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BAD Linguistics Page | Linguistics FAQ's | BAD Celtic Page

This is an experimental and opinionated page, so write me at ejp10@psu.edu if you have any comments. If you are new to Celtic, you may want to read the "Celtic FAQ's" page first to see if this page makes more sense.

THE PROBLEM

Celtic is a fascinating field, but unfortunately subject to wild speculation, flights of fantasy and downright bad research. It's too bad really, because the Celts are truly a unique people who don't need any additional "support" from UFOs, time travelers, or black magic to make them any more special. (Yes, I love them just the way they are.)

Below are my comments some the common (or just plain weird) misconceptions I have heard. There's so MUCH Bad Celtic, that I can't possibly cover them all, but here are some of my personal favorites - Enjoy!

MENU OF MISCONCEPTIONS

  1. "Isn't Irish just a dialect of English?"
  2. Can the Irish understand Welsh television?
  3. "Of course the Celts are Sino-Tibetan!"
  4. "Is Celtic related to Hungarian?"
  5. Runes vs. Ogam
  6. Irish is Celtic, but Celtic is not Irish
  7. Bronze Age Atlantic vs. Celtic
  8. Are the Galicians of Spain Celtic?
  9. Who Built Stonehenge?
  10. DNA Trails: The Basque and the Irish
  11. "Do the Welsh practice Druidry?"
  12. The "Official Celtic Pantheon (of Gods)"
  13. Heroines Named Gwyn

Isn't Irish just a dialect of English?

No Virginia, there IS a separate non-English language spoken in Ireland called "Irish" or sometimes "Irish Gaelic". NOTE: Some Irish citizens vehemently object to the term "Gaelic", preferring "Irish" instead.

This is not be confused with the unique dialect of English spoken in Ireland called "Hiberno-English" or (somewhat confusingly) "Anglo-Irish", which has taken many of its features from Irish.

But isn't Gaelic spoken in Scotland?

Yes a form "Gaelic" (or "Scots Gaelic") is spoken in the Highlands of Scotland - it's close to, but not identical with Irish. NOTE: This form of "Gaelic" is pronounced as with a "short a" as in "ash." In phonetic transcription it's /gælIk/.

Of course this Gaelic should not be confused with "Scots" (see www.lallans.co.uk for more information), the language used by Robert Burns in Auld Lag Syne, which is a sister to English and the source of the famouse Scottish "brogue." To take a Star Trek reference, we know Scotty & Chief O'Brien are speakers of Scots (English) and Hiberno-English, but we do not know if they spoke Scots Gaelic or Irish.

What about "Welsh Gaelic?"

There is a Celtic language spoken in Wales, called "Welsh" or "Cymraeg", but it is significantly different from the forms of "Gaelic" spoken in Ireland and Scotland. It is more proper to refer to the the language of Wales as just "Welsh" (drop the "Gaelic").

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Can the Irish understand Welsh TV?

Asked by a Welsh speaker of a resident of Ireland. The answer is that, yes, the Irish can receive Welsh television, but, no, only the Irish who have learned Welsh can understand Welsh TV. The fact is that even though Irish and Welsh are both Celtic, they have diverged quite a bit. Modern Celtic languages are grouped into two families - Brythonic (Welsh and Breton) and Goedelic (Irish and Scots Gaelic).

Welsh and Breton speakers (both Brythonic speakers) can communicate with each other as can Irish and Scots Gaelic speakers (both Goedelic speakers). But there's quite a jump between the Brythonic languages and the Goedelic languages - as unwary Celtic learners trying to learn both quickly discover.

To give you an idea of how the languages look, I've listed some related words in the four languages. Check out the words for "four, five, six, twenty, hundred" to see how the two branches line up.

 

 
Goedelic
Brythonic
 

Irish

Scots Gaelic

Welsh

Breton

'one'

aon

aon

un

unan

'two'

dhà

dau

daou

'three'

trí

trì

tri

tri

'four'

ceathair

ceithir

pedwar

pevar

'five'

cúig

còig

pump

pemp

'six'

sia

chwech

c'hwec'h

'seven'

seacht

seachd

saith

seizh

'eight'

ocht

ochd

wyth

eizh

'nine'

naoi

naoi

naw

nav

'ten'

deich

deich

deg

dek

'twenty'

fiche

fichead

ugain

ugent

'hundred'

céad

cèad

cant

cant

'white'

fionn

fionn

gwyn

gwenn

'blue/green'

glas

glas

glas

glas

 

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"Of course the Celts are Sino-Tibetan!"

In one of my Welsh classes, I heard someone proclaim "Of course the Celts are Sino-Tibetan" and he was an ADVANCED learner. Based on reconstructive evidence, we know that Celtic languages are Indo-European, making them related to the majority of languages in Western Europe. To say that the Celtic languages are Sino-Tibetan (www.linguistics.berkeley.edu/stedt/html/STfamily.html) means that the languages would be related to Tibetan, Mandarin, Cantonese and the other Sino-Tibetan languages of China - definitely not true. Were the Celtic people Sino-Tibetan? Doubtful.

Indo-European Links (with Family Tree)

 

There WAS a group of Indo-European speakers called Tocharians ( www.wlc.com/oxus/tocharia.htm) who lived in the Western deserts of Modern China, and the languages DOES share some close similarities with the Celtic languages. But scholars assume the Tocharians came in from Eurasia, NOT from Eastern China.

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Is Celtic related to Hungarian?

Another minor misconception I have heard is that Celtic languages are related to Hungarian - not so. What happened is that the ancient Celts (ca. 500-200 BC) were once residents in what is now modern Hungary. In fact, by 100 BC the Celts inhabited a large section of Western Europe including most of modern France, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria as well as the British Isles, Northern Italy, Northern Spain, and Central Turkey.

Later on, other poepulations, including the speakers of Hungarian (called the "Magyars") came in and took over that region ultimately displacing Celtic with their languages. Hungarian is NOT Indo-European, and so is not related to Celtic.

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Runes vs. Ogam

There is the occasional reference to "Druidic Runes", most memorably a novel showcasing a magic sword covered by runes and forged by the Druids. Uh, not exactly.

There is not much written Celtic material from the pre-Christain era, but what exists is almost always written in the Roman alphabet, Greek alphabet, or an Iberian script (which can resemble runes, but is actually quite different). Runes, on the other hand, is an alphabet developed by the Germanic tribes (Saxons and Scandinavians) and used for short inscriptions on twigs or carved in stone.

Later in about the 3rd century AD, a new alphabet developed in Ireland called Ogam. Unlike Runes, Ogam was used on stone grave monuments only. The difference between the two scripts is quite clear.

Ancient Scripts of the World Index - www.ancientscripts.com/ws_atoz.html

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Irish is Celtic BUT
Celtic is not Irish

As noted on the Celtic F.A.Q. page, the Modern Celtic languages include Welsh and Breton as well as Irish and Scottosh Gaelic.

So...imagine how confused my little mind gets when I go to the music store and have to decide if the Welsh songs are in really in the "Celtic" section where they should be or if the Celtic section is just Irish and Scottish and the Welsh and Breton stuff is in another section (if it exists at all).Or how about the company which offered "Celtic" AND "Welsh" language materials? I would love to take Ancient Proto Celtic, but I really want to learn to order a pint in Irish too...

This may seem trivial but consider the following phrase from a liner note for a CD of Celtic-themed songs which claimed that St. Patrick, the son of a Roman official, had been kidnapped by the "Celts," A.K.A. the Ancient Irish.

Ironically, there is strong evidence that St. Patrick himself spoke the ancient Celtic language: Brythonic (British Celtic). Not only did Patrick grow up in Roman Britain, but he later apologized for his "bad Latin" throughout his writings, a sign that that Latin might not have been his first language. This is not too implausible, since Latin died as a living language in Britain leaving only Brythonic which later turned into Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Compare this with Gaul, where the Celtic language Gaulish was replaced with Latin which later survived to become French. This shows that the Latin did not have as strong a grip in Britain as in Gaul.

In addition to having problems with his Latin, Patrick also had problems with the Irish language and was not able to understand his captors (adding to his sense of isolation). By the 5th century AD (when Patrick was captured), the Irish and Brythonic branches of Celtic had already become very distinct linguistically. To say that the "Celts" kidnapped St. Patrick is almost like saying the "Americans" won the U.S. Civil War - not very helpful and potentially an explosive statement.

I would like to end this section with a full disclosure by admitting that my specialty is in Welsh and Brythonic, so I may be a little touchy on this one. Still, I fully believe that if you cannot define your terms of reference precisely, the faeries of academic confusion will lead you astray in a big hurry.

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Are the Galicians of Spain "Celtic"?

I get the most questions about this issue, so I thought I should review my answer, and unfortunately the answer depends on what you mean by "Celtic". Most historians agree that the region was settled by "Celts" in the pre-Roman era (hence the name "Gallicia"). Unfortunately actual Celtic-language documents are sparse to non-existent (I'm really not aware of any myself - and I did take an obscure Celtic language survey course). There is also documentation of British speaking Celts coming to Galicia the same time they went to Brittany, but that population apparently did not remain separate long.

By the time Galicia first organized itself into an independent kingdom in the Middle Ages, it was apparently under the control of a Germanic tribe. The Galician language is neither Celtic or Germanic, but a near relative of Portuguese and Spanish. Linguistically, Galicia has not been "Celtic" in a very, very long time. Having said that, if they ever find ancient Celtic-language documents in Galica, they will be beating away Celticists with a stick!

Is Galicia unique? Absolutely. Whether you choose to call it "Celtic", "North Atlantic" or just "Galician" will not change that. Was Galicia Celtic? Some time in the Roman era, it undoubtedly was. But then again, so were Paris, Geneva, Botorrita and Milan... once upon a time.

Are there may be some older Celtic cultural influences? The most commonly cited example is the bagpipe (which is Goedelic Celtic only by the way), and I would even add the empanada, which is much like a Spanish pasty in my opinion. But there are "Celtic" cultural features in England and Lowland Scotland also, but in the Anglo world, it is not the same.

FYI - The common "potato" stew does NOT count, since everyone from the Irish to the Galicians only had access to potatoes post-Columbus. If you find similar potato stews in the region, it may be fisher folk still trading recipes - not evidence of an ancient heritage.

But does it mean that Galicia was "preserving" an ancient heritage or that North Atlanic populations were trading good ideas? That's where it gets very tricky. The fact that Galicia shares a similar climate with Ireland and Wales almost guarentees that there will be cultural similarities - and I have no doubt that there was contact among fishing fleets for generations.

What would make me happy to label the Galicians as "Celtic"? You can't bring the language back, but I would like to see more consistent Celtic patterns in the folkore (tales, not just music) and maybe some Celtic quirks in the legal tradition suggesting a Druidic presence (this seems less likely given the political history). Maybe they exist, and I don't know about them.

Based on what I know, I'm still hesitant with the name "Celtic" (but more than fine with "North Atlantic"). Will this opinion prevent people from calling me a "fartbag" and a Nazi? Probably not. But if you want to change my mind - give me facts, not just a bunch of nasty names.

Celtiberians

There was another source of Celtic cultture in Spain, namely the Celtiberians of Castile, especially Botorrita. These people lived in the early Roman era, but also assimilated to Latin after Spain was taken into the empire. The form of Celtic is quite different from that spoken by the later immigrants into Galicia and died very early on, so the influence between the two languages was probably minimal.

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"Bronze Age North Atlantic" vs. Celtic

Isn't it true that "maritime communities have long looked north and south along the coast, not inland, to claim a common bond. Even today, the Bretons see themselves as distinct from the French, but refer to the Irish, Welsh, and Galicians as their brothers and cousins." (Facing the Ocean Book jacket).

Yes, but this is because of a North Atlantic heritage, NOT because they all spoke Celtic. Note for instance that Cunliffe includes Gibralter and Iceland in this group which no one would claim were ever "Celtic". This "North Atlantic" culture skips other known Celtic speaking areas such as Galatia in Turkey, Central Europe, Celtiberian Spain, Hallstat (Austria) and non-coastal Gaul.

The North Atlanticans may have built Stonehenge, Tara and Skarra Brae, but we don't know what language or languages they spoke.

This brings me to my next point about moving cultures. In the past we have assumed a simple colonial model where the gene pool (people), technology, language and culture all move as one from region to region. But this is probably a vast oversimplification of what really happens. When two cultures meet, any number of things can happen. For example:

Transfer of Technology ONLY

If you find a movie camera, do you assume that the speaker is English? Of course not. The U.S. invented the film industry, but it has now been exported to Hong Kong, India, France, Spain, Italy and elsewhere. All you really know is that the camera dates from the 19th century or later, and the camera is probably from Japan (even though many models were originated elsewhere). Believe it or not, the same applies to other technologies like the chariot and spear points. A great idea is worth borrowing no matter what the century is.

Transfer of Language, but Not Genetics

How many people now speak English without Germanic ancestry? Because English is a power language, many people adopt English of their own initiative. Similarly, many non-Romans of the old Roman Empire became Latin speakers, and many non-Slavs learned Russian during the Soviet era. Although many people understand this intuitively, people feel that this does NOT apply to "minority" languages.

But beware...some of today's minority languages were power languages in earlier eras. The Aztec language Nahuatl is actually related to languages of Utah (that is, the Aztecs were interlopers from the North). The Bantu speakers of Africa were a dominant force in sub-Saharan Africa spreading from the north on south. Other former power languages include proto-Mayan (now broken up into multiple languages) and Quechua (Incan).

And in an fun twist...speakers of Spanish in the U.S. do tend to be from the same genetic pool because Spanish is a minority language in the American context. However, that genetic pool is probably NOT the Roman gene pool of Latin or even the genetic pool of Spain, but a mix of pre-Columbian native genes mixed with native "Spanish" genes (those might be pre-Roman Iberian, Arabic, Basque and Germanic), plus random mixes of African, Asian and perhaps Irish DNA. If someone married an Italian from Latium (Argentina), THEN a Latin American speaker might pick up some Roman DNA.

Intermarriage (Genetics Only)

And then there's intermarriage. Although many cultures officially discourage marriage outside the tribe, the reality is that genetic mixing goes on anyway. It can be via sexual violence or concubinage, but there's also adultery and young teenage love across borders to consider. The more that cultures are in contact, the more likely this is to occur. Many a white person has been shocked to find that they are carrying non-European DNA when it was never officially reported in their family histories.

The NEw America

The quintessential "package colonization" may be the Anglo colonization of North America where Europeans arrived with themselves, the language English and lots of Western technology. But even then more mixing occurs than we realize. North American Native cultures adopted Western innovations such as horseback riding (from the Spanish), guns and the use of glass beads. English settlers learned to exploit native foods including cranberries, maize (including popcorn, hominy, cornmeal), potatotes, maple syrup and others. And how many European Americans claim some native American bloodlines? Even I am one of them. And this doesn't even include interractions between African cultures, Spanish cultures, French culture, Asian cultures and non-Anglo European cultures.

In short, the permutations of how technology, language, genetics and culture can be transferred are quite complex, and we have few tools for distinguishing the different types of transfer.

If we lose written records, archaeologists will be having the same problems unravelling American colonialization that we do unravelling pre-Roman United Kingdom/European colonialization from the Neolithic to the Iron Age.

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Who Built Stonehenge?

We don't know the name of the builders of Stonehenge, but we're pretty sure it wasn't the "Druids" (as memorably identified in the movie This is Spinal Tap.) Druids were a class of learned men and women in Celtic society, but when Stonehenge was built, the Celts were probably not in Britain. Stonehenge was built in stages over several millennia, with the final "megalithic" stage completed ca. 1600 BC.

In 1600 BC, it is not even clear if a Celtic language group had split from Indo-European. The first archaeological stage identified as "Celtic" is the Hallstat culture (800 BC-400 BC) which is generally confined to the Alps. It's not until the La Tène Era (400 BC-44 BC) that significant Celtic artifacts are found in the British Isles. Although the question of when the Celts arrived in Britain and Ireland is debated, most scholars assume it occurred well after 1600 BC.

As for the builders, archaeologists identify them as the "Wessex Culture". It didn't last very long, but did produce Stonehenge and some beautiful artifacts characterized by diamond shapes called "lozenges". Archaeologist have also found evidence of warfare from charred remains and arrow deposits causing some to speculate that the culture collapsed because of civil war or perhaps rebellion from an oppressed population.

Incidentally, the stone is from the Preselli mountains in Wales. If there was extraterrestrial intervention, they must have used local contractors.

Stages of Stonehenge Construction - witcombe.sbc.edu/earthmysteries/EMStonehenge.html

THE SAME THING FOR:
TARA & SKARRA BRAE & The CHALK FIGURES

The underground burial complexes at Tara and elsewhere in the region are also assumed to be pre Celtic, as is the Orkney site of Skarra Brae and the chalk figures on the English hillsides. The dates are even earlier than Stonehenge, so the liklihood that they were created by Celtic speakers is even smaller. One mystery is that spiral motifs are found at Tara, but then a long non-spiral period exists until the LaTène era.

By the way, if you hear Bronze Age or Stone Age/Neolithic, the chances are that you are dealing with a pre-Celtic culture. The Hallstat culture was already using iron, so it's probably not until sometime in the Iron Age that you are dealing with Celtic speakers in Britain and Ireland.

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DNA Trails: "The Basques and the Irish Must be Related"

Recently, biochemists working with examining genetic markers in human populations have announced that similar genetic markers have been found in Basque populations and populations in Western Ireland. From this, it appears that some people have decided there is a Basque-Celtic connection, with some people claiming that Basque is a Celtic language (No no no).

While this DNA fact is intriguing, the implications are not clear. All we know from this is that a similar population pool inhabits Western Ireland and the Basque country. At some point, the Irish population became Celtic speakers while Basque is found in the Pyrinees. One interpretation is that the Western Irish population did speak a relative of modern Basque, but it's not the only possible scenario. There may be a third language family involved which has no descendants today. There are lots of mysterious non Celtic loan words in the languages, but scholars debate on where they came from. Some scholars think pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland were related to the Berbers because of linguistic similarities, but this has been just as hard to prove.

Tracking DNA is a good tool to track genetic ancestry, but it really can't tell you what language each of your ancestors spoke or what tools they had access to. We still need linguistics and archaeology for that.

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Do the Welsh practice Druidry?

Interestingly, one person asked me if the Modern Welsh practiced the Druid religion. The answers is, "Heavens, No! They're good chapel goers!" Where do you think all those lovely Welsh hymns came from? At one point in the 17th century, many Welsh people had converted to Quakerism and then settled in the Delaware Valley, founding a number of good Quaker Philadelphia families with Welsh roots.

The situation is a little more complicated today, with people in Wales or of Welsh descent belonging to one of a number of Protestant demonimationsas well as Catholicism, neo-Druidry and other religions (or none). But Druidry is definitely not the primary religion in Wales (or Scotland, Brattany or Ireland). The situation is similar in Scotland.

Across the Irish Sea, most of the population in the Republic of Ireland are Catholics - as any of your friends with Irish relatives will tell you. In Brattany, many people are Catholic and is home to several notable Catholic rituals.

A modern form of neo-Druidry has been revived, but how it close it is to the original religion has yet to be determined.

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The "Official Celtic Pantheon (of Gods)"

I am always amazed at books claim to definitively know the gods and rituals of the pre-Christian Celts, because in reality, there's a lot we do not know. We have not discovered a Celtic religion user's manual, and we probably never will. We don't even have a Celtic world creation story at the moment.

Scholars have come to accept some standard assumptions about Celtic religion based upon reasoned guesses about the evidence available. But to say that scholars "know" Celtic who the Celtic gods were and what they did would be very misleading - all we really have are a lot of educated guesses. Any author who does not admit that may not be entirely reliable.

Celtic Holidays

It should be noted that although evidence for the November 1 Samhain/Samanios festival and the May 1 Beltane/May Day festival can be found in Irish, Welsh, Breton and Gaulish, only Old Irish has clear evidence for Imbolc (February 1) and Lughnasadh (August 1). It's possible that Ireland preserved these festivals which were lost elsewhere, but it's just as likely that they were innovated in Ireland.

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Heroines named Gwyn

Although there are many excellent, well-researched Celtic novels, there are certainly plenty of badly-researched ones. It's not that I object to high-spirited novels of magic, romance, and daring quests, but... I do get disturbed when the names aren't right.

For instance, if your heroine is from Scotland or Ireland, her name is probably NOT Gwen, Morgan, or Brynne. These names are Welsh. Why not try Fiona, Finnoula, Dierdre, Maeve (or Medb) and Brigid as some pre-Christian names? For Christian names, there's Máire, Sinéad and Siobhan. For the men, we have Conn, Conor and Fergus in the pre-Christian era and Séamas, Séan, Liam and Pádraig for Christian names.

If your heroine is Welsh, Morgan, Llewellyn or Gwyn are NOT good names either - they are typically men's names. Gwenllian, Branwen, Nerys, Morfudd, Hefina are among some some nice Welsh women's names in use. Before I forget, "Gwenian" means "poison", so it might not be a good heroine's name either (but the villianess on the other hand...). The good news here is that since Britain was converted to Christianity in the Roman Era, there aren't quite as many time gotchas as in Ireland, although watch for the Norman names like Gwilym (William).

Why my concern on names? Because if a novelist can't take the time to get the names right, what else has been missed?

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