New DNA results on Scots ancestry reopen a century-old theory about a North African language connection.

The Scotland’s DNA project has found that no less than 1% of the Scots tested carry a genetic marker which originated in North Africa. The researchers say that the gene, common today amongst the Berber and Tuareg people, is estimated to have originated around 5,600 years ago.

And for over a hundred years there have been linguists who have maintained that there is a link between the Celtic languages and those of North Africa, such as Berber and Egyptian Coptic. The group saying this has been very much in a minority, but it’s contained some brilliant scholars.

The Celtic languages

The Celts of history were a people in central Europe, and little of their language has survived. But some of them migrated to the British Isles, and various languages that developed there have survived. The so-called Insular Celtic languages are six in number. There are the two Gaelic languages – Irish and Scots – along with Welsh, Manx, Cornish and Breton.

The Insular Celtic languages have some peculiar features, which few other languages share. Most linguists believe that these are survivals of an original parent Celtic language, a kind of linguistic analogy of what happens in genetics. The minority group argue that these features came not by inheritance but by environment. They say that the features are the imprints of an older language with which the original Celtic language was in contact.

The idea of a structure in one language transferring onto a neighbouring language may seem strange, but we have examples in English. For instance, in the dialect of the south-west of England familiar from many rural television serials, we may hear them say: “There be I a-singing.” It sounds a complicated way to indicate that I sing, but there is a good linguistic reason. To say it in Old Welsh would be Yr wyf i yn canu, which translates word-for-word as ‘There be I in singing’.

So the structure of the Old Welsh verb has carried over into the English dialect in a zone of contact between the Angles and Saxons, whose language become modern English, and the older Welsh-speakers.

That rather roundabout way of saying things is widespread in the English of people who lives in parts of Scotland, Ireland and Wales where the older Celtic languages were spoken. Instead of ‘I sing’, they might say ‘It is the singing that I was at’ – which indeed is a more interesting way of expressing it. The word to describe this kind of language pattern is periphrasis, meaning a roundabout way of speaking.

Although the periphrastic structure is more obvious in the Celtic regions, it in fact runs through all of English. We can see this by comparing English with Latin. If I love today in Latin, it is amo. If I love tomorrow it is amabo, and if loved last week, the word is amabam. To change the tense from present to future or past, we alter the word-ending – we inflect the verb. In English we do some inflection, as when we go from ‘I love’ to ‘I loved’. But for the rest of the time we take a roundabout approach, to bring in additional words and say ‘I will love’, ‘I did love’.

Where does it come from?

How did we start doing this? The suggestion is that it was through contact with the Celtic languages, so that their habits of periphrasis imprinted themselves on English. And how did the Celtic languages acquire the habit? Again, say the linguists, we must look to a contact with an older language.

These linguists, though much in a minority, were expert in their field. Amongst them was Heinrich Wagner, Professor of Celtic at Queen’s University Belfast. Wagner, born in Switzerland and Professor of Germanic at first Utrecht and then Basle, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Celtic languages. He worked for more than twenty years on the four-volume Linguistic Atlas and Survey of Irish Dialects, published 1958-64 and still the standard work today.

As the work took shape, he noticed how dialects could form an imprint on separate neighbours. “I found that each major dialect and each minor subdialect of Gaelic is dependent on its geographical position, all the dialects forming a chain in which two neighbouring dialects always have certain features in common not shared by more distant dialects.”

While working on it he learned that there were still some very old people in the Isle of Man speaking the old Manx language which had been thought to be defunct, so he went there to study it. He noted the periphrastic forms. Instead of ‘I have not seen him’, the Manx phrase was ‘I am not after seeing him’.

He had previously studied Basque, and noted certain similarities in structure. “Although this language is not related to Celtic, its verbal system as such shows a striking similarity to that of Manx.”

Wagner went on to Wales, to learn spoken Welsh from an old woman in Anglesey who could neither speak nor understand English, and again he noted particular periphrastic forms.

Seeking the origins

Where did the periphrastic way of speaking come from? Heinrich Wagner looked at various languages, and found that periphrasis, rare or absent in most languages, is prominent in North Africa. The Egyptian verb had developed in this way, and the medieval language of the Christian Copts showed it prominently. To say ‘he killed the man’ in Coptic is ‘did-he-killing-of-man’. He then noted that the ancient Semitic languages, such as Classical Arabic or ancient Akkadian in Mesopotamia, did not have periphrasis – but that the Cushite languages of Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan did.

So a remarkable picture built up, of the spreading of periphrastic forms from one language to another through geographical contact. The spread progresses from the Cushite languages to the North African ones. It then goes from the North African languages to the Basques and to the Insular Celtic languages. And from the Insular Celtic languages it moves to the English language itself.

And how could there have been geographical contact between North Africans, Basques and Celts? Clearly by sea, with the Berbers being expert sailors who in Neolithic times reached the Canary Islands. The Basques were also known for their seafaring and shipbuilding, and so contact between the two was very likely. In medieval times, the Basques used to sail north to the Icelandic fishing grounds, and a kind of mixed language developed between them and the Icelanders, enabling the speakers of two very distinct languages to communicate.

The Western sea-lane from the Mediterranean northward to the Irish Sea and the Minch thus can be seen as a zone of contact between people and languages. The news that a genetic element from North Africa has also survived suggests that the amount of sailing and trading in the Neolithic was considerable, and that there was also some settlement by North African traders.

Meanwhile Wagner’s work continues to fade on the margins of linguistics. He died in 1988 and his whole approach has been regarded as flawed by others in the field. He built on the work of several predecessors, including Sir John Morris Jones, who wrote some of the standard works on the Welsh language. Could the latest DNA result lead to a long overdue revival of interest in their work?