Why study a Celtic language?

Most students probably begin because their ancestors — near or distant — spoke one, and they wish to gain a better appreciation of their ethnic heritage. But even if you are not of “Celtic” descent, there are still many good reasons to learn a Celtic language.

For one, studying and speaking one of the six languages — Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Welsh, Irish, Cornish and Manx — can open a fresh window on to the very substantial Celtic contribution to Western literature, religion, and art. Furthermore, learning a Celtic language helps to sustain the community that still speaks it as its everyday tongue.

Today the number of people speaking one of the Celtic languages as their first language is small. Only four of the languages — Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Welsh, and Irish — are still spoken by distinct communities. Manx and Cornish survive as revived languages. Despite advances made by some Celtic-language communities in recent years — particularly in Ireland, Scotland and Wales — pressure to abandon the languages remains strong, along with the possibility that the living Celtic communities may disappear in the near future.

The Celtic languages are endangered. They are now minority languages in their own homelands. However, this situation was not inevitable. The communities that speak Celtic languages have experienced centuries of bigotry, persecution and assimilation, whether forced or not. In many ways, that persecution continues, aided by prejudice and indifference. Even in the Republic of Ireland, which recognizes Irish as an official state language, Irish speakers often have difficulty conducting daily business in Irish outside — or even in — the Gaeltacht.

By studying a Celtic language, you can help ensure the survival of the Celtic communities and their culture and demonstrate empathy and support. Your interest can encourage Celtic-speaking communities to fight for the full political rights and recognition they need to keep their distinctive cultures alive.

Origins of the Celtic Languages

The six modern Celtic languages evolved from Old Celtic, once spoken from Britain and Ireland to Galatia in Turkey. By the Fifth Century A.D., spoken dialects of Old Celtic had diverged enough that two distinct varieties were evident: that known as Goidelic, or “Q-Celtic,” spoken in Ireland; and Brythonic, or “P-Celtic,” spoken primarily in Britain. Sounds represented by a hard ‘c’ or ‘q’ in the Goidelic languages typically appeared as ‘p’ in Brythonic. For example, when the British cleric Patrick (Welsh Padrig) came to Ireland he was originally known as Coithriche.

Gaelic colonists brought Old Irish to the Isle of Man and to Scotland during the fifth and sixth centuries. It eventually became the dominant language in those nations, developing into Manx and Scottish Gaelic. A common literary language was used in Gaelic Scotland and Ireland until the 17th Century. In what was Roman Britain, English conquest and settlement in the late Sixth Century led to the evolution of two distinct Brythonic languages in Cornwall and Wales. A third language, Cumbrian, survived until Norman times in northwestern England and parts of Lowland Scotland.

British emigrants from Cornwall and Devon brought their Celtic language to Armorica in Gaul during the Fifth Century, where it took root and became Breton. Their homeland became known as Brittany, or Lesser Britain, as opposed to Great Britain across the English Channel. British monks and settlers also brought a variant of this Celtic language to Galicia in Spain, but it died out in the Middle Ages.

Alba / Scotland

Gàidhlig / Scottish Gaelic

In the early Sixth Century A.D., immigrants from Ireland established the kingdom of Dál Riada on the west coast of northern Britain, bringing the Gaelic language with them. Within the next two centuries Gaelic was adopted by the Picts to the north and east and the Celtic Strathclyde kingdoms to the south, thus becoming the dominant language of the country that came to be called Scotland.

The consolidation of the Scottish kingdom elevated Gaelic to a universal medium of administration and culture. By the 12th Century, however, Anglo-Norman influence on the Scottish court led to a greater prominence being given to English and French in official circles. A northern dialect of English (later known as “Scots” or “Lallans”) took root in the southern Lowlands near the country’s power centers, while Gaelic came to be associated more and more with the far-off Highlands and Islands and seen as the vehicle of a barbaric and irrelevant culture. This marginalization of Gaelic within Scotland continued through the centuries right up to and beyond the Act of Union with England in 1707.

Furthermore, the Scottish reformation in the 16th Century had unleashed a violent persecution of all things Gaelic, which were perceived as reflections of Roman Catholicism and the abuses of church power in the past. Countless Gaelic manuscripts were destroyed. This accounts for the rarity of Gaelic texts dating from before the mid-1500s: an entire chapter in Scottish literary history has been lost.

The written language of medieval Scottish poets was essentially the same as literary Irish. But by the late 16th Century an increased separation from Ireland led to a change in the written standard, which began to rely more on the spoken dialects of Scotland. In the Highlands, where the clan system had survived essentially intact, bardic traditions were strong and poetry was an important element in social life. From the 17th Century we have a remarkable woman poet, Sìleas Nic Raghnaill na Ceapaich. In the 18th Century, poets like Donnchadh Bàn Mac an tSaoir, Iain Lom, and Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair wrote praise-poems for their patrons in a bardic manner, but also commented wittily on the social and political evelns of their day, including the ill-fated Jacobite rebellion of 1745-46, which in many ways marked the end of traditional Gaelic society.

The late 18th and early 19th centuries were dark times for the Gaelic world. In the ignominious episode now known as the Highland Clearances, Anglicized clan chiefs expelled their Gaelic-speaking tenants to make room for large-scale agricultural projects, sending hundreds of thousands into destitution and exile. Those who made it across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia preserved the use of their language, and thus established a Gàidhealtachd in the New World. In Scotland and in North America, Gaelic speakers showed great devotion to their poetry and music, and bards continued to compose songs throughout the 19th century.

Despite the general low esteem in which Gaelic was held in Victorian Scotland, scholars began to research the rich oral tradition which Gaelic bards and storytellers had handed down from ancient times. J.F. Campbell collected and impressive number of folk-tales, and Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gaedelica (Ortha nan Gaidheal) remains our best source of information on Celtic ritual poetry.

By the end of the 19th Century a reaction against Anglicization had begun. An Comunn Gaidhealach was founded in the 1880s to promote knowledge and use of Gaelic. Under its auspices the Mòd Naiseanta, a competitive assembly devoted to Gaelic song and poetry (patterned after the Welsh Eisteddfod), became a yearly event and continues to this day.

Many young Highlanders were killed in World War I, and in the years that followed economic hardship caused many more to leave their homes to seek work in English-speaking cities. Therefore, the Gaelic communities progress, with increased creative writing and publishing in Gaelic. Somhairle MacGill-Eain was a modern Gaelic poet of international stature. Other poets who have made a valuable contribution to Gaelic letters in recent years are Ruaraidh Mac Thòmais, Iain Mac a’ Ghabhainn, Domhnall Mac Amhlaigh, Maoilios Caimbeul, Meg Bateman, Aonghas MacNeacail, Anne Frater and Catrìona and Màiri NicGumaraid.

Although only a handful of novels have been published in Gaelic most notably Tormod Caimbeul’s Deireadh an Fhoghair), the short story has proved itself a rich prose medium for many Gaelic writers.

In the past 20 years Gaelic has undergone a renaissance of sorts, with the development of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic-medium college on the Isle of Skye, and many other initiatives. The re-establishment of a Scottish Parliament has provided more impetus for the language movement. A government-sponsored task force released a report on the revitalization of Gaelic, with emphasis on education, in September 2000. These developments are hopeful signs.

Breizh / Brittany

Brezhoneg / Breton

In the Third Century AD, colonists from Britain began to settle the under-populated Roman province of Armorica. At first this was done largely at the invitation of the Roman authorities, who needed someone to patrol the Gaulish coast and protect it from pirates and invaders, but by the mid-Fifth Century the English takeover of southeastern Britain had caused a tidal wave of refugees to cross the Channel to Armorica. Most of them came from Cornwall, Devon and South Wales, their Brythonic speech reflecting their origins. Armorica came to be known as Brittany, or Lesser Britain.

Despite an early, brief period of domination by the Franks, Brittany preserved its independence throughout the Middle Ages. It was a prosperous nation, and its traditions had a powerful impact on European culture as a whole. The Arthurian mythos, which grew to such prominence in the 12th and early 13th centuries, was largely derived from tales composed by Breton storytellers for the entertainment of French-speaking nobility. Unfortunately, no literary manuscripts in Breton have survived from this period. Old Breton is mostly known from glosses in Latin manuscripts. The earliest extant literary texts in Breton date from the 15th Century.

In 1532 the expanding French state finally annexed Brittany. The Breton ruling class was coming under increasing French influence, and native Breton culture had lost its prestige. The rural population, however, remained ignorant of French, and when the Catholic Church, in its Counter-Reformation move to check the spread of Protestantism, sent missions to re-evangelize Brittany, it was forced to provide religious instruction in Breton. Thus most recorded Breton literature before the 18th Century is of a religious nature; some of the religious theater is of a high quality. Towards the middle of the 17th Century the Middle Breton written standard was abandoned in favor of Modern Breton transcribed according to French phonetics.

Rebellions against French rule in the 17th and early 18th centuries had met with bloody suppression. During the 18th century the last vestiges of Breton autonomy were abolished by an increasingly centralized French state. The French Revolution, originally hailed by Bretons as a liberation, continued the centralist policies and launched a campaign against all regional languages and cultures within France. Brittany, with its long separate history, was particularly reviled. Its economy marginalized, it became a depressed, impoverished province.

By the 1830s, however, Breton expatriates in Paris were rediscovering the value of the Breton language and developing a new Breton nationalism. Le Gonidec compiled a Breton dictionary and set down the basics of modern Breton orthography. One of his acquaintances, Hersart de la Villemarqué, produced the cornerstone of modern Breton literature, the Barzaz-Breiz. This was presented as a collection of ballads from folk tradition, and was largely accepted as such by La Villemarqué’s contemporaries. In fact, irked by the loss of all medieval Breton literature, La Villemarqué had set about reinventing it, and most of the mythological and historical ballads in his collection were his own work. Nevertheless, this work broke the ground for modern writing in Breton, and continues to have a great impact on contemporary Breton cultural life.

The burst of creativity that followed is now referred to as the First Emsav (“Rising”), and it lasted more or less until World War I. Among the important literary works of that period are the poems of Yann-Ber Kalloc’h and the verse plays of Tangi Malmanche.

In the 1930s the Second Emsav took up the cause of Breton with more sophisticated means. Coupled with the political activism of the “Breizh Atao” movement, the new literary effort, focused in the periodical Gwalarn, devoted itself to making the Breton language a tool for expressing Breton identity in the 20th Century. Dominating this period is the figure of Roparz Hemon, who through his immense productivity in all areas of literature, tried to revive national consciousness at every level of Breton society. The dramatist and short story writer Jakez Riou is another one of the many important writers of this generation.

After the end of World War II, the French government, on the premise that a handful of Breton nationalists had collaborated with the Germans, launched a brutal repression of all Breton cultural activities. The revival was in disarray and use of Breton — already under attack for over a century by French-trained schoolteachers — declined rapidly in the face of intimidation. Yet by the 1960s, riding on a new tide of regional frustration and political militancy, the Third Emsav was under way. Breton music, rejuvenated by its assimilation of various modern styles, became a powerful rallying force for young people. Mass demonstrations won some concessions for the Breton language from French authorities. Since that time, a number of periodicals, research groups and associations have sprung up to safeguard and promote the Breton cultural heritage. Probably the most important such group is Diwan, a Breton-language alternate school system that has managed to survive (mostly through private contributions) in spite of the many obstacles put in its way by the French government.

Although there have been no official surveys recently, Breton speakers are thought to number just under a million, most of them very old. There are few community incentives to pass the language on to the next generation — hence the importance of Diwan. Today Breton is spoken west of a line extending from St-Brieuc to Vannes; to the east of that the native language is Gallo, a Romance dialect related to Norman-French (although even in eastern Brittany nationalists have adopted Breton as their national language).

There are four main dialects of Breton: Kerne, Leon, Treger, and Gwened. The first three (known collectively as KLT) are for the most part mutually intelligible, but that of Gwened is so different that for a long time it could not be written in the same orthography as the others. Since the 1930s a pan-Breton orthography, usually referred to as the “University” spelling or Brezhoneg peurunvan, has been elaborated that takes Gwened Breton into account (for instance, many words that have a z sound in KLT have an h sound in Gwened: the solution is to represent the sound as zh, as in Breizh, which is pronounced Breiz in KLT and Breih in Gwened). This is the orthography one is most likely to meet with in modern Breton publications, although other spelling systems remain in use locally.

Kernow / Cornwall

Kernewek / Cornish

In 577 A.D. the English invasion of Britain reached the mouth of the Severn, cutting the Celts of Dumnonia in southwestern Britain off from their neighbors in Wales. At this point Cornish began to develop as a separate language community. Subsequent English expansion to the banks of the Tamar recognized the cultural and national specificity of Cornwall beyond — a recognition that was maintained, at least informally, until Tudor times.

Throughout the Middle Ages Cornish remained the primary language of the country. Many of the stories of the Arthurian cycle — notably that of Tristan and Iseult — originated in Cornwall and must have had their first literary expression in Cornish, but unfortunately no manuscripts have survived the wholesale destruction that accompanied the dissolution of the local Celtic monasteries in the 10th Century. The Old Cornish of the period is known from glosses in Latin texts.

Under Anglo-Norman rule the language developed into the form now called Middle Cornish, and left far more extensive records. Most notable among these are the Cornish Ordinalia, a cycle of religious verse plays intended to be performed in conjunction with the great festivals of the Church year. This group of plays constitutes the main literary monument of the Cornish language.

With the rise of the Tudors and the emergence of the centralized English state, Cornwall came to be treated as a mere county of England with no specific identity of its own. The forced imposition of the Anglican Reformation and of English as the language of liturgy prompted a Cornish rebellion against the central government that was quickly suppressed and led to an even greater intolerance of local particularisms. Unlike Wales, Cornwall was judged too small and unimportant to warrant a translation of the Bible into its own language, even in the interests of Protestant proselytism. As it became divorced from the main institutions of society, Cornish quickly lost ground as a community language. By the end of the 18th Century it was still spoken only in the area of Penzance. The last generation of native speakers attracted the interest of scholars who, unaware of existing Cornish orthography, wrote the language down using a spelling system based on English phonetics. This stage of the language is known as Late Cornish. According to the established tradition, the last native speaker of Cornish was Dolly Pentreath, who died in 1778; yet it now appears that knowledge of the language survived well into the 19th Century.

Even as Cornish died out as a spoken language, it became the focus of much academic research. Shortly before 1900 one Cornish scholar, Henry Jenner, became fired with the notion of reviving it as an everyday language, the national language of Cornwall. In 1901 a group of like-minded enthusiasts founded the Cornish Celtic Society, dedicated to encouraging the spoken use of Cornish. Because there was no community of native speakers to build on, and because of the fragmentary and inconsistent nature of the Late Cornish records, progress was slow and tentative.

Then, in 1929, R. Morton Nance devised Unified Cornish, which took into account all known phases of the language but used Middle Cornish (because of the abundance of records in that language) as a base. This has since become the modern Cornish standard. Recent writing in Cornish has included poems, short stories and even a novel. Although the language still has not gained any official recognition, the number of speakers has now grown to number a few thousand, including a new generation of native speakers.

In recent years, following an ideological split within the Cornish movement, a minority of activists has been advocating a return to Late Cornish and its English-based spelling. They have had relatively little impact; yet since 1987 a number of minor reforms to Unified Cornish have been suggested in order to better reflect the actual pronunciation of the language. The resulting new standard is called Kernewek Kemmyn, or “Common Cornish.”

The above is an excerpt from the Celtic Languages Guide, 1991,
by Liam Ó Caiside and Alexei Kondratiev, available from the Celtic League American Branch.

Information on the other three languages will be here soon.