Celtic languages

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Formerly widespread in Europe; today Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, Patagonia and Nova Scotia
Linguistic classification:Indo-European
  • Celtic
ISO 639-5:cel
Linguasphere:50= (phylozone)
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Formerly widespread in Europe; today Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, Patagonia and Nova Scotia
Linguistic classification:Indo-European
  • Celtic
ISO 639-5:cel
Linguasphere:50= (phylozone)

The Celtic languages (usually pronounced /ˈkɛltɪk/ but sometimes /ˈsɛltɪk/)[2] are descended from Proto-Celtic, or "Common Celtic"; a branch of the greater Indo-European language family.[3] The term "Celtic" was first used to describe this language group by Edward Lhuyd in 1707.[4]

Modern Celtic languages are mostly 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,[5] Canada, Australia,[6] and New Zealand.[7] 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 not classified as "endangered" by UNESCO.

During the 1st millennium BC, they were spoken across much of Europe, in the Iberian Peninsula, from the Atlantic and North Sea coastlines, up to the Rhine valley and down the Danube valley to the Black Sea, the northern Balkan Peninsula and in central 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.[8]

Living languages[edit]

SIL Ethnologue lists six "living" Celtic languages, of which four have retained a substantial number of native speakers. These are the Gaelic languages (i.e. the Irish language and Scottish Gaelic - both descended from Old Irish), and the Brittonic languages (i.e. Welsh and the Breton language - both descended from Old Brittonic).

The other two, Cornish and Manx, were spoken into modern times but later died as spoken community languages.[9][10][11] For both these languages, however, revitalization movements have led to the adoption of these languages by adults and children and produced some native speakers.[12][13]

Taken together, there were roughly one million native speakers of Celtic languages as of the 2000s.[14] In 2010, there were more than 1.4 million speakers of Celtic languages.[15]


LanguageNative nameGroupingNumber of native speakersNumber of people who have one or more skills in the languageMain area(s) in which the language is spokenRegulated by/language body
WelshCymraegBrittonic431,000 (14.6% of the population of Wales) self-certify that they "can speak Welsh" (2011)[16]Around 721,700 (2011) total speakers
Wales: 562,000 speakers, 19.0% of the population of Wales,[16]
England: 150,000[17]
Chubut Province, Argentina: 5,000[18]
United States: 2,500[19]
Canada: 2,200[20]
Y Wladfa, Chubut
Welsh Language Commissioner (Meri Huws)
— The Welsh Government
(previously the Welsh Language Board Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg)
In the Republic of Ireland, 94,000 people use Irish daily outside the education system.[25]
Republic of Ireland:
United Kingdom:
United States:
IrelandForas na Gaeilge
BretonBrezhonegBrittonic206,000356,000[26]BrittanyOfis Publik ar Brezhoneg
Scottish GaelicGàidhligGoidelic57,375 (2011)[27] in Scotland as well as 1,275 (2011) in Nova Scotia[28]87,056 (2011)[27] in ScotlandScotlandBòrd na Gàidhlig
CornishKernewekBrittonic600[29]3,000[30]CornwallKeskowethyans an Taves Kernewek
ManxGaelgGoidelic100+,[12][31] including a small number of children who are new native speakers[32]1,823[33]Isle of ManCoonceil ny Gaelgey

Mixed languages[edit]


Classification of Indo-European languages. (click to enlarge)

Proto-Celtic divided into various branches:

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,[41] having been introduced from Southwestern regions of Britain in the post-Roman era and having 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[42][43] 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[44] 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.[45][46]

The Celtic nations where most Celtic speakers are now concentrated

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.[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".[47]

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".

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.[citation needed]

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

Eska (2010)[edit]

Eska (2010)[48] evaluates the evidence as supporting the following tree, based on shared innovations, though it is not always clear that the innovations are not areal features. It seems likely that Celtiberian split off before Cisalpine Celtic, but the evidence for this is not robust. On the other hand, the unity of Gaulish, Goidelic, and Brittonic is reasonably secure. Schumacher (2004, p. 86) had already cautiously considered this grouping to be likely genetic, based, among others, on the shared reformation of the sentence-initial, fully inflecting relative pronoun *i̯os, *i̯ā, *i̯od into an uninflected enclitic particle. Eska sees Cisalpine Gaulish as more akin to Lepontic than to Transalpine Gaulish.

Eska considers a division of Transalpine–Goidelic–Brittonic into Transalpine and Insular Celtic to be most probable because of the greater number of innovations in Insular Celtic than in P-Celtic, and because the Insular Celtic languages were probably not in great enough contact for those innovations to spread as part of a sprachbund. However, if they have another explanation (such as an SOV substratum language), then it is possible that P-Celtic is a valid clade, and the top branching would be:

Characteristics of Celtic languages[edit]

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:

(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.

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

Comparison table[edit]

WelshCornishBretonIrishScottish GaelicManxEnglish
gwenynengwenenengwenanennbeachseillean, beachshellanbee
cadairkadorkadorcathaoircathair, seidhircaairchair
aberaberaberinbhearinbhirinverestuary, mouth of a river
chititeach, tightaighthiehouse
gwefusgweusgweuzliopa, beolbile, lipmeilllip (anatomical)
arianmona, arghansmoneiz, arcʼhantairgeadairgeadargidsilver, money
rhif, niferniverniveruimhiràireamhearroonumber
tu fas, tu allanyn-meser-maezamuigha-muighmooieoutside
gellygen, perenperenperennpiorrapeur/piarpeearpear
chwarelmengleudhmengleuzcairéalcoireall, cuaraidhquarralquarry
cwympokodhakouezhañtit(im)tuit(eam)tuitt(ym)(to) fall
ysmygumegimogediñ, butuniñtobac a chaitheamhsmocadhtoghtaney/smookal(to) smoke
chwibanuhwibanac'hwibanatfeadaílfeadfed(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.

Possible Celtic languages[edit]

Languages that have been suggested as possibly Celtic:


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Celtic". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ "American Heritage Dictionary. Celtic: kel-tik, sel". Dictionary.reference.com. Retrieved 19 August 2011. 
  3. ^ The Celtic languages:an overview, Donald MacAulay, The Celtic Languages, ed. Donald MacAulay, (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 3.
  4. ^ Cunliffe, Barry W. 2003. The Celts: a very short introduction. pg.48
  5. ^ "Language by State – Scottish Gaelic" on Modern Language Association website. Retrieved 27 December 2007
  6. ^ "Languages Spoken At Home" from Australian Government Office of Multicultural Interests website. Retrieved 27 December 2007
  7. ^ Languages Spoken:Total Responses from Statistics New Zealand website. Retrieved 5 August 2008
  8. ^ G. Leitner, Australia's Many Voices: Australian English--The National Language, 2004, pg. 74
  9. ^ Koch, John T. (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 34, 365–366, 529, 973, 1053. Retrieved 15 June 2010. 
  10. ^ "A brief history of the Cornish language". Maga Kernow. 
  11. ^ Beresford Ellis, Peter (1990, 1998, 2005). The Story of the Cornish Language. Tor Mark Press. pp. 20–22. ISBN 0-85025-371-3.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  12. ^ a b Staff. "Fockle ny ghaa: schoolchildren take charge". Iomtoday.co.im. Retrieved 19 August 2011. 
  13. ^ "'South West:TeachingEnglish:British Council:BBC". BBC/British Council website (BBC). 2010. Retrieved 9 February 2010. 
  14. ^ "Celtic Languages". Ethnologue. Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  15. ^ Crystal, David (2010). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-73650-3. 
  16. ^ a b Office for National Statistics 2011 http://ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census/key-statistics-for-unitary-authorities-in-wales/stb-2011-census-key-statistics-for-wales.html#tab---Proficiency-in-Welsh
  17. ^ United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – UK: Welsh". UNHCR. Retrieved 23 May 2010. 
  18. ^ "Wales and Argentina". Wales.com website. Welsh Assembly Government. 2008. Retrieved 23 January 2012. 
  19. ^ "Table 1. Detailed Languages Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English for the Population 5 Years and Over for the United States: 2006-2008 Release Date: April 2010" (xls). United States Census Bureau. 27 April 2010. Retrieved 2 January 2011. 
  20. ^ "2006 Census of Canada: Topic based tabulations: Various Languages Spoken (147), Age Groups (17A) and Sex (3) for the Population of Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2006 Census - 20% Sample Data". Statistics Canada. 7 December 2010. Retrieved 3 January 2011. 
  21. ^ "Irish Examiner". Archives.tcm.ie. 24 November 2004. Retrieved 19 August 2011. 
  22. ^ Christina Bratt Paulston. Linguistic Minorities in Multilingual Settings: Implications for Language Policies. J. Benjamins Pub. Co. p. 81. ISBN 1-55619-347-5. 
  23. ^ Pierce, David (2000). Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century. Cork University Press. p. 1140. ISBN 1-85918-208-9. 
  24. ^ Ó hÉallaithe, Donncha (1999). Cuisle. 
  25. ^ a b www.cso.ie Central Statistics Office, Census 2011 - This is Ireland - see table 33a
  26. ^ (French) Données clés sur breton, Ofis ar Brezhoneg
  27. ^ a b 2011 Scotland Census, Table QS211SC.
  28. ^ "National Household Survey Profile, Nova Scotia, 2011". Statistics Canada. 11 September 2013. Retrieved 7 June 2014. 
  29. ^ some 600 children brought up as bilingual native speakers (2003 estimate, SIL Ethnologue).
  30. ^ Around 2,000 fluent speakers. "'South West:TeachingEnglish:British Council:BBC". BBC/British Council website (BBC). 2010. Retrieved 9 February 2010. 
  31. ^ "Anyone here speak Jersey?". Independent.co.uk. 11 April 2002. Retrieved 2011-08-19. 
  32. ^ "Documentation for ISO 639 identifier: glv". Sil.org. 14 January 2008. Retrieved 19 August 2011. 
  33. ^ "Isle of Man Census Report 2011" (PDF). Economic Affairs Division, Isle of Man Government Treasury. April 2012. p. 27. Retrieved 9 June 2014. 
  34. ^ "Shelta". Ethnologue. Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  35. ^ "ROMLEX: Romani dialects". Romani.uni-graz.at. Retrieved 19 August 2011. 
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  40. ^ 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).
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  47. ^ Stifter, David (2008). Old Celtic Languages. p. 11. 
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  53. ^ The inscription of Cabeço das Fráguas revisited. Lusitanian and Alteuropäisch populations in the West of the Iberian Peninsula Transactions of the Philological Society vol. 97 (2003)
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See also[edit]


External links[edit]