Prejudice and Psychology in Language

Head Words Heart Words

One of the large differences in Northerners versus European peoples who came under more influence by the Mediterranean Empires is in the way that they view people by head or by body. The Northerners thought that the spirit resided in the head. They engaged in head-hunting and often preserved the heads of their ancestors. The Mediterranean peoples thought that the spirit resided in the heart. A subtle psychology and prejudice persisted between them with the North looking upon the Southerners as disrespectful to the individual and the South looking the Northerners as undisciplined, disorganized and not able to act together for a common cause. Most of this is due to political organization, but is reflected in language. Let us take a different look.

Slave Words

Let us look at the three old languages for which we have record and know existed prior to their modern groups. A word will exist in its language with cognates, or words associated with it that bring up a psychological space around the word. Sometimes the cognates translate into the new language as a different sounding word. It is hard to see in modern English the relationship between "dread" "threat" and "grief" but the words are closer in sound in Anglo-Saxon and also exist close in sound in other Germanic languages like old Norse. In Celtic, you get the word for anger (rage), convict, and hard in the same mental space. Both these languages reflect a clear reaction to enslavement as well as the consequences of slavery in those lands, which involved being conquered and buying your way out, or convicted and facing fines or slavery. The word "slave" is merely a French word that became popular because so many slaves were from conquered Slavic countries, leaving us with a bad taste for anything "Slavic."

But look at the Roman words for slavery. Suddenly, you see a large jump from the slavery of the north, which was a temporary condition met with rage and grief, to a class distinction where slavery was seen to be a valuable state, that now has heroic connotations and is praised for being something desirable. What is remarkable is that the Greek words do not end up affecting any of the languages of Europe, but you see them come through in obscure words like "doula" (assisitant to a midwife) and "au pair" (nanny.) It is more likely that "au pair" is related to the words for "parent."

Body Words

Look at the above picture. The top set of words has a number of cognates. The words of the Celtic list are also related to Latin and German words, but I wanted you to see that the word for hand is closely related to the word for wash. In the Celtic group, the hands seem to be outspread, soothing. The Roman word for hand is identical to the word for a group of soldiers or a band of men. This leads to all kinds of words related to hands managing and directing. The German hand word lends itself to cognates of fitness, for the word "handsome" simply means fitting, or right fit. I wanted to open up the world of the way in which language leads to odd spaces that are often loaded. It's tempting to draw conclusions from the three mind sets that created these word groups. It's easy to fit the stereotypes with the word groups: Celts vain, Romans militant, and Germans utility oriented.

However, sometimes words go astray. There are marvelous lists you can construct with body motions tied to abstractions or emotions. But I put in these three words for "hold" (meaning to grasp with the hands) and you see them running off in different directions. The Celt word is associated with sewing, but also implies an animal grabbing or gripping with its mouth. The Roman word goes into words we associate with handiness, but the Anglo-Saxon word reverts to stronghold or holdfast, in that you have a hold (hole) in the ground for security, so "hold" is secure, not a hand word at all! There is another Germanic word "grab" which has more of the Celtic connotations. What is interesting here is that you begin to suspect that the Latins being "hand" people may be part of the psychology behind these words. I don't have time here to explore this in depth, but it would make an interesting book.


One of my first papers was titled, "Anglo-Saxon Dysphemisms and the Norman Conquest." A dysphemism is a word that was once praise or neutral and has become slander or unflattering. When a race is conquered, usually the push is for the children of the conquerors to learn the new language to succeed under the new rule. What has happened in English, a language that reflects three conquests, is that the old words were not abandoned but turned into lower caste words, insulting when used on upper caste people. A thief was cunning, but a noble was intelligent. A hag was a witch, but a dame was venerable. And so on. As I say later, the last three words here are Celtic.

   Celtic Words

After spending twenty years studying Celtic languages, including Proto-Celtic, I realized another phenomenon similar to dysphemisms. Usually in language, we say that a word came from a root among the same people, or from a people living nearby or in the same area. For words that are Irish, like "mosey" English dictionaries often will cite the word as slang or "origin unknown." It is quite impossible to go back in time and see which people borrowed which words or whether the word came from a common ancestor. Having said that, the politics of the British Isles made it difficult for lexicographers to have access to languages that preceded Anglo-Saxon or were extant nearby. These people had been at war for a thousand years and were still seething on both sides. This leads the people compiling the English dictionaries to some very strange behaviors. Look at the word lists above. It seems strange that the word "rip" would be borrowed from the Flemish (who got it from the Celts) rather than assimilated into English from people who lived in the same territory as the Anglo-Saxons. The word "freckle" is said to be Norse, but my guess is that the Norse borrowed it from the Celts (with their women) because their word is similar for speckle, which in modern Irish is "breac" obviously of the same root. But why would the English dictionary root the word to sparkle? Until it is demonstrated by time travel that the English, French, Flemish and Norse never borrowed any words from the Celts, it seems strange that the entire 100,000 word dictionary I have has maybe ten words of Irish origin! Modern DNA sampling has tried to prove to the English that they are a Celtic nation, much to their dismay, mixed with a healthy dose of Norse and Anglo Saxon and Danish. It's time to put aside the old hatreds and relook at the linguistics.

Another psychological effect of language is the mindset that it produces. It is only when a person becomes proficient in a language that they begin to "feel" the mindset that it produces. Subtle things like possessives, verb noun order, affirmatives and questions make changes in the way someone looks at the world. For years, Britain pushed many of her undesirables into the Colonies. In the United States, the Appalachian South has been home to many Irish, so many in fact that the dialect there is similar to Hiberno English. "Phrases like "fixin to mosey along" or "shore nuf" are Irish, not some poorly spoken English. In the Celtic languages possessives do not occur. A thing (including body parts) are "at you" meaning that they are within your sphere of influence. This is a holdover of a nomadic people who were also communal. They were extremely territorial, but possession was too constraining. They also do not answer anything directly, appearing to Germanic peoples to be evasive and unable to pin down to an answer. "shore nuf" is a way for a Celtic speaker to say the English phrase, but the answer is also congruent with Celtic grammar in that if you want to answer in the affirmative, you repeat the question, sometimes with emphasis. "Are you going there?" is answered with "that be I am going, sure enough" shortened to "that be it," or "shore 'nuf" both of which don't answer the question in a Germanic way, and seem to be "weasely, lazy, or beligerent." This kind of thing happens all over the world where Germanic speakers encounter those whose language is not direct enough. Anglo-Saxon is a brute force language with little "flowery" language. It is easy to praise something in Anglo-Saxon but only using language that is down-to-earth and very here and now. The Celtic languages are quite the opposite, dreamy, full of allusion and secret meanings. In Anglo-Saxon you would say, "he was a champion, tall and strong, killing many enemies." In Celtic you would say, "he ran like the horse and leapt like the salmon, with clear eye and flowing hair, his voice sang out as a river floods the rocky plain, taking with its song, the stones to the sea." Different people! The mix is English, a language that is businesslike, but in its spare time writes secret poetry.

© 2018, A.R. Stone

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