Anarcheologos

The Creative Exploration of Language

Tag Archives: Welsh

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.

 

 

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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.