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