Strangers in their own land

What connects Wales to Wallachia (in Romania) and Scotland’s Galloway with Gaul (an ancient name for France)? The answer is a shared etymological root – the single Proto-Germanic word – Walhaz – the strangers.

Walhaz was a useful term employed by the Germanic tribes living beyond the boundaries of the ‘civilized’ Roman world. It can mean ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger’, but can also be used to describe someone who speaks Latin, Greek or Celtic. Essentially, it means ‘not one of us’.

It would also prove to be a geographically and linguistically flexible term that embedded itself into languages and place names across Europe. Walhaz is the single linguistic root for:

  • Wales and Welsh – this old English term originally applied to the entire pre-Roman population of Celtic Britons. Over time, the ‘Welsh’ were pushed further back into modern day Wales and Cornwall (or Corn-w(e)alh) and the word became synonymous with both the place and its population of Old Britons. The Welsh word for Wales, Cymru, means ‘fellow-countryman’. It is embedded in placenames such as Cumberland and Cumbria as a relic of the original geographic spread of Celtic Britons.

  • Walachia – the name of this large region of Romania is one of the closed geographic matches to Walhaz. The term, originally describing Celts, evolved to describe romanized Celts and then applied to all Romance-speaking people – including the Romanians.

  • Wallonia – Wallonia is named after the Walloons, the population of the low countries speaking Romance languages (and who would eventually come to speak French). To their Germanic (Dutch) neighbours, they were ‘the strangers’, or the Walhaz.

  • Gaul – Gaul encompassed a much broader region than the borders of modern day France. It covered most of present day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, Northern Italy, and bordering territory on the west bank of the Rhine (in modern day Germany and the Netherlands). To German speakers, it was a land populated by foreigners and here the ‘w’ in the word Walhaz was rendered into proto-French with a ‘g’. This became the root of Gaul, Gaulli and  Gallic.

The word is also found embedded in the names of towns (e.g. Walenstadt in Switzerland), villages (e.g. Straßwalchen in Austria) and even streets (e.g. Wahlenstrasse in Regensburg, Germany) across Europe.

Germanic peoples

Although sounding very similar, there is no shared linguistic root for Gaul/Gallic and Gael/Gaelic. Gael derives from the Old Irish word Goídel. This is rendered as Gael in modern Irish and Gàidheal in Scottish Gaelic.

If the word has a Proto-Indo-European root it is not as walhaz, but as weidhelo, or ‘forest people’ (connected to the words for forest in German (Wald) and wood in English). This provides a shared root for the Old Irish word Féni which itself finds modern expression in the words Fianna and Fenian. As a result, Ireland’s two largest political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael share linguistic roots.

One place where these two linguistic roots come together is Galloway. This southeastern area of Scotland was one of the areas populated by the Norse–Gaels. Many sources agree that the name ‘Galloway’ derives from the name Gall-Gaidel meaning ‘land of the foreign Gaels’. The word also finds its way into other Irish place names such as Donegal (or Dun na nGall – fort of the foreigners).

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