Celtic languages

Celtic languages

Infobox Language family
name = Celtic
region = Formerly widespread in Europe; today British Isles, Brittany, Patagonia and Nova Scotia
familycolor = Indo-European
fam1 = Indo-European
child1 = Continental Celtic
child2 = Insular Celtic
The Celtic languages are descended from Proto-Celtic, or "Common Celtic", a branch of the greater Indo-European language family. The term "Celtic" was invented as a language group label by Edward Lhuyd in 1707, having much earlier been used by Greek and Roman writers for tribes in central Gaul. 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). Today, Celtic languages are limited to a few areas in Great Britain, the Isle of Man, Ireland, Cape Breton Island, Patagonia, and on the peninsula of Brittany in France. The spread to Cape Breton and Patagonia occurred in modern times. In all areas the Celtic languages are now only spoken by minorities.


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 Iberian peninsula [, [http://www.arkeotavira.com/Mapas/Iberia/Populi.htm www.arkeotavira.com] ] namely in the areas of modern Northern Portugal, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Aragón and León in Spain. Lusitanian 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 Wales.

*Brythonic (also called British or Brittonic), including Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Cumbric, the hypothetical Ivernic, and possibly also Pictish though this may be a sister language rather than a daughter of Common Brythonic. [The late Kenneth Jackson proposed a non-Indo-European Pictish language existing alongside a "Pretenic" one. This is no longer accepted by some scholars. See Katherine Forsyth's "Language in Pictland : the case against 'non-Indo-European Pictish'" " PDFlink| [http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/archive/00002081/01/languagepictland.pdf Etext] |27.8 MiB . 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'" PDFlink| [http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/institutes/sassi/spns/INDEX2INTRO.pdf Etext] |172 KiB . Compare also the treatment of Pictish in Price's "The Languages of Britain" (1984) with his "Languages in Britain & Ireland" (2000).] 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 P-Celtic from Q-Celtic, putting most of the Continental Celtic languages in the former group (except for Celtiberian, which is Q-Celtic).

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 Brythons 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 BCE according to Gray and Atkinson but, because of estimation uncertainty, it could be any time between 1200 and 800 BCE. 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 BCE +/- 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.


The term "Celtic" is pronounced either IPA|/ˈkɛltɪk/ or IPA|/ˈsɛltɪk/, but IPA|/ˈkɛltɪk/ 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 *"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 (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 IPA| [kʷ] to IPA| [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 IPA| [m] to IPA| [β̃] , 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

*Proto-Celtic or Common Celtic
**Continental Celtic
**Insular Celtic
****Primitive Irish
****Old Irish
****Middle Irish
*****Scottish Gaelic
*****Old Welsh
******Middle Welsh
*****Southwestern Brythonic
******CornishP-Celtic/Q-Celtic hypothesis

*Proto-Celtic or Common Celtic
****Old Welsh
****Middle Welsh
****Southwestern Brythonic
****Primitive Irish
****Old Irish
****Middle Irish
*****Scottish Gaelic

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
*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 "dysgais" "I taught" vs. "dysgwyd" "was taught, one taught"
*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 VSO in the second half.

(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

* Bungee language, a Métis mix of Scottish Gaelic, Cree and other languages.
* Shelta, a mix of the Irish, English and Romany languages.
* Some forms of Romany language in Wales, also combined Romany itself with Welsh language and English language forms.



*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.
*cite book| last=Cowgill |first=Warren |authorlink=Warren Cowgill |year=1975 |chapter=The origins of the Insular Celtic conjunct and absolute verbal endings |editor=H. Rix (ed.) |title=Flexion und Wortbildung: Akten der V. Fachtagung der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft, Regensburg, 9.–14. September 1973 |location=Wiesbaden |pages=40–70 |publisher=Reichert |id=ISBN 3-920153-40-5
*"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.
*cite journal| last=McCone |first=Kim |year=1991 |title=The PIE stops and syllabic nasals in Celtic |journal=Studia Celtica Japonica |volume=4 |pages=37–69
*cite book| last=McCone |first=Kim |year=1992 |chapter=Relative Chronologie: Keltisch |title=Rekonstruktion und relative Chronologie: Akten Der VIII. Fachtagung Der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft, Leiden, 31. August–4. September 1987 |editor=R. Beekes, A. Lubotsky, and J. Weitenberg (eds.) |pages=12–39 |publisher=Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck |id=ISBN 3-85124-613-6
*cite book|author=McCone, K.|year=1996|title=Towards a Relative Chronology of Ancient and Medieval Celtic Sound Change|location=Maynooth | publisher=Department of Old and Middle Irish, St. Patrick's College|id=ISBN 0-901519-40-5
*Russell, Paul (1995). "An Introduction to the Celtic Languages". London; New York: Longman. ISBN 0582100828.
*cite book | author=Schmidt, K. H. | year=1988 | chapter=On the reconstruction of Proto-Celtic | editor=G. W. MacLennan | title=Proceedings of the First North American Congress of Celtic Studies, Ottawa 1986 | pages=231–48 | location=Ottawa | publisher=Chair of Celtic Studies | id=ISBN 0-09-693260-0
*cite book| last=Schrijver |first=Peter |year=1995 |title=Studies in British Celtic historical phonology |location=Amsterdam |publisher=Rodopi |id=ISBN 90-5183-820-4

ee also

*Language families and languages
*Celtic League (political organisation)
*Celtic Congress

External links

* [http://www.abdn.ac.uk/celtic Aberdeen University Celtic Department]
* [http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=90047 Ethnologue report for Celtic languages]
* [http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=90017 Ethnologue report for Indo-European languages]
* [http://www.summerlands.com/crossroads/celticlanguage/labara1.html "Labara: An Introduction to the Celtic Languages", by Meredith Richard]
* [http://www.breizh.net/icdbl/saozg/Celtic_Languages.pdf Celts and Celtic Languages]

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