Why are there so few words in English that are derived from Welsh?

Wikipedia mentions only 11.

7 Answers 7


Language origin specialists theorize that the proportion of loanwords in a language is a function of both the length of exposure to and the social status of the borrowed language.

English words borrowed from Celt are less than one hundred and probably more around 60.

However, the exposure of English to Welsh is long (449 AD to present) but the Welsh language had a lower status from the Saxon point of view.

Remember the double meaning of Wilisc in OE, the Saxon word for Celt (=> Welsh): it means both "foreigner" and "slave" (see the forms Wyel: slave, servant or Wylen: female slave).

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    Having the same word for foreigner and slave gives a pretty picture of a society :D Apr 4, 2011 at 15:31
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    There's so much to say here. For instance, Ciao in Italian means "I'm you slave" (Sono il suo schiavo). "Schiavone" in Italian means both Slav and slave. Coming from Latin "sclavus" meaning both slave and Slav (=> Slovenia). More food for thought is the etymology of "to bless" (=> Blood) and the fact that in many languages a "victim" is the same world for a victim of an sacrifice and of an accident ("Das Opfer" in German, "Victim" in many Latin languages). Hard times... Apr 4, 2011 at 16:03
  • @AlainPannetierΦ Actually, when an Italian tells you ciao is to tell you hello, or bye; in no case, an Italian is telling you I am your slave. Schiavone is a last name, and it is not used to mean an inhabitant of Croatia. That could be the etymology of the words, but it's not the actual meaning.
    – apaderno
    Nov 20, 2011 at 23:23
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    @kiamlaluno, May be I should have phrased it like this: "The etymology of the Italian greeting ciao is "schiavo" which means "slave" as in "I'm you're servant". I stand corrected for "Schiavone" being a last name only. Overall, the idea I meant to convey was that slave comes from "Slav" as an example of the fact that there are many examples of substrate population names yieding words for slave in the conquering superstrate languages. Nov 21, 2011 at 0:06

The existing Celtic/Gaelic languages on the British Isles are considerably older than (Modern) English is.

They are native languages to the region. However, when England was first (and repeatedly) conquered (by the Saxons, the Nordic and the Normans), The Celtic regions were avoided and some of the midland natives fled to the extremities (Wales, Scotland, Ireland) and these areas remained largely untroubled by invasion.

There was a time when the districts of England were quite separate and there were many different native languages present (i.e. Manx, Cumbric, Cornish, Salopian). As the different occupations of England came and went, the language united and altered around them. Many of the original languages are now considered extinct.

Going back, you will find periods where the majority of English citizens spoke French and others where they spoke German (an old version of, at least), etcetera; Over time these languages all formed as one.

During these many transformations, the Gaelic and Celtic regions continued rather independently and their distinct languages are a mark of this. It is only in relatively recent times that any real interaction between those and English has occurred and as they have interacted, English has dominated, with the number Gaelic speakers in decline as English language takes over.

(Interestingly though, the Welsh are probably the most zealous in keeping their original languages alive, when compared with the others.)

Therefore, you will see that English, though one of the most widespread languages in the world, is really just a mixed bag of Latin, French, German Greek and old Norse but it is something quite separate from Welsh, Irish and Scottish as those nations were not involved in its political history.

Hope this helps.

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    @KarlMillsom, please not that the Celts are also invaders. The craddle of the Celtic culture is located in Switzerland and Austria (Hallstatt culture). Apr 4, 2011 at 7:07
  • Yes, you are quite right. They never really 'invaded' though, in the sense. They more trickled in (though, that they did so quite violently, I will not dispute). They were not at the time a unified people. You are right that they were not indigenous to the British Isles. However, the languages were well established by several hundred years (and separate from other local languages) by the time of Roman invasion
    – Karl
    Apr 4, 2011 at 7:18
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    The anglo-saxons also trickled in according to one theory. It was more a case of a few well paid mercenaries with their flashy foreign ways that impressed the local girls - rather than a wave of 100,000 storming ashore and taking over
    – mgb
    Apr 4, 2011 at 15:21
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    Bits of Yorkshire are an interesting case of this - it (almost) speaks English now, but with a lot more anglo-saxon. Most of the place names are Viking but the sheep farming is in ancient celtic - you count sheep in Yan Tan Tethera, and the hills are called things like pen-y-ghent.
    – mgb
    Apr 4, 2011 at 15:24
  • Well yes, in fact under that theory one would even say that the Anglo-Saxons were invited. However, they later revolted/mutinied after not being paid their tribute or some other such grievance. The Anglo-Saxon 'invasion' was a fight to defeat the ruling classes and take control. The Celts were a number of rather unconnected tribes moving into a land already occupied by a number of rather unconnected tribes in more of an 'every man for himself' kind of way, just taking land as they went.
    – Karl
    Apr 4, 2011 at 15:32

Wales didn't conquer/settle England (well sort of by proxy with Henry Tudor)

There wasn't a great deal of trade or much contact compared to with other countries.

It's art and culture has been a bit more'for consumption on the premises' than Ireland's export of writers and poets.

.... and of course because nobody else can understand or pronounce a word of it ....

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    Greece didn't conquer Rome. Take a look at the Byzantine culture Apr 4, 2011 at 5:47
  • Most of common English loan words come from Norse, Anglo-saxon or Norman. There are a few more modern ones taken directly from Latin or Greece, but like those taken from Japanese they aren't as common
    – mgb
    Apr 4, 2011 at 15:14

Probably because Welsh is a modern language which was refreshed/reinvented (depending on your cultural view) during the 19th century, and so had no opportunity to affect any other language. If you meant 'the Brythonic language spoken before the Roman conquest', that's a good question; but that had no more in common with modern Welsh than the language of the Viking Hrolf of Normandy had in common with modern French.

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    I'm not sure I understand. Welsh was continuously spoken as a language from before the Roman conquest to the modern day, as is evidenced by literary sources, in exactly the same way that the language spoken in Jutland evolved over the last 2500 years to become modern Danish. The proportion of speakers has decreased massively over time, but I'm not sure I see how anything that could be described as a refresh or a reinvention of the language. Welsh traditions, absolutely; the language, no. Jan 20, 2012 at 0:22
  • Are you thinking of Cornish?
    – TRiG
    May 9, 2012 at 14:36
  • TimLymington false. brythonic is very similar to welsh. people of Brittany who still speak it, can quite easily carry a conversation with welsh speakers. I can myself. collect your facts before making such claims.
    – user42396
    Apr 13, 2013 at 22:24
  • Cornish is also a Brythonic language.
    – Tristan
    Apr 13, 2013 at 23:23
  • @tony: does 'check your facts' include actually reading the post? "The Brythonic language spoken before the Roman conquest" does not mean the modern languages that are usually termed brythonic. Apr 15, 2013 at 21:26

Not only are there few words of Celtic origin in English, but there are precious few place names in England of Celtic origin. This makes no sense when examining how cultures and languages spread throughout the world. For instance, in America there are thousands of place names derived from Native American languages in almost every state. About half of the states in the US have Indian names (Arizona, Alabama, Connecticut, Dakotas, Minnesota, Massachusetts...) in spite of the fact that these were a subjugated, technologically and numerically inferior peoples. This has been taken by some to suggest that some of the original inhabitants of England were not Celtic but Germanic (e.g. the Belgae — although they are reputed to be either Celtic or Germanic). Makes sense to me. If that were so, it would suggest that the Welsh and Picts and Caledonians were isolated from the English population even further back in time than in Caesar's day and might explain why when the Jutes and Saxons invaded they melded their languages with the primarily Germanic speaking inhabitants. This is supported by modern-day genetic analyses.

This theory, which I am really just cribbing, is discussed by Stephen Oppenheimer in his book "The Origins of the British".


The reason is very likely, despite the plethora of modern day books which describe the original inhabitants of Britain as "celtic", there is no compelling evidence that Celts were ever the original inhabitants of Britain. Indeed, as Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer shows, there was NO suggestion at the time of the Roman invasion that the area that is today England was celtic. Only a few loanwords today exist derived from Celtic and almost no placenames exist in modern day England that are Celtic in Origin. Even Caesar described two different societies inhabiting England, one speaking Celtic on the western border of England and another society inhabiting what is modern day England which he described as speaking an entirely different language. The Anglo-Saxon myth is pretty much debunked too, as it is more likely that the language spoken in England before Rome "invaded" was ancient, possibly much older than Celtic, and was already a germanic or more succinctly a scandinavian language.

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    ...and almost no placenames exist in modern day England that are Celtic... This is nonsense. No one can seriously dispute that the ancestors of the modern Welsh people once inhabited a large part of what is now England. This page list towns and villages which have 'combe' in their name. Combe comes from the same root as the Welsh word 'cwm' meaning valley. The river avon is literally the Welsh for river (afon). There are many other examples of Brythonic roots of English place names.
    – Gareth
    Oct 6, 2014 at 12:04

A form of English was spoken by the Southern British before the Romans arrived, a form of Belgic German, it is more than likely that the Celts and English arrived in the British isles at the same time.

The English did not allow the Celts to settle, this is probably the reason there are hardly any Celtic place names in England.

  • Do you have any evidence for this? Aug 4, 2014 at 19:22
  • Also. it would be helpful if you could clarify how Celtic pertains specifically to Welsh language words. Aug 4, 2014 at 19:58
  • We already know that the Suessiones were living in Britain at least 2 centuries before the Romans arrived, their gold coins were found from Kent to the Wash.
    – Scrat
    Aug 4, 2014 at 20:24

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