Can you teach me to speak Celtic?
When people become aware of my interest in all things Irish, the question soon arises:
“Do you speak Celtic? Can you teach me to speak it?”
I’d be happy to, if it weren’t for one small problem: There’s no such language as “Celtic.”
It’s a family thing
It’s not that the word “Celtic” doesn’t exist in regards to language…it most certainly does! It doesn’t refer to a single language, however, but rather to a family of related languages.
Perhaps you’ve heard languages such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian referred to as “Romance Languages” because they are descended from the language of the Romans.
Unlike the Romans, however, the Celts were never a single, united, people. Their societies were tribal, so from the very beginning their languages differed somewhat from one another.
Also unlike the Romans the Celtic tribes didn’t have a single, uniting, city or country. As they moved about, their languages began to diverge, until they became functionally different languages.
In addition, the common ancestor of the Celtic languages (which linguists call “Proto-Celtic“) has been lost. We know it must have existed, but we can only guess as to what it may have looked like.
One family, two branches
To make things even more complicated, there are two distinct branches of the Celtic Family Tree:
- Goidelic (Gaelic): This branch includes Irish (Gaeilge), Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig), and Manx (Gaelg).
- Brythonic (British): This branch includes Welsh (Cymraeg), Cornish (Kernewek), and Breton (Brezhoneg).
Are they really that different?
Sometimes it can be hard to believe that closely related languages can be all that different from one another. It’s true the Celtic languages share a lot of common characteristics, including:
- A verb-subject-object (VSO) sentence structure.
- The lack of an infinitive verb form.
- Two forms of the verb “to be.”
- Two grammatical genders.
To give you an idea as to just how different they are from one another, here’s how you might ask someone if he or she spoke each of the Celtic languages in that language:
“Do you speak…”
- Irish (click above to listen): An bhfuil Gaeilge agat? “Do you speak Irish?”
- Scottish Gaelic: A bheil Gàidhlig agad? “Do you speak Gaelic?”
- Manx: Vel Gaelg ayd? “Do you speak Manx?”
- Welsh: Dych chi’n siarad Cymraeg? “Do you speak Welsh?”
- Cornish: A wodhesta kewsel Kernewek? “Do you speak Cornish?”
- Breton: C’hwi a gaoja Brezhoneg? “Do you speak Breton?”
So I guess I can’t learn to speak “Celtic” then, right?
Well…that’s right. You can’t learn to speak a language named ”Celtic.” It doesn’t exist. You can, however, learn to speak a Celtic language!
Pick your country!
Irish (usually just called “Irish;” sometimes “Irish Gaelic”), Scottish Gaelic (usually just called “Gaelic”), Breton, and Welsh are still spoken as the day-to-day languages of thousands of people.
There are newspapers, radio and TV stations (often available on-line), schools, and learning materials devoted to these languages, and it’s fairly easy for a learner to find self-teaching resources.
Manx and Cornish can be more difficult. Linguists consider them “dead languages,” because no native speakers of those languages, (i.e., people who learned them as their first language) still exist.
That said, there are strong revival movements for both languages, and native speakers existed recently enough that we still know what the languages sound like, so don’t let that stop you!
You may not be able to learn to speak “Celtic,” but you can learn to speak a language of the Celts!
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I hope this post helped. Before you read it, what did you think “Celtic” referred to? Just leave a reply below.