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Volume 1, 1868
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Art. VII.—On the Celtic origin of the English Vowel sounds.

[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, September 15, 1868.]

The English pronunciation of the vowels is unique. The English language mainly consists of Saxon words, and yet our pronunciation of those words does not accord with that of our Teutonic kinsfolk. Evidently we did not get our vowel sounds from the German. I believe that we derived it from the Celt; and I arrive at this conclusion through the French mode of pronouncing Latin words.

I take the vowels in order, and observe—(1) That our vowel sound of

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a in “table” corresponds with the French mode of pronouncing the following words, which I give as specimens merely, e. g.:—

Latin. French.
Pater Père
Mater Mère
Frater Frère
Talis Tel
Qualis Quel
Pavor Peur
Labrum Lèvre
Castanea Chêne
Pagus Pays
Pacare Payer
Placere Plaire
Tacere Taire
Carus Cher
Lana Laine
Caballus Cheval
Caminus Cheminèe

(2.) The English sound of e in “we:”—

Latin. French.
Decem Dix
Bene Bien
Tene Tiens
Veni Viens
Pejor Pire
Melior Mieux
Deus Dieu
Vetus Vieux
Legere Lire
Senior Sire
Lepus Lièvre
Meus Mien

This head admits of a remarkable illustration from the lately discovered Codex Sinaiticus, which gives the original Greek of a Latin translation of a Letter of Barnabas, in which Latin version he is made to quote a text of Scripture, and to add the words “ut Filius Dei dicit.” It now is seen from the original Greek that the reader was probably a Celt who said as we do, “ut filios Dei decet”—which the copyist, being an Italian, understood to be dicit, and so he altered the word filios to filius.

(3.) Our sound of i in “bite,” is a modification of the French corruption of Latin words in i into oi; and I would premise on this point, that any one who has heard and watched the provincial pronunciation of oi in French, would detect a clear sound like our i in those words that have re following oi.

Latin. French.
Liger Loire
Niger Noir
Sinus Soin
Bibere Boire
Videre Voir
Mihi. Moi
Pyrum Poire
Frigidus Froid
Digitus Doigt
Minus Moins

Valcknaer says of various readings of MSS. “Maximam partem nihil esse quam pronuntiationem librariorum diversam, ai et e—oi et i promiscue pronuntiantium.”

(4.) I have no need to make any remarks on the vowel sound of o in “not:”—

Latin. French.
Bona. Bonne
Collum Col

The difference between English and Foreign pronunciation is slight.

(5.) Our sound of u is peculiar, as in the words “tune” “puny”, etc.,

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and is much nearer to the French than to the other continental languages, which sound it as “oo” in “fool.”

Latin. French.
Luna. Lune
Tu. Tu
Utor. User
Una. Une
Mula Mule
Natura Nature

I may, in passing, just illustrate this French pronunciation of Latin vowels from other Celtic races, and then explain how it seems to me that the French have now lost their Celtic pronunciation of vowel sounds while we have preserved it.

I would observe, then, that a Gaelic Highlander pronounces our a (in the word “table,”) soft, even in words where we use the broad a—e. g. he says, “fayther” for “father,” “rayther” for “rather;” also, “biled” for “boiled,” “pison” for “poison.” A Devonshire man and an Irishman will say “tiu” for “two” or “too,” and a Highlander will say “gude” for “good,” “bluid” for “blood.” I just throw out these hints for others to follow up, who are more competent than I am to do so; and I proceed now to answer the question, “How comes it that the French have lost their pronunciation of Latin vowels, which was once like ours? and why did they write it after the continental pronunciation of vowel sounds, and not after their own?” My answer to those questions is that the Celts or Gaels of Southern France were the people who pronounced the vowels as we do, as may be seen, for instance, in their corruption of the Town Dea (Augusta) in Dauphiny into Die. These were overrun and subjugated by the Kymry; and afterwards the Franks and Normans with the Kymry (who occupied the north side of France more particularly), imposed their pronunciation and orthography on the whole of France. The distinction of character and appearance between the Gaels and Kymry of France is well described in Merivale's “History of the Romans under the Empire,” vol i, chapter 5; and amongst other points he quotes from Tacitus the fact confirmed by Cæsar, that the Kymry “affected to have a German origin,” and imitated the Germans. This would agree with the theory I have propounded, that the Kymry as well as the Teutonic Franks and Scandinavian Normans introduced the present “continental” pronunciation of vowels into France, and controlled the orthography.

The Kymry, who followed the Celts into Britain seem to have been a different horde from the Belgic Kymry who “affected Germanism” in France. And their numbers would seem almost to have been smaller, for the Gaels held their own in Scotland, Ireland, and great parts of Wales.

With some diffidence, but on the whole with a reasonable expectation of approval, I offer my theory, that the English vowel sounds come through the Celtic portion of our mixed race, to the criticism of philologists; and I am rather encouraged in the view I have taken by the success which has attended the labours of such men as Dr. Guest and Mr. Matthew Arnold, in ascribing much more of our language and civilization than used to be conceded, to the Celtic inhabitants of Great Britain.