The White Cliffs of Leith

Further to Gina’s musings about placenames and the origin of ‘Deutschland’, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss names of Scotland and Britain.

For etymologies in this post see OED under ‘Albion’, ‘Scot’, ‘Welsh’ and ‘Manx’.

First, we should know that the Gaelic for Scotland is ‘Alba’ and that the name of the colour white in Latin is ‘albus’ (as in ‘albino’, ‘albumen’ and ‘Albus Dumbledore’). The various forms of the name ‘Alba’ are ancient, but it seems that they came from Latin. Pliny calls Britain ‘Albion’, and this form is today occasionally used in English to refer to Britain or especially England. The French like to call England ‘la perfide Albion’.

The first and most memorable part of the island of Britain that the Romans would have encountered coming from the south was of course the White Cliffs of Dover, hence the name based on a root meaning ‘white’. The Irish must have picked up this name from the Romans and continued to use it as a general term for ‘Britain’, even though the westerly parts of Britain most familiar to them would have been hundreds of miles away from the White Cliffs.

When the Irish started to invade and settle parts of the island of Britain, it was natural that they would refer to their new land as ‘Alba’, and gradually this term was restricted to the parts of Britain where Irish people lived, namely the northern part that we now call Scotland. ‘Alba’ remains the Gaelic and Irish name for Scotland to this day: so a name that once referred to most southerly part of the island has ended up being used for the exact opposite end.

The English ‘Scotland’ also comes from Latin. ‘Scoti’ was a term used in Latin to refer to people of Gaelic or Irish race, whether they lived in Ireland herself or in colonies in Britain. Gradually, this term too became specialized to Scotland and is no longer used of the Irish in Ireland. With the growth of Scottish nationalism and the divide between a mostly protestant Scotland and a mostly catholic Ireland, and tensions over Irish immigration into places such as Glasgow in the 19th and 20th centuries, the ethnic, historical and linguistic links between Scotland and Ireland have tended to be downplayed. However, Gaelic-speakers in the Highlands still feel to some extent an affinity and common national and cultural identity with Gaelic Ireland; there was traditionally a single dialect continuum from the north of Scotland to the southern tip of Ireland. It was common until relatively recently to refer to the Scots Gaelic language as ‘Irish’ or ‘Erse’ (which is now considered derogatory), and until the eighteenth century there was a single literary standard, known as Classical Common Gaelic / Irish, and Irish and Scottish poets would regularly tour each others’ countries. The word ‘Scots’ meanwhile became associated with the dialect of English spoken in the Lowlands, and now the original Gaelic Scots are a threatened minority in an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon “Scot”land.

The transfer of the word ‘Scot’ from referring to Celts to referring to a Germanic culture and language is mirrored by the name ‘British’, which properly refers to the Brythonic people and language now known as ‘Welsh’ (also Cornish and Breton). Today, however, the word British is almost synonymous both within and without Britain with England and Englishness, and English-dominated imperialism. French-speakers will use ‘Angleterre’ and ‘Grande-Bretagne’ more or less interchangeably, while patriotic Welsh people often say ‘I’m not British, I’m Welsh’, thus disowning their own name for themselves!

England has taken other once-Celtic things and made them its own, for example the legend of King Arthur. If there was an Arthur, he was a Romanized British (Welsh) chieftain fighting against the incoming Saxons in the sixth century. In legend, he became mythical defender of all Britain, and so in English eyes, of England. However, the popular tradition that King Arthur will arise from his sleep in Britain’s hour of need does not mean he will come to save England: rather he would be saving Britain from the English! Sometimes toponomy matters…at least if you take far-fetched prophecies seriously!

The respective names of Wales are very revealing. For a long time, the Celtic-speaking Britons continued referring to themselves as ‘British’ in opposition to the “Saxons” (‘Sais’, cf. Gaelic ‘Sasannaich’, German ‘Sachse’, which still refers to the Saxons who stayed at home), but gradually they needed a new name for their now much-diminished westerly homeland, especially as the “Saxons” started to appropriate the name ‘British’. The Welsh for Wales is ‘Cymru’ (the c is [k], the y is a schwa, the u is [i] in South Wales, high unrounded central in North Wales, stress on first syllable), and means ‘fellow-countrymen’. In contrast, the English ‘Wales’ and ‘Welsh’ come from Germanic words for ‘foreigner’. On the Continent, it referred to Celtic and Latin-speaking non-Germans (German ‘welsch’ is apparently still used to refer to French-speaking Swiss); in Britain it was used exclusively for the native Brythonic Celtic-speaking population. The same root is found in ‘CornWALL’, which retained its Brythonic Celtic dialect until the 18th century. The term Welsh evidently had negative connotations: the verb ‘to welsh’ means to swindle, cheat or fail to keep a promise. ‘Welsh’ is hence arguably a racist and derogatory term and perhaps the Welsh should insist on Cymru (or Cambria?) as the name for their country even in English, like Zimbabwe for Rhodesia, Inuit for Eskimo or Traveller instead of Gypsy. And ‘Abertawe’ (pronounce more or less as if IPA with four syllables) certainly sounds better than ‘Swansea’.

I could not conclude this discussion of national names in the British Isles without a brief mention of the island at the very heart and centre of the archipelago, my own homeland of the Isle of Man. Now I am told this name sounds comical to English-speakers when they first encounter it, because of the English word ‘man’ meaning a ‘male human being’. In the days when Spain was too expensive and everyone came to the Isle of Man on holiday for a trip ‘abroad’, the isle of ‘men’ where women were not allowed was a common theme of humorous postcards, and most recently Yorkie, the chocolate bar famously ‘not for girls’, launched a special promotional pink version of the chocolate on the Isle of Man which was ‘not for men’.

If you know Gaelic, however, all this perceived masculinity seems very odd. For all Celtic country names are grammatically feminine; Eire, for example, is supposed to be named after a goddess; Alba too is feminine, as is Cymru. The Manx Gaelic for ‘Isle of Man’ is Ellan Vannin, which is about as feminine a name as you can get in Manx. ‘Mannin’ (it is lenited to ‘Vannin’ in the genitive case) is feminine like Eire and Alba, and ‘ellan’ although masculine in other dialects (Irish ‘oileán’, Scots Gaelic), is feminine in Manx. The Isle of Man is referred to in songs as ‘Mannin veg veen’ (dear little Mannin), which is about as far from a chauvinistic masculine name as you can get! (For those interested, the base forms of these adjectives are ‘beg’ and ‘meen’, but the initial consonants are changed to ‘v’ to mark the feminine gender. While in French, German etc. you change the end of words to show gender, in Celtic languages you change the beginning.) Another traditional feminine-sounding epithet for the Island (in English) is ‘Mona’, a female personification of the country roughly analogous to the British ‘Britannia’ or the French ‘Marianne’. (Mona is related to Ynys Môn, the Welsh name for Anglesey. Apparently the Romans got the two islands confused. In Welsh ‘Isle of Man’ is ‘Ynys Manaw’.)

The adjective to refer to the Isle of Man, its people and language is ‘Manx’ (occasionally spelt ‘Manks’). This has a very odd (indeed unique) suffix; one would expect something like ‘Mannish, ‘Mansh’ or ‘Manch’, and indeed the native English version of this suffix has an postalveolar fricative. However, the Isle of Man (in common with many other parts of these islands) was once occupied by Scandinavians, and it is likely that ‘Manx’ represents a metathesis of Norse ‘Mansk’. North Germanic has ‘sk’ where West Germanic has ‘s(c)h’; compare Norwegian ‘skip’ with English ‘ship’ and German ‘Schiff’.

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