Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Thursday 23/09/2004Linguistics is a funny business. Once upon a time, our sceptred isle was stuffed full of Celts all nattering away in Celtic.

Thursday 23/09/2004
Linguistics is a funny business. Once upon a time, our sceptred isle was stuffed full of Celts all nattering away in Celtic. Reasonable enough, you'd think, but our mustachio'd forefathers weren't content to leave it at that. Awkward lot, the Celts.

The details are unclear -- presumably things went wrong at a party -- but at some point the language diverged into two kinds, P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. The P-Celtic was spoken by the Welsh, the Cornish and a sprinkling of others - after an order was enacted to expel a large number of vowels from those lands -- while Q-Celtic turned into Gaelic and gave us such useful words as whisky, more whisky, and my god, Hamish, I've got a hangover the size of the Isle of Skye (*).

Now, a spot of linguistic diversity is all very well but this one was particularly poorly thought-out. P-Celtic is so called because it has a P but no Q, and vice-versa. However, during the Great Letter Expulsion, the P-Celts also discarded K. This, alas, is proof that whatever the local mages, seers and priests were good at, prophesy and foresight were not in their core competencies. Forget ideas of Merlin peering keen-eyed into the future: neither he nor any of his compatriots spotted the eventual rise of Linux. And even if they did -- a complete lack of evidence rarely being a hindrance in Celtic studies -- they utterly missed the creation of that popular desktop environment, KDE, and the host of applications that use it, many of which have names beginning with K.

None of this would have mattered had Welsh gone the way of most things Celtic and disappeared quietly into history. But no, it hung on in there. Fast forward a couple of thousand years, and not only is the language alive but it's prospering under the influence of that post-colonial guilt trip about minor languages. And Welsh speakers, not unreasonably, would like to freely compute.

Fortunately, a compromise has been struck. An online translation project called Gyfieithu, which itself means to translate, has gracefully elided G with K, thus rendering itself Kyfieithu and letting everyone get on with the business of Welsholising KDE. Whether this will bring K back into general use west of the border remains to be seen: we can only be thankful that the Sinclair QL was no great success and the cunning linguists of Cymru were spared that particular challenge.

(*) Gratuitous bit: Skye is near the home of Gavin Maxwell, writer of the greatest work of otter-related literature, Ring of Bright Water. The island continues to enjoy a healthy otter population, some of which may be seen at a special centre which lives at the end of one of the area's many long, twisty, narrow roads. I was driving along this a few weeks back when it occurred to me that it should be christened the Otterbahn. And why should you be spared the pain?