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Celtic language

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Title: Celtic language  
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Subject: Languages of Europe, Franz Bopp, Interlingua, Library of Congress Classification, Manx language, History of Belgium, Asti, Old Italic script, Brittany (administrative region), Vipava, Vipava
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Celtic language

Formerly widespread in Europe; today British Isles, Brittany, Patagonia and Nova Scotia
Linguistic classification: Indo-European
  • Celtic
Proto-language: Proto-Celtic
Ethnologue code: ISO 639-5: cel
Linguasphere: 50= (phylozone)

The Celtic languages (usually pronounced /ˈkɛltɪk/ but sometimes /ˈsɛltɪk/)[1] are descended from Proto-Celtic, or "Common Celtic"; a branch of the greater Indo-European language family. The term "Celtic" was first used to describe this language group by Edward Lhuyd in 1707.[2]

Celtic languages are most commonly spoken on the north-western edge of Europe, notably in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man, and can be found spoken on Cape Breton Island. There are also a substantial number of Welsh speakers in the Patagonia area of Argentina. Some people speak Celtic languages in the other Celtic diaspora areas of the United States,[3] Canada, Australia,[4] and New Zealand.[5] In all these areas, the Celtic languages are now only spoken by minorities though there are continuing efforts at revitalization. Welsh is the only Celtic language that isn't classified as "endangered" by UNESCO.

During the 1st millennium BC, they were spoken across Europe, in the Iberian Peninsula, from the Atlantic and North Sea coastlines, up the Rhine valley and down the Danube valley to the Black Sea, the Upper Balkan Peninsula, and in Galatia in Asia Minor. The spread to Cape Breton and Patagonia occurred in modern times. Celtic languages, particularly Irish, were spoken in Australia before federation in 1901 and are still used there to some extent.[6]

Living languages

SIL Ethnologue lists six "living" Celtic languages, of which four have retained a substantial number of native speakers. These are the Goidelic Irish (Gaeilge) and Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) descended from Old Irish, and the Brythonic Welsh and Breton descended from the British language.

The other two, Cornish and Manx, were spoken into modern times but later died as spoken community languages.[7][8][9] For both these languages, however, revitalization movements have led to the adoption of these languages by adults and children and produced some native speakers.[10][11]

Taken together, there were roughly one million native speakers of Celtic languages as of the 2000s.[12] In 2010, there were more than 1.4 million speakers of Celtic languages.[13]


Language Native name Grouping Number of native speakers Number of people who have one or more skills in the language Main area(s) in which the language is spoken Regulated by/language body
Welsh Cymraeg Brythonic 431,000 (14.6% of the population of Wales) considers themselves to be fluent in Welsh (2011)[14] Around 721,700 (2011) total speakers
Wales: 562,000 speakers, 19.0% of the population of Wales,[14]
England: 150,000[15]
Chubut Province, Argentina: 5,000[16]
United States: 2,500[17]
Canada: 2,200[18]
Y Wladfa, Chubut
Welsh Language Commissioner (Meri Huws)
— The Welsh Government
(previously the Welsh Language Board (Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg)
Irish Gaeilge Goidelic 40,000–80,000[19][20][21][22]
In the Republic of Ireland, 94,000 people use Irish daily outside the education system.[23]
Republic of Ireland:
United Kingdom:
United States:
Ireland Foras na Gaeilge
Breton Brezhoneg Brythonic 206,000 356,000[24] Brittany Ofis Publik ar Brezhoneg
Scottish Gaelic Gàidhlig Goidelic 58,552 as of 2001 [25] as well as an estimated 400–1000 native speakers on Cape Breton Island[26][27] 92,400 [28] Scotland Bòrd na Gàidhlig
Cornish Kernewek Brythonic 600 [29] 3,000 [30] Cornwall Keskowethyans an Taves Kernewek
Manx Gaelg Goidelic 100+,[10][31] including a small number of children who are new native speakers[32] 1,823 [33] Isle of Man Coonceil ny Gaelgey

Mixed languages


Proto-Celtic divided into four sub-families:

  • Gaulish and its close relatives Galatian, Lepontic, and Noric. Lepontic, the oldest attested Celtic language (from the 6th century BC), is treated as a primary branch by some researchers, including Schumacher, perhaps even the first language to diverge from Proto-Celtic.[36] These languages were once spoken in a wide arc from France to Turkey and from Belgium to northern Italy. They are now all extinct.
  • Hispano-Celtic; also extinct:[37][38]
    • Celtiberian, anciently spoken in the Iberian peninsula,[39] in parts of modern Aragón, Old Castile, and New Castile in Spain.
    • Gallaecian, anciently spoken in north-western Iberia (north-west Spain and northern Portugal).[40][41]
    • possibly Tartessian, attested from inscriptions found in south-western Iberia (southern Portugal and south-west Spain) dated to the 7th-5th centuries BC.[42][43] Prior to 2011, Tartessian was treated as unclassified, with no obvious external relationship.[44] It has since been tentatively classified as Celtic by American linguist John T. Koch, which would make Tartessian the oldest attested Celtic language.[45][46][47]
    • possibly Lusitanian, from central interior Portugal and western Spain; while its precise classification is unclear, the Indo-European affinity of Lusitanian is not in doubt.
  • Brythonic, including the living languages Breton, Cornish, and Welsh, and the extinct languages Cumbric and Pictish though Pictish may be a sister language rather than a daughter of British (Common Brythonic).[48] Before the arrival of Scotti on the Isle of Man in the 9th century, there may have been a Brythonic language in the Isle of Man.[49]
  • Goidelic, including the living languages Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic.

Scholarly handling of the Celtic languages has been rather argumentative owing to scarceness of primary source data. Some scholars (such as Cowgill 1975; McCone 1991, 1992; and Schrijver 1995) distinguish Continental Celtic and Insular Celtic, arguing that the differences between the Goidelic and Brythonic languages arose after these split off from the Continental Celtic languages. Other scholars (such as Schmidt 1988) distinguish between P-Celtic and Q-Celtic, putting most of the Gaulish and Brythonic languages in the former group and the Goidelic and Celtiberian languages in the latter. The P-Celtic languages (also called Gallo-Brittonic) are sometimes seen (for example by Koch 1992) as a central innovating area as opposed to the more conservative peripheral Q-Celtic languages.

The Breton language is Brythonic, not Gaulish, though there may be some input from the latter.[50] When the Anglo-Saxons moved into Great Britain, several waves of the native Britons crossed the English Channel and landed in Brittany. They brought with them their Brythonic language, which evolved into Breton – still partially intelligible by modern Welsh and Cornish speakers.

In the P/Q classification schema, the first language to split off from Proto-Celtic was Gaelic. It has characteristics that some scholars see as archaic, but others see as also being in the Brythonic languages (see Schmidt). In the Insular/Continental classification schema, the split of the former into Gaelic and Brythonic is seen as being late.

The distinction of Celtic into these four sub-families most likely occurred about 900 BC according to Gray and Atkinson[51][52] but, because of estimation uncertainty, it could be any time between 1200 and 800 BC. However, they only considered Gaelic and Brythonic. The controversial paper by Forster and Toth[53] included Gaulish and put the break-up much earlier at 3200 BC ± 1500 years. They support the Insular Celtic hypothesis. The early Celts were commonly associated with the archaeological Urnfield culture, the Hallstatt culture, and the La Tène culture, though the earlier assumption of association between language and culture is now considered to be less strong.[54][55]

There are two main competing schemata of categorization. The older schema, argued for by Schmidt (1988) among others, links Gaulish with Brythonic in a P-Celtic node, originally leaving just Goidelic as Q-Celtic. The difference between P and Q languages is the treatment of Proto-Celtic *, which became *p in the P-Celtic languages but *k in Goidelic. An example is the Proto-Celtic verb root *kʷrin- "to buy", which became pryn- in Welsh but cren- in Old Irish. However, a classification based on a single feature is seen as risky by its critics, particularly as the sound change occurs in other language groups (especially the Osco-Umbrian and Greek).

The other schema, defended for example by McCone (1996), links Goidelic and Brythonic together as an Insular Celtic branch, while Gaulish and Celtiberian are referred to as Continental Celtic. According to this theory, the "P-Celtic" sound change of [kʷ] to [p] occurred independently or areally. The proponents of the Insular Celtic hypothesis point to other shared innovations among Insular Celtic languages, including inflected prepositions, VSO word order, and the lenition of intervocalic [m] to [β̃], a nasalised voiced bilabial fricative (an extremely rare sound). There is, however, no assumption that the Continental Celtic languages descend from a common "Proto-Continental Celtic" ancestor. Rather, in the Insular/Continental schema, Celtiberian is usually considered to be the first branch to split from Proto-Celtic, and the remaining group would later have split into Gaulish and Insular Celtic.

There are legitimate scholarly arguments in favour of both the Insular Celtic hypothesis and the P-Celtic/Q-Celtic hypothesis. Proponents of each schema dispute the accuracy and usefulness of the other's categories. However, since the 1970s the division into Insular and Continental Celtic has become the more widely held view (Cowgill 1975; McCone 1991, 1992; Schrijver 1995), but in the middle of the 1980s, the P-Celtic/Q-Celtic hypothesis found new supporters (Lambert 1994), because of the inscription on the Larzac piece of lead (1983), the analysis of which reveals another common phonetical innovation -nm--nu (Gaelic ainm / Gaulish anuana, Old Welsh enuein "names"), that is less accidental than only one. The discovery of a third common innovation, would allow the specialists to come to the conclusion of a Gallo-Brythonic dialect (Schmidt 1986; Fleuriot 1986).

The interpretation of this and further evidence is still quite contested, and the main argument in favour of Insular Celtic is connected with the development of the verbal morphology and the syntax in Irish and British Celtic, which Schumacher regards as convincing, while he considers the P-Celtic/Q-Celtic division unimportant and treats Gallo-Brittonic as an outdated hypothesis.[36] Stifter affirms that the Gallo-Brittonic view is "out of favour" in the scholarly community as of 2008 and the Insular Celtic hypothesis "widely accepted".[56]

When referring only to the modern Celtic languages, since no Continental Celtic language has living descendants, "Q-Celtic" is equivalent to "Goidelic" and "P-Celtic" is equivalent to "Brythonic".

Within the Indo-European family, the Celtic languages have sometimes been placed with the Italic languages in a common Italo-Celtic subfamily, a hypothesis that is now largely discarded, in favour of the assumption of language contact between pre-Celtic and pre-Italic communities.

How the family tree of the Celtic languages is ordered depends on which hypothesis is used:

Characteristics of Celtic languages

Although there are many differences between the individual Celtic languages, they do show many family resemblances. While none of these characteristics are necessarily unique to the Celtic languages, there are few if any other languages which possess them all. They include:

  • consonant mutations (Insular Celtic only)
  • inflected prepositions (Insular Celtic only)
  • two grammatical genders (modern Insular Celtic only; Old Irish and the Continental languages had three genders)
  • a vigesimal number system (counting by twenties)
    • e.g. Cornish whetek ha dew ugens "fifty-six" (literally "sixteen and two twenty")
  • verb–subject–object (VSO) word order (probably Insular Celtic only)
  • an interplay between the subjunctive, future, imperfect, and habitual, to the point that some tenses and moods have ousted others
  • an impersonal or autonomous verb form serving as a passive or intransitive
    • Welsh dysgaf "I teach" vs. dysgir "is taught, one teaches", Irish "déanaim" "I do/make" vs. "déantar" "is done"
  • no infinitives, replaced by a quasi-nominal verb form called the verbal noun or verbnoun
  • frequent use of vowel mutation as a morphological device, e.g. formation of plurals, verbal stems, etc.
  • use of preverbal particles to signal either subordination or illocutionary force of the following clause
    • mutation-distinguished subordinators/relativisers
    • particles for negation, interrogation, and occasionally for affirmative declarations
  • infixed pronouns positioned between particles and verbs
  • lack of simple verb for the imperfective "have" process, with possession conveyed by a composite structure, usually BE + preposition
    • Cornish yma kath dhymm "I have a cat", literally "there is a cat to me"
  • use of periphrastic phrases to express verbal tense, voice, or aspectual distinctions
  • distinction by function of the two versions of BE verbs traditionally labelled substantive (or existential) and copula
  • bifurcated demonstrative structure
  • suffixed pronominal supplements, called confirming or supplementary pronouns
  • use of singulars and/or special forms of counted nouns, and use of a singulative suffix to make singular forms from plurals, where older singulars have disappeared

(Irish) Ná bac le mac an bhacaigh is ní bhacfaidh mac an bhacaigh leat.
(Literal translation) Don't bother with son the beggar's and not will-bother son the beggar's with-you.

  • bhacaigh is the genitive of bacach. The igh the result of affection; the bh is the lenited form of b.
  • leat is the second person singular inflected form of the preposition le.
  • The order is verb–subject–object (VSO) in the second half. Compare this to English or French (and possibly Continental Celtic) which are normally subject–verb–object in word order.

(Welsh) pedwar ar bymtheg a phedwar ugain
(literally) four on fifteen and four twenties

  • bymtheg is a mutated form of pymtheg, which is pump ("five") plus deg ("ten"). Likewise, phedwar is a mutated form of pedwar.
  • The multiples of ten are deg, ugain, deg ar hugain, deugain, hanner cant, trigain, deg a thrigain, pedwar ugain, deg a phedwar ugain, cant.

Comparison table

Welsh Cornish Breton Irish Scottish Gaelic Manx English
gwenynen gwenenen gwenanenn beach seillean, beach shellan bee
cadair kador kador cathaoir cathair, seidhir caair chair
caws keus keuz cáis càis(e) caashey cheese
aber aber aber inbhear inbhir inver estuary, mouth of a river
llawn leun leun lán làn lane full
gafr gaver gavr gabhar gobhar goayr goat
chi ti teach, tigh taigh thie house
gwefus gweus gweuz liopa, beol bile, lip meill lip (anatomical)
arian mona, arhans moneiz, arcʼhant airgead airgead argid silver, money
nos nos noz oíche oidhche oie night
rhif, nifer niver niver uimhir àireamh earroo number
tu fas, tu allan yn-mes er-maez amuigh a-muigh mooie outside
gellygen, peren peren perenn piorra peur/piar peear pear
chwarel mengleudh mengleuz cairéal coireall, cuaraidh quarral quarry
ysgol skol skol scoil sgoil scoill school
arian arhans arc'hant airgead airgead argid silver
seren steren steredenn réalta reul rollage star
heddiw hedhyw hiziv inniu an-diugh jiu today
cwympo kodha kouezhañ tit(im) tuit(eam) tuitt(ym) (to) fall
ysmygu megi mogediñ, butuniñ tobac a chaitheamh smocadh toghtaney/smookal (to) smoke
chwibanu hwibana c'hwibanat feadaíl fead fed (to) whistle


Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

  • Irish: Saolaítear na daoine uile saor agus comhionann ina ndínit agus ina gcearta. Tá bua an réasúin agus an choinsiasa acu agus dlíd iad féin d'iompar de mheon bráithreachas i leith a chéile.
  • Manx: Ta dagh ooilley pheiagh ruggit seyr as corrym ayns ard-cheim as kiartyn. Ren Jee feoiltaghey resoon as cooinsheanse orroo as by chair daue ymmyrkey ry cheilley myr braaraghyn.
  • Scottish Gaelic: Tha gach uile dhuine air a bhreth saor agus co-ionnan ann an urram 's ann an còirichean. Tha iad air am breth le reusan is le cogais agus mar sin bu chòir dhaibh a bhith beò nam measg fhein ann an spiorad bràthaireil.
  • Breton: Dieub ha par en o dellezegezh hag o gwirioù eo ganet an holl dud. Poell ha skiant zo dezho ha dleout a reont bevañ an eil gant egile en ur spered a genvreudeuriezh.
  • Cornish: Pub den oll yw genys frank ha kehaval yn dynita ha gwiryow. Yth yns i enduys gans reson ha cowses hag y tal dhedhans gwul dhe udn orth y gila yn spyrys a vredereth.
  • Welsh: Genir pawb yn rhydd ac yn gydradd â'i gilydd mewn urddas a hawliau. Fe'u cynysgaeddir â rheswm a chydwybod, a dylai pawb ymddwyn y naill at y llall mewn ysbryd cymodlon.


See also


  • Ball, Martin J. & James Fife (ed.) (1993). The Celtic Languages. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-01035-7.
  • Borsley, Robert D. & Ian Roberts (ed.) (1996). The Syntax of the Celtic Languages: A Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521481600.
  • Celtic Linguistics, 1700–1850 (2000). London; New York: Routledge. 8 vols comprising 15 texts originally published between 1706 and 1844.
  • Lewis, Henry & Holger Pedersen (1989). A Concise Comparative Celtic Grammar. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 3-525-26102-0.

External links

Template: index

  • Aberdeen University Celtic Department
  • "Labara: An Introduction to the Celtic Languages", by Meredith Richard
  • Celts and Celtic Languages
  • What is necessary to decide if Lusitanian is a Celtic language?
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