Celtic languages

The Celtic languages (usually pronounced /ˈkɛltɪk/ but sometimes /ˈsɛltɪk/) are descended from Proto-Celtic, or "Common Celtic"; a branch of the greater Indo-European language family. The term "Celtic" was first used to describe this language group by Edward Lhuyd in 1707.

Modern Celtic languages are mostly spoken on the north-western edge of Europe, notably in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man, and can be found spoken on Cape Breton Island. There is also a substantial number of Welsh speakers in the Patagonia area of Argentina. Some people speak Celtic languages in the other Celtic diaspora areas of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In all these areas, the Celtic languages are now only spoken by minorities though there are continuing efforts at revitalisation. Welsh is the only Celtic language not classified as "endangered" by UNESCO.

During the 1st millennium BC, they were spoken across much of Europe, in the Iberian Peninsula, from the Atlantic and North Sea coastlines, up to the Rhine valley and down the Danube valley to the Black Sea, the northern Balkan Peninsula and in central Asia Minor. The spread to Cape Breton and Patagonia occurred in modern times.

    Living languages

    SIL Ethnologue lists six "living" Celtic languages, of which four have retained a substantial number of native speakers. These are the Gaelic languages (i.e. the Irish language and Scottish Gaelic - both descended from Old Irish), and the Brittonic languages (i.e. Welsh and the Breton language - both descended from Old Brittonic).

    The other two, Cornish and Manx, were spoken into modern times but later died as spoken community languages. For both these languages, however, revitalisation movements have led to the adoption of these languages by adults and children and produced some native speakers.

    Taken together, there were roughly one million native speakers of Celtic languages as of the 2000s. In 2010, there were more than 1.4 million speakers of Celtic languages.


    Language Native name Grouping Number of native speakers Number of people who have one or more skills in the language Main area(s) in which the language is spoken Regulated by/language body
    Welsh Cymraeg Brittonic 562,000 (19.0% of the population of Wales) self-certify that they "can speak Welsh" (2011) Around 947,700 (2011) total speakers
    Wales: 788,000 speakers, 26.7% of the population of Wales,
    England: 150,000
    Chubut Province, Argentina: 5,000
    United States: 2,500
    Canada: 2,200
    Y Wladfa, Chubut
    Welsh Language Commissioner (Meri Huws)
    — The Welsh Government
    (previously the Welsh Language Board Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg)
    Irish Gaeilge Goidelic 40,000–80,000
    In the Republic of Ireland, 94,000 people use Irish daily outside the education system.
    Republic of Ireland:
    United Kingdom:
    United States:
    Ireland Foras na Gaeilge
    Breton Brezhoneg Brittonic 206,000 356,000 Brittany Ofis Publik ar Brezhoneg
    Scottish Gaelic Gàidhlig Goidelic 57,375 (2011) in Scotland as well as 1,275 (2011) in Nova Scotia 87,056 (2011) in Scotland Scotland Bòrd na Gàidhlig
    Cornish Kernewek Brittonic 600 3,000 Cornwall Keskowethyans an Taves Kernewek
    Manx Gaelg Goidelic 100+, including a small number of children who are new native speakers 1,823 Isle of Man Coonceil ny Gaelgey

    Mixed languages

    • Shelta, based largely on Irish with influence from an undocumented source (some 86,000 speakers in 2009).
    • Some forms of Welsh-Romani or Kååle also combined Romany itself with Welsh language and English language forms (extinct).
    • Beurla-reagaird, Highland travellers language


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

    Celtic divided into various branches:

    Scholarly handling of the Celtic languages has been rather argumentative 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. 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, having been introduced from Southwestern regions of Britain in the post-Roman era and having evolved into Breton – still partially intelligible by modern Welsh and Cornish speakers.

    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 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 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.

    The Celtic nations, in which most speakers of Celtic languages are now concentrated

    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. 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".

    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) 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.

    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:

    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 are 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)
      • e.g. 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"
    • 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 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 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

    • 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.*

    Comparison table

    Welsh Cornish Breton Irish Scottish Gaelic Manx English
    gwenynen gwenenen gwenanenn beach seillean, beach shellan bee
    cadair kador kador cathaoir cathair, seidhir caair chair
    caws keus keuz cáis càis(e) caashey cheese
    aber aber aber inbhear inbhir inver estuary, mouth of a river
    llawn leun leun lán làn lane full
    gafr gaver gavr gabhar gobhar goayr goat
    chi ti teach, tigh taigh thie house
    gwefus gweus gweuz liopa, beol bile, lip meill lip (anatomical)
    arian mona, arghans moneiz, arcʼhant airgead airgead argid silver, money
    nos nos noz oíche oidhche oie night
    rhif, nifer niver niver uimhir àireamh earroo number
    tu fas, tu allan yn-mes er-maez amuigh a-muigh mooie outside
    gellygen, peren peren perenn piorra peur/piar peear pear
    chwarel mengleudh mengleuz cairéal coireall, cuaraidh quarral quarry
    ysgol skol skol scoil sgoil scoill school
    seren steren steredenn réalta reul, rionnag rollage star
    heddiw hedhyw hiziv inniu an-diugh jiu today
    cwympo kodha kouezhañ tit(im) tuit(eam) tuitt(ym) (to) fall
    ysmygu megi mogediñ, butuniñ caith(eamh) tobac smocadh toghtaney, smookal (to) smoke
    chwibanu hwibana c'hwibanat feadaíl fead fed (to) whistle


    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 bráithreachas 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.

    Possible Celtic languages

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

    • Pictish was for a long time thought to be a pre-Celtic, non-Indo-European language of Scotland. It is now widely regarded as Celtic.[]
    • Ligurian was spoken in Northern Mediterranean Coast straddling South-east French and North-west 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. The Ligurian-Celtic question is also discussed by Barruol (1999). Ancient Ligurian is either listed as Celtic (epigraphic), or Para-Celtic (onomastic).
    • 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. It is an Indo-European language and some scholars have proposed that it may be a para-Celtic language, which evolved alongside Celtic and/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.
    It is also possible that the Q-Celtic languages alone, including Goidelic, originated in western Iberia (a theory that was first put forward by Edward Lhuyd in 1707) and/or shared a common linguistic ancestor with Lusitanian. Secondary evidence for this hypothesis has been found in research by biological scientist, who have identified (firstly) deep-rooted similarities in human DNA found precisley in both the former Lusitania and Ireland, 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 late Paleolithic or early Mesolithic eras.
    Other scholars, see greater linguistic affinities between Lusitanian, proto-Italic and Old European.
    • Tartessian, spoken in the south-west of the Iberia Peninsula. Tartessian is known by 95 inscriptions with the longest having 82 readable signs. It is not known to be Indo-European and is generally left unclassified. However, John T. Koch argues that Tartessian was also a Celtic language.

    See also