Sunday, 10 May
Books as far as we know don’t suffer from giddiness. But if they did, the book I’m reading or trying to read “Wales and the Britons 350-1064” by T.M. Charles Edwards would be at risk. I’ve put it back on the shelf a number of times, taken it down again and then put it back again, full of admiration for the book but defeated by the dense text on the effect on Brythonic, the British Celtic language, of Latin and French, and the later emergence of Welsh, Cornish and the Celtic languages or dialects of Cumbria and Strathclyde. Charles-Edwards deals at length with the impact of Latin on the stress patterns of Brythonic and how, among other sound changes, lenition, the feature of the Celtic languages where the initial consonant of a word changes in certain situations (softens from, for example, a plosive to a fricative sound). But he doesn’t just do this. He makes this analysis in the light of a very broad sweep of the development of the post-Latin languages in the various European countries so that Pietro in Italian and Pedro in Spanish also attract his attention. And he aims further to use these insights to understand the large quantity of inscriptions in early Welsh that throw light on Britain in this period (Dark Age is something of a misnomer as it’s not completely black but a twilight and then perhaps a kind of dawn with deep shadows and uncertain figures flitting around in a way that is hard to interpret and ambiguous but none the less fascinating).
The Celtic languages, language development in Britain and the transition from Latin are all subjects that greatly appeal to me. I want to learn more and value this book. But unfortunately, while my brain is a reasonably congenial partner to work with as far as general knowledge of European languages is concerned, it is a basket case when it comes to pronunciation. Despite having studied French for 63 years, I still mishandle quite basic things. Not to mention Swedish which I’ve mouth mauled for 47 years; I am still restrictive about making concessions to local ideas about how things should be pronounced and stressed.
When I read a book like Charles-Edwards and he gets deep into thin Ts, fricatives and voiceless single stops, I am easily overwhelmed. After a while, the book goes back on the shelf and I turn to one of my other projects and start to read “Investment Management in the UK 2018-2019” or look at my Dorset churches or my St Jerome project. But it doesn’t feel good. Charles-Edwards book is a mountain blocking my way and every time I think about the early history of the British language, there will be the mountain oppressively towering over me .
I’m affected too by the British Library’s attempts to jolly along its readers. I opened a recent message and there was an invite to a virtual party to celebrate the “birthday” (anniversary of date of birth in normal mortal speak) of “Mary Wollstonecraft” with a jolly jingle. She’s a person I admire but I’m put off by the popularising birthday song and how I imagine the state of mind of its propagators. I don’t investigate it properly and am probably being unfair or old or both (emotionally I would find it satisfying if they were prosecuted for cultural vandalism…). I long for the more serious approach to academic matters of my younger days when the mountain was there to be arduously climbed and not broken down into small gaily-coloured clamber-friendly rocks.
And bearing this in mind, I cannot give up on my Celtic opus. When things get difficult that’s when they become interesting, it’s a signal that you are approaching the borders of what you know and should be an encouragement to redoubled effort as beyond is the potential for change and development.
I have to tackle the book but preferably without it completely dominating my life for the next five years.
Before resuming reading it, I shall learn the phonetic alphabet and the terminology for where sounds are made in the mouth which I only have an incomplete command of so that I don’t get distracted by terminology.
I’m also going to check through his sources and where they might be found. Uppsala is an excellent place to be for Celtic Studies as it’s a major academic centre in Sweden and the libraries are well equipped in this field.
Perhaps eventually either on the net or through the university I’ll find someone who can discuss some aspects of the book with me, whom I can discuss with when I get stuck.
This process has anyway helped me in one respect. I am extremely promiscuous (or perhaps butterfly romantic would be a more pleasant word) when it comes to languages; I fall in love at the drop of a morpheme. Scots Gaelic, Provencal, Manx, Cornish, the innumerable dialects in the French-Italian border areas and Breton have all attracted my attention without it leading to any serious relationship. My progress with the Celtic languages has been impeded by my inability to decide which one to focus on. But I’ve now decided that it has to be a Celtic language in the P-group (Welsh, Breton, Cornish) to start with and not the Q-group (Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx) as the P-group is closer to/derives from Brythonic. Cornish is too fragmentary and Breton complicated by the relationship to French and less easily available to me, so I think it has to be Welsh (despite the romance of Scots Gaelic and Irish (I have Irish ancestors) pulling at the strings of my heart (or the tangled cords of my brain…).
This should keep me busy at least until Day 500 of the Corona crisis.