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Celtic Language Learning Resources

The Celtic languages are descended from Proto-Celtic, or "Common Celtic", a branch of the greater Indo-European language family. The term "Celtic" was used to describe this language group by Edward Lhuyd in 1707, having much earlier been used by Greek and Roman writers to describe tribes in central Gaul. During the 1st millennium BC, they were spoken across Europe, from the Bay of Biscay and the North Sea, up the Rhine and down the Danube to the Black Sea and the Upper Balkan Peninsula, and into Asia Minor (Galatia). Today, Celtic languages are limited to a few areas in Great Britain, the Isle of Man, Ireland, Cape Breton Island, Patagonia, and on the peninsula of Brittany in France. The spread to Cape Breton and Patagonia occurred in modern times. In all areas the Celtic languages are now only spoken by minorities.



Scottish Gaelic  

Proto-Celtic apparently divided into four sub-families:

  • Gaulish and its close relatives Lepontic, Noric, and Galatian. These languages were once spoken in a wide arc from France to Turkey and from Belgium to northern Italy. They are now all extinct.

  • Celtiberian, anciently spoken in the Iberian peninsula, in the areas of modern Northern Portugal, and Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Aragón, and León in Spain. Lusitanian may also have been a Celtic language. These are now also extinct.

  • Goidelic, including Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. At one time there were Irish on the coast of southwest England and on the coast of north and south Wales.

  • Brythonic (also called British or Brittonic), including Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Cumbric, the hypothetical Ivernic, and possibly also Pictish though this may be a sister language rather than a daughter of Common Brythonic. Before the arrival of Scotti on the Isle of Man in the 9th century there may have been a Brythonic language in the Isle of Man. Kenneth Jackson used the term "Brittonic" for the form of the British language after the changes in the 6th century.

Scholarly handling of the Celtic languages has been rather argumentative owing to lack of much primary source data. Some scholars distinguish Continental Celtic and Insular Celtic, arguing that the differences between the Goidelic and Brythonic languages arose after these split off from the Continental Celtic languages. Other scholars distinguish P-Celtic from Q-Celtic, putting most of the Continental Celtic languages in the former group (except for Celtiberian, which is Q-Celtic).

The Breton language is Brythonic, not Gaulish, though there may be some input from the latter. When the Anglo-Saxons moved into Great Britain, several waves of the native Brythons or "Welsh" (from a Germanic word for "foreigners") crossed the English Channel and landed in Brittany. They brought their Brythonic language with them, which evolved into Breton – which is still partially intelligible with Modern Welsh and Cornish.

In the P/Q classification scheme the first language to split off from Proto-Celtic was Gaelic. It has characteristics that some scholars see as archaic but others see as also being in the Brythonic languages (see Schmidt). With the Insular/Continental classification scheme the split of the former into Gaelic and Brythonic is seen as being late.

The distinction of Celtic into these four sub-families most likely occurred about 900 BC according to Gray and Atkinson but, because of estimation uncertainty, it could be any time between 1200 and 800 BC. However, they only considered Gaelic and Brythonic. The controversial paper by Forster and Toth included Gaulish and put the break-up much earlier at 3200 BC ± 1500 years. They support the Insular Celtic hypothesis. The early Celts were commonly associated with the archaeological Urnfield culture, the Hallstatt culture, and the La Tène culture, though the earlier assumption of association between language and culture is now considered to be less strong.

This Historical Background is courtesy of Wikipedia.

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