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Lo and Behold!

Periodical enquiries, facts, and problems regarding antiquarianism, the history of science, etymology, palæography, and other sublunary affairs.

The Cumbric Vocabulary

Cumbric is the extinct Celtic language once spoken by the Brythonic people of the English-Scottish borderlands after they were cut off from Wales in the early 7th century. Glanville Price, following a lecture of Kenneth Jackson from 1955, says that there are only three Cumbric words in the documentary records, but a closer look at the evidence shows the situation to be more complicated. Could there be more Cumbric words, and are the three known words really Cumbric themselves?

The three words in question, from Price’s Languages in Britain and Ireland (2000), are “galnes or galnys, which corresponds to Middle Welsh galanas ‘blood-fine’, and mercheta and kelchyn, connected with Welsh merch ‘daughter’ and cylch ‘circuit’ respectively”. They all come from a roughly 11th century Latin text called the Leges inter Brettos et Scotos, and they’re all kinds of fines or taxes, for which there were apparently no equivalent Latin words. The kelchyn was a “fine paid to the kinsmen of a person killed” (DOST), and the mercheta was a “fine paid by a tenant or bondsman to his overlord for the right to give his daughter in marriage” (OED), so essentially a tax.

The etymologies of these terms in the dictionaries are somewhat diverse. The OED considers merchet, its headword for the term, to be from Old Welsh merched, possibly via Anglo-Norman or Latin. For kelchyn, the DOST says “prob. Gael. or ? Welsh” whilst the OED has no etymology at all. For galnes on the other hand, it has a more telling note, saying that it appears only in the phrase cro and galnes; that cro is from Irish (cró) and galnes from Welsh (galanas); and that the juxtaposition of the two is “remarkable”. That’s as much as we get from the insight of the dictionaries.

The phrase cro and galnes is a good continuation point, because it adds cro to the list of Celtic words in early Scottish law; and we can also add enach from the same period and even documents. Though it’s clear that the “cro and galnes” was a kind of fine for murders, with the cro appearing independently elsewhere being payable in cows, it’s not clear whether they were two separate things or one. Etymologically they had, the OED says, the “same meaning”, but had that changed? As Frederic Seebohm wrote in 1902, whether it means “two things or one thing, and if two things, what the distinction between them was, it is not easy to see”. It is just possible that what we have here is a fossil hendiasys, a kind of preservation of two kinds of word for the same thing that got lexicalised into a single component. These are very common in English, for example “hem and haw”, “spick and span”, and “rank and file”. But these words don’t cross languages; did the tentative Cumbric words do so?

Wikipedia notes insightfully that due to the location of the Cumbric speakers, “it is likely that Goidelic and Scandinavian loan-words were incorporated into the language before its demise.” Whilst a single inscrutible cross-Celtic phrase from a few obscure legal documents doesn’t prove that Cumbric had a strong Goidelic influence, it does at least open the possibility. And given that ‘galnes’ always appears with ‘cro’, the probability of fossilisation can’t yet be ruled out.

What of the other words? To etymologise kelchyn (also spelled as kelchin, keichyn, gailchen, or gelchach) to the Welsh cylch or ‘circuit’ may be stretching it. An old article from Antiquity, Vol. LXII, says that it was “perhaps originally a contribution paid when the king went on royal progress through his lands”, hence the tenuous connection to circuit. In modern Welsh, cylchyn means circlet or cirumference. The word ‘celchyn’ appears in Mark Nodine’s Welsh to English dictionary online, but is unglossed; it appears nowhere else so it must be a mistake. John Williams records a striking degredation of the Welsh cylchyn in his Gomer (1854), but links it to church: “Wachter, in his glossary, under the word ‘Kilch,’ calls it a sacred edifice, and quotes a very ancient translation of the Psalms, where the Holy Church is called ‘uns heilich chilcha,’ and proves that the words ‘chrydir altan kilchin’ meant the creed of the old Church. Now ‘Kilchin’ is the Cymric ‘Cylchyn’—a circle.” James Sibbald, in his Chronicle of Scottish Poetry (1802), even tries to link the etymology of kelchyn to the Teutonic ‘gelden’. Nobody really seems to know its etymology, but since the Welsh equivalent of the term is sarhad, it would be redundant in the original language if it is from Welsh.

On enach, some websites, sans any mention themselves of sources so I’ll repeat the favour, give its etymology as the Irish enec-laun or lóg n-enach loosely meaning honour-price. The DOST gives the more concrete “Gael. eineach, cessation of enmity, truce”. A broad term in Irish, it seems to have become desynonymised over time.

So of the five terms, cro, enach, galnes, kelchyn, and merchet, what can we say about their origins? Well, cro and enach appear to be Goidelic Irish Gaelic; galnes and merchet are from Old Brythonic Welsh; and nobody seems to have a clue about kelchyn though to my intuitive faculty and given the link to ‘cylchyn’, even if coincidental, it sounds Welsh. The “remarkable” Goidelic and Brythonic juxtaposition of the words cro and galnes is repeated, it would seem, in the whole micro-vocabulary. It’s difficult enough to say for sure whether Cumbric even existed, how long it was spoken for, and where. But if it did exist, Cumbric may have had a greater Goidelic influence than has been conjectured to date, and perhaps we should even be thinking of a hybrid as mixed as English with its germanic and romance components. Without further evidence, the point is moot.

We do, however, know of at least one other circumstantial fact that may bear on the problem. Shepherds in the valleys of Cumbria have long counted with a Celtic system, such as “yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp” from Borrowdale. Old Brythonic and Goidelic numerals were fairly similar, but four and five in Old Welsh were ‘petuar’ and ‘pimp’ and in Old Irish were ‘cethair’ and ‘cóic’. The pimp in the shepherds’ system displays their Brythonicity, and it is the p-branch that the system is almost universally thought to derive from, but the introduction of methera gives a prefix for that number not seen in any other Celtic language, so it might be a unique Cumbric feature.

by Sean B. Palmer, 2007-04-06

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© 2007 Sean B. Palmer, inamidst.com