Exploring the Celtic languages

Today I’m going to introduce to you the Celtic languages. When you come to Ireland and especially to the big cities like Dublin or Cork everybody speaks English, of course. And due to Ireland’s history English is an official language. However when going by bus or reading inscriptions you will realize that mysterious language everywhere which you won’t even know how to pronounce. But they are even older than the books in the Long Room of Dublin’s Trinity College you can see on this picture. The same occurs when going to Scotland, Wales or Bretagne in France. Irish is much more than an old and mysterious language and there are people who do speak it in their everyday life indeed. In this article I’m going to introduce to you all you have to know about Irish, Scotish Gaelic, Welsh and Breton.

Irish or Gaelic?

You may be a bit confused especially if you never had to do anything with these languages. Gaelic is the generic term for both Celtic languages spoken in Ireland and Scotland. Irish Gaelic and Scotish Gaelic have exactly the same origin but developed with some slight differences due to their geopolitical situation. In the 5th century the Scots from Northern Ireland immigrated into the region of  Argyll which is the abbreviation for Earra-Ghaidheal. This simply means coast of the Gaelic. Until the 12th century Gaelic was the official language of the common Irish-Scotish kingdom called Alba. That’s why Scotland is called Albain in Gaelic. After 1764 Scotland was occupied by England which caused the oppression of the Gaelic language in Scotland. English became the official language of the upper class and children speaking Gaelic at school were punished. The same occurred in the oversea neighbor country Ireland with which Scotland shared a common Celtic language. Irish and Scotish Gaelic speakers are able to understand each other basically although there are some relevant differences between both languages. One typical difference is the accent fada. By the way fada means long in the Gaelic languages. Let’s take the word big as an example. In Irish Gaelic you write mór and in Scotish Gaelic mòr though. The Irish call their language Gaeilge while the Scotish call it Gàidhlig. You see Ireland and Scotland are not only two nations producing good whisky but they do also share a common language together. By the way in Scotland they write it whisky and in Ireland whiskey. You will certainly remember the water of live from one of my previous articles.

The Celtic language group

Along with Romance, Slavic, Baltic, Germanic and Indo-Iranian language groups and Greek, Albanian and Armenian as three single languages the Celtic languages also belong to the Indo-European languages. In comparison to all the other groups the Celtic languages are the most endagered ones. Apart from Irish Gaelic and Scotish Gaelic the Celtic language group also comprises Welsh in Wales, Breton in Bretagne and two languages which almost already died out namely Cornish in Cornwall and Manx on the Isle of Man. This isle is in the Irish sea between England and Ireland. Due to English being the most dominating language on the British islands and in Ireland and French in the case of Bretagne in France all these languages are all spoken on the edge of their original region losing a big amount of their native speakers. However it is remarkable to notice how the Celtic languages influenced the sentence structure of English and French. For instance in the Celtic languages you use the so-called independent form of the verb in a question or a negative sentence. I will show you one example in Irish Gaelic. When you want to say I saw you say chonaic mé. But if you want to say I didn’t see you will need to say ní fhaca mé. And if you ask someone did you see? you ask an bhfaca tú? In English we have a similar case with the difference that the independent form has been marke with the auxiliar verb to do. In a French question this is marked with the form est-ce que. If you ask did you see? in French you say est-ce que tu as vu? The French negation with ne … pas is based on a similar pattern like in Welsh and Breton. The French pas is the equivalent to the Welsh word ddim. If you say I didn’t see you say je n’ai pas vu French and dydw i ddim weld in Welsh. And also the French number system is based on the one used in Welsh and Breton. Another interesting fact about the Celtic languages is that cases and declensions can cause a change of the first consonants in a word. In Irish Gaelic you have a so-called lenition (séimhiú) and a eclipse (urú). For instance the Irish Gaelic word for table is bord. And here comes the Problem with which you will have a lot of fun when learning Irish Gaelic or any other Celtic language. If you want say on a table in Irish Gaelic you will need to use the lenition and to say ar bhord. But if you want to use the determined article on the table you use the eclipse and you say ar an mbord. There are some more examples like the feminina which all require the lenition. For instancethe Irish Gaelic word for mother is máthair. But with the determined article you say an mháthair. The same occurs if you say my mother or your mother. You say mo mháthair and do mháthair respectively. The Welsh language also uses a third kind of consonant change namely the nasalization.

Celtic influences in other languages

From my previous article about Irish and Celtic music traditions you will know that the Celts also left their traces in the north of Spain and Portugal. And when learning Spanish or Portuguese I give you the advise that you should pay attention to this. You certainly have noticed that Spanish and especially the European Spanish has a much stronger tendention to Aspiration than for example Italian. This is an influence of the Celtic languages which came in contact with the Ibero-Romance languages after the Celts had settled down on the Iberian peninsula. In Portuguese you will notice it even in the vocabulary. For instance the Portuguese word for chair is cadeira. This form originally comes from the Celtic languages as the Irish Gaelic form is cathair and the Welsh one cadair.

The Celtic languages today

Although having had a big influence on other European languages and cultures today the most Celtic languages are endangered to die out. As I wrote before Welsh is the most actively used language in everyday life in Wales. Young people speak it even better than their parents do. In Ireland there are only native speakers in the areas of the so-called Gaeltacht. There are four of them in Munster, Ulster, Leinster and Connaught. In these regions people speak Irish in everyday life and learn English as school as a foreign language. I’ve been to the Dingle peninsula in Kerry a few years ago and I had the opportunity to meet some native speakers of Irish Gaelic when I started learning the language. However it’s only about an eighth of the whole Irish population who speak Irish in their everyday life in Ireland. Statistically there are more people speaking Polish as a native language in Ireland than Irish due to many Polish immigrants who came to Dublin and Cork after Poland has joined the European Union in 2004. In Scotland the situation is even worse. Glasgow has a Gaelic speaking university but you will hardly find any Scotish Gaelic speakers in the big cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The numbers of Gaelic speakers in Scotland fell down in the past decades. For instance in 1971 there have been 100.000 speakers and today there are not more than 60.000 of them living mostly in the Highlands of Scotland. The most endangered Celtic language is Breton in Bretagne is not even being acknowledged as a regional minority language by the French government. Breton is spoken mostly by elder people although there are bands producing rock music in Breton.  Cornish and Manx are almost dead languages. Nevertheless there are attempts made by the regional governments to revive them. On Isle of Man there’s a radio programme broadcasting entirely in the Manx language once a week. On the other side all this causes discussions whether it’s worth the effort and money to keep a small language alive who keeps on losing native speakers. In Scotland people call it an expensive kind of anachromism when placing  a sign written in Scotish Gaelic or investing high amounts in Gaelic school and university education.

A Chinese learning Irish

At the end I want to introduce something funny to you. Take a look on YouTube and watch the short film Yu Ming is ainm dom. The film title means My name is Yu Ming and it tells the story about a Young Chinese boy who decides to travel to Ireland and starts learning Irish before. When coming to Dublin he starts to realize that no one answers him in Irish as everybody speaks English. He gets in despare and asks himself why he can’t improve his language skills of Irish anywhere. A barkeeper in the pub tells him that the language is there but nobody speaks it. Then Yu Ming decides to go to Conamara where he starts working at the reception of a small hostel and welcomes people in Irish. They appreciate it that a Chinese speaks Irish. So check out the Celtic languages and who knows … maybe you will also make a similar impression on their native speakers!






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