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Celtic languages

Celtic languages

The Celtic languages (usually /ˈkɛltɪk/, but sometimes /ˈsɛltɪk/)[4] are a group of related languages descended from Proto-Celtic. They form a branch of the Indo-European language family.[5] The term "Celtic" was first used to describe this language group by Edward Lhuyd in 1707,[6] following Paul-Yves Pezron, who made the explicit link between the Celts described by classical writers and the Welsh and Breton languages.[7]

During the 1st millennium BC, Celtic languages were spoken across much of Europe and in Asia Minor. Today, they are restricted to the northwestern fringe of Europe and a few diaspora communities. There are four living languages: Welsh, Breton, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. All are minority languages in their respective countries, though there are continuing efforts at revitalisation. Welsh is an official language in Wales and Irish is an official language of Ireland and of the European Union. Welsh is the only Celtic language not classified as endangered by UNESCO. The Cornish and Manx languages went extinct in modern times. They have been the object of revivals and now each has several hundred second-language speakers.

Irish and Scottish form the Goidelic languages, while Welsh and Breton are Brittonic. Beyond that there is no agreement on the subdivisions of the Celtic language family. They may be divided into a Continental group and an Insular group, or else into P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. All the living languages are Insular, since Breton, the only Celtic language spoken in continental Europe, is descended from the language of settlers from Britain. The Continental Celtic languages, such as Celtiberian, Galatian and Gaulish, are all extinct.

The Celtic languages have a rich literary tradition. The earliest specimens of written Celtic are Lepontic inscriptions from the 6th century BC in the Alps. Early Continental inscriptions used Italic and Paleohispanic scripts. Between the 4th and 8th centuries, Irish and Pictish were occasionally written in an original script, Ogham, but the Latin alphabet came to be used for all Celtic languages. Welsh has had a continuous literary tradition from the 6th century AD.

Formerly widespread in Europe; today Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, Chubut Province, Nova Scotia and the Isle of Man
Linguistic classificationIndo-European
  • North-West Indo-European (?)[1][2]
    • Italo-Celtic (?)
      • Celtic
  • Insular Celtic
  • Continental Celtic (extinct)
ISO 639-2 / 5cel
Linguasphere50= (phylozone)
Glottologcelt1248 [98][3]

Living languages

SIL Ethnologue lists six living Celtic languages, of which four have retained a substantial number of native speakers. These are the Goidelic languages (i.e. Irish and Scottish Gaelic, which are both descended from Middle Irish) and the Brittonic languages (i.e. Welsh and Breton, which are both descended from Common Brittonic).[8]

The other two, Cornish (a Brittonic language) and Manx (a Goidelic language), died in modern times[9][10][11] with their presumed last native speakers in 1777 and 1974 respectively. For both these languages, however, revitalisation 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) where the language is spokenRegulated by/language bodyEstimated number of speakers in major cities
WelshCymraeg / Y GymraegBrittonic562,000 (19.0% of the population of Wales) claim that they "can speak Welsh" (2011)[16][17]Total speakers: ≈ 947,700 (2011)
Wales: 788,000 speakers (26.7% of the population)[16][17]
England: 150,000[18]
Chubut Province, Argentina: 5,000[19]
United States: 2,500[20]
Canada: 2,200[21]
Y Wladfa, Chubut
Welsh Language Commissioner
The Welsh Government
(previously the Welsh Language Board, Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg)
Cardiff: 54,504
Swansea: 45,085
Newport: 18,490[22]
Bangor: 7,190
IrishGaeilge/ Gaedhilge / Gaeiluinn / Gaeilig / GaeilicGoidelic40,000–80,000[23][24][25][26]
In the Republic of Ireland, 94,000 people use Irish daily outside the education system.[27]
Total speakers: 1,887,437
Republic of Ireland: 1,774,437[27]
United Kingdom: 95,000
United States: 18,000
IrelandForas na GaeilgeDublin: 184,140
Galway: 37,614
Cork: 57,318[28]
Belfast: 30,360[29]
BretonBrezhonegBrittonic206,000356,000[30]BrittanyOfis Publik ar BrezhonegRennes: 7,000
Brest: 40,000
Nantes: 4,000[31]
Scottish GaelicGàidhligGoidelicScotland: 57,375 (2011)[32]
Nova Scotia: 1,275 (2011)[33]
Scotland: 87,056 (2011)[32]ScotlandBòrd na GàidhligGlasgow: 5,726
Edinburgh: 3,220[34]
Aberdeen: 1,397[35]
CornishKernowekBrittonicUnknown.[36]3,000[37]CornwallCornish Language Partnership (Keskowethyans an Taves Kernewek)Truro: 118[38]
ManxGaelg/ GailckGoidelic100+,[12][39] including a small number of children who are new native speakers[40]1,823[41]Isle of ManCoonceil ny GaelgeyDouglas: 507[42]

Mixed languages

  • Shelta, based largely on Irish with influence from an undocumented source (some 86,000 speakers in 2009).[43]

  • Some forms of Welsh-Romani or Kååle also combined Romany itself with Welsh language and English language forms (extinct).[44]

  • Beurla Reagaird, Highland travellers' language


Classification of Celtic languages according to Insular vs. Continental hypothesis. (click to enlarge)

Classification of Celtic languages according to Insular vs. Continental hypothesis. (click to enlarge)

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

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

The second of the four Botorrita plaques. The third plaque is the longest text discovered in any ancient Celtic language. This, the second plaque, is inscribed in Latin however.

The second of the four Botorrita plaques. The third plaque is the longest text discovered in any ancient Celtic language. This, the second plaque, is inscribed in Latin however.[50]

The Celtic nations, where Celtic languages are spoken today, or were spoken into the modern era:   Ireland (Irish)   Scotland (Scottish Gaelic)   Isle of Man (Manx)   Wales (Welsh)   Cornwall (Cornish)   Brittany (Breton)

The Celtic nations, where Celtic languages are spoken today, or were spoken into the modern era:   Ireland (Irish)   Scotland (Scottish Gaelic)   Isle of Man (Manx)   Wales (Welsh)   Cornwall (Cornish)   Brittany (Breton)

Celtic is divided into various branches:

  • Lepontic, the oldest attested Celtic language (from the 6th century BC).[45] Anciently spoken in Switzerland and in Northern-Central Italy. Coins with Lepontic inscriptions have been found in Noricum and Gallia Narbonensis.[46][47][48][49]

  • Northeastern Hispano-Celtic/Eastern Hispano-Celtic or Celtiberian, anciently spoken in the Iberian peninsula, [[INLINE_IMAGE|//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/89/Greek_and_Phoenician_Colonies_in_The_Iberian_Peninsula.png/220px-Greek_and_Phoenician_Colonies_in_The_Iberian_Peninsula.png|//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/89/Greek_and_Phoenician_Colonies_in_The_Iberian_Peninsula.png/330px-Greek_and_Phoenician_Colonies_in_The_Iberian_Peninsula.png 1.5x, //upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/89/Greek_and_Phoenician_Colonies_in_The_Iberian_Peninsula.png/440px-Greek_and_Phoenician_Colonies_in_The_Iberian_Peninsula.png 2x||h180|w220|thumbimage]] Pre-Roman map of The Iberian Peninsula in the eastern part of Old Castile and south of Aragon. Modern provinces of Segovia, Burgos, Soria, Guadalajara, Cuenca, Zaragoza and Teruel. The relationship of Celtiberian with Gallaecian, in the northwest of the peninsula, is uncertain.[51][52]

  • Northwestern Hispano-Celtic/Western Hispano-Celtic, anciently spoken in the northwest of the peninsula (modern northern Portugal, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and parts of modern Old Castile).[53]

  • Gaulish languages, including Galatian and possibly Noric. These languages were once spoken in a wide arc from Belgium to Turkey. They are now all extinct.

  • Brittonic, including the living languages Breton, Cornish, and Welsh, and the extinct languages Cumbric, and Pictish though Pictish may be a sister language rather than a daughter of Common Brittonic.[54] Before the arrival of Scotti on the Isle of Man in the 9th century, there may have been a Brittonic language on the Isle of Man.

  • Goidelic, including the living languages Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic.

Scholarly handling of the Celtic languages has been contentious 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.[55] 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,[56] having been introduced from Southwestern regions of Britain in the post-Roman era and having evolved into Breton.

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[57][58] 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[59] 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.[60][61]

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.[45] 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".[62]

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.

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

Eska (2010)

Eska (2010)[63] 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.

  • Celtic Celtiberian Gallaecian Nuclear Celtic? Cisalpine Celtic: Lepontic → Cisalpine Gaulish† Transalpine–Goidelic–Brittonic (secure) Transalpine Gaulish† ("Transalpine Celtic") Insular Celtic Goidelic Brittonic

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:

  • Transalpine–Goidelic–Brittonic (P-Celtic hypothesis) Goidelic Gallo-Brittonic Transalpine Gaulish ("Transalpine Celtic") Brittonic


Although there are many differences between the individual Celtic languages, they do show many family resemblances.

  • 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, although Gaulish may have merged the neuter and masculine in its later forms)[64]

  • a vigesimal number system (counting by twenties) Cornish hwetek ha dew ugens "fifty-six" (literally "sixteen and two twenty")

  • verb–subject–object (VSO) word order (probably Insular Celtic only)

  • 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 dysgaf "I teach" vs. dysgir "is taught, one teaches" Irish múinim "I teach" vs. múintear "is taught, one teaches"

  • 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/relativisers 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 Cornish Yma kath dhymm "I have a cat", literally "there is a cat to me" Welsh Mae cath gyda fi "I have a cat", literally "a cat is with me"

  • use of periphrastic constructions 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 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.
    • is the genitive of *
    bacach*. The *igh
    • the result of
    affection; the *bh
    • is the
    lenitedform of *b*.
    • is the second person singular inflected form of the preposition *
  • The order is verb–subject–object (VSO) in the second half. Compare this to English or French (and possibly Continental Celtic) which are normally subject–verb–object in word order.
Welsh: pedwar ar bymtheg a phedwar ugain(Literally) four on fifteen and four twenties
    • is a mutated form of *
    pymtheg*, which is *pump
    • ("five") plus *
    • ("ten"). Likewise, *
    • is a mutated form of *
  • The multiples of ten are *deg, ugain, deg ar hugain, deugain, hanner cant, trigain, deg a thrigain, pedwar ugain, deg a phedwar ugain, cant.

Comparison table

The lexical similarity between the different Celtic languages is apparent in their core vocabulary, especially in terms of the actual pronunciation of the words. Moreover, the phonetic differences between languages are often the product of regular sound change (i.e. lenition of /b/ into /v/ or Ø).

The table below contains words in the modern languages that were inherited directly from Proto-Celtic, as well as a few old borrowings from Latin that made their way into all the daughter languages. Among the modern languages, there is often a closer match between Welsh, Breton, and Cornish on one hand, and Irish, Gaelic and Manx on the other. For a fuller list of comparisons, see the Swadesh list for Celtic.

EnglishWelshBreton[65]CornishIrish[66]Scottish Gaelic[67]Manx
dogcikikimadraarchaic coo
housetichiteach, tightaighthie
lip (anatomical)gwefusgweuzgweusliopabilemeill
mouth of a riveraberaberaberinbhearinbhirinver
numberrhif, niferniverniveruimhiràireamhearroo
you (sg)titetythuoo
starserensteredennsterenréaltareult, rionnagrollage
(to) fallcwympokouezhañkodhatit(im)tuit(eam)tuitt(ym)
(to) smokeysmygumogediñ, butuniñmegicaith(eamh) tobacsmocadhtoghtaney, smookal
(to) whistlechwibanuc'hwibanathwibanafeadáilfeadfed

† Borrowings from Latin.


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.

  • Irish: Saolaítear na daoine uile saor agus comhionann ina ndínit agus ina gcearta. Tá bua an réasúin agus an choinsiasa acu agus dlíd iad féin d'iompar de mheon bráithreachais i leith a chéile.

  • Manx: Ta dagh ooilley pheiagh ruggit seyr as corrym ayns ard-cheim as kiartyn. Ren Jee feoiltaghey resoon as cooinsheanse orroo as by chair daue ymmyrkey ry cheilley myr braaraghyn.

  • Scottish Gaelic: Tha gach uile dhuine air a bhreith saor agus co-ionnan ann an urram 's ann an còirichean. Tha iad air am breith le reusan is le cogais agus mar sin bu chòir dhaibh a bhith beò nam measg fhèin ann an spiorad bràthaireil.

  • Breton: Dieub ha par en o dellezegezh hag o gwirioù eo ganet an holl dud. Poell ha skiant zo dezho ha dleout a reont bevañ an eil gant egile en ur spered a genvreudeuriezh.

  • Cornish: Genys frank ha par yw oll tus an bys yn aga dynita hag yn aga gwiryow. Enduys yns gans reson ha kowses hag y tal dhedha omdhon an eyl orth y gila yn spyrys a vrederedh.

  • Welsh: Genir pawb yn rhydd ac yn gydradd â'i gilydd mewn urddas a hawliau. Fe'u cynysgaeddir â rheswm a chydwybod, a dylai pawb ymddwyn y naill at y llall mewn ysbryd cymodlon.

Possibly Celtic languages

It has been suggested that several poorly-documented languages may possibly have been Celtic.

  • Camunic is an extinct language which was spoken in the first millennium BC in the Valcamonica and Valtellina valleys of the Central Alps. It has most recently been proposed to be a Celtic language.[68]

  • Ligurian was spoken in the Northern Mediterranean Coast straddling the southeast French and northwest Italian coasts, including parts of Tuscany, Elba island and Corsica. Xavier Delamarre argues that Ligurian was a Celtic language, similar to, but not the same as Gaulish.[69] The Ligurian-Celtic question is also discussed by Barruol (1999). Ancient Ligurian is either listed as Celtic (epigraphic),[70] or Para-Celtic (onomastic).[47]

  • Lusitanian was spoken in the area between the Douro and Tagus rivers of western Iberia (a region straddling the present border of Portugal and Spain). It is known from only five inscriptions and various place names.[71] It is an Indo-European language and some scholars have proposed that it may be a para-Celtic language, which evolved alongside Celtic or formed a dialect continuum or sprachbund with Tartessian and Gallaecian. This is tied to a theory of an Iberian origin for the Celtic languages.[71][72][73]

It is also possible that the Q-Celtic languages alone, including Goidelic, originated in western Iberia (a theory that was first put forward byEdward Lhuydin 1707) or shared a common linguistic ancestor with Lusitanian.[74] Secondary evidence for this hypothesis has been found in research by biological scientists, who have identified (firstly) deep-rooted similarities in human DNA found precisely in both the formerLusitaniaandIreland,[75][76] and; (secondly) the so-called "Lusitanian distribution" of animals and plants unique to western Iberia and Ireland. Both of these phenomena are now generally believed to have resulted from human emigration from Iberia to Ireland, during the latePaleolithicor earlyMesolithiceras.[77]Other scholars see greater linguistic affinities between Lusitanian,proto-Italicand Old European.[78][79]
  • Pictish was for a long time thought to be a pre-Celtic, non-Indo-European language of Scotland. Some believe it was an Insular Celtic language allied to the P-Celtic language Brittonic (descendants Welsh, Cornish, Cumbric, Breton).[80]

  • Rhaetian was spoken in central parts of present-day Switzerland, Tyrol in Austria, and the Alpine regions of northeastern Italy. It is documented by a limited number of short inscriptions (found through Northern Italy and Western Austria) in two variants of the Etruscan alphabet. Its linguistic categorization is not clearly established, and it presents a confusing mixture of what appear to be Etruscan, Indo-European, and uncertain other elements. Howard Hayes Scullard argues that Rhaetian was also a Celtic language.[81]

  • Tartessian, spoken in the southwest of the Iberia Peninsula (mainly southern Portugal and southwestern Spain).[82] Tartessian is known by 95 inscriptions, with the longest having 82 readable signs.[72][83][84] John T. Koch argues that Tartessian was also a Celtic language.[84]

  • Ivernic

See also

  • Ogham

  • Celts

  • Celts (modern)

  • A Swadesh list of the modern Celtic languages

  • Celtic Congress

  • Celtic League (political organisation)

  • Continental Celtic languages

  • Italo-Celtic

  • Language families and languages


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