The Celtic Languages

Overview of the Celtic languages and their origins.

What are the Celtic languages and how are they related?

Today, there are still many Celtic languages spoken in the world, and in this article, we will see their origins, and how they evolved to become the languages that we know. Celtic belongs to the Indo-European language family, descending from Proto-Celtic, also known as Common Celtic. The first part of this article will be dedicated to explaining why it is called Celtic, its origin and history, and how it is also used to describe multiple languages. The second part of this article will be exploring the different languages that we know. The one who disappeared, and the one still in use today – Also, we will see how they are all tied to the same roots.

The origins of the Celts

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The Celts were Indo-European peoples living in the centre and occidental part of Europe and Anatolia during the Iron-Age. It is believed to be the original place of the beginning of the Celtic civilization. Most of the information gathered around the Celt come from archaeological evidence and Greek and Latin sources. Despite the limited relics found from that period of time, there were enough to describe a whole civilization, its way of living, its political system, and religious beliefs. It is described as a war-oriented society whose values and technology were discovered through their burial practices and offerings. This community spread to the rest of Europe, following the Mediterranean basin. Thanks to archaeological discoveries, it is possible to establish a link between a large majority of European countries and the Celtic civilization. Thanks to their technological discoveries and their great knowledge of warfare, they were able to establish a market for weaponry and war related equipment.

Despite many evidences of a Celtic civilization during the bronze age, it is not completely sure what the real source of this civilization is, and the details of its evolution through time and geography are to be taken with a grain of salt.
The term Celt used to describe the civilization and its characteristics was first used to describe a particular kind of people and their language. It can be found in Greek and Roman writings. It is believed that the Celtic languages comes from a certain language which is at the origin of both the Celtic and Italic languages. They both appeared and developed between 1300 and 800 BC.
The Greeks are believed to be the first to talk and describe this language. With the help of written documents found by archaeologists, it is possible to divide Celtic languages in two groups, the continental and the insular. Information on the continental Celtic language has survived through the work of historians during antiquity. They preserved their knowledge of many aspects surrounding the Celtic civilization, a certain number of inscriptions, giving details of the name of the people and the places at the time.

The Celtic Languages

The insular Celtic languages were spoken in Great-Britain, Ireland, and Britany. This branch of the languages is itself divided in two different groups. First, we have the Goidelic languages (or Q – Celtic). It was spoken in Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the west of Scotland. It was believed to be the oldest form of Insular Celtic. On the other hand, there was the Brittonic (or P – Celtic). The language at the origin of Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. One of the most characteristic features is that the sound p becomes silent at the beginning and between vowels. Which will later differentiate the phonetics of the two languages is the following. A more evolved version of the Celtic language, which was also the source of the Gaulish language.

Many of the Celtic languages have disappeared since then. However, they all constitute a strong root of the modern languages that we use today. Even though, there are very few written examples of those languages left, they keep on living through the languages they evolved in, and the few “real” Celtic languages still spoken as of today.

The Celtic languages nowadays

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In our modern days, a few languages are still spoken. All descended from the Goidelic and Brythonic branches - The Insular Celtic languages survived and evolved. Among the many languages we know of, six of them can still be learned, in order to speak it fluently. In Ireland, an important part of the population still speaks Irish (Gaeilge). The language is still taught at school, and a certain number of places in the west of the country uses the Irish language over the English language. On the Isle of Man, a Celtic language remains, the Manx language (Manx Gaelic). Although the earliest language spoken on the Isle of Man was a form of Brythonic, the Manx language comes from Archaic Irish, a Goidelic language. The number of native speakers left is very small, but the knowledge of the language remains, and thanks to the Manx Language Society, the language survived for another century. In Scotland, the Celtic language of Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) remains. It is also a Goidelic language; it is believed that the language was brought to Scotland by Irish settlers. The language is now part of the languages with a “definitely endangered” status. The number of native speakers has declined over the years, but the language can still be learned, and it remains an important part of the country’s culture. Those three languages are all related and the Old Irish (Old Gaelic) is their shared root. However, the idea that Q – Celti had been reintroduced in Scotland and the Isle of Man by Irish invaders in the 3rd and 4th century AD has since been disproven. For example, it is possible to find names of places in Ireland whose origins come from the P – Celtic.

Three more Insular Celtic languages remain today. In Wales, a national survey shows that, as of June 2020, 29% of the population is able to speak Welsh. It is the only language in the United-Kingdom to be an official language other than English (which is unofficially the main language of Wales). Like the Irish language in Ireland – Welsh is part of the everyday life of certain parts of the country. Despite not being spoken by the majority of the country, it is still treated as an equal to the English language. The education system still promotes the learning of the language – And there are some degree programs in universities only taught through the medium of Welsh. In Cornwall, in the early 20th century, the country started to bring back their own Celtic language. The Cornish language is now part of the identity and culture of Cornwall. Despite being a minority language, there is an increasing number of natives learning the language. Works of literature and even independent movies are being made, to help in increasing the popularity of the language in the country. In France, a Celtic language remains. In the North-West part of the country, a minority of the people speak the Breton language. Although the language has not been recognized by the government, the popularity of the language has been rising in the past few years. Despite the fact that the language cannot be taught to young children in public schools, it is possible to learn more of the language in certain college degrees. Those three Insular Celtic languages are different from the ones before. Those languages come from the Brittonic branches of the Insular Celtic language. The Goidelic languages were mainly spoken in the west part of Scotland and Ireland, while the Brythonic languages were spoken in the rest of England, the Isle of Man and later to Brittany by migrating Britons during the Early Middle Ages.

To conclude this article, the Celts are a fascinating civilization, and their prowess have marked history. The Romans and the Greeks already found them worthy of having their stories written and told. Thanks to their work, the Celts keep on living through time and civilizations. Their story remains uncertain, and many scholars and historians share disagreements regarding their origins and development as a society. That being said, they definitely left their mark in our world, and the Celtic identity is a great source of inspiration even today. It is truly impressive to see that despite the overwhelming presence of the Latin languages, some Celtic ones survived that long. And, despite the uncertainty surrounding the whole history of the Celt, the public opinion became prone to the use of their regional Celtic languages, as a way to embrace the roots of their origins and to give their lands their true identity.

Published 27 May 2022
  • by Étudiant en cultures celtiques. J’ai fait une licence LLCER Anglais à l’université de Toulon. J’ai fait un ERASMUS d’un an en Irlande à (…)
(Edited 22 May 2022)

Bibliography

  • The Ancient Celts by Barry Cunliffe
  • The Celtic Languages Edited by Donald MacAulay
  • The Early Celts – The evidence of languages D. Ellis Evans
  • The Celtic Languages Edited by Martin J. Ball & James Fife