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

These are some quick answers to questions I am commonly asked about the Celtic field. Opinions, when expressed, are my own, not necessarily agreed on by all scholars.

QUESTIONS

  1. Is it Celtic with a "k" or Celtic with an "s"?
  2. Who are the Celts?
  3. Which Celtic languages are still spoken?
  4. What do we know about pre-Christian Celtic religion?
  5. How are the Celts related to the Indo-Europeans?
  6. Who are the Picts?
  7. Where can I learn more?

Is it Celtic with a "k" or Celtic with an "s"?

In English, most scholars in the field prefer the "k" variant (i.e. "Keltic"), partly because "Celtic" comes from Greek keltoi (keltoi) and also because "c" is always /k/ in Irish, Welsh and Gaelic. It is true that a number of sports teams are now the "Seltics", and scholars agree that this is proper. I don't think any scholar is inclined to change the mind of a die-hard sports fan. :)

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Who are the Celts?

Depending on what field or what you're focusing on, there are several definitions:

Linguistic

Celtic languages are a set of genetically related (i.e. descended from a common ancestral language). The four surving Celtic languages are Breton, Irish, Scots Gaelic and Welsh. However, there is still debate on whether you need to speak a Celtic language to be a Celt.

Celtic languages should not be confused with "Celtic genes". As the influence of Celtic spread across Europe, it's very likely that people whose ancestors never spoke anything close to the mother tongue "Proto-Celtic" became Celtic speakers.

Archaeological

The Celts are identified as the group of people who speak the Celtic languages which is a branch of Proto-Indo-European. Archaeologists correlate these speakers to a set of cultures who originated in the Alps and spread out through Western and Central Europe and into Northern Italy, Northern Spain and Central Turkey. Archaeologists divide the Celtic culture into several stages (and subcultures).

Hallstat (800 BC - 400 BC) - Celtic sites primarily in the Alps.
La Tène (400 BC - 43 AD) - Celtic finds in Britain, Ireland, Western Europe (Gaul), Spain, Central Europe, Turkey. All Celtic populations, except for Ireland, are absorbed into the Roman Empire. Inscriptions confirm that these populations were Celtic speaking.
Roman Era (43 AD - 410 AD) - Britain and Gaul part of the Roman Empire. Ireland still independent.
Migration Era (410 AD - 700AD) - Some key movements "shuffle" populations into their current locations.

  1. Rome withdraws from Britain, opening the door to Anglo-Saxon colonists/invaders into England. These Anglo-Saxon settler bring Old English to the British Isles.
  2. As British Celts are pushed westward into Wales and Cornwall, some British Celts emigrate to Brittany.
  3. Irish Celts emigrate to Scottish Highlands bringing what would become Gaelic with them.
  4. Christianity becomes a dominat religion in Ireland. Britain had become Christianized during the Roman Era.

Finally, it should be noted that archaeological remains in the British Isles from before about 500 BC are not Celtic, but from a pre-Celtic culture. These remains include Stonehenge, Newgrange, Karnak and other important megalithic or mound sites. However, it is very probable that these pre-Celtic culture influenced later Celtic cultures in the British Isles.

Ethnic

Ethnic groups living in modern Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany are often identified as "Celtic". However, this definition can be misleading because (1) there is a great deal of variation in traditions and customs in the four regions and (2) all four regions have been heavily influenced by outside cultures. For instance, mideval Scotland included not just Celtic speakers, but also Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon speakers. The traditional Scottish 'brogue' is actually decended from the Anglo-Saxon dialect of those who settled in Scotland.

The most midleading use of this term happens when "Celtic" is applied to just one of the four regions.

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Which of the Celtic languages are still spoken?

There four surviving Celtic languages - Breton, Irish, Scots Gaelic and Welsh. Breton is mainly spoken in pockets of inland Brittany with estimates of speakers ranging from 50,000 to 240,000. Irish is spoken in pockets on the wester coast of Ireland including Connemara/Galway Bay, Munster and Donegal in the northern portion of the Ireland (with speakers living in Northern Ireland). The total number of Irish speakers range between 25,000-30,000 speakers. Scots Gaelic is spoken inparts of the Higlands and some of the islands, with totals estimated at 50,000 speakers. With about 500,000 speakers, Welsh is the most robust modern Celtic language, but is spoken primarily in the North and some pockets in the South.

In addition, there are two languages being revived - Cornish (last speaker from the early 19th century) and Manx (last native speaker died in the 1970's). The general linguistic consensus is that community of native speakers have died out for these languages, but that there is a very robust revival taking place. Cornish has a strong revival community, but since its grammar is based on both Middle Cornish and a little on Late Cornish, linguists classify modern Cornish as a "revived" language (much like "revived" Hebrew). As of 1993, there were very few few Cornish native speakers and no "Cornish speakling villages". The situation is similar for Manx, although there may be more of a continuous tradition.*

*George, Kenneth and Broderick, George (1993) "The Revived Languages: Modern Cornish and Modern Manx" in Ball, Martin J. The Celtic Languages. London: Routledge.

Celtic languages which have not survived Gaulish (speakers assimilated into Roman Empire), Galatian (Central Turkey, speakers assimilated into Roman Empre) and Celitiberian or Hispano Celtic (central Spain, speakers assimilated into Roman Empire). Scholars are still debating whether Pictish in Northern Scotland was a Celtic language or a non-Celtic langyage with Celtic borrowings.

All the modern Celtic languages face competition from English or French (Breton), but as more parents become willing to send children to Celtic language schools and more language options become available, some progress is being made. For instance, there have even been reports that the percentage of Welsh speakers has increased slightly.

It should be noted that not all the Celtic languages are closely related. Breton and Welsh are grouped together as Brythonic languages, while Irish and Scots Gaelic are grouped together as Goedelic languages. Speakers of Irish and Scots Gaelic can understand each other with some effort as can Welsh and Breton speakers. However, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible for an Irish and a Welsh speaker to understand each other.

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What do we know about pre-Christian Celtic religion and mythology

Not as much as we'd like. Unlike the Greeks and Norse, the Celts did not leave us a compiled edition of their mythological stories. What we have from the pre-Christian era are some obscure inscriptions, some suggestive cultic artifacts (statues, artwork, ritual deposits, etc.) and some Roman commentaries (which were likely biased). As for the stories, what we have are collections of sagas, "triads" (lists of three) and poems from Christian Ireland and Wales which do not always fit together to create a whole. To further complicate the picture, ,uch of Welsh lore we have was reedited as entertainment for Norman courtiers, and even a healthy portion of the Irish material may have been reedited to fit a more Christian sensibility.

For the record, we don't have a Celtic creation story. We're not entirely sure who all their deities were (the later Celtic stories don't conviently point them out to us). And we probably don't have a complete list of the Druid job functions.

However, all is not lost. Some compelling reconstructions have been proposed based on careful examination of the archaeological, textual and comparative evidence.

Here's some of what most scholars agree on:

There is still a lot of work to be done in determining what the Celts believed, but, from what has been done so far, it's clear that it will be very unique. Some good references of work done so far include:

Some Celtic References

Ellis, Peter Beresford. (1998) The Druids. William B. Eerdsman.
MacKillop, James. (2000) Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford University Press.
Piggot, Stuart. (1975) The Druids. Thames and Hudson.
Ross, Anne (1997) Pagan Celtic Britain. Academy Chicago Publishers.

Some General References

Goodison, Lucy and Morris, Christine. (1998) Ancient Goddesses. British Museum Press.
Jones, Pridence and Pennick, Nigel. (1997) A History of Pagan Europe. Routledge.

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How are the Celts related to the Indo-Europeans?

Indo-European is the name for the ancenstral proto-language from which spring a number of the world's major languages including English, Latin, Greek, German, Russian, Spanish, Italian, French, Czech, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Albanian, Armenian, Persian, Hindi, Sanskrit and many others. Celtic languages are descended from Indo-European, so they are, in fact, distantly related to English (although a little closer to Latin).

Celtic is of interest to Indo-Europeanists because it is the western-most branch of Indo-European in Europe, so some archaic Indo-European linguistic (and perhaps cultural) features are preserved. On the other hand, it also means that Celtic languages also show lots of linguistic and cultural changes, probably influenced by pre Indo-European populations in Britain and Western Europe. The most south eastern Indo-European branch is Indic, which survives in some of the many languages of Northern India. Scholars are especially interested in features shared by Celtic and Indic because these are likely to have originated in Indo-European.

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Who are the Picts?

Pict is a Latin name for the groups of people who lived in Northern Scotland during the Roman Era and immediately after it. The Picts are noted for developing a unique art style which can still be seen in "Pictish Cross" throughout Scotland. The name 'Pict' (lit. 'painted') is derived from Roman era lore that Pictish peoples painted or tatooed themselves.

Because Pictish inscriptions are difficult to decipher (even with heavy Celtic words and names), some scholars think that the Picts are actually a non-Celtic speaking population, and may have arrived before the Celts. Others feel that they are Celtic, but that they have an "archaic" culture, because they were never assimilated into the Roman Empire. A third alternative is that some "Picts" were non-Romanized Celts and others non-Celts. Determining the status of the Picts would help answer many questions about the origins of Celtic customs and lore.

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Where can I learn more?

Here is a short list of books I would recommend for learning about Celtic studies.

The Celtic Languages ed. by Martin J. Ball. (1993) Routledge.
The Celtic Empire by Peter Beresford Ellis. (1990) Carolina Academic Press.
The Ancient Celts by Barry Cunliffe. (1997) Oxford University Press.
The Celtic Heroic Age by John Koch and John Carey. Celtic Studies Publications. (1995)
The Celts by T.G.E. Powell. Thames & Hudson. (1980)
Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology by James MacKillop. Oxford University Press. (1998)
The Druids by Peter Beresford Ellis. Eerdmans. (1994)
The Druids by Stuart Piggot. Thames & Hudson. (1975)
Pagan Celtic Britain by Anne Ross. Reprinted by Academy Chcago Publishers. (1967)

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