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Help understanding the difference btw Saxon, Norman, Celtic, Gallic, English

I Survived the Great Vowel Shift

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Jan 24, 2008, 1:44am Top

Ok linguists can you help me again :)

I like to read historical fiction and I can never figure out who is from where and where they are today --so to speak. So:

Who were the Saxons and where were they from? Were the Celtics (or is it Celts) from Ireland?
Is Norman, Franc and Gallic the same thing or are they the French but from different time periods?
Celtic and Gallic tends to be interchangeable--is that right?
Who are the English (in medieval times). Are they only people who lived in Britain?
Was there really a place called Mercia--that's just an extra I thought I'd throw in :)

Jan 24, 2008, 4:27am Top

The best thing you can do to sort out the confusion is read the early chapters of 1066 and all that :-)

Bare essentials (I'm sure more knowledgeable people will leap in with more detail):

Celts, broadly speaking, were the people living in the British Isles at the time of the Roman conquest. They spoke languages that were the ancestors of modern Breton, Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Irish.

Saxons (and their neighbours the Angles and Jutes) started arriving in the British Isles from about the 5th century AD. They came from what is now Denmark, North Germany and Friesland, though they probably lived further East before that. They spoke Germanic languages. These languages (usually lumped together as "Old English" or "Anglo-Saxon") became dominant in most of England and southern Scotland, while Cornwall, Ireland, Wales and northern Scotland remained largely Celtic-speaking.

Gallic is a tricky word: the Romans called most of north-western Europe "Gallia", so it gets used in several different ways, generally to refer to people or languages of Celtic origin. Nowadays, we tend to use "Gaelic" (pr. "gallic") for the Celtic languages of Scotland and Ireland; and "Gauls" for the Celtic people living in France during Roman times.

Franks were Germanic people who became dominant in most of NW Europe around the 6th century. They originally spoke a Germanic language, but those living in what is now France later became French-speaking. Clovis and Charlemagne were Franks. Confusingly, Muslims in the medieval period tended to refer to all Western Christians as Franks.

Normans were from Normandy, in northern France. They seem to have been a mixture of local people (Franks/Gauls/whatever) with Vikings who came there from Norway around the ninth century. They spoke a dialect of French (a Romance language). Normans later spread to England (1066!), South Wales, Ireland, Sicily, and quite a few other places, taking their language with them.

Mercia was one of the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England - at its greatest extent it stretched from the Thames and Severn to the Ribble and Humber. Offa was the most famous Mercian king.

The term English tends to be used (more-or-less) for the period after the Norman conquest (1066), when England became a single political unit. The English were a mixture of Anglo-Saxons, Celts, Danes, and Normans. Anglo-Saxon gradually merged with Norman French to become a language called "Middle English" (Chaucer, etc.), and that evolved into modern English.

Jan 24, 2008, 4:44am Top

Just to add to the confusion, England was a single political unit for about 250 before the Norman conquest, and its kings at that time were a mix of Anglo-Saxons and Danes!

Jan 24, 2008, 1:40pm Top

Thorold thank you for the detailed reply --it was a huge help :)

Jan 24, 2008, 1:54pm Top

Thorold I checked out your book recommendation: 1066... and it looks quite funny for those of us who don't paticularly want to read a dry history book :) Thanks for the suggestion, I just dropped it into my Amazon cart :)

Jan 24, 2008, 2:43pm Top

Enjoy it! Some of the jokes might have dated a bit since it was written (and some might pass you by altogether if you haven't had British-style school history lessons), but I think it's worth a go. Don't believe anything it tells you, though...

Jan 24, 2008, 2:48pm Top

Thorold it's based on fact isn't it? Can you figure out that some "events" are a joke?

Jan 24, 2008, 3:35pm Top

Yes, there are some facts in there, certainly...

I think it might spoil the fun to explain it all in advance - I'm sure you'll enjoy it, and if you're still puzzled when you've read it, start a thread over in one of the humour groups (BritWit or somewhere), and we can discuss it there without getting under the feet of the linguists.

Jan 24, 2008, 3:52pm Top

I have a good friend who read 1066 and all that early on in high school. She spent her history lessons after that giggling every so often as she got another joke!

Jan 24, 2008, 9:37pm Top

Celts, broadly speaking, were the people living in the British Isles at the time of the Roman conquest. They spoke languages that were the ancestors of modern Breton, Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Irish.

Not to mention Cornish and Manx. (They have both effectively died out, but there are periodic efforts to revive them.)

Sep 22, 2008, 8:23pm Top

Note on "Gallic": it's used as a synonym for "French", so I have to question the Gallic>gaelic comment.

Sep 23, 2008, 3:11pm Top

#2 must think that Gallic and Gaelic are similar etymologically.

Sep 25, 2008, 7:58am Top

>11 erilarlo:,12

Yes, must admit that I assumed, without ever checking, that Latin "gallia" is derived from the same celtic word family as modern English "Gaelic". Seems plausible, but a quick look at the OED suggests that they don't want to commit themselves on this, and I don't have a Latin etymological dictionary handy...

>11 erilarlo:
"Gallic," etc., when used in English, are taken straight from Latin (remember De bello gallico?). Don't forget that the French use "gallois" for Welsh, and "gaulois" for Astérix! There's probably a whole political discussion to be had on whether the post-1945 French prefer to see themselves as Franks or Gauls, as well...

Sep 25, 2008, 4:42pm Top

I would suggest The Stories of English by David Crystal. The questions you asked about are the subject of the book

Sep 26, 2008, 6:16am Top

>13 thorold: The latest "Shorter Oxford" says that Latin Gallus "a Gaul" is "probably from Celtic".

Nov 2, 2008, 11:44am Top

The Celts were actually all over Europe at one point, but then got pushed to the NW by other groups. Asterix and Obelix were Celts.

Nov 2, 2008, 6:04pm Top

Another book that might help sort out the many influences on modern English, and its origins, is the companion book to the PBS Television series: The Story of English. Chapter Two (The Mother Tongue) has excellent maps and sub-chapters devoted to the Celts, the Norse, etc. See ISBN 0-670-80467-3. My copy is a second printing from 1986. Authors are Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil.

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