The Celtic languages ( , ) are a group of related languages
descended from Proto-Celtic
. They form a branch of the Indo-European
language family. The term "Celtic" was first used to describe this language group by Edward Lhuyd
in 1707, following Paul-Yves Pezron
, who made the explicit link between the Celts
described by classical writers and the Welsh
During the 1st millennium BC, Celtic languages were spoken across much of Europe
and central Anatolia
. Today, they are restricted to the northwestern fringe of Europe and a few diaspora communities
. There are four living languages: Welsh
, 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
. The Cornish
languages went extinct in modern times. They have been the object of revivals and now each has several hundred second-language speakers.
Irish, Scottish and Manx form the Goidelic languages
, while Welsh, Cornish and Breton are Brittonic
. All of these are Insular Celtic languages
, since Breton, the only living Celtic language spoken in continental Europe, is descended from the language of settlers from Britain. There are a number of extinct but attested continental Celtic languages
, such as Celtiberian
. Beyond that there is no agreement on the subdivisions of the Celtic language family. They may be divided into P-Celtic
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
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.
lists six living Celtic languages, of which four have retained a substantial number of native speakers. These are the Goidelic languages
and Scottish Gaelic
, which are both descended from Middle Irish
) and the Brittonic languages
, which are both descended from Common Brittonic
The other two, Cornish
(a Brittonic language) and Manx
(a Goidelic language), died out in modern times
with their presumed last native speakers in 1777
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.
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.
, 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
* Beurla Reagaird
, Highland travellers' language
, where Celtic languages are spoken today, or were spoken into the modern era:
File:Bronce de Botorrita II.jpg|250px|thumb|upright=1.35|The second of the four [[Botorrita plaque
s. The third plaque is the longest text discovered in any ancient Celtic language. This, the second plaque, is inscribed in Latin however.]]
Celtic is divided into various branches:
* [[Lepontic language|Lepontic]], the oldest attested Celtic language (from the 6th century BC).
Anciently spoken in [[Switzerland]] and in Northern-Central Italy
. Coins with Lepontic inscriptions have been found in Noricum
and Gallia Narbonensis
* Northeastern Hispano-Celtic
/ Eastern Hispano-Celtic
, anciently spoken in 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.
* Northwestern Hispano-Celtic
/ Western Hispano-Celtic
(Gallaecian language), anciently spoken in the northwest of the peninsula (modern northern Portugal
* Gaulish language
s, including Galatian
and possibly Noric
. These languages were once spoken in a wide arc from Belgium
. They are now all extinct.
, spoken in Great Britain
. Including the living languages Breton
, and Welsh
, and the extinct languages Cumbric
, though Pictish may be a sister language rather than a daughter of Common Brittonic
. 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. The theory of a Brittonic Ivernic language
predating Goidelic speech in Ireland has been suggested, but is not widely accepted.
, including the living languages Irish
, and Scottish Gaelic
Continental/Insular Celtic and P/Q-Celtic hypotheses
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. 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.
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.
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".
How the family tree of the Celtic languages is ordered depends on which hypothesis is used:
"Insular Celtic hypothesis"
** Continental Celtic
** Insular Celtic
Eska (2010) evaluates the evidence as supporting the following tree, based on shared innovation
s, though it is not always clear that the innovations are not areal feature
s. 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.
** Nuclear Celtic?
*** Cisalpine Celtic: Lepontic
→ Cisalpine Gaulish
*** Transalpine–Goidelic–Brittonic (secure)
**** Transalpine Gaulish
† ("Transalpine Celtic")
**** Insular Celtic
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)
*** Transalpine Gaulish
Within the Indo-European
family, the Celtic languages have sometimes been placed with the Italic languages
in a common Italo-Celtic
subfamily. This hypothesis fell somewhat out of favour following reexamination by American linguist Calvert Watkins
in 1966. Irrespective, some scholars such as Ringe, Warnow and Taylor have argued in favour of an Italo-Celtic grouping in 21st century theses.
Although there are many differences between the individual Celtic languages, they do show many family resemblances.
* consonant mutation
s (Insular Celtic only)
* inflected preposition
s (Insular Celtic only)
* two grammatical gender
s (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)
* a vigesimal
number system (counting by twenties)
** Cornish ' "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
** Welsh ' "I teach" vs. ' "is taught, one teaches"
** Irish ' "I teach" vs. ' "is taught, one teaches"
* no infinitive
s, 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
, interrogation, and occasionally for affirmative declarations
ed 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 ' "I have a cat", literally "there is a cat to me"
** Welsh ' "I have a cat", literally "a cat is with me"
** Irish ' "I have a cat", literally "there is a cat at me"
* use of periphrastic
constructions to express verbal tense, voice, or aspectual
* distinction by function of the two versions of BE verbs traditionally labelled substantive (or existential) and copula
* bifurcated demonstrative
* 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
: ga|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 '. The ' the result of affection
; the ' is the lenited
form of '.
:* ' 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.
: cy|pedwar ar bymtheg a phedwar ugain
: (Literally) four on fifteen and four twenties
:* ' is a mutated form of ', which is ' ("five") plus ' ("ten"). Likewise, ' is a mutated form of '.
:* The multiples of ten are '.*
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
of /b/ into /v/ or Ø).
The table below contains words in the modern languages that were inherited directly
, as well as a few old borrowings
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
† 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.''
* ga|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.
* gv|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.
* gd|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.
* br|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.
* kw|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.
* cy|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.
is an extinct language which was spoken in the first millennium BC
in the Valcamonica
valleys of the Central Alps
. It has most recently been proposed to be a Celtic language.
was spoken in the Northern Mediterranean Coast straddling the southeast French and northwest Italian coasts, including parts of Tuscany
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).
was spoken in the area between the Douro and Tagus rivers of western Iberia
(a region straddling the present border of Portugal
). 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 or formed a dialect continuum
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) or shared a common linguistic ancestor with Lusitanian. 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 former Lusitania
, 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
:Other scholars see greater linguistic affinities between Lusitanian, proto-Gallo-Italic
(particularly with the Ligurian language (ancient)
) and Old European
Prominent modern linguists such as Ellis Evans
, believe that Gallaecian
-Lusitanian was in fact one same language (not separate languages) of the "P" Celtic variant.
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
[; ; ; ]
was spoken in central parts of present-day Switzerland
, 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
, and uncertain other elements. Howard Hayes Scullard
argues that Rhaetian was also a Celtic language.
, spoken in the southwest of the Iberia Peninsula (mainly southern Portugal
and southwestern Spain
Tartessian is known by 95 inscriptions, with the longest having 82 readable signs.
John T. Koch
argues that Tartessian was also a Celtic language.
* Celts (modern)
* A Swadesh list of the modern Celtic languages
* Celtic Congress
* Celtic League (political organisation)
* Continental Celtic languages
* Language families and languages
* Ball, Martin J. & James Fife (ed.) (1993). ''The Celtic Languages''. London: Routledge. .
* Borsley, Robert D. & Ian Roberts (ed.) (1996). ''The Syntax of the Celtic Languages: A Comparative Perspective''. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. .
* ''Celtic Linguistics, 1700–1850'' (2000). London; New York: Routledge. 8 vols comprising 15 texts originally published between 1706 and 1844.
* Lewis, Henry & Holger Pedersen
(1989). ''A Concise Comparative Celtic Grammar''. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. .
* Markey, Thomas L. (2006). “Early Celticity in Slovenia and at Rhaetic Magrè (Schio)”. In: ''Linguistica'' 46 (1), 145-72. https://doi.org/10.4312/linguistica.46.1.145-172.
* Sims-Williams, Patrick. “An Alternative to ‘Celtic from the East’ and ‘Celtic from the West’.” In: ''Cambridge Archaeological Journal'' 30, no. 3 (2020): 511–29. doi:10.1017/S0959774320000098.
* Stifter, David. "The early Celtic epigraphic evidence and early literacy in Germanic languages". In: ''NOWELE - North-Western European Language Evolution'', Volume 73, Issue 1, Apr 2020, pp. 123-152. . DOI: https://doi.org/10.1075/nowele.00037.sti
Aberdeen University Celtic Department
* ttp://www.breizh.net/icdbl/saozg/Celtic_Languages.pdf Celts and Celtic LanguagesWhat is necessary to decide if Lusitanian is a Celtic language?