and they might not even have realised that their languages were related; a Portuguese person might have rather a hard time understanding a Romanian, though technically they are speaking very similar languages. The various peoples of Gaul who spoke Celtic languages might not have immediately understood one another, but they would have definitely had a hard time comprehending the Irish, or the Galatians (who lived in central modern Turkey), even though they were all speaking ‘Celtic’ languages. Not that Caesar cared when he was conquering Gaul; all that mattered to him was that they didn’t speak Latin and they had lots of gold, which he wanted. Keep an eye on this Caesar fella, a lot of the problem is in many ways his fault.

Scholars in the 19th century, when confronted with a bunch of languages, which were clearly related, found in a vast region stretching from Anatolia, central Europe, northern Italy, France, Iberia, and the British Isles looked in the works of ancient writers to see if they could find some great empire or culture to explain this phenomenon. They took a liking to the ‘Celts’ and the name stuck; these languages became known as Celtic, divided into Insular and Continental branches, the latter of which became extinct, though the former survives as Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton.

A family tree of languages. Click to blow your mind… (Image via Wikipedia)

Are these languages Celtic? Yes, in a very specific linguistic sense meaning that there is a language family which scholars use the term ‘Celtic’ to identify. Were the people who spoke these languages, and those who still do, Celts? No. They may, at best, be called Celtic-speakers, which would be like calling Americans German-speakers (see how often you can get away with saying that to an American before irk turns to anger). The Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and Breton speak Celtic languages but are not Celts.

Celtic_sword_and_scabbard_circa_60_BCE.

Pointy stabby thing, also known as ‘sword’ (Image via Wikipedia).

Swords, Scabbards, and other Stuff.

As before, there was a time when anything non-Roman from the Stone Age on was synonymous with ‘Celtic’, but the limits of that term were eventually reduced to the Iron Age, an then into two specific periods, La Tène and Hallstatt. The folk of La Tène persuasion are customarily associated with the Celts of Caesar. The use of Celtic languages far exceeded the territories encompassed by these cultures, which may have included non-Celtic speaking populations. We might suppose that, as there was a certain unity of material culture and language in central Europe, these people were Celts, but ‘Celtic’ Ireland and Britain possess little in the way of this material culture, but are the only places where the language survives. Even the Celtic-speaking peoples of Iberia, the cleverly named Celtiberians (I bet it took months to come up with that), were hardly touched by the La Tène culture. And let’s not get into the difficulties thrown up by the Celtic-speaking Galatians of Anatolia. Can we tie artifacts and remains to languages, and make them both Celtic, essentially inventing a people with a shared ethnic, linguistic, and material identity? Well, yes, if you ignore the facts, which is what people generally seem to do.

There are more Roman archaeological artifacts found in Ireland than ‘Celtic’, which would, with seriously flawed logic, suggest that the Irish were in fact Romans. Which would be an impressive feat, since the Romans never invaded Ireland. So,  what is commonly referred to as ‘Celtic’ in an archaeological sense is really two separate material cultures, neither of which are in any serious way connected to ‘Celtic’ languages, or the modern ‘Celtic’ nations, aside from the use of fancy interlacing to entice shoppers to buy ‘authentic’ Celtic merchandise. We must then conclude that archaeology cannot tell us who the Celts were, only that there were a bunch of people hanging out in Central Europe who made things in a certain distinctive way before the Romans came along and ruined the party. But at least it gets us closer than language does.

Julius Caesar, bane of Gauls and historians (image via Wikipedia)

A Tapestry of Lies.

As for historical Celts? Well. This is where the fun really begins. Celts appear first in the writings of the Ancient Greeks, who wrote that the ‘Keltoi’ lived up around the Danube, northern Italy, and also in southern France. Which seems to map onto the La Tène scheme of things. Caesar gives the most information on these Celts, which is not surprising as he had an excellent research opportunity,  getting up close and personal with the Gauls, what with his conquering, killing, and enslaving campaign. That kind of thing won votes back in Rome, and he was aiming for the big leagues. It’s a pity that he was a politician and a soldier, as his views of the Gauls are heavily laden with stereotypes which had been around for centuries. He is the only person to refer to certain ‘Celtic’ practices, such as the Wicker Man, and so we cannot know if they are true. Caesar was keen to point out, though, that the Gauls were  semi-civilised, unlike the utterly barbaric Germans, but at least Teutonic trains run on time. All references to Celtic culture and religion are based on Graeco-Roman stereotypes, and, as far as I know, no mention is made of Celtic art in their literature. So, in modern terms, Caesar was a racist, and only saw what he wanted to see. To be fair, he was a clever guy, so let’s give him the benefit of doubt, and say that he was telling the Romans back home what they wanted to hear. But, essentially, he was like an Englishman going to America, writing home about the barbarous customs and foods (creationism and cheese in a can) he found there, while ignoring their contribution to world culture and science (jazz and the moon landings).

I suppose we could say that at least Caesar confirms that the people of Gaul called themselves Celts, until we recall that the Romans didn’t care what any named themselves; they called the Greeks Greek! The Greeks called (and still call) themselves Hellenes, since the place where they come from is called Helles. See how that works? Amazing, simple, apt. Like the Romans gave a damn. Uncultured sheep-herders living on the tops of hills near a swamp, the Romans re-baptised the entire Hellenic people after the first ones they met, the Graeci. Imagine if on meeting an American for the first time you asked for their surname, and from that point onwards referred to all Americans by that name. One of the first Americans I ever met was a Mr. Hickey, which would make all Americans Hicks, or Hickeans. In any event, when Caesar says that the Gauls called themselves Celts, he may have just been quoting the Greeks, because nobody back in Rome really cared what the Gauls called themselves, so long as they made good slaves or stayed dead. So they may have been Celts, maybe. But they were not seen to be the same as the people of Aquitaine or northern France, or even Iberia, or Britain. Caesar only describes a small portion of the people we would expect to be called Celts as Celtic. It’s almost like he was making it up…

Interestingly, Caesar didn’t call the people of Britain Celts, but Belgians (of a sort). And throughout the Middle Ages none of the surviving ‘Celtic’ peoples of the British Isles called themselves Celts, or had any notion that they had a shared heritage, other than the fact that they were extremely fond of killing each other. Historically speaking, the ‘Celts’ of the British Isles weren’t labelled as Celts until much much more recently.

So. There you have it.

What have we learned? The ‘Celts’, as they are commonly understood, never existed, and while certain aspects of the linguistic, archaeological, and historical notions of a Celt overlap, they do not provide us with who or what a Celt really was. A person from a La Tène influenced region of central Gaul who spoke a Celtic language may tick all the boxes of what is needed to be a Celt, but this would exclude so many others, making the whole notion invalid.

So, in conclusion, I must apologise. I said at the beginning I was going to tell you who the Celts really were, and I haven’t. But it’s not my fault, nobody can. And anyone who says otherwise has either discovered something revolutionary, and should be published in a book, or is a nutter, and should be hit with one.

Leave the Celts Alone.

Fictional Characters.

After a brief search on Google, or even here on the gamut of blogs and articles provided by WordPress, of the words ‘Celt’ or ‘Celtic’, the casual internet patron might be left with thoughts of a deeply mystical people, ancient and arcane spirituality and wisdom, or of gruesome barbarian warriors shrouding their mind. They would also most likely come across links to Irish, neo-pagan, or alternative Christian sites promoting the peculiar enlightenment of the Celts. One may find Celtic litanies, Celtic incantations, pagan prayers to be uttered at Celtic festivals (particularly popular at Halloween), Celtic jewelery, books on Celtic spiritualism, wistful Irish music, or even, if you are lucky, a bizarre reconstruction of a fight between a Celt and a Persian Immortal to discover who is ‘deadliest’. I admit, the immediate hits on Google for ‘the Celts’ provides the user with a list of useful and reasonable sources, but the myth of the Celt persists.

Who were the Celts?

Therein lies the rub, the task. It’s rather hard to say exactly, but one thing that should be taken for granted, but isn’t, is that the Irish, the Welsh, and the Scots aren’t. Of the many populations which have inhabited Britain and Ireland in the last few millennia none of them were, to use a modern term, ethnic Celts. Consequently, anyone who tries to sell you anything with ‘Celtic’ and ‘Ireland’ in the title is inherently wrong, unless it’s an academic work, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

And that Moment is Now.

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum

Image via Wikipedia

The confusion relating to the term ‘Celt’ is down to 17th/18th century linguists, helped by modern willful ignorance. There were a people whom the Greeks and Romans called the Celts inhabiting Spain, France, and Central Europe back in the days when Greek education was the envy of the world. Whether or not these people were Celts is even up for debate; it’s one thing when Herodotus in the 5th century BCE refers to Celts, it’s a whole other thing when Caesar talks about them four hundred and fifty odd years later. Of course Caesar tells us that the people he’s conquering for their own good call themselves Celts, but we really only have his word for that, and he had an agenda, but some of them at least were probably the same people Herodotus was also writing about. But did they call themselves Celts?

Hellene? It’s all Greek to me…

The Romans called the Greeks ‘Greek’, a mistake that we’ve inherited,  but that’s not what the Greeks called themselves; in their minds there were Hellenes. The first group of Hellenes the Romans met were a tribe called the Graecians, and so they baptised an entire people with the name of one small contingent. So the people who Herodotus and Caesar called ‘Celts’ may only have been a small tribe of people, they might not have thought of themselves as Celts, they may have had no ethnic unity or consciousness whatsoever, unlike the Greeks and the Romans, aside from knowing that they were not Greek or Roman. These ‘Celts’ did share a common culture and language group (the individual languages may not have been readily intelligible to one-another, just as a modern Irish speaker would not immediately grasp modern Welsh), but they were not a nation as we now understand the term. This culture and language was shared by the peoples in the archipelago just off the north coast of Gaul, but they were not Celts.

Confused yet?

From the Ireland to Germany, Spain to Turkey, lived a people who spoke languages with a common ancestor. When this common ancestor was proposed it made sense, to the 17th/18th century mind steeped in Classical learning, to call this ancient language ‘Celtic’. It was hardly the best term to choose, but we’re stuck with it. And that is how, very simply, the Irish, Welsh, and Scots became Celtic. It’s just a term, a very specific term in linguistics.  Latin and its descendants (French, Spanish, Romanian, etc.) are Italic languages, but that doesn’t mean that the people of Chile, Madagascar, Macau, or Vietnam are Italian. The term ‘Celtic’ is used in a very specific fashion in an academic context, there are books and articles on Celtic Theology, Celtic Sources, etc., on the bookshelves of many a university library, but in the shops on the high-street the term is almost ritually abused for the sake of money. You can buy Celtic Wisdom for £5, learn Celtic Secrets for less than a tenner, or get your own Celtic Spiritual Guide half price! There is nothing Celtic in these wastes of ink. Similarly there is very little about neo-paganism which is Celtic, mostly because the Celtic-speaking peoples of Europe didn’t write much down, so these neo-druids and wiccans are literally making stuff up, which is no different from any other religion in all fairness. And there never was a Celtic Christianity, and the Celts did not save Britain.

Celtic Fluff.

The term ‘Celt’ has become a fluffy word that spiritualists, and cunning marketing, frequently slap on a product to make it sell, from trinkets to soap. This seems to be a consequence of the increasing lack of faith in established religions, and the belief that the older, ‘more spiritual’ ideas were somehow better, in tune with nature, or some other vague allusion. The Gauls dug massive mines all over France in search of precious metals, which made them vastly wealthy, and ultimately financed Caesar’s coup. The peoples of Ireland and Britain traded with anyone and everyone they could, such that, for example,  rare lapis lazuli from Afghanistan found its way to Ireland where it was made into ink for the illustration of religious texts. These people were just like us, consumers, but without the benefit of an alternative paradigm to faith. And, if the ancient Irish are anything to judge by, they were deeply practical, legalistic, and wonderfully secular for their time. This is not the ‘Celt’ that is promoted nowadays; we are confronted with a delusion invented by the 18th century Romantic Movement, an ephemeral fantasy cobbled together by misguided nationalism and often beautiful, but not necessarily true, literature and poetry.

Be wary of Greeks bearing gifts, and be suspicious of anyone who uses the term ‘Celt’, unless they offer the immediate qualification of ‘linguistically speaking’. And stop calling the Irish, Welsh, and Scots ‘Celts’, or start calling the English and Americans ‘Germans’. Either way, leave the Celts alone.

How did the Celts save Britain? Time travel?

A New Chronology.

A BBC documentary called “How the Celts saved Britain” has clearly made a bold and divisive claim in the title alone. One might not even need to watch the actual programme itself as the title by itself should shock one to their very core; it advances a radical revision of how we perceive history. It proposes that Britain was saved from a dark age, after the departure of the Roman legions in the 5th century AD, by the Celts. A group of people first identified by the Greeks asBack to the Future living in southern Germany in the 6th century BC somehow managed to build a time-machine with Iron-Age technology with the express purpose of traveling one thousand years into the future to save Britain, which for them did not yet exist. We might yet hear of Welsh-named Sarmatians defending Hadrian’s Wall, or of Huns saving the French Revolution from the Royalists if time-travel was so freely available in the ancient world.

Once the documentary begins, however, such radical notions are themselves shattered as it becomes clear that the presenter is in fact referring to the Irish, and how it was they who ‘saved’ Britain. Right. How many times must this be said? The Irish are not, nor were they ever, Celts. They never called themselves Celts, or thought of themselves as being Celts, and neither did anyone else until the 18th century. They spoke a Celtic language, but just because Brazilians and Senegalese speak a Latin language doesn’t make them Romans. To repeat, the Irish were not, and ardently continue not to be in face of overwhelming ignorance, Celts. (For a more detailed argument, see ‘Celtic Christianity and the Cult of Nonsense’).

Terms of Obscurity.

The BBC describes the programme as  a “Provocative two-part documentary in which Dan Snow blows the lid on the traditional Anglo-centric view of history and reveals how the Irish saved Britain from cultural oblivion during the Dark Ages.” Which is fair enough, and, even though most academics have known this for decades, the general public is in need of enlightenment. So why the subtle switching of words? Why does the programme not announce itself as ‘How the Irish saved Britain’? Why are the Irish pasted over as Celts? Might it be that the documentary was too provocative, that the English people couldn’t handle the idea that their neighbour, former colony, source of cheap labour, people whose culture they tried to annihilate,  could actually have been better than them at some stage? From where does this fear of the Irish appear? More realistically, none of these notions are probably correct. ‘Celt’ is a sexy term these days; in a world which has grown drunk on spiritualism, pseudo-druidism, and other such puzzling ideologies which proclaim Celtic provenance, one might imagine that slapping ‘Celt’ into the title of a programme virtually guarantees high ratings. So the Irish are rebranded as Celts, a shtick which has earned the nation quiet a few tourist dollars in recent years.

Even the Britons suffer in this tale of woe, a tale which muddles history somewhat. It might be thought that the ‘Celts’ saved all the inhabitants from Land’s End to the Shetland Islands, but Britain in the 7th century consisted only of what would become England and Wales, so in ‘saving Britain’ the Irish contribution to the conversion of the Picts and the foundation of Scotland is completely ignored. And even then, the Welsh, who called themselves British, didn’t need saving, they were already well versed in Latin learning, having been part of the Roman Empire. So the people of whom the programme is really talking about were the inhabitants of what we know as England, who were pagan invaders from mainland Europe. It might then be argued that a more accurate title for the documentary might be ‘How the Ancient Irish preserved Latin learning and re-introduced it to England after the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and from there, into Europe’. Admittedly it is less catchy, but more accurate.

How stupid are you?

Aside from various historical and conceptual inaccuracies in the documentary, which may be tolerably forgiven due to the vast time-periods under discussiSaint Patrickon, and the desire to simplify complex ideas (an arrogance of TV documentaries believing the public to be incapable of elaborate musings), there are several grossly fallacious statements made about Saint Patrick and the conversion of the Irish. Firstly, contrary to what is espoused in the programme, there were already Christians in Ireland, so many in fact that the Pope dispatched a bishop to administer to them long before Patrick appeared on the scene. Secondly, there was no High-King of Tara in this period, so Patrick could not have converted him. Thirdly, the use of hagiography as historical fact is blindingly deficient.

But the one that wins the prize for “most stupid ‘fact’ ever proclaimed in a documentary” is that Patrick was so successful in converting the Irish due to the fact that they were a spiritual people who venerated the sun, and Patrick simply convinced them to worship the Son. … And the presenter agrees with this revelation as offered by a Catholic priest. … This is utterly ridiculous. Not only is it grotesque to suggest that the Irish were swayed from a sophisticated polytheism layered with revenge and sex to a Jewish death cult by the simple replacing of a ‘u’ with an ‘o’, but it beggars belief to imply that they would comprehend such wordplay. They didn’t speak English. No one did. It hadn’t been invented yet. The ignorance embedded in such a thought is mind-numbing. Slapping a cat in an effort to assuage your fears of an impending financial apocalypse makes more sense. The Irish spoke Irish, and Patrick spoke Latin and probably learned Irish during his enslavement, and you can’t turn grian (‘sun’ in Irish) into filius (‘son’ in Latin) by any stretch of the imagination. How was such a comment allowed to air; did the presenter not see through the fallacy, or the researchers, editor, or numerous other people involved in the production? That such a statement was uttered is bad enough, but that nobody bothered to say “hang on, that’s just daft” is astonishing…

Yes there should be more documentaries professing the tremendous contribution the Irish made to Great Britain and the Continent, and, equally, vice versa. The ancient and medieval Irish did not exist in a vacuum, and neither did anyone else. The quality of the research, and of the contributors, must be improved, otherwise the popular perception of the history of these islands will be distorted beyond all reason, and the factual history will be lost. And someone should be employed to slap cretins who make profoundly ignorant comments, and those who nod along acceptingly, believing themselves to be great impartors of knowledge, should be reminded that they are there to question the veracity of such statements, possibly also with a slap.

Speaking in Tongues.

A Long, Long Time Ago, In a Place Far, Far Away…

There are lots of languages floating around the world today, fewer then there used to be because of the internet and tea and coffee, but a lot more than there was a long long time ago. Back when there were so few people walking the Earth that they probably knew each other to see the folk who would become the Europeans hung out a lot with the dudes who would become the Indians (of Asia, not America. Those guys hung out with the Chinese mostly). They are thus known as the Indo-Europeans, but they probably called themselves something else because India and Europe didn’t exist yet. Though it would have been interesting if they had thought of that in advance and trademarked the names, they’d have made a fortune. Anyway. So this group split up for some reason. Maybe one person became more popular and wanted his own career and the others were jealous or one of them got married to a guy who wasn’t really good for her but she went off with him anyway because she was young and foolish and in love. Or maybe they just liked wandering around since most of the world hadn’t been discovered by them yet. In any event, there was a big split.

Poe-Tay-Toe, Poe-Tah-Toe

Imagine there are no schools, no internet, tv, radio, newspapers. Basically, imagine that you are in Leitrim. Imagine your family, which shouldn’t be hard as you’ve known them all your life, and all the things they say and how they say them. Without schools and such most of your language and how to use it would be learned from your family and your neighbours and such. To understand each other you’d all say things the same way and in the same accent. The people down the road in the next village over might have a slightly different accent and way of using language. Imagine now due to some crisis, oh like a .com bubble, a housing bubble, a South-Sea bubble, a bubble bath, you have to immigrate so you head off to America. Your accent will change and so will your language and the way you use it. You’ll start calling biscuits cookies, you’ll think that ‘King Of Queens’ and ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’ are funny, and you will start spelling autumn with an ‘f’.

Things Get Complicated Now, Sorry

Now imagine you live somewhere between the Black and Caspian Seas 6000 years ago, which is roughly around the time Creation began according to Bishop Ussher. You, for the purposes of this scenario, are called E(uropean), and your have a sibling called I(ndo). Let’s call your parents Proto-I-E since they came before you. You, your sibling and a few of your mates decide to leave home and family and friends. You go west and your sibling goes east. (This is called the Kurgan Hypothesis, possibly because there can be only one and the McLeod was busy that day). You both take the language you learned with you, but somewhere along to way you happen to start saying things a little different. Maybe you need new words to explain the new things you see, maybe you don’t like calling ‘Marathons’ ‘Snickers’, maybe you need new insults for the people you found already living in the place you will call Europe. So, you have new words. But the old words also change in ways you might not notice. You start saying, for example, ‘c’ like ‘s’, while your sibling says it like a ‘k’. But you are isolated from one another so you never notice a change. Then you have kids and they wander off and see new things and become isolated, and they have new kids etc., etc., and they all start saying things funny. By now it’s roughly 4000 years ago, the time of Noah’s Ark if a Creationist you be, the Bronze Age for everyone else. Your language has continued to change as the small alterations are reinforced over time. Your grandchildren haven’t a clue what you are saying and you don’t know what they are talking about because you’ve never seen an ocean or a ‘Gaul’ or met a ‘Greek’. The divisions in your family are so deep no-one can understand anyone at Christmas dinner. Which might be a good thing because it means you are less likely to insult your mother-in-law. Just smile politely and nod.

1000 B(efore anyone) C(ared to make a dating system that made any sens)E to Now-ish

By about 3000 years ago the some of your descendents are speaking Greek and Celtic and Germanic and Italic and such, but none of these are one coherent language. People from Kerry, New Delhi and Harlem might all speak English but they wouldn’t necessarily all speak it the same way, use the same accent or slang. There might be hundreds of variations. But then the Romans come and build roads everywhere and civilise people whether they like it or not and encourage everyone to learn Latin. But then Germans start wandering around, moving into all the nicest houses, taking all the best jobs, not building roads and really messing up the whole ‘Rome is the awesomest place ever because we have baths and toilets and engineering and all you have is an interesting smell’ theme that Europe had been going for. The Celtic languages are pushed to the very edge of Europe, languages so ancient that they have more in common with Sanskrit of India then they do with other European tongues, Sanskrit being one of your long-lost sibling’s great-grandchildren. Latin, which had taken over, is shattered by some overly friendly Germans. Spain and Italy stay very Latin-ish but French goes off and does its own thing because, well, it’s French. And its ruling class is mostly German, so the languages mix a bit, and lots of other complicated sound changes happen. And then about 500 years ago some very smart people start figuring out that all these languages are related somehow and realise they are all descended from Proto-Indo-European. Funnily enough the Germans call it Indo-German… It’s like they think Europe belongs to them or something…

Reality Check:

This is an extreme simplification of a process that began roughly five and a half thousand years ago based on theories and hypotheses. Even the connection between La Tene culture and the Celts is debated and that is several thousand years closer in time to us. The development of the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European into the languages spoken today involved countless individuals over a vast period of time living on two continents and has only been studied for two centuries by a handful of scholars.

What’s in a Name?

The Way It Is

Have you ever wondered why these islands are called British?British Isles 1877 Sometimes, in this age of extreme political correctness, they are referred to as ‘the Western Isles’, or simply ‘the Isles’. People think that they are called ‘British’ because one of the islands was home to a people who were very, very good at conquering almost everywhere. They also had a flag. Oddly enough these conquerors weren’t ‘British’ in a certain sense, but were in another. History, terminology and politics confuse the issue terrifically. As it stands the ‘British Isles’ are occupied by two sovereign nations, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The latter contains four countries; three which make up ‘Great Britain’, England, Scotland, and Wales, and Northern Ireland. Great Britain only appeared in 1707 when the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united for the first time in a situation which may seem odd to modern eyes; Queen Anne passed a law that said so. Even more oddly, they had been united somewhat half-officially before that since 1603 when King James IV of Scotland inherited the crowns of England and Ireland (and, in theory, France) from Elizabeth I, making him a triple monarch. None of these peoples called themselves ‘British’, they were English, Scots, Welsh and Irish. ‘Great Britain’ was a political fabrication called after a very ancient name. As you can see, the whole situation is rather confusing. So, let’s go back to the beginning, like Vizzini said to do…

Blame it on the Greeks

A very long time ago, before the Romans became so obsessed with building things that they had to invade places in which to build more things, the Greeks were sailing around the Mediterranean looking for places to settle in and trade with. Eventually one Greek explorer made his way out of the great sea and sailed up the Atlantic coast of Spain towards places no Greek had ever heard of. He eventually arrived at two big islands, and on these islands he met people. Clearly being the curious sort, he asked the first people he met “what are you called?” Except he would have said it in Greek. When he got back to Greece he told his mates that he had met the Celtic-speaking “Pretanike” on one island and the “Irene” on the other. What these names mean is up for debate. In any event, when the Romans went and borrowed everything worth knowing from the Greeks they also took their maps and such other things that would be useful when one sets about conquering everywhere. Not being very good at speaking or reading Greek the names of these two islands became “Britannia” and “Hibernia” in Latin. When it came time to conquer and build things in this part of the world the Romans decided to call the whole place “the British Isles”. Sadly the Romans were very bad at naming things, they spent too much time building roads through them and killing everyone before someone thought to ask where exactly it was that they were and who they were killing. They didn’t bother conquering the whole of the islands however. They said it was because they were tired of building roads and aqueducts everywhere, and you can’t grow decent wine north of Bordeaux, but it was really because of bees. They heard the Irish distrained bees and knew that they must have had a highly developed society. Or that they were all as mad as badgers and not worth the trouble. Either way, Ireland and Scotland were left alone and the Romans hid behind a wall. They named the Roman province ‘Britannia’, made up of ‘Cambria’ (Wales) and ‘Albion’ (England). The bits they left were Scotland, calling it ‘Caledonia’ and ‘Scotia’, and Ireland, calling it ‘Hibernia’ and ‘Scotia’. Notice that they called Ireland and Scotland the same name, but more on that later. But most importantly, it was the Greeks after meeting a Celtic tribe, followed promptly be the over-achieving Romans, who first called these isles ‘British’, not king, nor queen, nor act of parliament.

‘I am not the Dread Pirate Roberts, my name is Ryan’

“But what,” you may cry, “did they call themselves?” It is very hard to know. Cultural identity is a very complex issue which I will now thoroughly abuse.

Ireland

The Irish, called Hibernians or Scots by the Romans, called themselves ‘the Gaels’ which may have meant something like ‘wild-persons’ or ‘raiders’. They may not have know what that meant, but when you go somewhere and everyone runs away screaming “oh crap, it’s the Gaels” you might start to think “we must be the Gaels they keep yelling about.” They also called themselves the ‘Féni’, which means ‘us, ourselves’. The Irish called all of Britain ‘Alba’, and they called the Romans a lot of unpleasant words. These names refer to the people, not the places, which is why after the Anglo-Saxons started conquering Britain ‘Alba’ became the name of the part they didn’t conquer, Scotland.

Scotland

The people who lived in Caledonia were called the Picts, but then a bunch of Irish folk (who were called Scots by the Romans, remember?) decided that they wanted to live somewhere wetter, colder and more miserable, moving in to where the Picts were. The Irish-Scots either killed or married the Picts and eventually made a new kingdom, Scotland. Except they called it Alba.

Wales

‘Wales’ comes form the Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) word for ‘foreign’, that is to say, ‘not us’. The Welsh called their own land ‘Cymru’ which means something like ‘us’. So the names of Wales are ‘us’ and ‘not us’. The people who lived in Britain before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons were the Britons, the only surviving element of whom were the Welsh. So, the Welsh are Britons because they were from Britain, and the Anglo-Saxons are Brit-ish because they moved into Britain.

England

This part of the island was first full of Celts called Britons, who were conquered by the Romans, becoming the Romano-British. Then the Anglo-Saxons came and killed everyone. The Angles made a deal about names with the Saxons; all the kingdoms would be named after the Saxons but the whole place would be called after the Angles. Which is why we have places like Wessex, Sussex, Essex and Middlesex after West, South, East and Middle Saxons (very imaginative), which are all part of England. Then the Normans came. The Normans are very good at two things; conquering and ruling. They took the whole place over from top to bottom, which no-one else had never managed, but never named it after themselves. The Normans were led by a man who was “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and established himself as king of England against the consent of the natives.” (- Thomas Paine) The Normans ruled over the various people of Britain, the Anlgo-Saxons and Welsh, and later the Irish and Scots, while being very French for a long time. Eventually they gave up being French and pretended to be Irish, English or Welsh.

So, to surmise, there were basically three people on the two islands first, the Picts, Gaels and Britons. A bunch of Gaels made the Picts disappear, took their land and became Scots. The Britons were driven to Wales, thus becoming Welsh, by the Anglo-Saxons who became English. And they were all conquered by the Normans. Except the Scots, they just inherited everything. James IV of Scotland became James I of England and called this union of the Scottish and Anglo-Normans ‘British’. Which is what it was called to begin with. Then these newly renamed-with-the-old-name-that-they-already-had ‘British’ went and conquered for themselves the biggest empire ever.

A Note on the Naming of Places

You might be saying to yourself “how on earth could they have all made such a mess of name these places and peoples, surely they could’ve asked someone.” Well, they did, but that doesn’t always work. When explorers first landed in what is now called Canada they found a village and asked the natives their “What is this place called?” The natives looked around to what the foreigners were pointing at and replied “kanada.” The Europeans went home all very proud of themselves and drew maps of ‘Canada’. One day someone thought to ask a native what ‘kanada’ meant. He replied, now that they had known each other for some time and learned the lingo, that ‘kanada’ was their word for village. The name of the second biggest country in the world is Village. Canadians are thus the Village People.