Celtic Languages Past, Present and Future

Lately, it seems, we are witnessing an interest in all things Celtic. Artists like Canadian singer Lorena McKennitt take up careers in Celtic music. Followers of neo-pagan religions such as Wicca revive pre-Christian Celtic rituals. The French speak proudly of “our ancestors the Gauls” (the Celts who inhabited modern-day France before the Roman conquest) and proclaim Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix their national hero.

All this interest, however, has not translated into a rush to learn Celtic languages. In a way such lack of enthusiasm is understandable. At this point in history Celtic speakers number a few million at most. Two Celtic tongues – Cornish in the English county of Cornwall and Manx in the Isle of Man off the British west coast – have died out as spoken mediums, though literary revivals of both have occurred in recent years. The survival of Scottish and Irish Gaelic also appears uncertain. Only Welsh and Breton (spoken in the region of Brittany, France) are used on a daily basis by large numbers of people, and even these are under pressure from English and French respectively.

This was not always the case. At one time Celtic languages were spoken over a wide-ranging area encompassing the British Isles, France, northern Italy and Spain, Central Europe and even Asia Minor, where a group of Celts known as the Galatians – to whom St. Paul dedicated an Epistle – resided. Though the Celts never possessed a unified state, they gained a reputation as fierce fighters and were feared by the Greeks and Romans.

The Celts’ fortunes began to turn with the expansion of the Roman Empire. Latin supplanted the Celtic tongues of France and northern Spain and Italy, while those in what is now England survived the Roman invasion but not that of the Angles and Saxons, the two Germanic tribes who gave England her present-day language. Celtic speakers found themselves confined to Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany (the Bretons, by the way, are not descendents of the Gauls but of Welsh who settled in France in the fifth and sixth centuries).

Nonetheless, the Celts left their linguistic mark on the areas they inhabited. Just as Amerindian place names abound throughout the Western Hemisphere even in locations where native languages ceased to be spoken long ago, Europe is full of Celtic toponyms (place names). They occur most frequently in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. But traces of the ancient Celts turn up as well in places no longer considered Celtic territory. For instance, the Avon takes its name from a Celtic word meaning precisely “river.” Even faraway Vienna is a contraction of “Vindobona” (white field), originally a Celtic settlement.

Relatively little intermixing took place between Old English and the Celtic languages existing at the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Words that did cross the Celtic-Germanic barrier include “bin,” “crag,” “lead” (the metal), and “brock,” a term for badger which is still used today in some parts of Britain and which survives as a last name, as in General Brock of the War of 1812. As well, in later times English borrowed a few words from the modern Celtic languages. While some have a clear Celtic cultural connection, such as “banshee” and “bard,” others have made their way into day-to-day English vocabulary. “Hubbub,” for example, stems from the Old Irish battle-cry abu, itself derived from the Celtic word buide for “victory.”

Interestingly, though Celtic languages were spoken in England long after they disappeared from France, modern French contains more words of Celtic origin than does English. Several examples can be cited: chêne (oak tree); bijou (jewel) from the Gaulish term biz for finger; and alouette (lark). In other cases words passed from Celtic to Latin and from there to French and the other Romance languages. The Latin word for “nag,” caballus, was originally a Gaulish term. Replacing the classical equus, its meaning eventually expanded to designate “horse” in general (good horses too, not just nags) and as such became cheval, cavallo and caballo in French, Italian and Spanish respectively (the English word “cavalry” hails from this source).

Many personal names also bear traces of a Celtic past. My surname “Murphy,” for instance, comes from an Old Irish word Murchadha meaning “sea warrior.” The Celts are in addition the source of numerous first names. While some, such as “Kieran” (“black”), remain largely confined to modern-day Celtic descendents, others like “Brian” (“strong”), “Kevin” (“comely”), and “Douglas” (“dark water”) have found their way into the Anglophone mainstream among individuals with no Celtic ancestry whatsoever. “Kevin” has even started to appear in Quebec and in some Spanish-speaking countries south of the US border. I admit to a certain amusement at the fact that families who choose this name in the hope of “Anglicizing” would probably be surprised to learn it is not really Anglo at all!

As a Celt (Irish) myself, it’s difficult for me to prognosticate the future of my ancestral language family. Though the number of Celtic speakers has diminished dramatically even within the last few centuries, a future revival of one or more of these languages should not be ruled out. I must confess I personally have never had any burning desire to learn Gaelic, the native tongue of Ireland; while it was offered as a course at my university, I preferred to take the more useful Spanish and French. Yet part of me feels sad at the fading of what was once an illustrious and widespread branch of the Indo-European language family tree. Perhaps to keep the flame alive I’ll adopt an Irish, Scottish or Welsh breed of dog and give him or her a Celtic name.

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