How to Speak Celtic

Inch Strand in Kerry, Ireland

Inch Strand in Co. Chiarraí/Co. Kerry in Ireland. On this peninsula, the Irish language is spoken daily, in places. Copyright 2012 eTeanga.

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.

In the same vein, we refer to the languages of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and the Isle of Man as “Celtic Languages” because they came from the language of the Celts.

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…”

Play 
  • Irish (click above to listen): An bhfuil Gaeilge agat? “Do you speak Irish?”
  • Scottish Gaelic: A bheil Gàidhlig agad? “Do you speak Gaelic?”
  • ManxVel 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?”

By the way, if you’re a Bitesize Irish Gaelic member, check out out the full members’ lesson, Lesson: Do you speak Irish?.

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!

Was this post helpful to you?

I hope this post helped. Before you read it, what did you think “Celtic” referred to? Just leave a reply below.

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Comments

  1. Gordon Molengraf says:

    Your email post are always helpful.

  2. angel says:

    Brilliant… We Celts are all in the same family, that’s good. I am in Cornwall and there is a revival of our language but you put it under Brythonic as with Welsh and Breton: I personally think of only Irish, Scottish and Manx as Gaelic and then Breton, Welsh and Cornish as Celtic. However I can only really comment on Cornish and they would not put their language under Brythonic(British) they will say they are Celts and their language is Cornish and the more modern people would say Cornish Gaelic, but whichever, what a great Celtic family we all are and that is what binds us all together whatever others ‘label’ us by. Love to my Celtic brothers and sisters everywhere and huge thanks to Eoin for putting up with us all ! Angel from the ‘Cornish Branch’ XX

  3. Audrey Nickel says:

    Hi Angel,

    Cornish is, indeed, a member of the Brythonic branch of the Celtic language family, along with Welsh and Breton. This is a linguistic classification has to do with both its origins and the features of the language, which differ markedly in several respects from the Gaelic languages. “Gaelic” refers the language of the Gaels…a different Celtic tribe from those that gave us Cornish, Welsh, and Breton.

    If you read the Wikipedia article on Celtic Languages linked to in the post, you’ll see how and why these distinctions are made.

    In any case, all six are Celtic languages…they just belong to two different branches of the Celtic family tree.

    • angel says:

      HI AUDREY
      Thankyou so much for your reply, yes I have read the whole article and agree, so informative, brilliant piece of work. I am pleased the Celtic people are all from one tree, although two branches. I just wanted to say that the Cornish people, although not from the Gael Branch, are fiercly proud of their Celtic roots and they would not ever even consider they were British or English…they feel more seperated…they feel they have more kinship with the Irish. But none of that really matters as we are all proud of our Celtic roots and pleased to be from the same tree even though two seperate branches. It makes me feel happy too that we, all 6 Celtic language people have guarded our very own special Celtic identity. I don’t speak Cornish and am learning Irish because that is where my heart lives. But am proud to be part of the 6 Celtic family tree….Thankyou again Audrey, I see below that you yourself have written this post, I hope you will write more for us in the future…Between your wonderful piece of work and dear Eoin and his works, I feel part of something special which the rest of this world seems to have lost. My best wishes to you Audrey and to Eoin. Love Angel…from the ‘Cornish Branch’ !

  4. Sue Dempsey says:

    Hi Eoin….Well this certainly was helpful. I really liked the way you explained Celtic as a family of languages — along with examples. I feel like I finally have a handle on this after your compact and comprehensive clarification!!!!!

    Thanks

  5. Audrey Nickel says:

    Hi angel,

    If it helps, the word “British” originally applied only to the British Celts…not to the English. The island was “Great Britain” long before the Angles and the Saxons arrived, called so because it was populated by Celts of the Brythonic branch. In fact, that’s why “Great Britain” and “Brittany” sound so similar in English…they were once two Celtic entities that became known in English as “Greater Britain” and “Lesser Britain.” King Arthur, in fact, was British, but not English…a Celt of the Brythonic branch. It wasn’t until much later that people began to use “British” and “English” synonymously. Granted, that’s the case we’re stuck with today, and if I were from Wales or Cornwall, if asked my nationality, I would probably reply with “Welsh” or “Cornish” rather than “British” to avoid confusion and to make my cultural identity clear, but it wasn’t always the case. There was a time when being “British” actually meant you were a Celt!

    • angel says:

      HI AUDREY
      Sorted !!!!!
      Thankyou so much…You would have laughed if you saw me whilst I were reading EVERY PART of these articles, links and sections over and over again ! It was hard work, but I think I have got it…..at first I did find my Celtic roots beginning to ‘wobble’ a bit with all the information I read… but the fog cleared after reading over and over. I especially enjoyed reading the Cornish info, much of which I never knew. I am very passionate about most things I do and always keep scraping away until I get to the bare bones of any situation……and you have helped me sort it….Thankyou, it was very helpful and kind of you to have bothered to reply again to help clarify things so very easily for me. Kind Regards from a ‘Happy Celt’, from the ‘Cornish Branch’ Angel.

  6. Cassidy says:

    Hi!

    I am very thankful that you have explained that Celtic is not a language and have put up so many examples explaining this. I knew that Celtic was not a llanguage but a group, but I never really knew why or what languages were included in the group. Thank you so much for explaining this to me. I am Irish and proud of that, even though generations of my family now live in USA, along with me. I am glad I have Celtic roots and that there are people out there who can explain things I don’t know about Celtic languages to me.

    Thanks you

  7. Galph Zhen says:

    Khaam kjan Celtic Hefdhar. I like languages, so do u guys know a good program 4 Manx? Ik tht it’s dead, but all the more reason 2 learn it ^.^ Irayu, Ghraff hakhnat Ghrass!

  8. Audrey Nickel says:

    What’s interesting, listening to the recordings on that site, is how similar some Manx phrases sound to their equivalents in Irish…particularly Ulster Irish, which pronounced “maith” pretty much the same was as the speaker in those Manx recordings pronounces “mie” (both mean “well/good”).

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