Celtic languages

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CELTIC LANGUAGES Sometimes Keltic languages, and Celtic, Keltic when taken as a unity. A group of INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGES, usually divided into: (1) Continental Celtic, a range of unwritten and now extinct languages spoken from around 500 BC to AD 500 from the Black Sea to Iberia, the best-known of which was Gaulish. (2) Insular Celtic, usually further divided into: British or Brythonic (from Brython a Briton) and Irish or Goidelic (from Goidel an Irishman: modern Gael). British and Gaulish were at one time a continuum of linked dialects. Philologists have referred to them as P-Celtic in contrast to Goidelic as Q-Celtic, on the basis of a sound shift of q to p which split an earlier tongue known as Common Celtic. The Gallo-British p-sound occurs in Old Welsh map son, pen head, and in Welsh Prydain Britain, while the Goidelic sound represented as q occurs in GAELIC mac son, ceann head, and in an ancient name for the Picts, Cruithneach, which may be a cousin of the name British. Currently, however, these terms are not generally used, Celticists arguing that a single sound shift, however important, should not serve as a label for such a complex division as that between British and Irish.

The long decline

In historical times, the British group has consisted of WELSH and Breton (which survive) and CORNISH, CUMBRIC, and perhaps Pictish (which are extinct). Breton, though a language of France, has no links with Continental Celtic; it was taken to Brittany in the 5–6c by migrating Britons. The Irish group consists of three languages or varieties of the same language: IRISH GAELIC and SCOTTISH GAELIC and the extinct Manx Gaelic. During the first millennium AD, there were speakers of the British varieties in Ireland and speakers of the Irish varieties in Britain, including by the 6c the Scots: settlers from Ireland who in due course gave their name to their adopted country. Cornish and Manx are in limited use among local revivalists, but show no sign of significant resuscitation. The Celtic languages have been in decline for nearly two thousand years and most have vanished without obvious trace. The Continental languages survive only in place-names and Greek and Roman records. The Apostle Paul wrote in Greek to Anatolian Celts in his Epistle to the Galatians; by the time of this letter (IC AD), the Galatians appear to have largely given up their own language. The languages of Iberia and Gaul were replaced in the early Middle Ages by Romance languages and British gave way to English from the 5c onwards. In medieval Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the indigenous languages were not at risk from Norse, Norman French, or English, but from the 16c Welsh and Gaelic have been in retreat before English and Breton before French. The last natural speaker of Cornish died in 1777 and of Manx in 1974. Welsh is the most viable of the survivors, with some half a million speakers (around 20% of the Welsh population). Irish Gaelic has some 100,000 speakers and Scottish Gaelic some 80,000 speakers.

Reasons for decline

The decline of these languages is a complex and often highly emotive issue. Efforts to slow or reverse their decline raise economic, educational, political, historical, and ethnic questions that relate to at least nine factors: (1) Disunity among the Celts in the face of colonization, cultural domination and assimilation, and the pressure of governments often regarded as alien and regarding Celts as alien. (2) Loss of linguistic status as English and French gained in strength and prestige. (3) Shortage of reading material, in tandem with the imposition of educational systems mediated by English and French. (4) Lack of adequate instruction and backup, even where a language has had official support, as in the Republic of Ireland and Wales. (5) Loss of the language in religious life, as in Scotland, under the influence of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (in English, with longterm Presbyterian resistance to translations of the Bible into Gaelic). (6) Immigration into Celtic areas by speakers of English and French, often to hold important posts and with little or no interest in the local language. (7) Emigration, often under pressure, as in the Irish famines and the Highland Clearances. (8) The impact of the media, especially in the 20c, with most or all newspapers, radio, cinema, and television in English or French. (9) A sense of increasing irrelevance, coupled with a general disdain for or indifference to Celtic speech, and assumptions of social and linguistic inferiority in the dominant culture that many Celts have slowly come to accept.

The question of ‘linguicide’

These factors have promoted what some defenders of the Celtic languages see as a kind of linguistic murder. Although there has never been an official campaign to wipe out a Celtic language, Celtic communities have for centuries been officially and educationally neglected and their languages and literatures marginalized, especially in drives for national uniformity. Even where goodwill has existed, the positive results have been minimal, with the possible exception of Welsh. Even the backing of the government of the Irish Republic since the 1920s has failed to stop the decline of Gaelic, which has a belated co-official status with English. Welsh and Gaelic maintain only precarious holds as the circle of English continues to widen. In the process of that widening, however, Celtic SUBSTRATES have developed in varieties of BrE and IrE used alongside the original languages or in areas where they were once extensive.

Celtic and Old English

The influence of Celtic on OLD ENGLISH appears to have been slight: ‘The small number of Celtic words which found their way into the English language in earlier times has always been a cause of surprise to philologists’ ( Bernard Groom, A Short History of English Words, 1934). This early impermeability of English can be accounted for in at least three ways: (1) A familiar environment. The old and new environments of the Anglo-Saxons were much the same and therefore the vocabulary they brought from mainland Europe served them well in Britain. Unlike the British in Australia a thousand years later, they had no need to adopt local words for novel flora, fauna, and experiences: for almost everything they encountered they already had serviceable words. (2) Little or no hybridization. There appear to have been no contact languages or CODE-MIXING between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon through which infiltration could occur, as happened later with Norse and with Norman French. Any hybridization in Western Europe at the time appears to have been between Popular LATIN and local languages, not among local languages. (3) The attraction of Latin. The major cultural and religious influence of the time was Latin, with an equal impact on Celtic and Germanic. Speakers of both went to Latin for cultural and religious loanwords. It is no more surprising therefore that Celtic did not influence Old English than that both Celtic and Germanic religion collapsed in the face of Christianization.

Celtic in English

In the course of the centuries, Celtic influence on English has been cumulative in four forms:

1. Loanwords.

Gaulish provided Latin with a number of loans, such as carrus a wagon, carpentum a light carriage, and lancia a long spear, from which are descended the English words car, carry, carriage, chariot, charioteer, carpenter, carpentry, lance, and lancer. From Insular Celtic there has built up over the centuries a set of words drawn from the main languages and linked with landscape and monuments, such as ben, cairn, corrie, crag, crannog, cromlech, dolmen, glen, loch, menhir, strath, tor: for further loans, see BORROWING.

2. Literary themes, styles, and names.

After the Norman Conquest of England in the 11c, Breton and Welsh users of Latin, French, and English spread Celtic themes and stories in the courts and monasteries of Western Europe. A key element in this dissemination was the Matter of Britain, whose original French form, Matière de Bretagne, indicates the link with Brittany as well as Britain. Foremost in this material are the legends of Arthur and his knights in which characters have such Frenchified and Anglicized Celtic names as Arthur, Gareth, Gawain, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, and Morgan. Intricate Celtic styles and themes became interwoven with Christian, classical, and Germanic styles and themes in both pseudo-histories of Britain and romances of chivalry and the Grail. Celtic creativity in English has continued ever since: for example, in the 18c in MacPherson's Ossian, in the 19c in Scott's poems and novels, and in the 20c in James Joyce's novels and Dylan Thomas's poetry.

3. Place and personal names.

The foremost legacy of the Celts is names. Continental Celtic has left its place-names throughout Europe, most of them altered by other languages and many with such distinctive English forms as Danube, Rhine, Rhone, Seine. Some have regional connotations, such as the -ac names of France, several of which have uses in English: Armagnac, Aurignac, Cadillac, Cognac. Insular Celtic has provided such names as Belfast, Cardiff, Dublin, Glasgow, London, York for cities, Avon, Clyde, Dee, Don, Forth, Severn, Thames, Usk for rivers, and Argyll, Cornwall, Cumbria, Devon, Dyfed, Glamorgan, Kent, Lothian for regions. Personal names of Celtic origin or association are widely used, often without an awareness of their provenance: first names such as Alan, Donald, Duncan, Eileen, Fiona, Gavin, Ronald, Sheila; patronymic and ethnic surnames in mac/mc (MacDonald, McDonald) and O (O'Donnell, O'Neill, sometimes dropping the O as in Sullivan), and such others as Cameron, Campbell, Colquhoun, Douglas, Evans, Griffiths, Jones, Morgan, Urquhart. A common Celtic word for ‘water’ underlies such river-related names as Aix-en-Provence, Axminster, Caerleon-on-Usk, Exmouth, Uxbridge. It also underlies BrE whisky and IrE and AmE whiskey. These are shortenings of whiskybae or usquebaugh, from Gaelic uisge beatha (water of life, a calque of Latin aqua vitae).

4. Celtic varieties of English.

In varieties of English used in Ireland, the ISLE OF MAN, Scotland, and Wales, there has been considerable influence from the local languages, which have served not only as sources of loans but also as substrates for the shaping of these varieties. In the case of IRISH ENGLISH, such influence travelled across the Atlantic from the 16c onward to provide a major element in the English of Newfoundland, England's (and in a sense Ireland's) oldest North American colony. See HIGHLAND ENGLISH, NEWFOUNDLAND ENGLISH, WELSH ENGLISH.

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Celtic languages, subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. At one time, during the Hellenistic period, Celtic speech extended all the way from Britain and the Iberian Peninsula in the west across Europe to Asia Minor in the east, where a district still known as Galatia recalls the former presence there of Celtic-speaking Gauls. Later, however, in the course of the Roman conquest, Celtic speech tended to yield to Latin, and by the 5th cent. AD Celtic had virtually disappeared from continental Europe. Today the Celtic languages that have survived into the modern era are limited almost entirely to the British Isles and French Brittany, where these tongues are spoken by a total of about 2 million people. The Celtic subfamily is made up of three groups of languages: the Continental, the Brythonic (also called British), and the Goidelic (also called Gaelic).

Continental Celtic

Continental Celtic, which includes all Celtic idioms on the Continent with the exception of Breton, died out following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th cent. AD The principal example of this group is the now extinct language Gaulish, for little remains of any other Continental Celtic tongues. Gaulish was once the language of Gaul proper (now modern France). Evidence of Gaulish is found both in words and in personal and proper names referred to by ancient Greek and Latin writers as well as in more than a hundred Gaulish inscriptions from France and N Italy (ranging in date from the 3d cent. BC to the 3d cent. AD). Coins and Greek and Latin inscriptions in Europe also preserve Celtic place-names and personal names. Yet the material as a whole is quite limited, furnishing only a number of proper names, a small vocabulary, and certain indications regarding the sounds and grammar of Gaulish and of Continental Celtic in general.


The Brythonic group includes Breton, Cornish, and Welsh. They are all descendants of British, the Celtic language of the ancient Britons of Caesar's day. The emergence of Welsh, Cornish, and Breton from British as separate languages probably took place during the 5th and 6th cent. AD and was a result of the Germanic invasions of Britain. Welsh and Breton have discarded the originally numerous Indo-European cases for the noun and use only one case. Both employ the Roman alphabet for writing. The accent in Welsh and Breton generally falls on the next-to-last syllable, with the exception of a single Breton dialect that has the accent on the last syllable.

Breton today is spoken by more than 500,000 people in Brittany, most of whom are bilingual, speaking also French. It is not surprising that Breton, unlike Welsh, has many loan words from French. Breton is by no means descended from ancient Gaulish, but rather from the Celtic dialects taken by Welsh and Cornish immigrants from the British Isles who were fleeing Germanic invasions and found refuge in Armorica (now French Brittany) in the 5th and 6th cent. AD Surviving literary documents in Breton go back only as far as the 15th cent., but the earlier stages of the language are known through glosses and proper names (see Breton literature).

Cornish, the Celtic language of Cornwall, has survived since the late 18th cent. only among bilingual speakers, but it experienced a minor revival in the 20th cent. Estimates of the number of fluent speakers range from a few hundred to a few thousand. Cornish proper names in manuscripts of the 10th cent. AD are the oldest recorded traces of the language. A number of Cornish place-names survive, and some Cornish words appear in the English spoken in Cornwall today. The Cornish language is written in the Roman alphabet. It is not noted for an outstanding literature (see Cornish literature).

Welsh (called Cymraeg or Cymric by its speakers) is the language today of over 600,000 people, chiefly in Wales (a western peninsula of Great Britain) but also in the United States and Canada, to which a number of Welsh people have migrated. Most speakers of Welsh in Great Britain also use English. The oldest extant Welsh texts are from the 8th cent. AD (see Welsh literature).


The third group of the Celtic subfamily is Goidelic, to which Irish (also called Irish Gaelic), Scots Gaelic, and Manx belong. The term Erse is used as a synonym for Irish and sometimes even for Scots Gaelic. All the modern Goidelic tongues are descendants of the ancient Celtic speech of Ireland. It is thought that the Celtic idiom first came to Ireland shortly before the Christian era. An official language of Ireland, Irish is spoken natively by approximately 75,000 people; roughly a third of Ireland's population can speak and understand it to some degree. Most speakers of Irish also use English (see Irish language).

Scots Gaelic is the tongue of about 60,000 persons in the Highlands of Scotland and an additional 3,000 in Canada. Most of these people also speak English. Gaelic speech began to reach Scotland in the late 5th cent. AD, when it was brought by the Irish invaders of that country. However, a truly distinctive Scots Gaelic did not appear before the 13th cent. The chief difference between Scots Gaelic and Irish results from the substantial Norse influence on the former. There are four cases for the noun (nominative, genitive, dative, and vocative) in Scots Gaelic, which uses the Roman alphabet (see Gaelic literature).

Manx is a dialect of Scots Gaelic that was once spoken on the Isle of Man, but it has almost entirely died out there. First recorded in writing in the early 17th cent., Manx does not have an important literature. It is written in the Roman alphabet and shows a strong Norse influence.

Pronunciation and Grammar

The rules of pronunciation for all the Celtic languages are extremely complicated. For example, the final sound of a word frequently brings about a phonetically changed initial consonant of the next word, as in Irish fuil, "blood," but ar bhfuil, "our blood." Another example is Welsh pen, "head," but fy mhen, "my head." In order to look up a word in the dictionary, one has to be familiar with these rules of phonetic change, or mutation. There are only two genders in the Celtic languages, masculine and feminine. Words of Celtic origin that have been absorbed by English include bard,blarney,colleen,crock,dolmen,druid,glen,slogan, and whiskey. An interesting feature of Celtic languages is that in several characteristics they resemble some non-Indo-European languages. These characteristics include the absence of a present participle and the use instead of a verbal noun (found also in Egyptian and Berber), the frequent expression of agency by means of an impersonal passive construction instead of by a verbal subject in the nominative case (as in Egyptian, Berber, Basque, and some Caucasian and Eskimo languages), and the positioning of the verb at the beginning of a sentence (typical of Egyptian and Berber).

See Indo-European.


See H. Lewis and H. Pedersen, A Concise Comparative Celtic Grammar (1937); K. H. Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain (1953); V. E. Durkacz, The Decline of the Celtic Languages (1983); C. W. J. Withers, Gaelic in Scotland, 1698–1981 (1984).

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Celtic languages Indo-European languages spoken in parts of Britain, Ireland and France, forming a division within the Italo-Celtic subfamily. There are two branches of Celtic languages: Brittonic, which includes Welsh, Breton and Cornish; and Goidelic, including Irish and Scots Gaelic and Manx. The Brittonic or Celtic languages were dominant in the British Isles until the 5th century ad.