The Celtic languages
are descended from Proto-Celtic
, or "Common Celtic", a branch of
the greater Indo-European
. 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
. During the 1st millennium BC, they were
spoken across Europe, from the Bay of Biscay and the North
Sea, up the Rhine and down the
Danube to the Black Sea and the Upper Balkan
Peninsula, and into Asia Minor (Galatia).
Celtic languages are limited to a few areas on the western fringe
of Europe, notably Ireland, the
peninsula of Brittany in France, and areas
of the United
Kingdom including Wales, Scotland and Cornwall. Celtic languages are also spoken on the
Man, Cape Breton Island 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:
- Gaulish and
its close relatives Lepontic, Noric, and Galatian. These languages were once spoken in a wide
arc from France to Turkey and from
Belgium to northern
Italy. They are now all extinct.
- Celtiberian, anciently spoken in the
peninsula, in the areas of modern Northern Portugal, and Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Aragón, and
León in Spain.
Lusitanian, from Southern Portugal, may also have been a Celtic language. These
are now also extinct.
- Goidelic, including Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. At one time there were Irish on the
coast of southwest England and on the coast of north and south
- Brythonic (also called
British or Brittonic), including Welsh, Breton,
Cornish, Cumbric, and possibly also Pictish though this may be a sister
language rather than a daughter of British (Common Brythonic). 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. Kenneth
Jackson used the term "Brittonic" for the form of the British
language after the changes in the 6th century.
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 Britain, several waves of the native Britons or "Welsh"
(from a Germanic word for "foreigners") crossed the English
Channel 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 culture, though the earlier assumption of association
between language and culture is now considered to be less
The term Celtic
is pronounced either or , but is more
common, as the word Celtic
is derived from the Greek
. The term is sometimes spelled either
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
leaving just Goidelic as Q-Celtic
. The difference
between P and Q languages is the treatment of Proto-Celtic
in the P-Celtic languages but *k
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
The other scheme, defended for example by McCone (1996), links
Goidelic and Brythonic together as an Insular Celtic
Gaulish and Celtiberian are referred to as Continental Celtic
to this theory, the "P-Celtic" sound change of to occurred
independently or areally
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
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
Within the Indo-European
family, the Celtic languages have sometimes been placed with the
in a common
subfamily, a hypothesis
that is now largely discarded, in favour of the assumption of
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 is necessarily unique to the Celtic
languages, there are few if any other languages which possess them
all. They include:
- consonant mutations (Insular
- 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
- verb-subject-object (VSO) word order (probably Insular Celtic
- an interplay between the subjunctive, future, imperfect, and
habitual, to the point that some tenses and moods have ousted
- an impersonal or autonomous verb form serving as a passive or
- Welsh dysgaf "I teach" vs. dysgir "is taught,
one teaches", Irish "déanaim" "I do/make" vs. "déantar" "is
- 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
- 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 +
- use of periphrastic phrases to express verbal tense, voice, or
- 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
- 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
(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.
- Ethnographic Map of Pre-Roman Iberia (circa 200
- 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).
- 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
- 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.