Saturday, 25 April 2020

Capistrum (an etymology)

Capistrum and related

I was leafing through a Scottish Gaelic dictionary and encountered a word cabstair, “bit (for a horse)”. But, I had just encountered a Welsh word, cebystr, ‘halter’. Evidently these two are the same word. But why? To get to it quickly, the word is not English but is Latin, ‘capistrum’, and is not present in Irish Gaelic.
Latin words do exist in Scottish Gaelic (MacInnes gives a figure of 250) but these mainly come from Latin-using monks and refer to ecclesiastical concepts rather than useful items of farm equipment, such as a tether. So the favoured source for a word like capistrum is spoken Latin. This was heard in the parts of Britain which were part of the Roman Empire, and numerous practical, physical, farming-related Latin words are preserved in Welsh. Spoken Latin could give a word like “capistr" in the Romano-British language spoken both in England and in Scotland south of the Antonine Wall.
My proposal is that cabstair in Gaelic comes from an unrecorded capistrum word in the P-Celtic of south-west Scotland, within the borders of the old Empire but close to or within the early settlement of Gaelic-speakers from Ireland.

Cabstair has shed a syllable present in capistrum – syncope, as we call it. (Conversely, cebystr is actually trisyllabic, there is an unwritten vowel in the str cluster. So both cabstair and cebystr have acquired a syllable not present in the Latin source. The development of a such a vowel is called anaptyxis.) I have the impression of having read about syncope in the P-Celtic language of southern Scotland, Cumbric as it is often called, but I don’t have the reference. This would delete unstressed syllables in trisyllabic words. An example would be the river-name Kelvin. This evidently comes from Latin calamus, in the sense of stubble or thatch, a local borrowing surviving in Welsh celefyn (with a noun singular formative -yn), 'stalk, stem'. The meaning is reedy river, flowing slowly down a very gentle gradient, as you can see by visiting it. But Kelvin represents a syncope with relation to celefyn.
The relics of Cumbric show an i-affection or Ruckumlaut, which shifts a to e in the syllable preceding an i or an e. This accounts for the evolution of calamus to celefyn, which shows a double i-affection. Another example is the place-name Peebles, agreed to mean “tents” and to come from Latin papilio. It is a plural and so records not papilio but papiliones, so that the pap has become peb. This parallels the Welsh word pabell (also ‘tent’), plural pebyll. But, cabstair does not show i-affection, as we would expect before the i in capistrum. This works if we suppose that the -i- was lost before the date of the i-affection.
Since the taming of the horse in Europe goes back to the early 3rd millennium BC, it is surprising that items of horse technology needed to be borrowed, at around 400 AD, or therefore words to describe those items. I am asking for two loan steps (Latin to Cumbric and Cumbric to Gaelic). The sociology of this can only be speculative. I can comment that people were preoccupied with the horse, as people are with cars today. Simple items were subject to intense development and differentiation. There was a prestige economy around horse tack. This allowed for loan-words, within a rich vocabulary of terms for bits of equipment. It is surprising that the Gael needed to borrow any words relating to horses. The Roman Army certainly used a lot of horses.
Capistrum gives also the French word s’enchevêtrer, ‘get tangled up’, whose literal meaning is a horse getting tangled up in its own reins. So capistrum gives words meaning variously reins, tether, bit.

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