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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Celts


By Raymond E. Hunter

Beginning in the 800s BC and lasting through the end of the millennium, a remarkable people spread from the region of southeastern Germany, part of Austria, and part of Hungary throughout most of central and Western Europe. Known simply as Celts when the expansion began, they differentiated into  sub-groups as they settled in present-day Spain, Portugal, France, the British Isles, northern Italy, southern Germany, parts of Scandinavia, and even parts of western Russia.

The Celtic people were great warriors and great artisans; most of the bronze found across the Mediterranean countries came from Celtic mines and smelters. They provided many of the fine stonemasons who built impressive edifices in the Greek and Roman Empires. But they had one characteristic that has retarded our understanding of the degree to which they dominated European civilization: they believed that a person's word was the most sacred thing on earth, that a man would give his life before he would violate his spoken pledge. As a result, very few "documents" were put into writing, such as deeds, wills, and the like. Hence, few writings in Celtic have survived, and we know about the Celtic people mostly from writings by people in neighboring countries, such as the Greeks and Romans. The Celtic people who settled in today's France became known as Gauls. When the Romans invaded Gaul in the first century BC, there ensued a titanic struggle, with the Gauls led by Vercingetorix. The fierce independence of the Celtic people worked to the disadvantage of Vercingetorix, as he had to rely on voluntary support from the independent tribes within Gaul - who were as likely to fight each other as they were to fight the common enemy. Even so, Vercingetorix fought the Romans to a standstill - an accomplishment never before realized during the Roman Empire expansion - until  Vercingetorix made a military mistake in splitting his army. He and part of his forces were trapped in Alesia, and eventually to save the townspeople, he surrendered. He was taken to Rome and tortured to death in 45 BC. Many of the Gauls fled the region rather than submit to foreign rule; they traveled completely across Europe to settle in what is today central Turkey. The region became known as Galatia, from the word Gaul (cf. Paul's letters to the Galatians).

The Celtic people in the Iberian Peninsula, being more thinly spread, were more easily conquered by the Romans, who occupied most of the peninsula in the second century BC. After the Roman Empire began to crumble, the Moors crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to invade Spain in the 700s AD. Again a titanic struggle ensued, with the Moors being eventually pushed out after having held the southern half of the country for many years. The influence of the Moors in the Spanish bloodlines can be seen today, in the rich black hair and flashing eyes of the stereotypical senorita. But there is still a substantial percentage of the Spanish people, particularly from the northern region, who have red hair and fair skin - the former in particular being a nearly certain indication of Celtic genes.

It was in the British Isles that the Celts left their biggest mark. The first wave of Celts, in the period of about 600 - 400 BC, spread across the islands and became known as Gaels. In about 150 BC, a second wave, known as Brythons, spread across southern England. It is from the word "Brython" that we get the names "Briton," for the people in southern and central England, and "Breton," for those who fled the Romans and Anglo-Saxons and settled in northern France.

The Romans began their invasion of Britain in 55 BC, but left after two invasion forces had been thoroughly defeated by the Brythonic Celts. They returned in great force a hundred years later, and there ensued a costly and tedious effort to subdue the Celtic tribes in today's England. After nearly a hundred years, the Romans reached the neck of the island, where Hadrian built the wall known by his name, across approximately the boundary between present-day Scotland and England. That wall was built as protection against the Scots (and/or Picts, as the eastern Scots were sometimes known). But the Romans could not hold the country against the Scots, the frequently rebellious Britons, and the Gaels in the western regions, known as Welsh, especially with the new problems of Angles and Saxons raiding the southeastern coastline. In 410 AD, the Romans left for good, telling the Britons to "see to their own defenses." For a period of about 400 years, the Roman Empire had poured a substantial part of their military might into an unsuccessful attempt to conquer the Gaels and Britons - whereas in their other campaigns, they had managed to conquer every country they had invaded in short order.

In subsequent years, the increasing pressure of Anglo-Saxons invasions from regions of present-day Germany pushed the Britons into present-day Wales, southern Scotland, and the Bretonic region of northern France. The Anglo-Saxon approach to conquering a territory was somewhat akin to the Israelites under Joshua: slay all inhabitants. Hence, there was very little mixing of Celtic genes in the tribes that evolved into the English of today. The stubborn warrior traits of the Gaels, and especially the Scots, continue down through history. The failure of the Romans to achieve military victory over the Scots portended such events as the defeat by the Scots of the English at the Battle of Bannockbum, where the Scottish army demolished a foe that outnumbered them by about four to one.

Because of the paucity of written records, the scope of Celtic settlement across Europe has not been easy to establish. One feature already mentioned that is strongly associated with Celtic blood lines is red hair; a great majority of people in the world who have red hair will be found to have a Celtic ancestor. But that feature is not uniquely associated with the Celts, so the spread of Celtic people in such areas as present-day Germany and Scandinavia has not been accepted by all authorities. During World War II, a discovery was made that only recently has received meticulous research. A couple of doctors in medical centers in England noticed that there was a feature of Scots and Welsh soldiers wounded in battle that was not present with English, Germans, and other nationalities. The former frequently had a big toe (or great toe) that was the same length as the next toe; all others had great toes markedly longer. They marked that down for research after the war ended, but it was only a few years ago that definitive research was done that has led to a remarkable discovery. They found that there were burial sites across Britain where the skeletons were completely of one ethnic group, such as Celtic burial sites on islands along the Scottish northwest coast, and pre-Celtic burial sites in southern England. Results from studies of those burial sites showed that to a 95 probability Celtic remains had a big toe the same length as, or shorter than, the next toe, while pre-Celtic remains had a big toe longer than the one next to it. That study was expanded to cover burial sites in other parts of Europe and Asia, with the same results. Because the so-called Celtic toe can disappear after many generations of intermarriage, it is not a necessary condition to having a Celtic ancestor, but it is a sufficient one: if a person has the Celtic toe, he or she is almost certain to be of Celtic descent.

That discovery should allow a much better mapping of the extent of Celtic settlement across Europe. The Celtic toe has been found in abundance in southern and central Germany and across western and central Scandinavia. It has been found in present-day descendants of the Dutch Boers who settled in South Africa over a hundred years ago; the only source of that gene is from the Celtic Dutch of two thousand years ago. It could be used to map the Scottish migration route from the central Atlantic down through the Carolinas and into Georgia in the 1700s.

A Rose by Any Other Name ...

The part that the Celts played in shaping European civilization has slowly evolved during the past few decades, from a time when the Celtic people were not even mentioned in school textbooks on European history. That role provokes increasing wonder but little controversy. Such is not the case on one feature of the Celts, however. There has arisen an increasingly fractious dispute over how to pronounce the name of the people: is it "selt-Celt" or "kelt-Celt"? It is important to understand that no one is around who heard the word pronounced by the people who called themselves Celts, some two thousand or so years ago. In the virtual absence of a written record left by the Celts themselves, etymologists have to rely on clues left in languages for which we have some knowledge of how words and letters were pronounced. Present-day authorities are divided; for example, Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary prefers "selt-Celt," while the American Heritage Dictionary prefers "kelt-Celt".

For the word "Celt", there are two solid clues, mutually contradictory. The Greeks transliterated the word into "keltoi" (here I use Roman letters instead of Greek, for clarity). That might lead us to the conclusion that the Celts called themselves "Kelts." But the Greeks used the letter "k" to transliterate both the sibilant "s" sound and the plosive "k" sound, so the word "keltoi" is not conclusive.

In Latin, the word is written "celtoi" or "celtai." If that word was derived directly from the Celtic people's pronunciation, it would indicate that the correct pronunciation is "selt-Celt". But there is some indication that it was derived from the Greek word "keltoi," leaving us with little to go on, as it was common to convert Greek "k" sounds (plosive) into Latin "c" sounds (sibilant). Hence, the Greek "kentrum" became Latin "centrum," from which we get the English word "center". This is a common development; the Latin "caesar" was converted in German into "kaiser" (plosive), but into "czar" in Russian, retaining the Latin sibilant sound.

Unfortunately, primitive Celtic language differentiated into several branches many centuries ago, and the word "Celt" in today's Gaelic (for example) is a late back-transformation from a different language, probably English. No other European language gives much help. So we are left with the contradictory clues, the Greek "keltoi" and the Latin "celtai." Which is correct - "selt-Celt" or "kelt-Celt"? There are two questions here - first, what did the people call themselves in, say, 500 BC? Second, how should the word be pronounced in modem English?

To the first question, there is no solid answer, and probably never will be. Evidence slightly favors "selt-Celt," but it is by no means conclusive. To the second question, we refer to the rules of pronunciation for our language, one of which is, "c" before "e" is always sibilant, except for a very few foreign words used in English (such as the Italian word "cello", with the sound "ch"). That is true regardless of the earliest origin of the root word - such as the Greek "kentrum" evolving into Latin "centrum" and thence into English "center." The plosive "kelt" heard with increasing frequency today may be a good guess on the original people's pronunciation, but it is bad English.

The evolution of the "kelt-Celt" pronunciation is recent. For both English and American authorities, the word was pronounced "selt-Celt" universally during the late 1800s and early 1900s; see English lexicographers John Craig (1849) and Benjamin Humphrey Smart (1836); American Noah Webster (1828). Webster's, American College, and Funk & Wagnalls dictionaries up through the 1950s universally used "selt-Celt" as the preferred or only pronunciation. The dominant American grammar authority John Opdycke in 1939 wrote " 'Celtic' may also be spelt 'Keltic', and the two forms are accordingly pronounced 'sell-tik' and 'keU-tik'..." The Oxford English Dictionary in 1928 sanctioned only "selt-Celt" and "seltic-Celtic". The giant among English usage authorities, H. W. Fowler, wrote in 1926 "The spelling C- & the pronunciation s-, are the established ones, & no useful purpose seems to be served by the substitution ofk-." In 1999 Charles Elster, the dominant American authority in orthoepy (proper pronunciation of words) held firmly with "selt-Celt," describing "kelt-Celt" as a "beastly mispronunciation."

The "kelt-Celt" heresy arose in England after the 1950s and spread throughout the rest of Britain and in the last couple of decades into the United States as well. In 1989 the Oxford English Dictionary finally recognized the "kelt-Celt" pronunciation, although still listing "selt-Celt" as preferred. It is now fashionable to hear "kelt-Celt" at Scottish Games in the United States; indeed, I am sometimes viewed as illiterate when I adhere to the orthoepically and historically correct "selt-Celt." Interestingly, the Glasgow Celtic football team (which means rugby, not American football) is still called the "selticks."

There are those who will point to the Greek origin and claim that accuracy requires us to violate the rule of English pronunciation and recast the word as "kelt-Celt". There is the attendant requirement, for consistency, to do so with all English words that derive ultimately from Greek. Thus, those who insist on "kelt-Celt" should be prepared to go to the local building supply "kenter" to buy some "kedar" lumber - as both "center" and "cedar" derive from Greek words - or change the spelling to "Kelt" to conform to English rules. Elster proposes a test: "Try going to a Boston Celtics basketball game and yelling, 'Go, Kel-tiks!' If you can get out of there without being slam-dunked, you can say it however you want." None of which can detract from the growing appreciation of a people who had an enormous influence on European history, and whose traits of fierce independence, unparalleled military prowess and courage, and love of education, science, and the arts continue to wield a powerful influence on present-day world civilization.

Raymond Hunter
2739 Freeman Road
Royston, GA 30662


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