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, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. 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.
The other two, Cornish and Manx, were spoken into modern times but later died as spoken community languages. For both these languages, however, revitalization movements have led to the adoption of these languages by adults and children and produced some native speakers.
Taken together, there were roughly one million native speakers of Celtic languages as of the 2000s. In 2010, there were more than 1.4 million speakers of Celtic languages.
Number of native speakers
Number of people who have one or more skills in the language
Classification of Indo-European languages. (click to enlarge)
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. These languages were once spoken in a wide arc from France to Turkey and from Belgium to northern Italy. They are now all extinct.
Gallaecian, anciently spoken in north-western Iberia (north-west Spain and northern Portugal).
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.
Brittonic, 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 Common Brittonic. Before the arrival of Scotti on the Isle of Man in the 9th century, there may have been a Brittonic language in the Isle of Man.
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 Brittonic 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 Brittonic 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 Brittonic, 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 crossed the English Channel and landed in Brittany. They brought with them their Brittonic 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 Brittonic languages (see Schmidt). In the Insular/Continental classification schema, the split of the former into Gaelic and Brittonic 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 strong.
There are two main competing schemata of categorization. The older schema, argued for by Schmidt (1988) among others, links Gaulish with Brittonic 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 *kʷ, 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 Brittonic 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 nasalisedvoiced 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-Brittonic 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. 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".
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 "Brittonic".
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:
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
Examples: (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.
estuary, mouth of a river
tu fas, tu allan
tobac a chaitheamh
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.
^ abSchumacher, Stefan; Schulze-Thulin, Britta; aan de Wiel, Caroline (2004). Die keltischen Primärverben. Ein vergleichendes, etymologisches und morphologisches Lexikon (in German). Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachen und Kulturen der Universität Innsbruck. pp. 84–87. ISBN3-85124-692-6.
^Prósper, B.M. (2002). Lenguas y religiones prerromanas del occidente de la península ibérica. Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca. pp. 422–27. ISBN84-7800-818-7.
^Villar F., B. M. Prósper. (2005). Vascos, Celtas e Indoeuropeos: genes y lenguas. Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca. pgs. 333–350. ISBN # 84-7800-530-7.
^Kenneth H. Jackson suggested that there were two Pictish languages, a pre-Indo-European one and a Pritenic Celtic one. This has been challenged by some scholars. See Katherine Forsyth's "Language in Pictland: the case against 'non-Indo-European Pictish'"Etext PDF (27.8 MB). 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'"Etext PDF (172 KB[dead link]). Compare also the treatment of Pictish in Price's The Languages of Britain (1984) with his Languages in Britain & Ireland (2000).
^Rexova, K.; Frynta, D and Zrzavy, J. (2003). "Cladistic analysis of languages: Indo-European classification based on lexicostatistical data". Cladistics19 (2): 120–127. doi:10.1111/j.1096-0031.2003.tb00299.x.Cite uses deprecated parameters (help)
^Forster, Peter; Toth, Alfred (2003). Toward a phylogenetic chronology of ancient Gaulish, Celtic, and Indo-European. The National Academy of Sciences.Cite uses deprecated parameters (help)
^Renfrew, Colin (1987). Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN0224024957.
^James, Simon (1999). The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?. London: British Museum Press. ISBN0714121657.
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.
Cowgill, Warren (1975). "The origins of the Insular Celtic conjunct and absolute verbal endings". In H. Rix. Flexion und Wortbildung: Akten der V. Fachtagung der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft, Regensburg, 9.–14. September 1973. Wiesbaden: Reichert. pp. 40–70. ISBN3-920153-40-5.
Celtic Linguistics, 1700–1850 (2000). London; New York: Routledge. 8 vols comprising 15 texts originally published between 1706 and 1844.
McCone, Kim (1991). "The PIE stops and syllabic nasals in Celtic". Studia Celtica Japonica4: 37–69.
McCone, Kim (1992). "Relative Chronologie: Keltisch". In R. Beekes, A. Lubotsky, and J. Weitenberg (eds.). Rekonstruktion und relative Chronologie: Akten Der VIII. Fachtagung Der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft, Leiden, 31 August – 4 September 1987. Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck. pp. 12–39. ISBN3-85124-613-6.
McCone, K. (1996). Towards a Relative Chronology of Ancient and Medieval Celtic Sound Change. Maynooth: Department of Old and Middle Irish, St. Patrick's College. ISBN0-901519-40-5.
Russell, Paul (1995). An Introduction to the Celtic Languages. Longman. ISBN0582100828.
Schmidt, K.H. (1988). "On the reconstruction of Proto-Celtic". In G. W. MacLennan. Proceedings of the First North American Congress of Celtic Studies, Ottawa 1986. Ottawa: Chair of Celtic Studies. pp. 231–48. ISBN0-09-693260-0.
Schrijver, Peter (1995). Studies in British Celtic historical phonology. Amsterdam: Rodopi. ISBN90-5183-820-4.
Schumacher, Stefan; Schulze-Thulin, Britta; aan de Wiel, Caroline (2004). Die keltischen Primärverben. Ein vergleichendes, etymologisches und morphologisches Lexikon (in German). Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachen und Kulturen der Universität Innsbruck. ISBN3-85124-692-6.