Strangers in their own land

Wandering among Words 4: Strangers

What links a popular American TV series set in the 1930s, the recent UK referendum, and the End of the World? There will be a bit of wandering in this post while I follow words migrating around Europe (and further afield), all in an attempt to demonstrate those links. But first, I shall start at the end. Land’s End in fact.


Several of the European peninsulas that jut out into the Atlantic, looking to the west, have a name that for landlubbers suggests ‘thus far and no further’. Land’s End in Cornwall is well known, but there is also Cape Finisterre in Galicia, in the northwest corner of Spain: to Galicians Cabo Finisterre is Cabo Fisterra, both terms derived — like the French Finistère in Brittany — from Latin finis terrae.

In Breton, however, Finistère is Penn-ar-Bed which translates as the End of the World; while in Cornwall Land’s End is Penn an Wlas (or Pedn an Wlas, depending on which system of Cornish is preferred).

You may realise that all of these ends-of-the-world are in parts of western Europe that retain Celtic languages and/or traditions, from Galicia to Cornwall via Brittany. But I mustn’t forget Wales, which also has its Land’s End: Penfro, pronounced Penvro. Also translating as End of the Land, Penfro became Pembroke in English, even though the Norman town of that name was in fact founded away from any headland. Bro in Welsh (as well as Breton and Cornish) can mean more than just ‘land’ — it can refer to an area or region, even a country — so Penfro, made up of pen (‘end’ or ‘head’ or ‘chief’) and bro (the ‘b’ has mutated to ‘f’), could simply mean headland as well as Land’s End, or perhaps even Chief Region.

And while we’re talking about Wales, let’s just consider a few curiosities. First Wales is the name given to the country by English speakers, not by the inhabitants themselves.* To understand why we have to backtrack several centuries, to a loose confederation of Continental Iron Age Celtic tribes known as the Volcae. Whatever the origin of their tribal name — possibly named after a tutelary hawk or wolf totem — neighbouring Germanic tribes referred to individuals as something like Walhaz, implying that such a person was a foreigner, a stranger, someone who spoke differently (usually a Celtic or Romance language).

From this postulated Proto-Germanic Walhaz derives a great many labels denoting difference. Romance speakers in Switzerland are described as welsch: French speakers in Belgian Wallonia are called Walloons by Dutch speakers; and the area between the Carpathians and the Danube in Romania is called Wallachia, where Romance-speaking Romanians are referred to as Vlachs on account of their speaking Romanian. Even the term Gaul used of Roman Gallia is of a different derivation: ultimately the word Gaul originates from something akin to Walhaland (“land of the foreigners, the Walha“).

And so we come to Wales. Strangely, this is a relatively recent country in that it was only really defined in the late medieval period. But its name betrays that it is ‘land inhabited by the Wealas. We must forget the Victorian notion of of waves of immigrant Angles and Jutes and Saxons in the Dark Ages ethnically cleansing or pushing the native Britons ever westward (though no doubt some of this did go on). Much of the language of culture and traditions of the inhabitants of post-Roman lowland Britain — who incidentally included a great many incomers from continental Europe and even North Africa — will doubtless have migrated towards the Atlantic margins but we know from DNA studies, placenames, archaeology and even folklore that much remained in what became England, the ‘land of the Angles’.

But while the Brythonic-speakers of what would become Cumbria, Wales and Cornwall long retained their languages, in the English lowlands enclaves of such speakers were referred to as Wælisc — foreigners, strangers in their own land. Many such enclaves were called Weala-tun, meaning a settlement of the foreigners; while other etymologies can be involved, many Waltons up and down Britain, from Yorkshire to Surrey, from Essex to Somerset and even in Pembrokeshire appear to indicate a village inhabited by non-English speakers. Curiously, the notion of a small, relatively isolated but self-sufficient community was to be echoed by the long-running US television series The Waltons, based around a fictional family of that name in 1930s Virginia.

The Wælisc were, as is the manner of such things, regarded as ‘other’ and often treated badly. They were often relegated to the status of serfs and even enslaved; their minority status in an island where Old English became the majority language often led to demonization; even the word used to describe reneging on a gambling debt — ‘to welsh’ — betrays a long-lasting prejudice against both Welsh speakers and those native to the modern country.

And so we come to xenophobia – that irrational fear of what is seen as an out-group that has somehow been given a false legitimacy by the recent ill-advised EU referendum. Ironically, given that Greek xenos means ‘friend’ as well as ‘stranger’, the perceived outsider in our midst is now regarded not just as suspect or distasteful but even a potential threat. While we’ve evolved to notice difference as a matter of survival that is balanced by natural curiosity of things that are new. It’s often just conditioning that predisposes us to be forever putting up barriers rather than welcoming fellow humans in.

Meanwhile the Land’s End that is Pembrokeshire is welcoming … to paying tourists at least. That doesn’t always stop the peninsula being a little insular where diversity is concerned. Little England beyond Wales (so called because of wholesale English settlement in the south of the county in the Middle Ages) sometimes exhibits a Little Englander mentality when it could — should — be outward looking. (I should know, having lived there several years.) But then, can’t we say that about almost anywhere? Nowhere is immune to the paradox that is the human mind. Let’s hope that the fear of the stranger as we witness daily in the news doesn’t bring us closer to the real End of the World.

* A discussion on Wales — Cymru — I shall save for another post

11 thoughts on “Strangers in their own land

  1. earthbalm

    Very interesting post Chris. It’s given me food for thought. I have lots of opinions on the subject but none well enough formed to contribute. My experience as a Welsh person living in the UK is that the depth of their assumptions and attitudes is simply not known by most people east or west of the border (and I include myself in that number). Your experience living in Wales would seem akin to my experience when I lived in England. I think the island is small enough for all of us to consider ourselves ‘one’.


    1. Thanks, Dale. I agree with those who say that, rather than black or white, yellow or whatever, there is scientifically only one race — the human race — and that we all belong to it. (Ethnicity is not the same thing, and is vastly more complex than those who’d frame it in simple prejudicial terms would prefer it.) Coming from a complicated heritage myself I abhor simplistic attempts to reduce intrinsic worth according to one’s skin colour, name, religion, language, place of birth or parentage.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I must say that during my fairly brief excursions round the UK I found the Welsh the least friendly and approachable from the tip of Cornwall to the top of Scotland and Skye.

    Science is a fool when it says there is only one human race. It is like saying there is only one breed of dog.

    It is, unfortunately, a fact that those who share a characteristic appearance often also share customs, religions or mindsets which are alien to those predominantly found in those of another appearance. Competition and conflict are part of the evolutionary drive towards seeking to survive by being the fittest, so the intellectual decision to treat all people equally is in conflict with a natural tendency not to..

    Globalization of industries etc does happen to a degree; globalization of societies is a myth because due to economics, preference or customs the ‘strangers’ form their own pockets when transplanted. Look, for example, at people of British origin now living in places like Spain, Portugal, or France, who form their own circles and make no attempt to learn the language of the country they now call home.


    1. I’m sorry if you found the Welsh unfriendly, but I suppose it depends where you visited: and I’ve found some, shall we say, indifferent welcomes as well as genuine friendliness in the time I’ve lived here.

      As for the question of race, I have to profoundly disagree with you on that. True, you have different breeds of dog but you can’t have interbreeding between cat and dog. ‘Race’ is a word which, meaning a root, has been misapplied to people from different ethnicities as though they shouldn’t procreate or that one is superior to another — both of which stances I hope you don’t hold.

      Of the other points you bring up, I dispute that physical characteristics predispose individuals to be and act alien when in a different culture: this in effect damns individuals by apparent association. As for ‘survival of the fittest’ in economics, this is a theory of Social Darwinism which draws a false analogy: this doesn’t represent an evolutionary drive, it’s just sheer greed or lust for power, which serves no evolutionary purpose whatsoever, its ultimate end result being the impoverishment of humanity.


      1. A limited stay in Wales, but by comparison with the people met in other parts of the country the local residents did not come across well.

        Procreation is peripheral to the question of race differences or superiority. Many animals have the ability to do so with other species, but seldom choose to. In humans such ‘interbreeding’ often involves sacrifices by one or the other or both in having to adapt to a different lifestyle and values.

        Hysterical fads regarding racism and feminism have now gone to the extent of trying to deny fundamental differences between the average characteristics, abilities and inclinations of the respective groups. These exist, and whether they denote superiority or inferiority purely depends on the subjective value judgment placed on that particular aspect. In sport it is accepted that on a physical level women cannot compete with men on equal terms. Differences do go beyond the physical, though. Similarly, races show individual strengths and weaknesses in stature and abilities, taken on average.

        What drives the greed or lust for power — in individuals or groups — if not Darwinian urges? Of course it serves a purpose, in having the potential to make that individual or group stronger and more likely to survive.


        1. I don’t want to prolong this discussion, nor do I disagree with most of your points, but if I don’t make a response here I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree on some fundamentals.

          First is an apparent confusion (a perception in my mind only perhaps) between ‘race’ and ‘species’ in this discussion. Biologically speaking species are groupings of organisms that can mate and produce offspring. On the other hand race classifies humans on the basis of perceived anatomical, physical, ethnic, cultural, and geographical differences; the fact that they can mate and produce offspring means they all belong to the one species, homo sapiens.

          But I’m sure you know all this. And I have no problem with your analysis that certain fundamental differences can and do exist regarding average characteristics, abilities and inclinations of the respective groups you mention (‘average’ being the operative word here). Again I take issue though with the use of ‘race’ which — like that other term commonly used these days, ethnicity — is a social construct. Worse than ‘race’ being a social construct, however, is its employment as a hierarchical rule-of-thumb. You put it well when you write, “whether they [differences] denote superiority or inferiority purely depends on the subjective value judgment placed on that particular aspect”; and that is the nub of it all, the ‘subjective value judgment placed’, which has led to all kind of injustice over many years, as history tells us.

          As far as your last paragraph goes, I’d urge you to look up any detailed examination of Social Darwinism which might indicate how biological evolution as described by Darwin was applied in the late 19th century to social and political theories on the basis of a false analogy. I wonder how much greed and a lust for power drives individual organisms other than humans to try to take over the world?

          And if I haven’t persuaded you in any manner, Col, we shall have indeed have to agree to disagree!


          1. A stimulating exchange, anyway.
            I still doubt that the analogy used there was a false one – it has become fashionable to dismiss it as such to fit in with some rather woolly modern ideas. However, all drives of human beings are shared by other organisms in various stages of sophistication, and there are frequent examples in the realms of nature of creatures overdoing the drive for dominance —particularly microbiological. Anyway.

            Liked by 1 person

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