All In The Language Family: The Celtic Languages

The Celtic languages are pretty much only found in the British Isles today, but were at one point spoken throughout Europe.
May 21, 2020
All In The Language Family: The Celtic Languages

The Indo-European language family is massive. Hundreds of the languages spoken throughout the world all descend from one common root: proto-Indo-European. This family includes some of the most-spoken languages in the world, including French, Spanish, English and Hindi. One of the many sub-families of the Indo-European language family is the Celtic language family. Compared to some of the other sub-families, like Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages, it’s relatively small, but it has lasting cultural importance and is an important part of linguistic diversity in the British Isles.

What Are The Celtic Languages?

The Celtic languages are all of those that descended from Proto-Celtic, or Common Celtic. There is no written record of Proto-Celtic, but historical linguists have reconstructed the language by comparing the remaining Celtic languages today. Proto-Celtic evolved from Proto-Indo-European around roughly 1300 BCE. And while the remaining living Celtic languages are all clustered in the British Isles, Proto-Celtic came from Central Europe in the “Hallstatt Zone.” This zone demarcates a collection of cultures that existed during the Bronze Age in the region that today is the border between Germany and Austria.

Over the following centuries, Proto-Celtic spread throughout Europe and made the leap to Ireland at some point before the fourth century BCE, which is the date of the earliest Irish writing.

There are approximately 16 Celtic languages to have ever existed. Of those, only six are still spoken today: Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Cornish and Welsh. Many of the fully extinct and “dead” Celtic languages — those that are only spoken by non-native speakers currently — are the ones that evolved in Continental Europe, including Celtiberian (spoken on the Iberian peninsula), Galatian (spoken in Galatia, or modern-day Turkey), Gaulish (spoken in a huge region of Central Europe including parts of modern-day France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy) and Lepontic (spoken in Northern Italy and Switzerland). These languages disappeared for various reasons, though the Roman conquest of the continent was a major contributing factor.

How Many People Speak A Celtic Language?

Figuring out the exact number of Celtic speakers is a difficult task. While four of the six languages have a significant number of speakers, there is often a large disparity between native speakers and non-native speakers. Irish, for example, is the largest living Celtic language with over a million speakers, but only about 10 percent are native speakers of the language. Many Celtic languages were nearly wiped out by the English language, and so today are fighting for their survival. Manx and Cornish are both technically “dead” languages, because they have no native speakers, but they both have communities that are attempting to revive them.

In any case, there are about 2 million speakers of Celtic languages, both native and non-native. Here are all six languages broken down, using figures from Ethnologue.

  1. Irish — 1,170,000
  2. Welsh — 562,000
  3. Breton — 206,000 
  4. Scottish Gaelic — 57,400
  5. Manx — 1,660
  6. Cornish — 600

How Similar Are the Celtic Languages?

For the most part, Celtic languages are not mutually intelligible, meaning that speaking one will not unlock your ability to understand the others automatically. There are noticeable similarities between them, however, and some are closer than others.

If you imagine the evolution of Proto-Celtic into the Celtic languages like a tree, there have been a few distinct moments of branching off. The clearest division is between the Continental and Insular Celtic languages. As the name suggests, the Continental Celtic languages are the ones that evolved in Continental Europe. The Insular ones are those that evolved in the British Isles. As a side note, there is one Celtic language that evolved outside of the British Isles: Breton, which is spoken in the Brittany region in France. Breton is still an Insular Celtic language, however, because it traveled there from Great Britain rather than Continental Europe.

Following the Insular Celtic language branch on the tree, there was another split between the Goidelic languages and the Brythonic, or Brittonic, languages. The Goidelic languages are Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic, all three of which descended from Primitive Irish (the exact point of divergence is believed to have been during the period of Middle Irish, which was spoken between the 12th and 15th centuries CE). These three languages show a lot of similarities, but also a number of differences that make them not mutually intelligible. Still, they’re closer to each other than they are to the Brythonic languages, which are Breton, Cornish, Welsh, Cumbric, Ivernic and Pictish, the last three of which are no longer spoken. The Brythonic languages all derive from a common language called Brittonic.

It should be noted that the Insular-Continental divide is only a theory. There’s also another theory put forward by some scholars that claim the differences are actually between Q-Celtic and P-Celtic languages. The main difference in this theory is that it doesn’t group the Goidelic and Brythonic languages together, meaning that they would’ve started evolving away from each other much earlier.

While the Celtic languages are not considered mutually intelligible, looking at some simple words across the six languages points to some clear common roots.

English Irish Scottish Gaelic Manx Cornish Breton Welsh
evil droch droch drogh drog drouk drwg
clean glan glan glen glan glan glân
happy sona sona sonney lowen laouen llawen
young óg òg aeg yowynk youank ifanc

Here, “evil” and “clean” are pretty similar across all six of the languages, while “happy” and “young” are starkly different between the Goidelic and Brythonic languages. While this small selection of words doesn’t prove anything, the consistent pattern along with the written record suggests that these groupings of languages are historically accurate.

The story of Celtic languages in general is one of survival. Most of them are now gone, and the ones that remain have had to fight to stick around. Even in the six Celtic nations — Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, the Isle of Man, Wales and Cornwall — the Celtic languages are a minority. But as a major part of the national identity, they’re likely to survive in some form for centuries to come.

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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