Celtic languages

The Celtic languages (usually /ˈkɛltɪk/, but sometimes /ˈsɛltɪk/ in the US) are a group of related languages descended from Proto-Celtic. They form a branch of the Indo-European language family. The term "Celtic" was first used to describe this language group by Edward Lhuyd in 1707, following Paul-Yves Pezron, who made the explicit link between the Celts described by classical writers and the Welsh and Breton languages.

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.

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).

The other two, Cornish (a Brittonic language) and Manx (a Goidelic language), died out in modern times 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.

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


Mixed languages


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.

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. 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, 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 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 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.

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. 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".

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".

Within the Indo-European family, the Celtic languages have sometimes been placed with the Italic languages in a common Italo-Celtic subfamily, a hypothesis that is now largely discarded, in favour of the assumption of language contact between pre-Celtic and pre-Italic communities.

How the family tree of the Celtic languages is ordered depends on which hypothesis is used:

Eska (2010)

Eska (2010) 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:


Although there are many differences between the individual Celtic languages, they do show many family resemblances.

  • consonant mutations (Insular Celtic only)
  • inflected prepositions (Insular Celtic only)
  • two grammatical genders (modern Insular Celtic only; Old Irish and the Continental languages had three genders, although Gaulish may have merged the neuter and masculine in its later forms)
  • a vigesimal number system (counting by twenties)
    • Cornish hwetek ha dew ugens "fifty-six" (literally "sixteen and two twenty")
  • verb–subject–object (VSO) word order (probably Insular Celtic only)
  • an interplay between the subjunctive, future, imperfect, and habitual, to the point that some tenses and moods have ousted others
  • an impersonal or autonomous verb form serving as a passive or intransitive
    • Welsh dysgaf "I teach" vs. dysgir "is taught, one teaches"
    • Irish múinim "I teach" vs. múintear "is taught, one teaches"
  • no infinitives, replaced by a quasi-nominal verb form called the verbal noun or verbnoun
  • frequent use of vowel mutation as a morphological device, e.g. formation of plurals, verbal stems, etc.
  • use of preverbal particles to signal either subordination or illocutionary force of the following clause
    • mutation-distinguished subordinators/relativisers
    • particles for negation, interrogation, and occasionally for affirmative declarations
  • infixed pronouns positioned between particles and verbs
  • lack of simple verb for the imperfective "have" process, with possession conveyed by a composite structure, usually BE + preposition
    • Cornish Yma kath dhymm "I have a cat", literally "there is a cat to me"
    • Welsh Mae cath gyda fi "I have a cat", literally "a cat is with me"
    • Irish Tá cat agam "I have a cat", literally "there is a cat at me"
  • use of periphrastic constructions to express verbal tense, voice, or aspectual distinctions
  • distinction by function of the two versions of BE verbs traditionally labelled substantive (or existential) and copula
  • bifurcated demonstrative structure
  • suffixed pronominal supplements, called confirming or supplementary pronouns
  • use of singulars or special forms of counted nouns, and use of a singulative suffix to make singular forms from plurals, where older singulars have disappeared


Irish: Ná bac le mac an bhacaigh is ní bhacfaidh mac an bhacaigh leat.
(Literal translation) Don't bother with son the beggar's and not will-bother son the beggar's with-you.
  • bhacaigh is the genitive of bacach. The igh the result of affection; the bh is the lenited form of b.
  • leat is the second person singular inflected form of the preposition le.
  • The order is verb–subject–object (VSO) in the second half. Compare this to English or French (and possibly Continental Celtic) which are normally subject–verb–object in word order.
Welsh: pedwar ar bymtheg a phedwar ugain
(Literally) four on fifteen and four twenties
  • bymtheg is a mutated form of pymtheg, which is pump ("five") plus deg ("ten"). Likewise, phedwar is a mutated form of pedwar.
  • The multiples of ten are deg, ugain, deg ar hugain, deugain, hanner cant, trigain, deg a thrigain, pedwar ugain, deg a phedwar ugain, cant.*

Comparison table

The lexical similarity between the different Celtic languages is apparent in their core vocabulary, especially in terms of the actual pronunciation of the words. Moreover, the phonetic differences between languages are often the product of regular sound change (i.e. lenition of /b/ into /v/ or Ø).

The table below contains words in the modern languages that were inherited directly from Proto-Celtic, as well as a few old borrowings from Latin that made their way into all the daughter languages. Among the modern languages, there is often a closer match between Welsh, Breton, and Cornish on one hand, and Irish, Gaelic and Manx on the other. For a fuller list of comparisons, see the Swadesh list for Celtic.

† Borrowings from Latin.


Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

  • Irish: Saolaítear na daoine uile saor agus comhionann ina ndínit agus ina gcearta. Tá bua an réasúin agus an choinsiasa acu agus dlíd iad féin d'iompar de mheon bráithreachais i leith a chéile.
  • Manx: Ta dagh ooilley pheiagh ruggit seyr as corrym ayns ard-cheim as kiartyn. Ren Jee feoiltaghey resoon as cooinsheanse orroo as by chair daue ymmyrkey ry cheilley myr braaraghyn.
  • Scottish Gaelic: Tha gach uile dhuine air a bhreith saor agus co-ionnan ann an urram 's ann an còirichean. Tha iad air am breith le reusan is le cogais agus mar sin bu chòir dhaibh a bhith beò nam measg fhèin ann an spiorad bràthaireil.
  • Breton: Dieub ha par en o dellezegezh hag o gwirioù eo ganet an holl dud. Poell ha skiant zo dezho ha dleout a reont bevañ an eil gant egile en ur spered a genvreudeuriezh.
  • Cornish: Genys frank ha par yw oll tus an bys yn aga dynita hag yn aga gwiryow. Enduys yns gans reson ha kowses hag y tal dhedha omdhon an eyl orth y gila yn spyrys a vrederedh.
  • Welsh: Genir pawb yn rhydd ac yn gydradd â'i gilydd mewn urddas a hawliau. Fe'u cynysgaeddir â rheswm a chydwybod, a dylai pawb ymddwyn y naill at y llall mewn ysbryd cymodlon.

Possibly Celtic languages

It has been suggested that several poorly-documented languages may possibly have been Celtic.

  • Camunic is an extinct language which was spoken in the first millennium BC in the Valcamonica and Valtellina valleys of the Central Alps. It has most recently been proposed to be a Celtic language.
  • Ligurian was spoken in the Northern Mediterranean Coast straddling the southeast French and northwest Italian coasts, including parts of Tuscany, Elba island and Corsica. Xavier Delamarre argues that Ligurian was a Celtic language, similar to, but not the same as Gaulish. The Ligurian-Celtic question is also discussed by Barruol (1999). Ancient Ligurian is either listed as Celtic (epigraphic), or Para-Celtic (onomastic).
  • Lusitanian was spoken in the area between the Douro and Tagus rivers of western Iberia (a region straddling the present border of Portugal and Spain). It is known from only five inscriptions and various place names. It is an Indo-European language and some scholars have proposed that it may be a para-Celtic language, which evolved alongside Celtic or formed a dialect continuum or sprachbund with Tartessian and Gallaecian. This is tied to a theory of an Iberian origin for the Celtic languages. It is also possible that the Q-Celtic languages alone, including Goidelic, originated in western Iberia (a theory that was first put forward by Edward Lhuyd in 1707) or shared a common linguistic ancestor with Lusitanian. Secondary evidence for this hypothesis has been found in research by biological scientists, who have identified (firstly) deep-rooted similarities in human DNA found precisely in both the former Lusitania and Ireland, and; (secondly) the so-called "Lusitanian distribution" of animals and plants unique to western Iberia and Ireland. Both of these phenomena are now generally believed to have resulted from human emigration from Iberia to Ireland, during the late Paleolithic or early Mesolithic eras.
Other scholars see greater linguistic affinities between Lusitanian, proto-Gallo-Italic (particularly with the Ligurian language (ancient)) and Old European. Prominent modern linguists such as Ellis Evans, believe that Gallaecian-Lusitanian was in fact one same language (not separate languages) of the "P" Celtic variant.

See also


  • Ball, Martin J. & James Fife (ed.) (1993). The Celtic Languages. London: Routledge.ISBN 0-415-01035-7.
  • Borsley, Robert D. & Ian Roberts (ed.) (1996). The Syntax of the Celtic Languages: A Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.ISBN 0521481600.
  • Cowgill, Warren (1975). "The origins of the Insular Celtic conjunct and absolute verbal endings". In H. Rix (ed.). Flexion und Wortbildung: Akten der V. Fachtagung der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft, Regensburg, 9.–14. September 1973. Wiesbaden: Reichert. pp. 40–70. ISBN 3-920153-40-5.
  • Celtic Linguistics, 1700–1850 (2000). London; New York: Routledge. 8 vols comprising 15 texts originally published between 1706 and 1844.
  • Forster, Peter; Toth, Alfred (July 2003). "Toward a phylogenetic chronology of ancient Gaulish, Celtic, and Indo-European". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 100 (15): 9079–84. Bibcode:2003PNAS..100.9079F. doi:10.1073/pnas.1331158100. PMC 166441. PMID 12837934.
  • Gray, Russell D.; Atkinson, Quintin D. (November 2003). "Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin". Nature. 426 (6965): 435–39. Bibcode:2003Natur.426..435G. doi:10.1038/nature02029. PMID 14647380. S2CID 42340.
  • Hindley, Reg (1990). The Death of the Irish Language: A Qualified Obituary. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-04339-5.
  • Lewis, Henry & Holger Pedersen (1989). A Concise Comparative Celtic Grammar. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.ISBN 3-525-26102-0.
  • McCone, Kim (1991). "The PIE stops and syllabic nasals in Celtic". Studia Celtica Japonica. 4: 37–69.
  • McCone, Kim (1992). "Relative Chronologie: Keltisch". In R. Beekes; A. Lubotsky; J. Weitenberg (eds.). Rekonstruktion und relative Chronologie: Akten Der VIII. Fachtagung Der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft, Leiden, 31 August – 4 September 1987. Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck. pp. 12–39. ISBN 3-85124-613-6.
  • McCone, K. (1996). Towards a Relative Chronology of Ancient and Medieval Celtic Sound Change. Maynooth: Department of Old and Middle Irish, St. Patrick's College. ISBN 0-901519-40-5.
  • Russell, Paul (1995). An Introduction to the Celtic Languages. Longman. ISBN 0582100828.
  • Schmidt, K.H. (1988). "On the reconstruction of Proto-Celtic". In G. W. MacLennan (ed.). Proceedings of the First North American Congress of Celtic Studies, Ottawa 1986. Ottawa: Chair of Celtic Studies. pp. 231–48. ISBN 0-09-693260-0.
  • Schrijver, Peter (1995). Studies in British Celtic historical phonology. Amsterdam: Rodopi. ISBN 90-5183-820-4.
  • Schumacher, Stefan; Schulze-Thulin, Britta; aan de Wiel, Caroline (2004). Die keltischen Primärverben. Ein vergleichendes, etymologisches und morphologisches Lexikon (in German). Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachen und Kulturen der Universität Innsbruck. ISBN 3-85124-692-6.

Further reading

  • Sims-Williams, Patrick. “An Alternative to ‘Celtic from the East’ and ‘Celtic from the West’.” In: Cambridge Archaeological Journal 30, no. 3 (2020): 511–29. doi:10.1017/S0959774320000098.

External links

Uses material from the Wikipedia article Celtic languages, released under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.