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Celtic languages

Language family

Top 10 Celtic languages related articles

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 classificationIndo-European
ISO 639-2 / 5cel
Linguasphere50= (phylozone)
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)[3] are a group of related languages descended from Proto-Celtic. They form a branch of the Indo-European language family.[4] The term "Celtic" was first used to describe this language group by Edward Lhuyd in 1707,[5] following Paul-Yves Pezron, who made the explicit link between the Celts described by classical writers and the Welsh and Breton languages.[6]

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 four living languages: Welsh, Breton, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic. 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.

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.

Celtic languages Intro articles: 170

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).[7]

The other two, Cornish (a Brittonic language) and Manx (a Goidelic language), died out in modern times[8][9][10] 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.[11][12]

Taken together, there were roughly one million native speakers of Celtic languages as of the 2000s.[13] In 2010, there were more than 1.4 million speakers of Celtic languages.[14]


Language Native name Grouping Number of native speakers Number of people who have one or more skills in the language Main 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[15][16][17][18]
In the Republic of Ireland, 73,803 people use Irish daily outside the education system.[19]
Total speakers: 1,887,437
Republic of Ireland: 1,774,437[20]
United Kingdom: 95,000
United States: 18,000
Gaeltacht of Ireland Foras na Gaeilge Dublin: 184,140
Galway: 37,614
Cork: 57,318[21]
Belfast: 30,360[22]
Welsh Cymraeg / Y Gymraeg Brittonic 562,000 (19.0% of the population of Wales) claim that they "can speak Welsh" (2011)[23][24] Total speakers: ≈ 947,700 (2011)
Wales: 788,000 speakers (26.7% of the population)[23][24]
England: 150,000[25]
Chubut Province, Argentina: 5,000[26]
United States: 2,500[27]
Canada: 2,200[28]
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[29]
Bangor: 7,190
Breton Brezhoneg Brittonic 206,000 356,000[30] Brittany Ofis Publik ar Brezhoneg Rennes: 7,000
Brest: 40,000
Nantes: 4,000[31]
Scottish Gàidhlig Goidelic Scotland: 57,375 (2011)[32]
Nova Scotia: 1,275 (2011)[33]
Scotland: 87,056 (2011)[32] Gàidhealtachd of Scotland; Nova Scotia, Canada Bòrd na Gàidhlig Glasgow: 5,726
Edinburgh: 3,220[34]
Aberdeen: 1,397[35]
Cornish Kernowek Brittonic Unknown[36] 2,000[37] Cornwall Akademi Kernewek
Cornish Language Partnership (Keskowethyans an Taves Kernewek)
Truro: 118[38]
Manx Gaelg/ Gailck Goidelic 100+,[11][39] including a small number of children who are new native speakers[40] 1,823[41] Isle of Man Coonceil ny Gaelgey Douglas: 507[42]

Mixed languages

Celtic languages Living languages articles: 51


Classification of Celtic languages according to Insular vs. Continental hypothesis. (click to enlarge)
Classification of Indo-European languages. (click to enlarge)

Celtic is divided into various branches:

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.[50]

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.[55] 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,[56] 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[57][58] 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[59] 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.[60][61]

The Celtic nations, where Celtic languages are spoken today, or were spoken into the modern era:
  Wales (Welsh)

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.[45] 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".[62]

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)[63] 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.[64] Irrespective, some scholars such as Ringe, Warnow and Taylor have argued in favour of an Italo-Celtic grouping in 21st century theses.[65]

Celtic languages Classification articles: 32