Home What's New Back Issues Feedback Book Reviews
Keltria Journal

Issue 30 - Beltaine/Summer 1996

Labara - Introduction to the Celtic Languages

Part I: A Very Brief History

by Meredith Richard

Recent discussions in Keltria have focussed on the role of Celtic language in Celtic Druidism and Paganism. The question is indeed relevant. Celtic language is considered by scholars and the modern pan-Celtic movement to be the central, defining criterion of Celtic culture and identity, and few would deny that the chief inspirations of Celtic Paganism and Druidism are the flower of cultures that are indeed Celtic by that definition. Yet few who practice 'Celtic spirituality'(of whatever sort) consider Celtic language to be central to their Celtic identity. Indeed, there is a surprising amount of confusion about the very nature of Celtic languages, which further muddles discussion of the interrelationship of language, culture and traditional spiritualities. So, just what is a Celtic language?

First of all, we should mention what a Celtic language is not. A popular misconception is that such types of language as a Scots dialect, an Irish brogue or a Welsh accent are themselves Celtic languages. While these dialects may be Celtic-influenced to a greater or lesser degree, they are not themselves Celtic languages, but dialects and varieties of English. Celtic languages are part of the Indo-European family of languages just as English is, but belong to an entirely different branch of this family - the Celtic branch - and are more different from English than German or French.

Another popular misconception is that Celtic languages are confined to history - spoken by the original Druids, yes, but today existing only in inscriptions and crumbling manuscripts, of interest only to scholars who kindly translate all the important bits into English. The truth is quite different. Though Celtic languages indeed date back through antiquity, Celtic languages are still living tongues whose speakers are still producing literature, music, and art in a wide range of traditional and innovative forms which are directly and consciously part of the complex tapestry of well over two thousand years of Celtic heritage, of which monoglot English speakers can see only a tiny portion, through the very flawed and cloudy lens of translation.

Thirdly, the essential connection between language, culture, and cultural continuity through its history cannot be overemphasized. Language is a basic (probably the basic) expression of human community. A language both shapes and is shaped by the values and self-concepts of its community and culture. Borrowings from other cultures will be adapted and re-interpreted in terms of the culture's worldview and conception of itself and its history. But when a community changes its language, the result is not a development within a culture, but a distinct cultural break. The old worldview and self-concept is lost, as well as the more obvious loss of contact with literary and oral tradition and heritage.

Nor is language change a superficial decision or event. Many of our ancestors became English speakers under duress, perhaps against their will or their parents' will, perhaps by so-called 'free choice' when there was no other way for themselves and their families to prosper or even survive. The circumstances dictating the shift to English or French were the direct results of political, economic and cultural imperialism on the part of English or French-speaking societies; such a traumatic dispossession cannot be reversed and healed by wishful thinking and superficial measures on the part of their descendants. Without returning to the languages, thereby re-opening the door to the full spectrum of the culture's being, attempts to 'reclaim' Celtic heritage - despite people's best intentions - are misguided. More disturbingly, denial of the central role of language sometimes leads to the attempt to bolster claims to Celticness by appealing to the concept of 'bloodlines'; frighteningly, this smacks of nascent racism.

When scholars talk about Celts, they are not talking about a particular 'race', or about natives of specific regions now associated with the Celts, or about adherents of any particular religion. Nor are they making arbitrary terminological distinctions. Recognising the essential role of language to the life and spirit of cultures, they are talking about Celtic language speakers and their cultures1.

The first historical evidence of Celts is to be found in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who distinguished the Celts as a separate people speaking a distinctive language. A Celtic language may be briefly defined as any of a group of languages which are organically and directly related to the language of these people. These Celts have been identified with the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures, Iron Age cultures of Europe dating back through the early first millennium BCE. Rather more speculatively, attempts have been made to identify the Celts with specific material cultures back through the early Bronze Age, but the question of the precise origin and early spread and development of the Celtic languages, and of the entire Indo-European family of languages itself, is disputed. The Celtic languages have unusual features within the Indo-European family, which may be due to greater influence from the non-Indo-European languages they displaced and/or to greater retention of archaic forms of Indo-European, but these questions also remain open.

The languages spoken by the early Celts of Europe are collectively known as Continental Celtic. Some of the forms of Continental Celtic have been partially reconstructed, including Gaulish, Celtiberian and Lepontic. Evidence for these languages includes inscriptions such as the Druidic Coligny Calendar, place names, Celtic words adopted into other languages, and data from Latin and Greek accounts. For instance, the Gothic word reiki, 'kingdom' (the source of the modern German Reich2), was borrowed from the Celtic *rìgion; compare Gaulish rix, modern Irish rí, Scottish Gaelic rìgh, and Manx ree,'king'; and Irish ríocht, Scottish Gaelic rìoghachd, Manx reeaght 'kingdom'. Latin 'beer', cerevisia, which developed into modern Spanish cerveza, was also borrowed from Celtic and is cognate with modern Welsh cwrw. (Presumably, the Goths perceived Celtic social organization as worthy of emulation, while the Romans merely admired their beer!) Other Continental Celtic words were recorded directly, such as the word bardoi, recorded in classical Greek, which of course is the plural of the word which survived almost unchanged in every Celtic language, and was adopted by English as 'bard'. Sadly, Continental Celtic languages died out with the dominance of Rome in the first few centuries CE, leaving only the languages spoken in Britain and Ireland - Insular Celtic, from which the modern Celtic languages developed.

Insular Celtic is of two types: Goedelic and Brythonic, often called Q-Celtic and P-Celtic. The latter distinction refers to a sound-shift common to members of these groups. The Indo-European consonant *kw developed into a k-sound in Q-Celtic (or Goedelic) languages, which was once spelled with a q. In the P-Celtic (or Brythonic) languages, it became a p-sound. This can be seen in the various Celtic words meaning 'son' - in the Q-Celtic group, we have maq(q)i ('son of') in the highly archaic form of Old Irish found in ogham inscriptions, and mac(c) in Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx, while among the P-Celts we find map or mab in Welsh, Cornish and Breton (as can be discerned in the Mabinogi and the name-element ap or ab, 'son of'); and the name of the Gaulish divine youth, Maponos. Of the two groups, Goedelic languages are the more archaic, retaining more features of the ancient Celtic language from which all Celtic languages developed.

When and how Celtic languages first were spoken in Britain and Ireland is not known with certainty3. One suggestion is that the first Celts probably arrived in the beginning of the first millenium BCE, speaking a form of Celtic that probably had more Goidelic-like features than Brythonic. Linguistic evidence suggests that perhaps by the middle of the first millenium BCE, Brythonic-speakers may have become dominant in both Britain and Ireland, whereupon Goidelic eventually re-asserted itself over Ireland. Certainly by the time these islands entered history as we know it, Goedelic was dominant in Ireland, while Brythonic was dominant in Britain. These two branches gave rise to the six modern Celtic languages, three in the Goedelic (Q-Celtic) group: Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx; and three in the Brythonic (P-Celtic) group: Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

Turning to Irish (Gaeilge) first, much of the early information on ancient Irish comes from the ogham inscriptions of the first through sixth centuries CE, most of which use a particularly archaic form of the language. The process of writing down the rich oral tradition of early Irish culture began around the fifth century CE, although the earliest surviving manuscripts date back only to about the ninth or tenth century. Here are preserved treasures like the Táin Bó Cuailnge and the stories of the Tuatha Dé Danaan. But by the seventeenth century, the conquering English had consolidated their power in Ireland. With the destruction of the native nobility and learned classes, Irish became the language of an oppressed people. In the nineteenth century, the Great Famine dealt a nearly fatal blow. Thousands of Irish speakers died, thousands more were forced to leave Ireland, and much of the remaining Irish- speaking population fell prey to the propanganda of the English -- that their horrific plight was their own fault, the natural result of clinging to their backward language, culture, and customs.

With the establishment of the Republic of Ireland, Irish gained official support; constitutionally, it is the nation's first official language. In reality, very little effort has been committed to its revival. According to the latest census, about a million people, a third of the population of the Republic, speak Irish, but probably less than ten percent are actually fluent, probably less than half of those use Irish on a day-to-day basis, and fewer still , perhaps 30,000, live where Irish is the community's main tongue (the Gaeltachtaí). As a healthy living language, Irish is still greatly endangered.

Scottish Gaelic, or Gàidhlig, was planted on British soil by colonists from Ireland in the late fourth and fifth centuries CE, who established the kingdom of Dál Riada. The structure of the language was influenced by the Brythonic then spoken in the area. Until the seventeenth century, Irish and Scottish Gaelic shared the same literary language, and little was written in Scottish Gaelic itself. Scottish Gaelic was never the sole language of all of modern-day Scotland, although there were indeed Gaelic-speaking kingdoms and Celtic influence was felt everywhere. But by the eleventh century, power and influence was in the hands of Anglo-Normans, and the Gaels were soon marginalised; after their defeat at Culloden in 1746, their language and customs were proscribed. The Highland Clearances drained more Gaels from Scotland. Today, about 65,000 speak Gaelic in Scotland - less than 2% of the population, and a 15,000 drop in the last ten years. Scotland's history as a multi-linguistic nation has meant that Scottish Gaelic has not been a focus of national identity, and has lacked the support that such a focus can bring. While Scottish Gaelic remains the language of well-defined rural communities, and public support has been somewhat increasing, the lack of educational and government support, together with persisting social and economic stigma, is likely to lead to further decline.

Manx, or Gailck, is the Celtic language of the Isle of Man. It is likely that here, as in Scotland, the native Irish colonists arrived around the fifth century CE and found a principally Brythonic-speaking population. The Irish colonists' language became dominant on the island and remained so until the tenth century; Man then was ruled by Scandinavia for a few centuries, and Norse left its mark on the language. For a short period thereafter, control of Man passed to Scotland, but from the fifteenth century onwards, Man belonged to England and as usual, the imposition of Anglo-centric laws, education, and socio-economic structure led to the decline of this Celtic language (which due to enforced isolation from Scotland and Ireland and other influences had by now become a fully independent language). The last native speaker of Manx died in 1974. However, attempts to revive the language are gaining support, and there are several hundred Manx speakers today.

At the time of the Roman invasion, most inhabitants of Britain were speakers of Brythonic, soon to develop into Welsh, Cymraeg. (One group that may have been an exception was the Picts, in what is now Scotland. Until rather recently, it was believed that the Picts were a surviving non-Indo-European culture that had become only partly Celticised at the period for which we have evidence. However, it is now gaining general acceptance that the Picts had been P-Celts who had become Gaelicized.) When the Romans left Britain, they left in their wake Romanized Celts and some influences on Brythonic. The true threat to Brythonic language, however, came with the Anglo-Saxon invaders in the fifth and sixth centuries CE, who soon occupied the eastern part of Britain. It was also at this time that the Welsh poets Taliesin and Aneurin were practicing their arts not in present-day Wales but in what is now southern Scotland, which was still thoroughly Brythonic at the time. However, the oldest manuscripts of Welsh we have, those that include the Mabinogion and the earliest Welsh poetry, date back only to about the twelfth century.

As the Anglo-Saxons pressed their invasions farther and farther across Britain, the Welsh were pushed west, into present day Wales. When in the sixth and seventh centuries the Anglo- Saxons had penetrated as far as the Severn and Dee Rivers, cutting off Cornwall from the rest of Celtic Britain, the language spoken in Cornwall began to diverge from Welsh, becoming Cornish, Kernewek. It was also due to pressure from Anglo-Saxon invasions that British refugees fled to Europe. Here they settled in Armorica, and their language also began to diverge from Welsh, becoming Breton, Brezhoneg, as their land became Brittany. (It has been suggested that Breton is a direct descendant from Gaulish, but Breton is far too similar to Welsh and Cornish especially to support this idea.) Some migrants settled farther south, in Galicia (in Spain); they left their mark on the local culture, but Celtic language did not survive very long there.

Welsh was experiencing further pressure to the north. Gaelic-speakers were spreading over the west of Scotland, while Anglo-Saxons were invading what was soon to become Lowland Scotland and the north of England. A Brythonic language called Cumbrian, apparently very similar to Welsh, survived in the latter area until about the tenth century. Wales came under English control in 1282 with the murder of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, the last native prince of Wales4; and with the Acts of Union in the sixteenth century, Wales was annexed to England and Welsh was scheduled to be "utterly extirp'd". Fortunately, the rural majority remained Welsh-speaking until the last century, when Welsh lost ground rapidly, partially due to the Industrial Revolution's effects, a major influx of English-speakers, economic pressure to learn English, and English-only education and media. Other influences damped the influence of English through this period including the ironic role played by Welsh Methodism, which helped ensure the language's survival while discouraging many old Welsh customs and the continuity of the literary tradition, lent vigor by the romantic fantasies of our old friend Iolo Morganwg. Today, about half a million people, 20% of the population, speak Welsh, and activists have achieved a significant improvements in the official status of the language. The future of Welsh is far from assured however, a particular threat is the unstemmed flow of English incomers who damage both the linguistic and economic situations in the communities to which they move.

Further south, Cornwall had been annexed by the English in the tenth century, and by the end of the eleventh the ruling class was entirely Anglo-Norman. However, the language continued to be spoken and writings survive, particularly of medieval religious drama. The language died out at the end of the eighteenth century, but like Manx, it is now experiencing a revival. About 500 people speak Cornish today, some of whom now speak it as the ordinary language of the home; children are being brought up with Cornish as a mother tongue again.

In Brittany, the last Breton-speaking ruler died in 1084 and thenceforth the language became limited to the common people. However, it was through Breton bards that the tales of Arthur came to the attention of the Norman French and into the consciousness of Western Europe. Brittany was annexed by France in 1532, but maintained some autonomy, including its own parliament, until France abolished the Breton Parliament in 1790 and attempted to assimilate Brittany completely. Under the centralist control of Paris, attacks on Breton were fierce. Since France does not officially recognise Breton, there are no census figures, but it is estimated that there are 600,000 - 800,000 speakers, the largest Celtic-speaking population among the Six Nations. However, the rural elderly make up a large proportion of Breton-speakers, and the French government has been consistently hostile to Breton communities and the language. During the French Occupation in World War II, a handful of militant Bretons sought collaboration with the Germans, which later became France's excuse to crush the entire Breton movement. The executions, jailings, deprivation of civil rights, and bans on the language ended only with the efforts of Welsh journalists who exposed the attempted cultural genocide to the world. Unless drastic measures are taken soon, Breton is likely to suffer a life-threatening blow in the next ten or twenty years as the majority of today's speakers die.

The Celtic languages today are at a turning point. They are the collective works of art of a group of cultures of unmatched beauty and imaginative power, the medium and matrix of great mythologies and literatures, a people's thoughts and dreams, beliefs and prayers, joy and pain. But just as the imperialist, state dominated cultures of Europe have not been kind to religions not under their centralized control, these States have not been kind to the Celts, conquering them, impoverishing them, and convincing them that their languages, cultures, and customs were the cause of their misfortunes, primitive anachronisms to be clung to only at the price of powerlessness, poverty, and even death. Their efforts may culminate soon in the end of the history of Celtic languages, the final chapter of over two thousand years of Celtic culture.

The fight for the survival of the Celtic cultures is happening now; every bit of support is critical. Meanwhile, the cultural imperialists foster the idea that Celtic languages (and all minority languages) are superficial irrelevancies; that culture is independent of language, a wilful blindness whose corollary is the lie that the imperialist culture and worldview is reality; and that if something cannot be said in an imperial tongue it doesn't exist, let alone could be worth saying, knowing or experiencing. Do we accept this indoctrination passively and consent to the death of Celtia, or challenge it? This choice belongs to each of us who claim to love her.

Next issue:

Labara - Part 2 : " Introduction to the Celtic Languages Part II: Structure and Worldview "


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.

This material was first published in Keltria: Journal of Druidism and Celtic Magic. For a copy of the issue that this article ran in, send $3.95 to Keltria Journal, P.O. Box 1060 Anoka, MN 55303-1060 and request the issue identified at the top of the page. For other subscription and ordering information, see our Order Form.


Back to Keltria Issue 30 Beltaine/Spring ‘96 Table of Contents


Home What's New Back Issues Feedback Book Reviews



Contents of this site are © Keltria: Journal of Druidism and Celtic Magick.
Contact the Keltria-Webmaster* with problems or comments on this Web Site.
Contact the Journal Henge Hffice for questions about the Journal.
Last Updated: 03 December 1999