Languages and Material Culture

The distribution of material culture, even when represented by inscriptions in a given language does not guarantee the presence of a living spoken vernacular, the use of Latin for monumental purposes being an obvious example where the language of the vernacular differs from language in a specific literary context.

An initial search for methodologies that map the extent of material culture against language yielded no results, so on this basis the following quote would appear highly questionable if not the antithesis:

“It is generally agreed that language and culture are closely related” (Anonymous (Lexiophiles), 2010)

However, taking the counter and equally extreme position that there is no correlation between language and material culture as proposed by Simon James and John Collis seems absurd, particularly if used to embark on wholesale deconstruction of every notion of culture, for Celts or any other ethnographic group. The truth must lie somewhere between these two hopeless and unhelpful positions!

Wagner (2015) makes the argument that material culture a priori is a poor determinant of identity, which seems a more reasonable position given that the relationship between Celtic languages and Hallstatt or La Tène type designs is unclear at best, and most likely misleading.

Recently there has been significant interest in the link between language and the introduction of agriculture and trade. Notably, Cunliffe & Koch (2010, pp.1-8) have suggested elements of Celtic culture advancing from West to East along Atlantic trade routes rather than vice-versa, and a linguistic tradition spreading from the coast of Iberia, Northeast across Europe. However, these ideas are still very much open challenge (Sluis, 2014).

In summary, there may be several mechanisms for the dispersion and/or evolution of proto-Celtic and Brittonic, some involving material culture, others not. These processes operated over long distances and over a long period, and although the sequence and pace of change is unclear, it seems likely some form of proto-Celtic language is associated with early settlement.

The question of archaeological finds within a particular linguistic situation should remain an open one and more work with crossover studies in archaeology and linguistics. There is also the specific question of C10 Cornwall and the ‘Cornishness’ of settlements in Northeast Cornwall (Weatherhill, 2005, p.9), and at some point it may be possible to answer the question of whether Cornish place names were either:

  • Amended to a more anglicised form whilst leaving aspects of names in tact, or
  • Replaced altogether leaving no trace of previous names (Padel, 1985, xiii).

A solution to the co-origin of proto-Celtic peoples and proto-Celtic languages does substantively influence the validity of this study since equivalent material finds from a lengthy period in pre-history along the Atlantic Arc implies stability of settlement by the population, and the similarity of Cornish to other Brittonic languages and also to Gaulish locates the origin of the Cornish language in Northwest Europe, if not Britain far back in prehistory.

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