5 December 2010

Proto-English theory

Win Scutt is an archaeologist and amateur linguist who has proposed some alternative theories about the languages of pre-Roman Britain. According to him, there is evidence in place names to suggest that there were Germanic elements already present in the area in Roman, or even pre-Roman, times. The idea is interesting, and I firmly believe that it should be taken seriously by toponymists, but I'm not so sure if Scutt's analysis of placenames is rigorous enough, or even scientific. His article about Romano-British placenames, for example, is merely a collection of conjectures based on poor evidence.

In 2007, Win Scutt appeared on a BBC programme talking about some of his theories, and giving examples of English placenames that could date back to pre-Anglo-Saxon times. The video also features Stephen Oppenheimer, who has proposed similar theories based on genetic evidence. Is there any truth in this? Can Scutt's or Oppenheimer's theories be taken seriously?

This is the video:


25 comments:

eloycanocastro said...

Esta idea está abundantemente tratada en: Proto-english
y tiene algo de sentido.

Un resumen

Belenos said...

I'm looking into the Wiltshire lake claims right now, but it's not encouraging that two of the names displayed on the roadsigns in the two minute clip were of undoubte Celtic origin (Minety and Cricklade, Coates deals with the former in Invisible Britons). I would strongly bet that the first element of Cerney is too.


Also the -ey element was also used to note dry areas in marshy ground (see Ely in the fens, and Athelney in the Somerset levels). We are probavly dealing with ground that was formerly marshland.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Eloycanocastro, thanks for the links. I know this theory is not new; I had read about it some time ago. The new thing, however, is that the video is now available on YouTube, which is interesting.

Belenos, I'm familiar with Coates' work and I have the general impression that he's always trying to find a Celtic interpretation for as many English placenames as possible, as can be seen in his and A. Breeze's book "Celtic Voices - English Places".

The idea that "eg" also meant "dry areas in marshy ground" is not without problems. It may be seen, as Scutt suggests, as an artefact of traditional interpretations, fuelled by the idea that a Germanic placename in Roman England is an anathema.

Maybe the word "eg" was used metaphorically in places like Ely, which looked much as an island. Words for 'island' have been used as metaphors in all places and times. But in some placenames, the words actually meant 'an island'. I worked for some years in the city of Alzira, in Spain. Its name derives from Arabic, and it means 'an island', exactly as Al-Jazeera. Alzira is not an island any more, but it is assumed that at the times of the Arabs it was an island by the river Xúquer. At least for this placename there was no need to invent any kind of circumlocation forced by a given explanatory framework.

Belenos said...

I don't think ·ey· is metphorical, this word was used to describe islands in marshes. Here are some places which have the suffix and are indisputably in marshland. This is a partial list taken from just 3 small areas of marshland.

Romney
Ely
Pevensey
Athelney
Norey
Eye
Thorney
Gedney
Maxey
Fulney
Southery
Horsey
Chededzoy (clearly containint Celtic "ched"=wood)

As to Coates, I'm a little puzzled by your comment. He generaly goes after completely unexplained toponyms, or those with very weak Germanic etymologies. His work is exceptionally good, and nobody could doubt his work on toponyms like Penge, oldham or Penkridge

Jesús Sanchis said...

Thanks for your comments, Belenos. It's obvious that you know much more than me about this topic, so I can't really discuss the exact details. What I try to do, however, is provide some other possible ways of interpreting place names, outside the traditional ones.

In any case, it remains to be seen if that Upper Thames area was actually marshland at the time of the Anglo-Saxons. Scutt seems to suggest that it's been dry since Roman times.

There's a general problem in toponymy: the further back in time one goes, the more imagination is needed to try to explain toponyms. One example of this is Coates' proposal for the etymology of 'London': it seems that there's a little fantasy in it, propelled by the NEED to find an explanation. As I said, it happens everywhere. One clear example is Joan Coromines and his gigantic "Onomasticon Cataloniae". Coromines's leit motif was the Vasco-Iberian theory. Coates follows the traditional Interpretatio Celtica plus explanations via Alteuropäisch, as in his proposal for 'London'. Let's see what he and Breeze wrote about the aim of their book, "Celtic Voices - English Names" (p. 11):

"Our main aim, in summary, is to show that the number of Celtic names of England is greater than is accepted at present, and to promote enquiry into other problematic names on the presemption that a credible Celtic etymology may emerge".

Coates' work is serious and rigorouos, but it's based entirely on a series of preconceptions that shape the way it is conducted. Toponymy involves imagination, and it sometimes seems that theoretical assumptions are the ideal excuse to let our imagination fly, always under the cover of a supposedly 'safe' scientific base.

Belenos said...

I agree that his etymology of London is not entirely convincing, it's not necessarily wrong but I remain to be convinced. The AS etymology you link to in another place doesn't really convince at all though, because it ascribes the origin of an a>o sound change in East Anglian which is not recorded until after the Norman Conquest to the 2nd century BC, and fails to recognise that this change has never been noted in the dialects around London.

You are right that Coates is specifically searching for Celtic etymologies for odd place-names, but the reason he does this is that good Germanic explanations have been searched for by some of the finest etymologists who have ever lived for 150 years and just haven't been found.

Of course he starts from the premise that Celtic was here first, but then the Anglo-Saxons also believed this, and wrote about their arrival in great detail. In addition we have place names like Dover and Lynn in far eastern England which are clearly Celtic, and a lot of Roman references to culturally and linguistically Celtic individuals in South Eastern Britain.

For continuity to be the explanation, we have to assume the kind of cover-up that certain "scholars" suggest was used to obscure "the Catalan discovery of America", and we end up alleging that Columbus set sail from (landlocked) Pals d'Emporda. :)

In terms of the -ey cluster in the Wiltshire/Oxfordshire/Hampshire border area, I think an old Marshland is the most probable explanation, if you look at Google maps you'll see a lot of man-made ponds and pools, which might indicate a drainage system. Alternatively, there is the fascinating possibility that -ey is doing something different in these names, and Scutt has stumbled upon something very interesting.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Belenos wrote: "The AS etymology you link to in another place doesn't really convince at all though, because it ascribes the origin of an a>o sound change in East Anglian which is not recorded until after the Norman Conquest to the 2nd century BC".

As far as I know, the Anglian dialect of Old English showed "o" rather than "a" in cases like "land". That was in the OE period, not after the Norman Conquest. But you're right that attributing this type of spelling to the 2nd c. AD is more speculative. In any case, our knowledge of the actual dialects spoken by people in the OE or Roman period is extremely limited; not even the geographic origin of the manuscripts is a safe indication of a given geographic variant.

"Of course he [Coates] starts from the premise that Celtic was here first, but then the Anglo-Saxons also believed this, and wrote about their arrival in great detail".

Gildas, who was not an Anglo-Saxon, wrote with very little detail, and Bede, who lived some centuries after the 'Adventus Saxonum', was probably following some kind of already established national origin myth, or starting to build the foundations for it.

Belenos said...

Mine host wrote: "Gildas, who was not an Anglo-Saxon, wrote with very little detail, and Bede, who lived some centuries after the 'Adventus Saxonum', was probably following some kind of already established national origin myth, or starting to build the foundations for it."

The Anglo-Saxon chronicle also has a great deal of information about conquests and battles with the Britons. Again this could be explained away as an origin myth, but the chronicle gets the names of the conquered right, all of them are sound Britonic. There are also Celtic placenames in the chronicle in Northumbria and Eastern England which have since been replaced with English names, showing that this DID happen.

There are no positive arguments for the presence of Germanic speakers in pre-Roman Britain, and the only arguments that can be made are excuses for why the wealth of evidence for Celtic might be false. ("The Romans weren't very good at distinguishing Celts from Germans", "Both the Welsh and the English might have invented the AS conquest", "The Celts recorded in Roman sources might have merely been an aristicracy", "Some of the unexplained Celtic names might be Germanic, just nobody has discovered it yet", "The English might have adopted a culture from the other side of the North Sea after the Romans left and abandoned christianity")

But these are not evidence for continuity, they are only valid if one starts from the POV tht there MUST have been continuity. All the positive evidence we have points to a Celtic Britain being replaced by an Anglo-Saxon culture between 400 and 750.

BTW, do you have any links regarding East Anglian Old English, I'd be interested to see so I could look in more detail at the AS London etymology.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Historical events did occur, obviously, but the chroniclers said very little about the languages spoken at the time.

Anyway, your comments have now become so general that it would be impossible for me to answer in a comment. You might find the answers in many of my previous posts and comments. I'm not going to repeat the same things again.

"do you have any links regarding East Anglian Old English, I'd be interested to see so I could look in more detail at the AS London etymology".

Links? The best thing you could do is take a look at some of the main books about the history of English. You could start with the 1st volume of "The Cambridge History of the english Language", 1992, edited by R. Hogg.

Belenos said...

I think the comments I made are very specific, I'm a little puzzled by your statement.

JS says: "Historical events did occur, obviously, but the chroniclers said very little about the languages spoken at the time."


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Gildas, other Welsh sources and Bede very specifically call the people who arrived in Britain "Saxons" or "Angles", and the indigenous people "Britons" or "Welsh". This seems pretty clear, especially when Bede states that there are four languages in Briton and one of them is "British".

Throughout the chronicle we see the formula "X fought the Britons at y and killed z"

where x = Saxon name
y = place in England
z = British name

The Saxons and British both believed that the land was taken from the British, and all the historical and linguistic evidence supports this.

There are aspects in this blog which are interesting, the idea that the nature of substrata dictated where Latin took root is quite probable. But the wilful way you disregard all the evidence in this case is baffling.

Jesús Sanchis said...

In your previous post you had written: "There are no positive arguments for the presence of Germanic speakers in pre-Roman Britain, and the only arguments that can be made are excuses for why the wealth of evidence for Celtic might be false".

Throughout my blog I have dealt with these issues extensively, providing all types of arguments. I don't see why I should go through the whole thing once again. This post is about an archaeologist who said something about the ancient languages of Britain, and I'm not even convinced that what he said is right. This is what this post is about. I'm tired of discussions about the general aspects of the Continuity Theory. You can find plenty of them throughout the blog.

Belenos said...

I'm sorry you find this irritating.

But if you publish a blog which asserts the primacy of theory over evidence (and the evidence for language change in most parts of Europe, Iberia included, is absolutely overwhelming) then people will comment on it offering the evidence.

To say you "have dealt with this before" when all you have done is state why you won't believe evidence of language change is a very unscientific attitude.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Who are you anyway? I've people like you before in this blog, intent on starting endless discussions about the same things once and again. I really can't waste my time. I don't want discussions to be just a discussion between 'someone' and me. I don't want to get bored. Your arguments are the same arguments I've heard many times and that have been expressed in this blog many times before. The readers of this blog know about them already and I suppose they don't want to read the same things again and again.

End of discussion. If you have something else to say about the topic of this post in particular, say it. Otherwise, I'll use moderation. Thanks.

Belenos said...

I'll desist on the general topic of Oppenheimer and co, then. Though I assume comments will be welcome regarding their particular theories should you post them again.

Here is a quote regarding the landscape of the upper Thames prior to drainage.

"Places wholly or partly surrounded by streams bear the suffix -ey from O.E. -eg, or -ieg, island. Some are appropriately named to this day, for all or part of the parishes are islanded among branches of the Thames: for instance, Osney, Binsey and Hinksey (Osa's, Bynni's and Hengest's islands) near Oxford, and Chimney near Shifford (Ceommenige, c. 1070, probably ‘Ceomma’s island’). Charney (Ceornei 821, Cernei 1086) is similarly situated on a large island of the Ock (formerly Cern) and one of its tributaries. Others, however, are survivals and sole witnesses of a time before the land was drained, when every stream presented an obstacle to travellers and a safeguard to settlers because its valley was choked with marsh and swamp and often flooded from side to side after rains.

Nowadays, when the swamps have become alluvial meadows and the streams are crossed at every road by neat bridges in place of the fords, one sometimes has to consult a large-scale map to understand the origin of the names. "

This would tend to drain the lake theory of any water it might otherwise have held.

Here's a link to it.

http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:yFvH-IIITS0J:www.oahs.org.uk/oxo/vol%25207/Arkell.doc+UPPER+THAMES+MARSH&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk

Belenos said...

On a personal note, whether you choose to publish this post or not is your decision, but the last one was clearly pertinent to the matter at hand, so I'd hope you would be true to your word.

It's not considered polite on the internet to ask who someone is, especially if you have a public blog which one assumes welcomes comments from all-comers.

As to who I am, I'm a non-academic with an interest in linguistics, science and politics. Whether I call myself Belenos, Bobby Magee, The Fresh Prince or Julio Iglesias doesn't really make any difference to my arguments, and I don't see why you had a go about it.

Jesús Sanchis said...

I have a blog and I welcome everybody here. The problem is that from time to time I get comments from people who insist on saying or asking the same things once and again, and in many cases these discussions have ended in repetitive, boring one-to-one dialogues. This is one of the things I try to avoid in my blog. I don't have a style book here, or a list of instructions. I try to use common sense, and I'm sure my readers appreciate it.

Carl Anderson said...

Perhaps because of their (various) academic backgrounds, people like Scutt and Oppenheimer can make themselves seem convincing and authoritative (to Joe Public, at least), but in reality I am not sure that either has a terribly good grasp on philology, let alone the particular issues associated with toponymy. The linguistic evidence for any significant Germanic-speaking community in Britain before the late/post-Roman period is simply lacking. Sure it is possible to speculate that there was such a community, but it would necessarily have to be argued from silence.

Oppenheimer may well be a fine geneticist (or pediatrician), and Scutt may well know plenty about archaeology, but I cannot help but feel both are out of their respective depths with respect to linguistics.

Jesús Sanchis said...

I agree with you, Carl. There are many problems in Oppenheimer's and Scutt's theories, as I have already stated in the blog. However, I think the idea of pe-Roman Germanic languages in Britain is not absurd in itself. You say the evidence is lacking, but maybe these and other authors are pointing to some possible evidence.

Carl Anderson said...

I would agree absolutely that idea of pre-Roman Germanic languages in Britain is not, prima facie, absurb in and of itself. After all, when we are rummaging about in ancient contexts which are (despite manifold improvements in recent generations) really quite poorly understood in many respects, very little should be immediately discounted as absurd. On the other hand, there is a large gap between "not necessarily absurd or impossible" and "having enough evidence to be able to say anything very useful", and I think the likes of Scutt and Oppenheimer have perhaps rushed across that gap rather prematurely. Yes, they (and others) have attempted to marshall evidence to support the hypothesis of pre-Roman Germanic speech communities in Britain, but (IMO) that evidence (that I have seen) remains a very long way from convincing (me, at any rate).

Octavià Alexandre said...

One clear example is Joan Coromines and his gigantic "Onomasticon Cataloniae". Coromines's leit motif was the Vasco-Iberian theory.
Coromines' competence in Basque was far from satisfactory, so he made some big blunders on this terrain.

But his Spanish etymological dictionary (coauthored with José Antonio Pascual), he often recurrs to impossible derivations from Latin and onomopatopoeias to fill the gaps in his own knowledge.

Coromines' greatest contribution is the discovery of a poorly attested IE language he called "Sorotaptic".

IMHO, one of greatest mistakes of mainstream historical linguistic is the neglect of poorly attested and substrate language. While there's some evidence of a pre-Celtic IE layer in British toponymy, this doesn't imply the language responsible of it has to be the ancestor of English, that is, a Germanic language.

MickeyCool30 said...

There are always those who believe that celtic was spoken before and therefore there must be a celtic explanation. Ey always means near water. As for viking influence, there are those who assume scandinavian words (whatever that means as sutton hoo and beowulf before the vikings shows scandinavian connections), must come from vikings but as the proto english org suggests arun was used in mercian and northumbrian dialect for are, a word only found in the fringes of europe, before the vikings and how can a distinct mercian dialect exist in the 7th century, when the anglo saxons had only been there a century it takes many centuries for dialects to form.

MickeyCool30 said...

There is no evidence of germanic origins? Equally there is no evidence of celtic placenames, by the way the celts arent a race, but a culture, you could have a celtic culture and speak germanic as with la tene culture in southern germanic, there is no evidence of mass invasions or that all the local decided they got bored of celtic languages and spoke germanic, this didnt happen in britain either. Old english speakers after the romans had a distinct identity, way of life etc and must have been strong as it survived to the present day. It seems many people have made their mind up before looking at all the evidence, and try to fit things into the official history as believing otherwise would be too much

MickeyCool30 said...

Btw london and dover have been found to have germanic origins by the proto english org

MickeyCool30 said...

If a germanic speaking population is lacking, then there must be an amazing celtic speaking evidence, yet I havent come across it yet, it itself lacks evidence for me at times when ordinsry people were illiterate and wrote little down. The evidence of mass cultural change from apparently a wholly celtic culture to a germanic one, with virtually not enough mass movement to do it, seems far fetched to me

Carl Anderson said...

The evidence for the use of Celtic language by many (pre-)Roman-era inhabitants of Britain is not "amazing"; it's quite ordinary. ;) Names on contemporary coins and in reports of contemporary authors. In other words, while a linguistic record of the period is obviously far from complete, what evidence there is points entirely to Celtic having been the best represented language-family in Britain. In contrast, there is really no evidence that points to Germanic having been in widespread use at the time. The whole idea of an ancestral "English" being in widespread use in Britain during or before the Roman period is based on naught but modern fantasy (and, it pains me to say, of the sort that looks like it might well be inspired by rather disturbing social/political ideology).