The Celtic Languages

Before the discovery of America the western edge of Europe seemed like the end of the world. And it was here at the world’s precipices that the Celts, pushed out of their original homes by immigrants arriving from the East, found their final resting place. Today the six Celtic Nations– Brittany (Breizh), Cornwall (Kernow), Ireland (Éire), the Isle of Man (Mannin), Scotland (Alba), and Wales (Cymru)- are the last living reminder of a vast Celtic presence which once stretched from the British Isles to the Iberian Peninsula to Anatolia (Turkey).

The Celtic people originated in Central Europe (Austria and surrounding areas) during the Iron Age and thereafter began an immigration which took them far and wide. The letter of Saint Paul to the Galatians (the name for the Celts in Anatolia), the Galician dialect in Spain, and the Gauls who fought against Julius Caesar in what today is France are historical reminders of their ubiquitousness.

The Celtic languages once spoken across Europe and Asia Minor- known as “Continental Celtic languages”- are today completely extinct. Only on the rocky western shores of the continent has some form of the language been able to cling on to life. The six “Insular Celtic languages” have managed to carry Celtic culture into the 21st century, albeit with relatively small numbers of speakers.

The Irish (Gaeilge) and Welsh (Cymraeg) languages are the healthiest of the bunch with 1.3 million and 700,000 speakers respectively. Breton (Brezhoneg) and Scottish (Gàidhlig) are in the middle of the group with 200,000 and 60,000 speakers, while Cornish (Kernowek) and Manx (Gaelg) have less speakers than some high schools do students- 3,500 and 1,800 respectively. In all, less than 2 and a half million people worldwide speak a Celtic language- a small number but certainly respectable for a language group that has risked complete eradication by more dominant languages.

Bilingual education programs have been founded to help the languages survive in this new millennium. In the Gaelscoileanna (Ireland), Ysgolion Meithrin (Wales) and Diwan (Brittany) students study the various complexities of their ancestral languages. They learn that while Subject-Verb-Object is the correct word order in English, they must use the order of Verb-Subject-Object when speaking a Celtic tongue. They memorize the 28 letters of the Welsh alphabet- which replace j, k, q, v, x, and z with curious “double-digit” letters ch, dd, ff, ng, ll, ph, rh, and th. They learn to “conjugate” their prepositions; the Breton word for withgant– will change depending on its object: ganin (with me), ganit (with you), gantañ (with him), ganti (with her), ganimp (with us), ganeoc’h (with you plural), or ganto (with them).

Pronunciation is surely one of the most difficult aspects of learning a Celtic language. Even just sounding out the names on road signs in Wales can be difficult for non-Welsh speakers, especially when it comes to places like Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which translates to “St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool of Llandysilio of the red cave.” Luckily for visitors, this town of 3,000 on the island of Anglesey in the north-western part of the country can also be referred to by its nickname, Llanfair PG, although that initial “double L” is always problematic for “foreigners.” It is what linguists call a “voiceless alveolar lateral fricative,” a sound which does not exist in English, although it is often approximated as “thl” or “chl” (where “ch” is as in the Scottish or Irish word “loch” or the German “ich”).

Luckily not all Celtic words will seem so foreign and difficult to the English speaker; many have entered into our vocabulary. Irish words such as banshee (bean sídhe- woman of the fairies) and galore (go leor– to sufficiency) are commonplace. Scottish has given us trousers (triubhas) and slogan (sluagh-ghairm- army shout). Penguin probably comes from the Welsh pen gwyn (white head).The French word bijou (jewel) derives the Breton bizou (finger ring- biz is the word for finger).

Though spoken by a small number of people, the Celtic languages are still quite alive in the six Celtic nations. And “small” is of course a relative description- in Llanfair PG 76% of the population speaks Welsh fluently, including 97.1% of those aged 10 to 14. At least in this small village with the long name the Celtic languages are far from being cornered into extinction.

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