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The Celtic languages.

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Primary source: Cambridge encyclopaedia of language.

The Celtic languages are divided into two classes: Insular and Continental

Continental Celtic languages are no longer spoken, but consisted of: Celtiberian (Spain), Gaulish (Swiss/Northern Italian variant known
as Lepontic) and Galatian in Turkey(!).
Galatian was spoken until about the 5th century.
Lepontic turns out to be P-Celtic. Celtiberian turns out to be Q-Celtic, the split occuring prior to the 7th Century BC.

Insular Celtic is divided into:
P-Celtic, also called Brythonic or British
Q-Celtic, also called Goidelic or Gaelic

P-Celtic consists of:
Cumbric (extinct), Welsh, Cornish, Breton
Breton and Cornish were apparantly mutually intelligible until
the 15th century

Q-Celtic consists of:
Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx
These languages are almost mutually intelligible today.
i.e. Donegal Irish and Islay Scots Gaelic are quite close.

Pronounciation note:
The word Gaelic is pronounced "Gaylik" when talking about Irish Gaelic or Manx Gaelic; the modern preference is to pronounce it "Gallic" when talking about Scots Gaelic (this being much closer to the pronunciation of "Gaidhlig" which is what this language calls itself).

Historically in Scotland in both English and Scots the word was pronounced the same as for the other two languages. Indeed some Scots Acts spell the word "Gaylick". Therefore for an non-Gaelic speaker to use this pronunciation is not "wrong", just not as currently preferred in Scotland.


The most ancient remnants of a celtic dialect in written form have been found in northern Italy (Sesto Calende, ~600 b.C., Castelletto Ticino, ~575-550 b.C.). It is a relatively recent acquisition that these (Lepontic) inscription are actually written in a celtic dialect (Lejeune, "Lepontica", 1971).

British Isles

There were two waves of invasions to the British Isles which gave rise to the P/Q variaties we have today. The first invasion was to Ireland in the 4th century BC, probably from Western France. This variant became Gaelic and spread from Ireland to the Isle of Man and Scotland. The second invasion (P-Celtic) was to southern England and Wales and from there (in 5th century AD) to Brittany. Celtic languages have also spread from Britain. 150 Welsh speakers started a Welsh colony in Patagonia in 1865, and there is also a Scots Gaelic community in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. (about 1,000 speakers today). Breton is not classified as continental Celtic because it came to Brittany from Britain. There was a Gaelic speaking community in the Carolinas but this died out in the early 20th century.

The p-q-phenomenon is found in Italic (compare the Latin quattor, 'four', with the Oscan petora), and certain linguists claim that there was an Italo-Celtic people by the end of the 21st century BC. However, the similarities are merely coincidental, e.g. the future tense in Irish (root + b + ending) and Latin (root + f + ending), or that passive verbs end with -r (previously believed to be a characteristic of Italic and Celtic, but later found in Hittite and Tocharian (both extinct).

Pictish: The Picts were Celts but spoke a mixture of languages. They spoke a pre-Celtic language for ritualistic purposes (source: Prof Derek Thompson - "Why Gaelic matters"), and Pictish at other times. Pictish is mentioned The Cambridge Encyclopedia of language as possibly being Celtic or possibly being a non-Indo-European isolate like Basque although the evidence seems to indicate that it was Indo-European. Thompson says "It is clear from the evidence of place names that there was much common ground between [Brythonic] and the Celtic constituent of Pictish".

Many of the Scottish Island names including Arran, Skye, Lewis and Jura are Pictish. For more information on placenames: (W.F.H. Nicolaisen "Scottish Place Names", Batsford, London 1976).

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Q-HTML V3.4 by Craig Cockburn created this page on 13-Jun-2012 at 22:51:54