What are the Celtic Languages?

What are the Celtic Languages?


 What are the Celtic Languages?

Discover the history and mystique of the Celtic languages in this new article written by one of our linguists, Fraser Robinson. In it, he reveals some interesting facts and facets of the Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Breton and Welsh languages.

In his lecture “English and Welsh”, JRR Tolkien states that ‘Celtic’ is “a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come.” This is certainly true where the popular conception of Celtic languages are concerned. Somehow, these have managed to become mysterious, perhaps spiritual, and even ‘misty’. A representative example of this would the theme song to the Yorkshire TV drama, ‘Harry’s Game’, written and performed by Irish band Clannad. The opening lines (in the Irish language), “Imtheochaidh soir is siar / A dtainig ariamh / An ghealach is an ghrian”, accompanied by eerie synthesizer harmonies set the tone for a song that seems to express the very essence of Celtic Mistiness.

The Irish have done the best job of popularising (and monetising) Celtic mystery. The Bretons the worst: in Brittany, horrific Celtic-folk-rock monstrosities, strongly influenced by Jethro Tull and often accompanied by the strident sound of the Breton bombard (a type of shawm) and the binioù kozh (an exceptionally high-pitched bagpipe), have been pressed onto vinyl with amazing regularity. Tracks sometimes include birdsong or the sound of waves crashing onto a Celtic beach.

Until fairly recently, the only way you could hear a Celtic language – assuming that you weren’t able to get to France or the British Isles – was to listen to music of the type described above. I don’t know about you but I’d say that’s a harsh sentence for any language. (And of course it’s not just the music that expresses hokey Celtic mysticism. To cite just one example, the triskelion symbol that appears on the entrance stone at the Irish megalithic site known as Newgrange has been enthusiastically adopted as a Celtic symbol – most egregiously by the Bretons (so much so that it has, together with the Gwenn-ha-du flag, become a symbol of Breton identity) – even though Newgrange itself was built about 2,500 years before the first Celts arrived in Ireland.)

 So are Celtic languages eerie and mystical? Are they redolent of a lost ancient world? The answer to the first question is a definitive “no” but the answer to the second is more like “well, yes, up to a point, they probably are.”

Let’s say you were able to travel in time to the period of, say, the English civil war. If you were to visit Ireland, Scotland, Man, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, you would find the six languages of Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish and Breton in rude health – although with Cornish looking a little shaky.

Indeed, the last monoglot Cornish speaker was a man by the name of Chesten Marchant who died in 1676; whereas the last (bilingual) native speaker was, famously, Dolly Pentreath (died 1777). According to the BBC’s History of Cornwall in 100 Objects project website, “Dolly was a Cornish fishwife who tramped her fishy wares around Penwith and Penzance. At the latter place she gained the reputation of being the last native Cornish speaker, though she may not have been. Opinion is also divided about how much Cornish she could actually speak – though everyone agreed she could swear in Cornish.”

Now, whether Dolly and Chesten were really the last of the last is a matter of debate, but it is widely agreed that Cornish died as a community language in the 18th or early 19th centuries. It has since been revived and is kept alive by a limited number of enthusiasts but remains very much a minority language spoken by, well, a very small minority.

Manx has also fared badly over the last few centuries but, as with Cornish, a time-traveller to the 17th century would have found a flourishing community language. This continued through the 18th century; by the mid-19th its decline was observable. The last native speaker was Ned Madrell, who died in 1974. Fortunately, recordings were made of him speaking the language (with help from the Irish Folklore Commission as part of an effort spearheaded by none other than De Valera) and revivalists have had some success in keeping Manx on life support. Its position is perhaps better than that of Cornish, but it remains critically endangered.

The remaining four Celtic languages have all fared better than these two, and no famous ‘last speaker’ of any of them can be named. Nonetheless, all are on the back foot. In 1788, English traveller Arthur Young described the inhabitants of Lower Brittany (the traditionally Breton-speaking region) in the following terms: “The men dress in great trowsers like breeches, many with naked legs, and most with wooden shoes, strong marked features like the Welch, with countenances a mixture of half energy half laziness; their persons stout, broad, and square. The women furrowed without age by labour, to the utter extinction of all softness of sex. The eye discovers them at first glance to be a people absolutely distinct from the French. Wonderful that they should be found so, with distinct language, manners, dress, &c. after having been settled here 1300 years.” Indeed, in the 18th century and for most of the 19th, a great many Bretons were monolingual and could not understand French. This situation had been entirely reversed by the late 20th century.

Thomas de Quincey, writing in 1821, describes a sojourn in Merionethshire, West Wales in which his hosts spoke English but their parents, when addressed in the language, would reply only “Dim saesneg” (“No English”). While it would now be difficult (but not impossible) to find monolingual Welsh speakers, until the early 20th century it would have been easy. Indeed, Welsh has been the great success story of the family. Part of the reason for this is presumably that the language continued to be spoken in urban and industrialised areas until recently, so the phenomenon of language loss due to emigration for economic reasons had less of an impact than in other areas – at least until the demise of the Welsh mining industry in the 1980s.

There is more to the resilience of Welsh, however, than market forces. One aspect would seem to be the absence of an immediate association of the language with a corresponding folk culture. It’s almost impossible to watch a documentary about the Irish language without the plaintive wail of the uilleann pipes providing the sound track. By contrast, there is no such instant association with Welsh, unless it be the male voice choir – and there is nothing folksy, rustic or anachronistic about a Welsh choir (just do a Google video search for “Calon Lan Britain’s Got Talent” and you’ll see what I mean). When it comes to Spotifiable content, Welsh-language music is known more for rock bands like Super Furry Animals (Google “Ymaelodi Â’r Ymylon”) or Alffa (“Gwenwyn”) than anything comparable to, say, such big Irish names as The Chieftains, The Bothy Band or Clannad. In a very meaningful way, Welsh seems to have managed its transition to modernity – and relevance – very deftly. I’m quite certain that it’s no coincidence that a Google search for the phrase “Welsh mysticism” gave me 294 results, versus 10,900 for “Irish mysticism.”

The situation of the Irish language provides a fascinating contradistinction to that of Welsh. A century of government support and compulsory Irish-language education has done much to kill the language off. The people who grew up speaking it are increasingly opting for English and those who didn’t either don’t learn to speak it properly or actively hate it. Read any article on the subject in the Irish Times, look at the comments section and you’ll see what I mean. Numbers of native speakers from government-supported Gaeltacht areas have declined inexorably, while numbers outside of Gaeltacht areas – often speaking a relatively degraded form of the language – are doing fairly well. The situation then, would be similar to that of Cornish, were Dolly Pentreath and people like her to be alive now, coevally with today’s Cornish revivalists.

Another of the problems with Irish is the way that Census information on speakers is collected – and in this we find a clear parallel with the situation of Māori in New Zealand. The problem is that it is up to respondents to identify themselves as Irish speakers. There is no way to know whether they are really fluent or to what extent they could use the language in unfamiliar contexts. In view of the unknowable abilities of new speakers of the language, the loss of native speakers – whose population at the moment is somewhere in the vicinity of 50,000 – represents an existential threat for a language with a recorded literature dating to the early Middle Ages.

(The short film Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom (2003) gives an amusing and thoughtful insight into the situation of the Irish language, and all indigenous languages, at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqYtG9BNhfM).

The number of native speakers of Scottish Gaelic is similar to that of native Irish speakers – but the places occupied by the languages in their respective societies are quite different. For one thing, Gaelic was never the language of all of what is now Scotland and has been in steady retreat (to the Highlands and the Western Isles) since the 11th century. Another important difference is that Scotland was never conquered by England in the same way that Ireland and Wales were – thus Gaelic does not have quite the same associations for Caledonian patriots that Welsh and Irish do for Cambrian and Hibernian ones. Finally, the languages that have replaced Gaelic in the Lowlands and the East of the country – Scots and English – are themselves native to Scotland. Nonetheless, Scottish nationalism, as embodied in the country’s devolved government, has chosen to favour the Gaelic language, promoting Gaelic signage in all areas of the country, including where it was never spoken, and funding primary school Gaelic-medium education. Gaelic seems to be doing well – but is spoken by approximately ten times fewer people than Welsh is.