The Celtic Languages: the Richness of the Isles

As we saw in a recent post, Celtic languages are a subfamily of the Indo-European languages.

The Celts were the first inhabitants of central-southern Europe, around the 5th century BC.

From a geographical and historical point of view, this subfamily can be divided into two branches: the continental branch, which has disappeared by now, and the insular branch, which can further be broken down as follows: Brythonic (including Breton), Cornish and Welsh on the one hand, and Gaelic on the other, which includes Irish, Erse and Mannish (the dialect of the Isle of Man).

Until the 5th century, the continental Celtic languages (including Gallic) were spoken throughout all of continental Europe, but gave way to the influence of the other widely spoken languages of the time, such as English and French.

Only the Gaelic and Brythonic varieties spoken in the British Isles and Brittany have withstood the passing of time, in addition to surviving in a few communities in the north and south of the United States that strive to preserve their original language.

The characteristic trait of the Celtic languages is the loss of the Indo-European phoneme /p/, which separates it from the other subfamilies.  Hence, a word containing “p” in Latin, Greek or Sanskrit will appear without it in the Celtic subfamily.

The rules of pronunciation in Celtic are enormously complex.  In general, writing and pronunciation don’t correspond as expected and the initial consonant of a word will vary depending on what the final phoneme of the previous word was.

All the Celtic languages use the Roman alphabet.

Currently, Breton is spoken in the French region of Brittany as a dialect, with loans from French and nasalization having been incorporated.
Welsh, also referred to as Cumbric (in reality a dialect), is the language of Wales and one of the most well known members of the Celtic subfamily.  In addition to being spoken in Wales, it is spoken in communities of the United States and Argentina, where, in the latter case, barely 150 Welsh immigrants settled in 1865.  Academics studying Welsh have established three periods: the ancient period (800-1100), the middle period (1100-1500), and the modern period (1500-present).  Welsh is divided into two varieties: Northern and Southern.

Irish, or also known as Irish Gaelic, is the oldest member of the Gaelic group.  Its history is broken down into four periods: old (800-1000), early (1000-1200), middle (1200-1500), and modern (1500-present).  It is a language with rich nominal and verbal inflection; only in the indicative do verbs have two tenses.

Around the 5th century the Irish invaded Scotland and brought with them a variety of Gaelic that replaced the traditional Brythonic language.  During the 15th century, due to the linguistic loans from English and Scandinavian, Scottish became a unique language and differentiated itself from Irish.
Scottish has four grammatical cases: nominative, genitive, dative and vocative.  The accent is placed on the first syllable, as in Irish.
There are two Scottish dialects: Northern and Southern, the latter being more similar to Irish.  The principal difference between the two dialects is the phoneme /é/, which becomes “eu” in the Northern dialect and becomes “ia” in the Southern one.

Mannish has a strong Scandinavian influence.  And that’s all!