The Wordsmith

Indomitable Gauls!

It is not uncommon for the French to be associated with their Celtic origins. This is generally a way of criticizing their rebellious spirit and penchant for squabbling. A lot like the iconic Asterix, in fact.
© Hachette Livres/Goscinny-Uderzo

President Emmanuel Macron, who is no stranger to ill-advised soundbites, compared the Danish, a “Lutheran people” open to reform, with the French, whom he described as “change-phobic Gauls,” during a speech in Copenhagen in August 2018.

So why do the ancestors of the French have such a reputation for being indomitable rebels? It’s partly the fault of Obelix, Cacofonix, Getafix, and their sidekicks from the adventures of Asterix, whose latest installment, Asterix and the White Iris, came out last October. Because the heroes in these comics love nothing more than a good fight against Caesar’s legions, they are said to have strong characters defined by unbridled bellicosity. It’s well known that the Gauls were only afraid of one thing: the sky falling on their heads! This is actually not a myth, but a religious belief held by this historical people. Convinced that the vault of heaven was held up by columns, they thought that it would collapse at the end of the world.

Gallia, which gave rise to “Gaul” (and the English adjective “Gallic,” which over time became synonymous with “French”), was the name given by the Romans to various territories occupied since at least the 2nd millennium B.C. by Celtic populations originating from Asia Minor via Central Europe. In Rome, a distinction was made between Cisalpine Gaul, Northern Italy, and Transalpine Gaul beyond the Alps. The latter was itself divided into the already Romanized Gallia togata, or “Gaul in a toga,” and Gallia comata, or “Long-haired Gaul,” the very Gaul that Caesar conquered between 58 and 51 B.C. and whose rebellion was brilliantly embodied by Vercingetorix (and Asterix).

The inhabitants of what are now France and Belgium were ethnolinguistically related to the peoples of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England, whose languages were, simply put, Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Welsh, and Common Brittonic. Only the latter has completely disappeared, replaced by a Germanic language imported from the continent by Anglo-Saxon invaders from the fifth century A.D. onwards.

Opinions differ as to the etymology of the word Gaul. Some believe that it simply comes from the Latin Gallia. Others think that it is taken from the Frankish word walh, used by the Germans to designate Celtic-speaking or Romanized peoples. Whatever the answer, the terms “Gallic,” “Welsh,” and “Walloon” have a common root. As does Wales, whose “w” corresponds to the “g” in the Germanic dialects from which modern English originated. This connection can be found in the French and English words guerre/war, garant/warrant, garde/ward, gagner/win, and Guillaume/William.

Time has passed, and of all the Celtic languages once spoken in Gaul, only Breton has survived in the western part of Armorica. Today, there is no doubt about it; French descends from Gallo-Roman and is indeed a Romance language, both in terms of syntax and lexicon. This is still the case, even though its vocabulary has been enriched over the centuries by countless contributions from Frankish (the language of the Franks), Dutch, Italian, English, and Arabic.

French has also inherited a large number of terms from the Gaulish language itself. Sometimes, these have pushed out Latin terms, such as chêne (“oak”), which comes from the Gaulish cassanos rather than the Roman quercus. Many other words given to French by the Gauls are associated with nature, including alouette (“lark”), érable (“maple”), and ruche (“hive”). But there’s also auvent (“awning”), glaive (“gladiator sword”), and tonneau (“cask”). And then there’s cheval (“horse”), from the Celtic caballos, and char (“chariot” but also the modern “tank”) from carros, which became “car” in England through the influence of the Norman language.

Words aside, the character traits of their Celtic ancestors – so the legend goes – have also been passed on to the French. These include a taste for quarreling, as well as the famous “Gallic spirit” of outspoken, slightly crude joyfulness. Hence the term une gauloiserie to describe a racy or risqué remark. And let’s not forget the Gauloise, the French smoker’s favorite cigarette throughout the 20th century!

But while the French are proud of their Celtic roots – a pride they have tried to instill in the children of the countries they have colonized (the infamous “Our ancestors, the Gauls” attitude), they are just as proud of their links with the Franks. They pretend to forget that the Franks were close relatives of their historical enemies, the Germans, and that they actually came from what is now the Netherlands, but that’s a whole other story!

Article published in the January 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.