Definitions

Celtic languages

Celtic languages

Celtic languages, subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. At one time, during the Hellenistic period, Celtic speech extended all the way from Britain and the Iberian Peninsula in the west across Europe to Asia Minor in the east, where a district still known as Galatia recalls the former presence there of Celtic-speaking Gauls. Later, however, in the course of the Roman conquest, Celtic speech tended to yield to Latin, and by the 5th cent. A.D. Celtic had virtually disappeared from continental Europe. Today the Celtic languages that have survived into the modern era are limited almost entirely to the British Isles and French Brittany, where these tongues are spoken by a total of about 2 million people. The Celtic subfamily is made up of three groups of languages: the Continental, the Brythonic (also called British), and the Goidelic (also called Gaelic).

Continental Celtic

Continental Celtic, which includes all Celtic idioms on the Continent with the exception of Breton, died out following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th cent. A.D. The principal example of this group is the now extinct language Gaulish, for little remains of any other Continental Celtic tongues. Gaulish was once the language of Gaul proper (now modern France). Evidence of Gaulish is found both in words and in personal and proper names referred to by ancient Greek and Latin writers as well as in more than a hundred Gaulish inscriptions from France and N Italy (ranging in date from the 3d cent. B.C. to the 3d cent. A.D.). Coins and Greek and Latin inscriptions in Europe also preserve Celtic place-names and personal names. Yet the material as a whole is quite limited, furnishing only a number of proper names, a small vocabulary, and certain indications regarding the sounds and grammar of Gaulish and of Continental Celtic in general.

Brythonic

The Brythonic group includes Breton, Cornish, and Welsh. They are all descendants of British, the Celtic language of the ancient Britons of Caesar's day. The emergence of Welsh, Cornish, and Breton from British as separate languages probably took place during the 5th and 6th cent. A.D. and was a result of the Germanic invasions of Britain. Welsh and Breton have discarded the originally numerous Indo-European cases for the noun and use only one case. Both employ the Roman alphabet for writing. The accent in Welsh and Breton generally falls on the next-to-last syllable, with the exception of a single Breton dialect that has the accent on the last syllable.

Breton today is spoken by more than 500,000 people in Brittany, most of whom are bilingual, speaking also French. It is not surprising that Breton, unlike Welsh, has many loan words from French. Breton is by no means descended from ancient Gaulish, but rather from the Celtic dialects taken by Welsh and Cornish immigrants from the British Isles who were fleeing Germanic invasions and found refuge in Armorica (now French Brittany) in the 5th and 6th cent. A.D. Surviving literary documents in Breton go back only as far as the 15th cent., but the earlier stages of the language are known through glosses and proper names (see Breton literature).

Cornish, the Celtic language of Cornwall, has survived since the late 18th cent. only among bilingual speakers, but it experienced a minor revival in the 20th cent. Estimates of the number of fluent speakers range from a few hundred to a few thousand. Cornish proper names in manuscripts of the 10th cent. A.D. are the oldest recorded traces of the language. A number of Cornish place-names survive, and some Cornish words appear in the English spoken in Cornwall today. The Cornish language is written in the Roman alphabet. It is not noted for an outstanding literature (see Cornish literature).

Welsh (called Cymraeg or Cymric by its speakers) is the language today of over 600,000 people, chiefly in Wales (a western peninsula of Great Britain) but also in the United States and Canada, to which a number of Welsh people have migrated. Most speakers of Welsh in Great Britain also use English. The oldest extant Welsh texts are from the 8th cent. A.D. (see Welsh literature).

Goidelic

The third group of the Celtic subfamily is Goidelic, to which Irish (also called Irish Gaelic), Scots Gaelic, and Manx belong. The term Erse is used as a synonym for Irish and sometimes even for Scots Gaelic. All the modern Goidelic tongues are descendants of the ancient Celtic speech of Ireland. It is thought that the Celtic idiom first came to Ireland shortly before the Christian era. An official language of Ireland, Irish is spoken natively by approximately 75,000 people; roughly a third of Ireland's population can speak and understand it to some degree. Most speakers of Irish also use English (see Irish language).

Scots Gaelic is the tongue of about 60,000 persons in the Highlands of Scotland and an additional 3,000 in Canada. Most of these people also speak English. Gaelic speech began to reach Scotland in the late 5th cent. A.D., when it was brought by the Irish invaders of that country. However, a truly distinctive Scots Gaelic did not appear before the 13th cent. The chief difference between Scots Gaelic and Irish results from the substantial Norse influence on the former. There are four cases for the noun (nominative, genitive, dative, and vocative) in Scots Gaelic, which uses the Roman alphabet (see Gaelic literature).

Manx is a dialect of Scots Gaelic that was once spoken on the Isle of Man, but it has almost entirely died out there. First recorded in writing in the early 17th cent., Manx does not have an important literature. It is written in the Roman alphabet and shows a strong Norse influence.

Pronunciation and Grammar

The rules of pronunciation for all the Celtic languages are extremely complicated. For example, the final sound of a word frequently brings about a phonetically changed initial consonant of the next word, as in Irish fuil, "blood," but ar bhfuil, "our blood." Another example is Welsh pen, "head," but fy mhen, "my head." In order to look up a word in the dictionary, one has to be familiar with these rules of phonetic change, or mutation. There are only two genders in the Celtic languages, masculine and feminine. Words of Celtic origin that have been absorbed by English include bard, blarney, colleen, crock, dolmen, druid, glen, slogan, and whiskey. An interesting feature of Celtic languages is that in several characteristics they resemble some non-Indo-European languages. These characteristics include the absence of a present participle and the use instead of a verbal noun (found also in Egyptian and Berber), the frequent expression of agency by means of an impersonal passive construction instead of by a verbal subject in the nominative case (as in Egyptian, Berber, Basque, and some Caucasian and Eskimo languages), and the positioning of the verb at the beginning of a sentence (typical of Egyptian and Berber).

See Indo-European.

Bibliography

See H. Lewis and H. Pedersen, A Concise Comparative Celtic Grammar (1937); K. H. Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain (1953); V. E. Durkacz, The Decline of the Celtic Languages (1983); C. W. J. Withers, Gaelic in Scotland, 1698-1981 (1984).

Branch of the Indo-European language family spoken across a broad area of western and central Europe by the Celts in pre-Roman and Roman times, now confined to small coastal areas of northwestern Europe. Celtic can be divided into a continental group of languages (all extinct) and an insular group. Attestation of Insular Celtic begins around the time Continental Celtic fades from the scene as Celtic tongues gave way to Latin and other languages on the European continent. The Insular Celtic languages are conventionally divided into Goidelic (Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic) and Brythonic (Welsh, Cornish, and Breton). Traditional Cornish was supplanted by English at the end of the 18th century. Manx, spoken on the Isle of Man, expired in the 20th century with the death of the last reputed native speaker in 1974. Both Manx and Cornish have been revived by enthusiasts, though neither can be considered community languages.

Learn more about Celtic languages with a free trial on Britannica.com.

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.

Divisions

Proto-Celtic apparently divided into four sub-families:

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.

Pronunciation

The term Celtic is pronounced either /ˈkɛltɪk/ or /ˈsɛltɪk/, but /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.

Classifications

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 [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 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

P-Celtic/Q-Celtic hypothesis

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

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 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

Notes

References

  • 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.
  • Cowgill, Warren (1975). Flexion und Wortbildung: Akten der V. Fachtagung der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft, Regensburg, 9.–14. September 1973. Wiesbaden: Reichert. 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.
  • McCone, Kim (1991). "The PIE stops and syllabic nasals in Celtic". Studia Celtica Japonica 4 37–69.
  • McCone, Kim (1992). Rekonstruktion und relative Chronologie: Akten Der VIII. Fachtagung Der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft, Leiden, 31. August–4. September 1987. Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck. ISBN 3-85124-613-6.
  • 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. ISBN 0-901519-40-5.
  • Russell, Paul (1995). An Introduction to the Celtic Languages. London; New York: Longman. ISBN 0582100828.
  • Schmidt, K. H. (1988). Proceedings of the First North American Congress of Celtic Studies, Ottawa 1986. Ottawa: Chair of Celtic Studies. ISBN 0-09-693260-0.
  • Schrijver, Peter (1995). Studies in British Celtic historical phonology. Amsterdam: Rodopi. ISBN 90-5183-820-4.

See also

External links

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