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The Celtic languages are descended from Proto-Celtic, or "Common Celtic", a branch of the greater Indo-European language family. The term "Celtic" was used to describe this language group by Edward Lhuyd in 1707, having much earlier been used by Greek and Roman writers to describe tribes in central Gaul. During the 1st millennium BC, they were spoken across Europe, from the Bay of Biscaymarker and the North Seamarker, up the Rhinemarker and down the Danube to the Black Seamarker and the Upper Balkan Peninsula, and into Asia Minormarker (Galatia). Today, Celtic languages are limited to a few areas on the western fringe of Europe, notably Irelandmarker, the peninsula of Brittany in Francemarker, and areas of the United Kingdommarker including Walesmarker, Scotlandmarker and Cornwallmarker. Celtic languages are also spoken on the Isle of Manmarker, Cape Breton Islandmarker and in Patagonia. The spread to Cape Breton and Patagonia occurred in modern times. In all these areas the Celtic languages are now only spoken by minorities although there are continuing efforts at revival. Although Celtic languages were spoken in Australia before federation in 1901, these have died out.


Proto-Celtic apparently divided into four sub-families:

Scholarly handling of the Celtic languages has been rather argumentative owing to lack of much primary source data. Some scholars 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 distinguish between P-Celtic and Q-Celtic, putting most 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 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. When the Anglo-Saxons moved into Great Britainmarker, several waves of the native Britons or "Welsh" (from a Germanic word for "foreigners") crossed the English Channelmarker and landed in Brittany. They brought their Brythonic language with them, which evolved into Breton – which is still partially intelligible with Modern Welsh and Cornish.

In the P/Q classification scheme 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). With the Insular/Continental classification scheme 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 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 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 culturemarker, though the earlier assumption of association between language and culture is now considered to be less strong.


The term Celtic is pronounced either or , but is more common, as the word Celtic is derived from the Greek, Keltoi. The term is sometimes spelled either Keltic or Celtick in old documents.


There are two main competing schemata of categorization. The older scheme, 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 (Oscan and Greek).

The other scheme, 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 to 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 to , a nasalized 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, the Insular/Continental schemata usually considers Celtiberian 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).

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 -

Insular/Continental hypothesis

P-Celtic/Q-Celtic hypothesis

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 is 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)
  • 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/relativizers
    • 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
  • 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 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.

Mixed languages


  1. Ethnographic Map of Pre-Roman Iberia (circa 200 B.C.)
  2. Kenneth H. Jackson suggested that there were two Pictish languages, a pre-Indo-European one and a Pretenic Celtic one. This has been challenged by some scholars. See Katherine Forsyth's "Language in Pictland : the case against 'non-Indo-European Pictish'" . See also the introduction by James & Taylor to the "Index of Celtic and Other Elements in W.J.Watson's 'The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland'" . Compare also the treatment of Pictish in Price's The Languages of Britain (1984) with his Languages in Britain & Ireland (2000).

See also


  • Ball, Martin J. & James Fife (ed.) (1993). The Celtic Languages. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415010357.
  • 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 vol.s comprising 15 texts originally published between 1706 and 1844.
  • Forster, Peter and Toth, Alfred. Towards a phylogenetic chronology of ancient Gaulish, Celtic and Indo-European PNAS Vol 100/13, July 22, 2003.
  • Gray, Russell and Atkinson, Quintin. Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin Nature Vol 426, 27 Nov 2003.
  • Hindley, Reg (1990). The Death of the Irish Language: A Qualified Obituary. London; New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415043395.
  • Lewis, Henry & Holger Pedersen (1989). A Concise Comparative Celtic Grammar. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 3525261020.
  • Russell, Paul (1995). An Introduction to the Celtic Languages. London; New York: Longman. ISBN 0582100828.

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