Tag Archives: Celtic languages

Fortress of Lugh

For many years now, I have had a deep interest in the prehistory of this area of Europe and the origins of my own Celtic ancestors and of their language and culture. Over the last twenty years, this branch of learning has been the scene of deep controversies and certainties which have turned out to be completely wrong. Less than twenty years ago, the first DNA analyses of modern European populations were suggesting strongly that our ancestors were mostly of hunter-gatherer ancestry. The complexities of this debate no longer seem very important but suffice it to say that up until a few years ago, the overwhelming position was that there was little evidence that the gene pool of Europe had been greatly added to or changed since the Neolithic.

About four years ago, improved technology brought a bombshell. As it became easier and easier to test ancient remains, the experts started to get DNA from ancient Europeans, which showed that the gene pool of Ireland and Britain had undergone an almost total replacement at the beginning of the Bronze Age.  There was a clear DNA trail from Ireland and Britain to Central Europe and from there back to the steppe and the transition to Indo-European language was no longer a mystery. The level of population replacement meant that only about 10% of the ancestry of Bronze Age British and Irish people derived from before the Beaker arrival.

Recently, I discovered a very detailed account of the origin of the Celts and their place within the Indo-Europeans in the light of these discoveries. It is on a site called Fortress of Lugh and is entitled: Are the Welsh and Irish Celts? The name Fortress of Lugh is a little odd and I have come across some criticisms of its author, Kevin MacLean, which suggest that he may be rather right-wing in some of his political attitudes. As anyone who has followed this blog will know, I am left-wing and liberal in my attitudes. I do not know if these criticisms of MacLean are justified. All I will say is that if he does have unpalatable political opinions (and I am by no means convinced that this is the case), he does an excellent job of keeping them out of his content. And then again, perhaps a right-winger who respects the facts is preferable to left-wingers who don’t (like most of Cassidy’s supporters).

Anyway, MacLean’s presentation on the Celts is superlatively well-researched, with an intelligent analysis and informed speculation. There is virtually nothing in it that I would take issue with and I cannot recommend it highly enough as a clear and cogent introduction to the new information which is coming to the fore in our knowledge of European prehistory.

I would advise you to check it out on YouTube here:

More on IrishCentral

I noticed recently that the dim-witted article on Cassidy’s book on IrishCentral is still there. As I’ve said before, IrishCentral is dreck and should be avoided by anyone who wants trustworthy information. Anyway, I then decided to have a quick look at the comments section below it.

As usual, this comments section typifies the shallowness and pretentiousness of the online world. Not that there aren’t sensible comments on it. There are, but they tend to be drowned out and shouted down by morons.

There are two specific types of fool represented here, one called Noel Ryan and the other Catherine Desmond. I have little to say about Noel Ryan, because he is so obviously full of shit and makes no attempt to actually discuss the issues involved. It is also clear that if he actually read Cassidy’s book, he didn’t read it with any great care, as he claims that jazz comes from deas. Cassidy, of course, claimed that it came from teas. 

Catherine Desmond is more problematic. In many ways, people like her are more damaging because on the surface, they look like people who have the same agenda as us, to satisfy curiosity and discover the truth. However, this is not borne out by a close analysis of what she actually has to say. She starts by saying (to Paddy Ó Ruadhán, one of the critics of Cassidy in the section:

Paddy, based on your comments, I take it that you can speak in Irish. Because of that, I might not translate some Gaelic words as I respond to your comments.

So, she speaks some Irish. You would expect her comments to be sensible. Are they? Unfortunately not.

You might not agree with Cassidy, but there’s no denying that many Irish words have been shook down into the ordinary English vernacular, and are used daily by speakers of English, including the English themselves.

There are several assumptions being made here. Is it true that a number of words from Irish have been shook/shaken down into ordinary English? A few, certainly but the fact that some words in English do come from Irish has little bearing on Cassidy’s nonsense. The existence of words like esker and shebeen is well-established, their Irish derivation beyond doubt. The words in Cassidy’s book (apart from some that are already in dictionaries) are not like this. They aren’t from Irish.

Catherine Desmond gives three examples of English words of Irish origin.

Here are a few examples:

Let’s take ‘A whole slew of people.’ I’m sure that we all know what that means, but do we all know that the word ‘slew’ comes from the Irish word ‘slua’ which means ‘crowd’, multitude, etc.

While in England, I’ve often heard someone say: ‘I’d like a slug of that.’ the ‘slug’ is derived from the Irish word ‘slog’. So, if you were to translate into Irish ‘Give me a slug of water’, you would say ‘ tabhair dom slog uisce’.

Similarly, ‘It’s smashing’ comes from the Irish ‘Is maith sin.’

Slew is from Irish slua. That fact is in all the dictionaries (though not so much in British dictionaries because it is a recent arrival from America). The mainstream accepts that it’s from Irish. As for slug coming from Irish, this is controversial, as I’ve written on this blog, because there is an attested phrase, ‘to fire a slug’, which uses the same metaphor as ‘a shot of whiskey’. It’s possible that it comes from Irish but we can’t be sure. As for smashing, if you Google smashing and Irish derivation you will find a lot of people casting doubt on this piece of folk-etymology, not just me. It is not the cast-iron certainty that Catherine Desmond is misrepresenting it to be.

I could go on and on listing English words that have their origin in the Irish language, just as I could go on and on about English words with Latin roots.

Could you? Certainly not the way you could with words of Latin derivation. There are countless thousands of words of Latin origin in English. You could easily go on day after day recounting them. This is not the case with words of Irish origin. I think you would get to 200 easily, mostly with fairly obscure terms like tanist and erenagh and fiorin, but I don’t think you would get to 300 before having to bring in fake ones like smashing and longshoreman to make up the numbers.

Irish/Gaelic is a pre-historic language, and no one is sure where it originated.

There is a lot wrong with the handful of words above. Irish/Gaelic is not a language. Irish is a language, and Gaelic is another language. (Or a generic term for three languages, Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic.) Neither Irish nor Gaelic are prehistoric languages. They are modern languages. If you register to learn Gaelic on Duolingo, you will get the modern language which is spoken in parts of Scotland and if you choose to learn Irish, you will get the modern language of the Irish Gaeltacht. Talking about the ‘age’ of languages is in many ways meaningless. In a way, all languages are as old as each other, with the exception of High Valerian or Klingon or Esperanto, so really all you are doing is quibbling about how long it has had its current name or how long it has occupied its current territory. 

I’ve read various theories, but at the end of the day, these theories are unproven. As the Celts moved across what is now Asia and Europe, they incorporated into Gaelic some words from other languages. Today, some researchers say that because there are words from this or that country to be found in the Celtic language, then the Celtic language, most likely, originated in these countries and have then asserted that Gaelic is a member of the Indo-European group of languages. I don’t know whether it is or not.

And this bit really cuts right to the heart of why I regard people like this as more of a pain in the arse than people like Noel Ryan. This is so totally wrong and so wilfully ignorant. If you look at any reputable source for information about the Celtic languages, you will find something along the lines of: “Celtic languages descended from a common ancestral language called Proto-Celtic, which is a member of the Indo-European language family.” You will find this in dictionaries and encyclopaedia entries and archaeology books and books on language. However, Catherine Desmond doesn’t accept this as fact, because according to her, those silly scholars have found some loanwords in the Celtic languages so they have got the idea they are Indo-European! Of course, scholars of language don’t just base their conclusions on vocabulary. They look at grammar and phonology and identify loanwords and try to date the loans by looking at regular sound changes in the language borrowed into and the language which loaned the word. The vocabulary of the Celtic languages is largely Indo-European, with a certain amount untraceable to any known Indo-European root. You could say the same about, for example, Greek or the Germanic languages, which contain much bigger vocabularies of non-Indo-European origin, but are still termed Indo-European languages by linguists in spite of this. Everybody who knows about the subject is quite sure of the Indo-European nature of the Celtic languages. And while there are lively and interesting debates about the area where Celtic developed, they are all well in Europe, not in Asia. Mostly, the debate is between Central Europe and the Iberian Peninsula (Celtic from the West).

Why does this irritate me so much? It irritates me because, while the experts don’t always get everything right, the fact is that they get it pretty much right most of the time. And real science is at least full of lively debate between people who know the basic facts. Speculative ideas (and there is nothing wrong with speculation as long as it’s within the bounds of reason and matches the evidence) will either be accepted or rejected by the processes of academic investigation. People who insist that Covid is harmless until ‘activated’ by facemasks, or people who believe that the Olmecs were Sub-Saharan Africans, or people who believe that Barry Fell found ogham inscriptions in North America or people who believe in Graham Hancock’s theories about a prehistoric civilisation which was so completely destroyed by a cataclysm that no trace remain are all playing the same game, ignoring the experts and the facts while promoting ludicrous fantasies which have no basis in reality.