Celtic languages

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Formerly widespread in much of Europe and central Anatolia; today Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, the Isle of Man, Chubut Province, and Nova Scotia
Linguistic classification Indo-European
Proto-language Proto-Celtic
ISO 639-2 / 5 cel
Linguasphere 50= (phylozone)
Glottolog celt1248
Celtic expansion in Europe.png
Distribution of Celtic speakers:
   Hallstatt culture area, 6th century BC
  Maximal Celtic expansion, c. 275 BC
   Lusitanian area; Celtic affiliation unclear
  Areas where Celtic languages are widely spoken in the 21st century

The Celtic languages ( usually /ˈkɛltɪk/ , but sometimes /ˈsɛltɪk/ in the US) [1] are a group of related languages descended from Proto-Celtic. They form a branch of the Indo-European language family. [2] The term "Celtic" was first used to describe this language group by Edward Lhuyd in 1707, [3] following Paul-Yves Pezron, who made the explicit link between the Celts described by classical writers and the Welsh and Breton languages. [4]


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 six living languages: Welsh, Breton, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and the two revived languages, Cornish and Manx. 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 and a handful of native 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, Galatian and Gaulish. Beyond that there is no agreement on the subdivisions of the Celtic language family. They may be divided into P-Celtic and Q-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 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.

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). [5]

The other two, Cornish (a Brittonic language) and Manx (a Goidelic language), died out in modern times [6] [7] [8] 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. [9] [10]

Taken together, there were roughly one million native speakers of Celtic languages as of the 2000s. [11] In 2010, there were more than 1.4 million speakers of Celtic languages. [12]


LanguageNative nameGroupingNumber of native speakersNumber of people who have one or more skills in the languageMain area(s) where the language is spoken Regulated by/language body Estimated number of speakers in major cities
Irish Gaeilge / Gaedhilge / Gaeiluinn / Gaeilig / Gaeilic Goidelic 40,000–80,000 [13] [14] [15] [16]
In the Republic of Ireland, 73,803 people use Irish daily outside the education system. [17]
Total speakers: 1,887,437
Republic of Ireland: 1,774,437 [18]
United Kingdom: 95,000
United States: 18,000
Gaeltacht of Ireland Foras na Gaeilge Dublin: 184,140
Galway: 37,614
Cork: 57,318 [19]
Belfast: 30,360 [20]
Welsh Cymraeg / Y Gymraeg Brittonic 562,000 (19.0% of the population of Wales) claim that they "can speak Welsh" (2011) [21] [22] Total speakers: ≈ 947,700 (2011)
Wales: 788,000 speakers (26.7% of the population) [21] [22]
England: 150,000 [23]
Chubut Province, Argentina: 5,000 [24]
United States: 2,500 [25]
Canada: 2,200 [26]
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 [27]
Bangor: 7,190
Breton Brezhoneg Brittonic 206,000356,000 [28] Brittany Ofis Publik ar Brezhoneg Rennes: 7,000
Brest: 40,000
Nantes: 4,000 [29]
Scottish Gàidhlig Goidelic Scotland: 57,375 (2011) [30]
Nova Scotia: 1,275 (2011) [31]
Scotland: 87,056 (2011) [30] Gàidhealtachd of Scotland; Nova Scotia, Canada Bòrd na Gàidhlig Glasgow: 5,726
Edinburgh: 3,220 [32]
Aberdeen: 1,397 [33]
Cornish Kernowek Brittonic Unknown [34] 2,000 [35] Cornwall Akademi Kernewek
Cornish Language Partnership (Keskowethyans an Taves Kernewek)
Truro: 118 [36]
Manx Gaelg / Gailck Goidelic 100+, [9] [37] including a small number of children who are new native speakers [38] 1,823 [39] Isle of Man Coonceil ny Gaelgey Douglas: 507 [40]

Mixed languages


Classification of Celtic languages according to Insular vs. Continental hypothesis. (click to enlarge) Celtic language family tree.svg
Classification of Celtic languages according to Insular vs. Continental hypothesis. (click to enlarge)
Classification of Indo-European languages. (click to enlarge) IndoEuropeanTree.svg
Classification of Indo-European languages. (click to enlarge)
Ancient Celtic languages of the Iberian Peninsula shown in pale yellow. Lusitanian (an Indo-European language with possible Celtic affiliation or an Indo-European Pre-Celtic language) is shown in light pink, Tartessian (an unclassified language with hypothetical Celtic affiliation) is shown in pale green. Greek and Phoenician Colonies in The Iberian Peninsula.png
Ancient Celtic languages of the Iberian Peninsula shown in pale yellow. Lusitanian (an Indo-European language with possible Celtic affiliation or an Indo-European Pre-Celtic language) is shown in light pink, Tartessian (an unclassified language with hypothetical Celtic affiliation) is shown in pale green.
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) Map of Celtic Nations-flag shades.svg
The Celtic nations, where Celtic languages are spoken today, or were spoken into the modern era:
   Ireland (Irish)
   Wales (Welsh)
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. Bronce de Botorrita II.jpg
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.

Celtic is divided into various branches:

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. [53] 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, [54] 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 [55] [56] 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 [57] 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. [58] [59]

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. [44] 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". [60]

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:

Eska (2010)

Eska (2010) [61] 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:


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. [62] Irrespective, some scholars such as Ringe, Warnow and Taylor have argued in favour of an Italo-Celtic grouping in 21st century theses. [63]


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


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

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, Scottish Gaelic and Manx on the other. For a fuller list of comparisons, see the Swadesh list for Celtic.

WelshBreton [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(imtuit(eamtuitt(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.

Possibly Celtic languages

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

Other scholars see greater linguistic affinities between Lusitanian, proto-Gallo-Italic (particularly with Ligurian) and Old European. [78] [79] 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. [80] [81]

See also


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Brittonic languages Subfamily of Celtic languages, including Welsh, Cornish, Breton and Cumbric

The Brittonic, Brythonic or British Celtic languages form one of the two branches of the Insular Celtic language family; the other is Goidelic. The name Brythonic was derived by Welsh Celticist John Rhys from the Welsh word Brython, meaning Ancient Britons as opposed to an Anglo-Saxon or Gael.

Celts Ethnolinguistic group

The Celts are a collection of Indo-European peoples in parts of Europe and Anatolia identified by their use of the Celtic languages and other cultural similarities. Historic Celtic groups included the Gauls, Celtiberians, Gallaecians, Galatians, Britons, Gaels, and their offshoots. The relationship between ethnicity, language and culture in the Celtic world is unclear and controversial. In particular, there is dispute over the ways in which the Iron Age inhabitants of Britain and Ireland should be regarded as Celts.

The Goidelic or Gaelic languages form one of the two groups of Insular Celtic languages, the other being the Brittonic languages.

Pictish is the extinct language spoken by the Picts, the people of eastern and northern Scotland from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. Virtually no direct attestations of Pictish remain, short of a limited number of geographical and personal names found on monuments and the contemporary records in the area controlled by the kingdoms of the Picts, dating to the early medieval period. Such evidence, however, points to the language being an Insular Celtic language related to the Brittonic language spoken prior to Anglo-Saxon settlement in what is now southern Scotland, England, and Wales.

Languages of the United Kingdom Languages of a geographic region

English, in various dialects, is the most widely spoken language of the United Kingdom, but a number of regional languages are also spoken. There are 14 indigenous languages used across the British Isles: 5 Celtic, 3 Germanic, 3 Romance, and 3 sign languages: 2 Banszl and 1 Francosign language. There are also many languages spoken by people who arrived more recently in the British Isles, mainly within inner city areas; these languages are mainly from South Asia, Eastern and Western Europe.

Celtic Revival

The Celtic Revival was a variety of movements and trends in the 19th and 20th centuries that saw a renewed interest in aspects of Celtic culture. Artists and writers drew on the traditions of Gaelic literature, Welsh-language literature, and so-called 'Celtic art'—what historians call Insular art. Although the revival was complex and multifaceted, occurring across many fields and in various countries in Northwest Europe, its best known incarnation is probably the Irish Literary Revival. Irish writers including William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, "AE" Russell, Edward Martyn, Alice Milligan. and Edward Plunkett stimulated a new appreciation of traditional Irish literature and Irish poetry in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Celtic calendar is a compilation of pre-Christian Celtic systems of timekeeping, including the Gaulish Coligny calendar, used by Celtic countries to define the beginning and length of the day, the week, the month, the seasons, quarter days, and festivals.

Insular Celtic languages are the group of Celtic languages of Great Britain, Ireland and Brittany.

Celts (modern)

The modern Celts are a related group of ethnicities who share similar Celtic languages, cultures and artistic histories, and who live in or descend from one of the regions on the western extremities of Europe populated by the Celts.

Proto-Celtic language Ancestor of the Celtic languages

The Proto-Celtic language, also called Common Celtic, is the ancestral proto-language of all the known Celtic languages, and a descendant of the Proto-Indo-European language. It is not directly attested in writing, but has been partially reconstructed through the comparative method. Proto-Celtic is generally believed to have been spoken between 1300 and 800 BCE, after which it began to evolve into individual Celtic languages. Proto-Celtic is usually associated with the Urnfield or Hallstatt archaeological cultures. Celtic languages share common features with Italic languages that are not found in other branches of Indo-European, suggesting the possibility that an earlier Italo-Celtic linguistic unity may have existed.

Continental Celtic languages

The Continental Celtic languages is the now-extinct group of the Celtic languages that were spoken on the continent of Europe and in central Anatolia, as distinguished from the Insular Celtic languages of the British Isles and Brittany. Continental Celtic is a geographic, rather than linguistic, grouping of the ancient Celtic languages.

Celtic Britons Ancient Celtic people

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Insular Celts

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Common Brittonic was a Celtic language spoken in Britain and Brittany. It is also variously known as Old Brittonic, and Common or Old Brythonic.

Gaulish was an ancient Celtic language that was spoken in parts of Continental Europe before and during the period of the Roman Empire. In the narrow sense, Gaulish was the language spoken by the Celtic inhabitants of Gaul. In a wider sense, it also comprises varieties of Celtic that were spoken across much of central Europe ("Noric"), parts of the Balkans, and Anatolia ("Galatian"), which are thought to have been closely related. The more divergent Lepontic of Northern Italy has also sometimes been subsumed under Gaulish.


Further reading