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Keltria Journal

Issue 32 - Samhain/Winter 1996

Labara: Intro. to the Celtic Languages

Part 3: Celtic language learning, a guide for Pagans

by Meredith Richard

In this series of articles, we've taken a look at the history, the structure and worldview of the Celtic languages, and a few reasons why Celtic language is the defining quality of Celticness. Over the course, we dealt with some major reasons why most Celtic Pagans do not learn a Celtic language: unawareness of the existence of the languages, their richness and depth, and their essential role in Celtic culture; acceptance of the majority-culture indoctrination that other languages have nothing truly different about them and can be translated into English with no appreciable loss of meaning; and unconscious acceptance of the inferiority and irrelevancy assigned to these languages by the same majority cultures. Once over these hurdles, though, there remain certain practical problems; chiefly of finding learning materials and classes, and learning how to learn a language, something that most Americans have little practice doing.

The six modern Celtic languages are Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Manx and Cornish. Your particular interests will probably attract you to one of these. You may also be attracted to learning an older Celtic language in order to read early Celtic mythology and literature in the original form. This is a worthy goal, but it should be remembered that the Celtic heritage is a living thing: only by learning and using a spoken, living language will you appreciate its full beauty and vitality. Until you have used a Celtic language as a real means of communication and expression, you are likely to perceive the old texts merely as things to be translated into English -- gut understanding won't be present. Once you have some competency in speaking a modern Celtic language, the older language will become much easier to learn, and your experience of them much more direct.

General Tips of Learning Materials

Ideally, you may be able to take a course in the language, possibly at a college or university, or perhaps through a Celtic organization near you. If so, the teacher will advise you on necessary learning materials and where to get them. If there are no classes readily available, you will have to locate materials on your own. Here are some general tips:

Specific Learning Materials

Doing justice to a list of Celtic language learning materials proved to be rather overwhelming. Instead, here are several useful addresses to get you started. (I'll also quickly mention here that the Teach Yourself series of language courses & cassettes includes Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh and can be ordered through any bookstore.)

Celtic League American Branch

PO Box 20153

Dag Hammersjold Postal Center

New York, NY 10017

Publishes Learning the Celtic Languages, available for $6 (also publishes journal Keltoi and a Celtic calendar (starting on Samhain), both of which include material of interest to Pagans)

Dalriada Celtic Heritage Trust

Dun na Beatha

2 Brathwic Place


Isle of Arran

Scotland KA27 8BN

Publishes the Celtic Pages, 6 for North American orders (payment in sterling) which is packed with information on Celtic organizations, courses, craftworkers, publishers, shops, and so forth. Particularly valuable when you begin to broaden your studies. (Also publish Dalriada magazine, run a Celtic BBS, and provide a correspondence course)

Irish Books and Graphics

580 Broadway

New York, NY 10012

Irish books and learning materials; I believe they carry some Manx and Scottish Gaelic material as well

The Harp and Dragon

25 Madison Street

Cortland, NY 13045

Welsh imports, learning materials, books, music and harps

Gaelic College of Arts and Crafts

P.O. Box 9

Baddeck, Nova Scotia B0E 1B0

Courses include Scottish Gaelic

Bro Nevez

Lois Kuter

169 Greenwood Avenue, B-4

Jenkintown, PA 19046

Newsletter of the International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language

Skol Ober



22310 Plufur



Breton correspondence course (through medium of French)

Kernewek Sowyn

Hilary Shaw

The Old Kiln

Port Navas

Falmouth, Kernow TR11 5RK


Course covering syllabus of Cornish Language Board; can be used by correspondence

Cheshaght Ghailckagh

(Manx Gaelic Society)

Mrs. Audey Ainsworth

3 Glencrutchery Road


Isle of Man

Write for information on classes, publications, and Manx books

Language Learning Techniques

First, some practicalities. You need to find time. Steady practice is the key, even if your sessions are short; fifteen minutes a day is far better than two hours once a week. A schedule, even a really flexible one, is helpful. If you study only when you have the leisure, it's easy to never get around to it. Language tapes can help you make good use of your time as well: listen to them on the way to work or while jogging or whatever.

One critical exercise that is skimped in some books is the 'pattern practice exercise'. When you learn a new grammatical structure, create a table of 'possible sentences' using that structure with vocabulary words you know. For instance, you may have just learned that the English pattern "X is Y-ing" corresponds to the Welsh pattern "Mae X yn Y." Practice the pattern over and over again, substituting different combinations of vocabulary words for the X's and Y's. Furthermore, as soon as you are vaguely familiar with the vocabulary and pattern, resist the temptation to mentally translate into English as you go along. Instead, visualize the meaning. When you say, for example, Mae Twn yn eistedd, ignore the little voice in your head that's echoing in English, "Tom is sitting", and simply visualize a guy named Twm sitting. This is a much faster way to set the new pattern in your mind; it moves you farther toward being able to think in the new language and it happens to be an excellent mental exercise, especially useful if you're learning magical visualization techniques.

Plenty of other strategies for learning languages are covered in readily available books. Festoon your house with Celtic vocabulary labels. Tape your pattern practice exercises and your vocabulary lists to your bathroom mirror and on your desk at work. Supplement the vocabulary in the book with vocabulary about things you're interested in: while we should be able to talk about Tom at a picnic, we would also like to be able to talk about the standing stone in the field. But do not, on any account, go wild with a dictionary before you have a grasp on the grammar and vocabulary involved. As discussed in the previous article, the patterns and idiom of Celtic languages are much different than that of English; using the dictionary as your principal tool when translating meaning into a new language is the fastest possible route to total gibberish. Instead, try to absorb meanings in a grammatical and native Celtic context. A children's edition of mythology and folktales is an excellent place to start.

We are not learning a Celtic language chiefly for its practical uses, but for its aesthetic, poetic, and spiritual essence, in order to understand the Celtic worldview as fully as possible. It is essential to broaden our studies beyond the 'practical' as soon as possible.

Broadening Out - Starting to Absorb Celtic Culture Directly

One obvious and enjoyable step in broader 'cultural studies' in the language is vocal music. The second is poetry (the type with rhyme and meter). Both of these are very good for learning the rhythm of the language, and are very suitable for memorizing. Since the English translation is highly unlikely to rhyme or scan, the tendency towards mental translation into English is discouraged.

There is a great deal of music recorded in the Celtic languages; some recordings and albums are nationally distributed (particularly Irish and Scottish artists). Other recordings may require you to go to a Celtic import shop or order through the mail. There is Celtic-language music to match most tastes: folk and other traditional styles (not all of which are 'folk'),1 folk rock, rock, pop, country & western, alternative, and so forth. There are also some recordings especially for learners, such as the "Karaoke Ceilidh" tape available from Comunn an Luchd-Ionnsachaidh, the Scottish Gaelic learners' organization: for each song there is recorded a full version, a karaoke version, and a spoken model of the lyrics. If possible, listen to the Thistle & Shamrock program on National Public Radio; Celtic-language music is frequently featured.

There are also books of Celtic music. Folk-Songs of Britain and Ireland, which is not too difficult to find, contains much Celtic-language material. For this one, as for some others, you should be cautious of the English lyrics given; the translations are often designed to rhyme and scan in English, rather than give an accurate version of the Celtic lyrics. In any case, you should not only learn the sound of the words of a Celtic song; work out meaning of the lyrics on your own as well. (And again, I hate to have to say this, but there are some Pagan albums which commit indecent assault on Celtic grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. Trust 'outside' material first.)

There are a great many books of Celtic language poetry. As Druids and Pagans, a lot of the earlier poetry is apt to be of great interest, and some of it may already be familiar in English translation. Some of these 'familiar' poems may be an excellent place to start your acquaintance with Celtic language poetry, and learn just how little even the best English translation can capture of the meaning and beauty; however, these are written in older forms of the languages and you will probably need help to understand them. More contemporary poetry is a good place to start, and it covers a wide range of styles from strict-meter verses (reminiscent of Japanese haiku) to 'folk poetry' like the lovely charms and prayers collected in the Carmina Gadelica.

In prose, an obvious place to start is mythology. Depending on your ability, you can choose from childrens editions in easy language, full translations into the modern language, or the original versions themselves (again, best tackled after some competence with the modern language is achieved). Folklore, folktales, Celtic folk studies and other Celtic studies are all published in Celtic languages (much of which has not been published in English). There are also magazines and books specifically aimed at learners. And, though most Pagans are not aware of it, there is a healthy amount of modern Celtic-language fiction and poetry based on mythological themes or other subjects of interest to Pagans. Don't neglect the 'classics' of Celtic literature, either, no matter what their theme or time period: these will bring you to a much deeper understanding of the Celts throughout their full history. You'll probably know what to read by the time you're ready to read at that level; ask your by-then numerous Celtic contacts for recommendations, too.

You should endeavor to use the new language as a means of ordinary communication as much as possible, as soon as possible. You may be able to find other learners in your area, possibly through a local Celtic-interest organization, or through organizations like the Celtic League. There are learners' organizations in all of the Celtic countries; they can offer lots of assistance in your studies, and also may help you find a Celtic-language penpal or phonepal. The Internet has Celtic-language mailing lists that you can join. Or take a holiday to a Celtic-speaking area. You could also attend a Celtic-language festival, or take a residential language course (from single weekends to full terms). The relevant tourist board should be able to help you with planning a Celtic-language-focused holiday (there exists an excellent guide to holidays in Gaelic Scotland, for example), and should certainly be able to refer you to festival boards, organizations and language centers. And there are also residential language courses and festivals in the US and Canada as well; such as the one at the Gaelic Arts College in Nova Scotia, or Welsh Heritage Week.

As you learn both the language and the culture, you will want to incorporate what you learn into your spiritual life. Some ways will be obvious: as you come across new stories and folklore, new facts and new underlying meanings, you will use this knowledge. Some ways will be less expected: many learners experience the feeling that when speaking in the new language, they are expressing a new self. This isn't an illusion; it is the beginning of a real conversion to the new language's worldview, and should be listened to and nurtured. There are other psychological and spiritual issues to face: the challenges to assumptions you may have made about Celtic culture and tradition, challenges to your beliefs; the psychological shift from an imperial worldview (conscious or not) to that of a colonized and minority culture; the challenge of being both Celtic and Pagan in a world where the typical Celt and typical Pagan do not have much obvious in common. You will be walking boundary places between cultures: remember that boundaries are difficult and fruitful places to be, and that spiritual growth will follow. Also remember that becoming part of a culture is a two-way relationship. As you learn from Celtic-language cultures, you should support them; it won't be hard to find ways to help work for their survival.

In the meantime, you could start using Celtic language prayers and blessings in your daily life, and Celtic language music and poetry in ritual, and as meditation poetry. You may have the urge to translate your favorite rituals into a Celtic language, but this is not necessarily a good idea: most Neopagan ritual reflects a Neopagan worldview, not a Celtic one, so translating the words alone is a grammatical exercise instead of a cultural insight. You are far better off attempting very simple ritual with native poetry and texts, and letting the language and culture speak to you through it.

Dealing with people

In the course of your studies, you will at some point come into contact with native speakers and other, non-Pagan learners. There are issues that arise from these contacts to be aware of and prepared to deal with.

Except for the very young and the very old, there are almost no monolingual speakers of Celtic languages. From a learner's point of view, this means that there is not a lot of opportunity to get into that most valuable of learning situations: total and uncompromised immersion. Furthermore, because of the social issues surrounding language use (as briefly mentioned in Labara: Part 1), many Celtic speakers are entirely too prepared to use English with a learner. This can be countered by sheer stubbornness: keep the conversation in the Celtic language as much as possible. Have a store of convenient phrases in case anyone tries to speak English 'for your sake' - "Oh, I'm having a good time just listening - I'm only here for the Irish, you know." If you need to know what a word means, ask in the Celtic language, ask your friends to answer in simpler Celtic instead of English if possible, and don't let this be an excuse for the conversation to drift into English . Spend a lot of time listening actively.

Then there is religion. Religion has been and still is a divisive issue in Celtic societies; Pagans should not add to this in any way, and that includes overt anti-Christian sentiments. For Pagans, the current general rule is: do not tell a Celt that you are Pagan unless you know them very well and have already established with them that you are sane, intelligent, and rather well-informed about Celtic matters by their definition. Do not volunteer the information that you are a Pagan or a Druid. If someone inquires, it's usually better to duck the question.

Aside from the general Pagan public relations principle that nice normal people do not bring up their nice normal religions without (at least) being asked, there is a reason for this rule. Your principle purpose in learning a Celtic language and talking with native Celts is to come to know the culture from the inside, to assimilate it as much as possible and thereby understand it deeply. Prematurely announcing your religious views is counterproductive and alienating in this process, since many Celts either have a very negative view of pagans (i.e. the 'godless heathen' viewpoint), or who are aware of Neopaganism and Druidism and think of us as exploitative outsiders who know nothing of Celtic culture2.

It is far better to spend your time with Celts - of whatever persuasion and opinions - listening and learning. Let revelations of your Pagan beliefs wait (at the very least) until you have earned people's respect. In the meantime, stick to 'being interested in' Celtic language, mythology, folklore, literature, history, poetry, music, art, and so forth.

Nor should you assume that non-Pagan Celts are ignorant about their own heritage. There is an immense amount of misinformation and over-standardization of concepts in the Celtic Pagan community. Trying to impart your concept of Celtic culture of whatever era is likely to earn you a reputation as not only arrogant but ill-informed. And, like many colonized peoples, Celts may have a private joke at the expense of those they see as patronizing outsiders who think they know it all. But if you go in with an open and respectful attitude, and are willing to learn and listen, you will be amply rewarded.

Next issue, we will take a detailed look at the levels of structure and meaning in some Celtic-language poetry.

- - - - - - - - -


1. It's worth noting that the Celtic-language music that non-Celtic-speakers are most likely to be familiar with is music in which the melody, rather than the words, are the main appeal. Naturally, non-Celtic-speakers are not in a position to appreciate songs with lots of verses prefering repetitive, chant-like melodies. However, it is in this latter class of song that some of the most interesting stuff is found, from the viewpoint of anyone with a serious interest in pre-Christian Celtic traditions.
2. This view that anyone who self-identifies as a Celtic Pagan or Druid is likely to be a non-Celtic outsider is firmly entrenched in statistical fact, to the extent that I would also advise against prematurely identifying yourself as a Pagan or Druid to a Celtic-speaker even if you have very good evidence that they are themselves Pagan in some sense.

This material is Copyright 1996 by the author identified. Keltria: Journal of Druidism and Celtic Magick posts this article on the Internet by permission of the author. It may not be republished or reproduced in any form without the expressed written consent of the author or Keltria Journal. Links to this page may be established.

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