Anarcheologos

The Creative Exploration of Language

Tag Archives: Celtic

Raven=Crow

At first glance, the words raven and crow don’t appear to have anything in common, despite describing closely related types of birds.  I started looking into them because I encountered two different translations of the Welsh name Brân, as in the legendary King of Britain, Brân the Blessed.  Some sources translated Brân as “raven” and others as “crow.”  Given that they are technically two different birds, I thought this was strange.  We distinguish between them in English, is that not the case in other languages?

I decided to investigate the Germanic and Romance language families, as well as Welsh.  For good measure, I also looked into Greek because I was interested to see how it related to the others.  Below is a list of what I found:

  • Raven / Crow– English
  • Rabe / Krähe– German
  • Raaf / Kraai– Dutch and Afrikaans
  • Ravn / Kråke– Norwegian and Danish
  • Korp / Kråka– Swedish
  • Hrafn / Krár– Icelandic
  • Cuervo / Cuervo– Spanish
  • Corbeau / Corbeau– French
  • Corvo / Corvo– Italian
  • Cigfran / Brân– Welsh
  • Koráki / Koráki– Greek

A few things jump out at me about this list:

  • The Germanic languages distinguish between the two types of birds but the Romance languages and Greek do not.
  • The Germanic and Romance words are very different, with the exception of korp for “raven” in Swedish.  This is clearly a loanword.
  • Welsh also distinguishes between the birds, but the relationship of these words to the Germanic and Romance terms is a bit opaque.
  • Icelandic, being the most conservative (i.e., being the least changed from its “ancestor” language, in this case Old Norse) seems to hold the key to unlocking the connection.

What I noticed about Icelandic is the seemingly vestigial “h” on the front of hrafn.  This “h before r” pattern comes from Old Norse and may be a feature of Proto-Germanic, since it existed in Old English as well, where the word was hræfn.  While other Scandinavian languages dropped the “h” where it proceeded “r” as they evolved, Icelandic did not.  This was the clue I needed to get to the bottom of the connection between raven and crow.

The reason why the “h” is important is that a shift known as Grimm’s Law occurred over time where the initial “k” sound found in most branches of the Indo-European language became an “h” in the Germanic languages.  To give a relatively well known example of this, the “h” sound at the beginning of the English word hundred remained a hard “k” sound at the beginning of its Latin counterpart, centum, and both words can be traced back to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *kemtom.

So, rather than some sort of strange outlier, the “h” at the beginning of the Icelandic word hrafn is an indicator of a “k” sound that has been lost over time.  If one adds the “k” to the beginning of the Germanic words (again, with the exception of Swedish), one ends up with a consonant root of “k-r,” often followed by “v/w/f/b,” which maps very well to examples from both the Germanic and Romance language families, as well as to Greek.  It is not hard to imagine (k)ravencorvo and koráki coming from the same ancestral PIE word.  One can even see, with a bit of squinting, the “k-r+v/w/f/b” root poking through the Welsh word cigfran and, with a bit more squinting, brân.  Taking the investigation of the etymological root down to the lowest level, I eventually got to the PIE root *ker– which denotes something that is “horned.”  There are many loan words from Latin and French, such as corner and cornucopia that demonstrate this, not to mention Cornwall and the horned god of Celtic myth, Cernunnos.

The implication here is that, at one time, the raven and the crow were referred to by a single word, but that for some reason, speakers of the Germanic and Celtic languages began distinguishing between them, while speakers of Latin (ancestor of the Romance languages) and Greek did not.  The reason why they did this is not obvious, but I am tempted by the idea that it was because this particular bird had a greater significance in Germanic and Celtic cultural spheres as compared to other areas.

After doing some research on the topic, I do think this “cultural” explanation may in fact have something to do with it.  While ravens and crows have figured as psychopomps associated with war, death, the otherworld and prophecy in a variety of cultures around the world, it is notable that in some cultures their role exceeds that of helper and they become equated in some sense with particular gods.

For example, in Greek mythology, Apollo uses ravens as messengers.  In Norse mythology, Odin also has ravens, Huginn and Muninn, usually translated as “thought” and “memory,” who fly around the world on a daily basis and come back to alight on his shoulders and tell him what they have seen.  The messenger theme found in Greek mythology is clearly present in the Norse myth, but Odin’s connection with his ravens goes much further; they appear to be extensions of his mind.  The connection is so strong, in fact, that one of his nicknames is hrafnagud, or “ravengoð.”

Similarly, in Irish mythology, the goddesses Badb, Morrigan and Macha turn themselves into crows and, as noted above, Brân the Blessed’s name literally means “crow.”

In the end, I’m left with the intriguing notion that the Germanic and Celtic peoples, as distinct from their neighbors to the south, developed more elaborate ways of talking about these black birds because they figured heavily in their respective mythologies in connection with gods.  Further, it appears that the importance of ravens/crows developed within the Germanic and Celtic cultural contexts, as opposed to Indo-European, since only the Germanic and Celtic languages distinguish between them.

MacGowan, Son (Mac) of the Smith (Go-w/bh/v-an)

Recently I was reading a book by Sir Alex Ferguson, the now retired manager of Manchester United football club, in which I learned that he grew up in an area of Glasgow called Govan.  This name gave me pause.  I know, largely based on researching the roots of my own family, that the west and northwest of Scotland are the areas that were conquered by Irish invaders in the 6th century.  Gaelic language influence is therefore concentrated in these areas of the country.

Considering the likely Gaelic roots of Govan, I made the connection to the last name of one of my favorite singers, Shane MacGowan.  MacGowan was born in England to Irish parents and lived part of his childhood in Ireland, in County Tipperary.  Surely Govan and Gowan come from the same root?  And, assuming they do, what does it mean?

It didn’t take long to find out.  As it turns out, Gowan is derived from the Gaelic word for “smith”.  Examples from modern Celtic languages include gabha in Irish and gofaint in Welsh.  So, the last name MacGowan is occupational in nature (like the English last names Taylor, Smith, Hooper, etc.) and means “Son of the Smith”.

The core element of the Celtic words appears to be gab- or gob-, which correlates with the Indo-European concept of a “lump” or a “piece”.  Example cognates that come to mind here are gabalas in Lithuanian and gabals in Latvian.   There is even a connection with Slavic languages in that the word for “smith” begins with a kow/v– root, with kowal in Polish and kovac in Slovak being prime examples.

The Germanic language family stands in contrast to its cousins, in that it employs a totally different root.  The English word smith is closely cognate with the German schmitt, Dutch smid, Swedish smed, etc.  All of these are derived from the verb “to smite”.  I find this contrast between the concepts underlying the word in each language family to be fascinating.  The focus in the Celtic languages is the material that is being worked, while the Germanic word derives from the action being taken.

 

 

From Llyfr to Livre to Leaf

I recall reading some years ago that the Celtic languages are more closely related to Latin and its daughter languages than they are to the Germanic languages.  This may seem at first glance to be a bit counterintuitive, given the fact that the living Celtic languages are clustered in Northwestern Europe and fairly well surrounded (with the exception of Breton) by English.

However, in ancient times the Celtic peoples were close neighbors of the Romans.  The history of Rome is littered with wars against the Celtic peoples to their north and west and it was largely the conquest of the Celtic tribes in places like modern day France that brought the Romans into contact with the Germanic peoples further north.

I recently embarked on an intensive study of Celtic history and myth.  During my reading I came across a number of words that caught my interest for various reasons.  The one that sticks with me the most is the Welsh word for book, llyfr.  When I first encountered this word I immediately noticed its similarity to the French word for book, livre, but for some reason, I did not pursue the line of inquiry any further.

A few months later, I happened to stumble across the Irish equivalent, leabhar (pronounced, I am assured by a native Irish speaker, like “lao-wer”) and fireworks went off in my brain.  I connected the Welsh, French and Irish words to the Spanish word for book, libro, and derivative forms such as the English library, which solidified the word in my mind.

When I say the “word” I don’t mean any of the words I have mentioned above, but rather the triliteral root of l-b/v/f-r.  The different permutations of this “word” show the interrelatedness of and gradual transitions between different languages within the Indo-European language family and serve to drive home the point that the idea that languages are related is a literal, rather than a figurative, concept.

Ultimately, all of these words stem from the Indo-European root of leup- / leub- / leubh-, which is generally found in words having to do with things that are loose (such as lips), things that are peeled off (such as the bark of a tree or a leaf).

It gives me great joy to know that this primeval meaning, this base connection to the idea of something that is loose, a slice of something more substantial, has been carried through to modern times in such a consistent way in a series of related languages.