What does “Celtic” mean?

For a linguist – a student of language in general, or certain languages – the word “Celtic” means only one thing: Celtic languages. Celtic languages are a well-defined subgroup of Indo-European languages, which are a group of mutually related languages spoken in Europe, northern India, and some countries between Europe and India such as Iran and Afghanistan. Yes, the main languages of Iran and Afghanistan are indeed Indo-European and as such related to both Irish and English.

When we speak of “Celts”, we mean the people, or peoples, who speak, or historically spoke, Celtic languages. Modern Celtic languages include Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Breton, and Cornish. Ancient Celtic languages include Gaulish, Celtiberian, and Lepontic, but these are basically just shorthand expressions for groups of ancient inscriptions which share similar features. We don’t have enough Gaulish to, say, write a history of Gaulish literature.

The idea that Celtic languages are somehow intrinsically enigmatic or mysterious should not be entertained. For instance, those Gaulish inscriptions are largely possible to understand and interpret, because they are written in a language that is related to other Indo-European languages – and no group of languages has been so thoroughly studied and mapped as that one. Of course, we can never understand everything, because we know little of the cultural context, but this applies to all ancient languages. Even Latin, which you might think should be intelligible in its entirety, given the fact that it is a classical language that has been studied for centuries, has its own share of enigmas: there are extant texts (such as the Carmen Saliare fragments) in a form of Latin which is much older than the language of Cicero and Virgil and which aren’t well understood.

As regards modern Celtic languages, they are quite well understood and can be learnt and studied by everyone. Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton are all living languages, while their long-term survival might be precarious. Of the above-mentioned languages, I only speak and write Irish, so I might as well concentrate upon it. Books are still being written and published in Irish, both by native speakers and learners (myself included). There is such an awful lot of published folklore in Irish that if the language lost its last native speaker, it could still be resurrected with all its dialect differences.

Note this:

  • Basque is not a Celtic language, it is a language isolate with no relatives. There are a couple of possibly Celtic loanwords in Basque though.
  • Galician is not a Celtic language, it is a Romance language related to Portuguese. Many Romance languages have Celtic loanwords and show Celtic influence, but all Romance languages have basically developed from Latin.
  • Gaelic is not one language, but three (Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx) which are mutually about as similar as Scandinavian languages are.
  • Welsh is not a Gaelic language, although it is a Celtic language.
  • “Celtic” as a term is above all about linguistics, about the way how certain languages are related to each other. The cultures of the peoples who speak, or until recently spoke, Celtic languages are not necessarily particularly related to each other, any more than English culture is related to Swedish culture although English and Swedish are, as Germanic languages, originally quite closely related.
  • There is no one Celtic mythology, although there are Celtic mythologies. For instance, the Irish mythologies of Fiannaíocht (the cycle of the Fianna or Fenian heroes) and Rúraíocht (the Ulster Cycle with Cú Chulainn).
  • Celtic mythologies have significantly influenced common European culture. Above all, it should be noted that the stories about King Arthur and the knights of the round table are ultimately based on Welsh mythology, although the present form of the stories is probably more related to how the stories were rewritten and reinvented by medieval French poets. For instance, Sir Lancelot as a character was introduced by the very influential French writer Chrétien de Troyes.
  • The “Ossianic mythology” introduced by James Macpherson in the 18th century similarly had a deep impact on European culture by creating interest in the culture and folklore of the common people. Macpherson’s stories were actually relatively poor retellings of Fenian myths in English, but Macpherson did have an idea of Gaelic myths as told in Scots Gaelic.
  • And now it should be noted that Irish and Scots Gaelic myths are indeed related, but only because the languages themselves are closely related and diverged only relatively recently.
  • Things said in a Celtic language are not always profound and elevated. You can definitely speak about prostitution, defecating or sewage treatment in Irish. Shit, by the way, is cac in Irish, and piss is mún or fual. In case you were curious.
  • The fact that speakers of Irish or Welsh, for instance, use English words while speaking their languages is not due to the language being intrinsically old-fashioned or unsuitable to modern life. It is due to the fact that those people live in a largely English-speaking country, where the majority language is encroaching on the minority language. This is about power and prestige, not about the intrinsic nature of the language.
  • Welsh is most closely related to Breton and Cornish, Irish is most closely related to Scots Gaelic and Manx. But Welsh is so unintelligible to an Irish-speaker, and the other way round, that the common Celtic origins of the two languages do not help them understand each other.
  • On the other hand, Irish and Scots Gaelic are very similar both in their written and in their spoken forms. The main reason why they do not feel like the same language anymore is that those dialects which were in between have disappeared.
  • In fact, most native speakers of Scots Gaelic nowadays live in the Outer Hebrides, where the local dialect has been subject to exceptionally strong Old Norse influences. Thus, you can say that the most widely spoken form of Scots Gaelic today is the historically most divergent one.
  • Breton is not immediately related to Gaulish, it is rather a derivative of Cornish, which has come into being due to (originally seasonal) migration from Cornwall. So, although Breton is spoken in France, it originally was the same language as Cornish and came from the British Isles.
  • Welsh is closely related to both Cornish and Breton.
  • Cornish died out in the 18th century as a community language. There are, though, ongoing attempts to revive it as a spoken language. While some success has been achieved, there still is a lot of disagreement about what kind of Cornish should be revived and whether Welsh and Breton words should be used for concepts for which authentic Cornish only uses English borrowings.


  • Basque = a non-Celtic minority language spoken in France and Spain. Sometimes people erroneously think that Basque is a Celtic language, because it is a minority language of which they know very little, and in such a way similar to Celtic languages. Actually. Basque is a linguistic isolate with no modern relatives (there was an ancient language called by linguists Aquitanian, but the list of known Aquitanian words is very short and so obviously Basque that for all we know Aquitanian might simply have been old Basque, not just a “related language”)
  • Béaslaí, Piaras (1891-1965) = an Irish-language writer and nationalist activist, known for his dramas and his novel Astronár, an allegory about the Irish struggle for freedom. In this novel, Ireland is an Eastern European country called Amora, subjugated by Kratonians, and everybody has a pseudo-Greek name (such as the hero Astronár).
  • Breton = the Celtic language spoken in Brittany
  • Brezhoneg = the name of Breton in Breton
  • Brittonic languages = Welsh, Breton, and Cornish
  • Celtiberian = an ancient language spoken in what is now Spain, known from inscriptions
  • Celtic = a branch of the Indo-European language family
  • Cornish = the Celtic language once spoken in Cornwall. There are several reconstructed forms of Cornish, such as Unified Cornish, Modern Cornish, Kernewek Kemmyn and Unified Cornish Revised, but now some sort of compromise Cornish has been created.
  • Cymraeg = the name of Welsh in Welsh
  • Cymraeg Byw = an artificial form of spoken Welsh standardized in the 1970s. Due to the great gap between literary Welsh and spoken dialects, this form of Welsh was developed as a substitute for the “received pronunciation” that had not developed in a natural way. It was supposed to become the normative spoken language of broadcasters, but instead, it was taught to non-natives, who then were left speaking a form of Welsh which was a departure from any real Welsh either spoken or written. This misuse led to the subsequent abandonment of Cymraeg Byw, which might have worked just fine if used as originally planned, as a broadcasting norm.
  • Davitt, Michael (1950-2005) = a modern Irish-language poet
  • Gaeilge = the name of Irish in Irish
  • Gaelic languages = the branch of Celtic containing Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx. Also called Goidelic languages
  • Gaeltacht = a village or area where a traditional dialect of Irish is spoken
  • Gàidhlig = the name of Scots Gaelic in Scots Gaelic
  • Galician = the Romance language spoken in the part of Spain north of Portugal, a very close relative (or historically speaking the parent language) of Portuguese. Not a Celtic language.
  • Gaulish = an ancient Celtic language spoken in what is now France, known from inscriptions
  • Gwalarn = a Breton school of writers and a literary journal in the Breton language, active in 1925-1944
  • Gwenedeg (Vannetais) – one of the four dialects of Breton, so different from the others that it needs a written language of its own
  • Hedd Wyn = the pen name of Ellis Humphrey Evans, a Welsh-language poet of the First World War, killed in action in 1917.
  • Indo-European languages = the most well-known and researched language family of the world, which includes Albanian, Armenian, Baltic languages (Latvian and Lithuanian), Slavic languages (Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Sorbian, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Slovenian, Bulgarian and Macedonian), Celtic (Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, Breton and the ancient Celtic languages), Germanic (English, Dutch, German and the Scandinavian languages as well as Gothic and other ancient Germanic languages), Greek (ancient and modern; Ancient Macedonian was probably related to Greek, definitely not the same language as modern Macedonian, which is close to Bulgarian), Indo-Iranian languages (Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Pashtu and many others), Italic languages (such as Latin, from which modern Romance languages descend), and several ancient, extinct languages such as Hittite and Tocharian. Most languages spoken in Europe are Indo-European; the major exceptions are Basque, which is not related to any other language; and Finnish, the Sami languages, Estonian, and Hungarian, which are all related to each other, being Finno-Ugric languages.
  • initial mutation = the way how the first sound in a word mutates into another sound in a word, as a grammatical change. Very typical of modern Celtic languages.
  • Insular Celtic = the Celtic languages spoken in the British Isles, or originating from there. All the modern Celtic languages (including Breton) are Insular Celtic
  • Irish = the Celtic language spoken in Ireland
  • Kerneveg (Cornouaillais) = one of the dialects of Breton
  • Kernewek or Kernowek = the name of Cornish in Cornish
  • Italic languages = an ancient subgroup of Indo-European languages that included Latin and such related languages as Faliscan, Umbrian, Oscan and many others. Latin ousted other Italic languages when Romans occupied and annexed the parts of Italy where they were spoken.
  • Italo-Celtic = According to one theory, a subgroup of Indo-European languages that included both Italic languages and Celtic languages (this suggests that they had a common ancestor language younger than Proto-Indo-European, i.e. Italo-Celtic). These days this theory is not very popular.
  • Leoneg (Léonard) = one of the dialects of Breton
  • Lepontic = an ancient Celtic language spoken in what is now Northern Italy, known from inscriptions
  • Lewis, Saunders (1893-1985) = a renowned poet and writer in Welsh
  • Mac Amhlaigh, Dónall (1926-1989) = a writer of Irish-language prose about the life of Irish workers in Britain, who also wrote in English. Thanks to his fluent journalistic style, he should be studied by any learner of the language.
  • Mac an Bheatha, Proinsias (1910-1990) = a productive, but not very original writer of Irish-language prose. He was a non-native, but wrote mostly quite decent Irish. His historical novels have some literary merit.
  • Mac Grianna, Seosamh (1900-1990) = a modernist writer from Donegal, whose interesting literary career was cut short by depression and psychosis
  • Manx = the Celtic language until recently spoken in the Isle of Man, closely related to Irish and Scots Gaelic
  • Ó Cadhain, Máirtín (1906-1970) = the most important writer of prose in the 20th century
  • ogham = a form of writing used in the oldest Irish inscriptions. These are very short ones and their usual content is something like “I was such a big boss in our tribe that my sons could afford to put up this stone in my memory”.
  • ogham Irish = the kind of Irish used in the ogham inscriptions
  • Ó Grianna, Séamus (1889-1969) = a productive writer of novels and short stories about the Irish-speaking Donegal, mostly read because of his beautiful Irish; elder brother of Seosamh Mac Grianna
  • Ó hÁirtnéide, Mícheál (1941-1999) = also known as Michael Hartnett, a modern Irish-language poet who also wrote in English
  • Old Irish = the kind of Irish written in the years 700-900.
  • Ó Riordáin, Seán (1916-1977) = a modern Irish-language poet
  • Pictish = the language spoken in Scotland before Old Irish (subsequently Scots Gaelic) made inroads. Pictish was probably related to Welsh (there are pre-Gaelic place-names in Scotland which include Celtic elements reminiscent of Welsh) but there is also the possibility that there were two Pictish languages, one of them Celtic and another unrelated.
  • Roberts, Kate (1891-1985) = a noted Welsh writer of prose
  • Romance languages = the languages that descend directly from Latin, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Romanian, Catalan, Galician etc.
  • Scots = the Germanic language spoken in Scotland and Ulster, either an English dialect or a separate language closely related to English. Not a Celtic language.
  • Scottish Gaelic = the Celtic language spoken in the Scottish Highlands and Islands
  • Tregerieg (Trégorrois) = one of the dialects of Breton
  • Welsh = the Celtic language spoken in Wales




What is Irish? Cad é an rud é an Ghaeilge? (Part Two – Cuid a Dó)

After the Old Irish, there was something called Middle Irish. The term is somewhat problematic, because in earlier times it used to mean something else: earlier, “Middle Irish” included the Irish from the twelfth century to the seventeenth century, which is now known as Classical Irish, or Early Modern Irish. According to our understanding, Middle Irish was the period of linguistic uncertainty between Old Irish and Early Modern Irish, with substandard spoken language forms and hypercorrections (i.e. uninformed attempts to write standard Old Irish leading to forms which were neither correct Old Irish nor correct spoken language) proliferating in the literary language. However, some old books which use the term “Middle Irish” to refer to Early Modern Irish are still being reprinted (notably Eleanor Knott’s Irish Syllabic Poetry).


I ndiaidh na SeanGhaeilge, bhí a leithéid ann agus an Mheán-Ghaeilge. Níl an téarma sin róshoiléir, nó d’athraigh a chiall i rith na mblianta: ar dtús ba nós “Meán-Ghaeilge” a thabhairt ar an nGaeilge ón dóú haois déag go dtí an tseachtú haois déag, an cineál Gaeilge ar a dtugtar “an Ghaeilge Chlasaiceach” nó “an Nua-Ghaeilge Mhoch” inniu. De réir is mar a thuigtear dúinn, is éard a bhí i gceist leis an Meán-Ghaeilge ná an tréimhse éiginnteachta i gcúrsaí teanga idir an tSean-Ghaeilge agus an Nua-Ghaeilge Mhoch, nuair a bhí an teanga scríofa breac le foirmeacha ón gcaint chomh maith le foirmeacha forchearta. Is éard atá i gceist leis an “bhforcheartú” ná go bhfuil an scríbhneoir ag iarraidh cloí leis an gcaighdeán Sean-Ghaeilge agus é chomh haineolach ar an gcaighdeán sin nach bhfuil a chuid “ceartúchán” ceart de réir an chaighdeáin ná de réir na cainte. Tabhair faoi deara, áfach, go bhfuil seanleabhair áirithe i bprionta i gcónaí a úsaideas an téarma sin Middle Irish le tagairt don rud a dtugaimid Nua-Ghaeilge Mhoch air inniu – ar nós Irish Syllabic Poetry le hEleanor Knott.  

Early Modern Irish begins in the 12th century and ends in the 16th century. Classical Irish is the form of Early Modern Irish cultivated by bardic poets – the Irish word for “poet” is file, in the old orthography fileadh, and the standard language used by poets was indeed called ceart na bhfileadh, i.e. “the correctness of the poets”, “what the poets find correct”. The poets’ Irish was quite far removed from the everyday speech of the common people, being above all a cultivated written language and developing independently of spoken dialects. However, it was not an archaic language – it did, for example, readily accept loanwords from English.


Thosaigh tréimhse na Nua-Ghaeilge Moiche sa dóú haois déag agus tháinig deireadh léi sa tseachtú haois déag. An cineál Nua-Ghaeilge Mhoch a bhí á cleachtadh ag na filí cuairte tugtar Gaeilge Chlasaiceach air. Is gnách “ceart na bhfileadh”, is é sin caighdeán na bhfilí, a thabhairt ar an stíl seo chomh maith. Bhí Gaeilge na bhfilí sách difriúil le gnáthchaint na cosmhuintire, ós rud é gur teanga scríofa shaothraithe a bhí inti, agus í ag forbairt beag beann ar na canúintí labhartha. San am chéanna ní teanga bhréagársa a bhí inti. Mar shampla, d’fháiltíodh sí focail iasachta ón mBéarla.


There were other styles in Early Modern Irish – the canamhain (this is the same word as canúint, which in today’s Irish means “dialect”), which was less rigorously literary and more conversational than the poets’ standard, and the historians’ annalistic style, which was artificially old-fashioned, but presumably felt to be historically correct by those who wrote it. It seems that it was usually laughed at and parodied by others.

Bhí stíleanna eile sa Nua-Ghaeilge Mhoch – an chanamhain (is ionann mar fhocal é agus “canúint”), nár chloígh chomh dian sin le ceart na bhfileadh, nó bhí sí ní ba chosúla le caint na ndaoine. Ón taobh eile de bhí a stíl féin ag lucht scríofa na n-annál staire, agus iad ag iarraidh seanaimsearthacht agus ársaíocht mhínádúrtha a chleachtadh, toisc gur shíl siad go gcaithfidís a ceart a thabhairt don stair. Dealraíonn sé gur ábhar gáire agus scigaithrise ab ea Gaeilge na staraithe do na daoine eile.


Towards the end of the Early Modern Irish period, the historian Geoffrey Keating (Seathrún Céitinn) wrote Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (usually called “Keating’s History of Ireland” in English, although the title means “Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland”), a compendium of Irish history and mythology. Keating departed from the usual style of Irish-language history-writing, using instead a kind of classical Irish that is relatively intelligible even to those only familiar with today’s Irish. This is why Keating’s Irish was enormously influential among the first Irish revivalists in the eighteen nineties.

Nuair a bhí ré na Nua-Ghaeilge Moiche ag druidim chun deireanais, scríobh an staraí Seathrún Céitinn “Foras Feasa ar Éirinn”, ar díolaim abhair é ina gceanglaítear stair agus miotaseolaíocht na hÉireann dá chéile. Níor chloígh Céitinn le gnáthstíl na staraithe Gaeilge ach le stíl Chlasaiceach agus í réasúnta intuigthe acu siúd féin nach bhfuil ach Gaeilge an lae inniu acu. Sin é an fáth go ndeachaigh Gaeilge Chéitinn go mór mór i bhfeidhm ar cheannródaithe athbheochana na Gaeilge sna 1890idí.


The time from the demise of the classical language in the 17th century to the revival of modern contemporary Irish in the 20th century is a dark period in the history of the language. However, literature was being written even in those centuries. Among the most well-known works is, of course, Brian Merriman’s epic poem Cúirt an Mheon-Oíche, “The Midnight Court”, which is probably most well-known because of the fact that its English translation was censored in the Irish Free State, while the far more ribald original text was widely available in bookshops.

An tréimhse ó dheireadh na ré Clasaicí sa 17ú haois go hathbheochan na teanga san fhichiú haois is gnách dearcadh uirthi mar bhlianta dorcha i stair na Gaeilge. Mar sin féin bhí litríocht á saothrú sna blianta sin féin. Is é an dán eipiceach Cúirt an Mheon Oíche an saothar is cáiliúla ón tréimhse, ar ndóigh, ach is é an fáth leis sin ná go ndearnadh cinsireacht ar an aistriúchán Béarla sa Saorstát, cé go raibh teacht ar an mbunleagan Gaeilge, agus é i bhfad níos graosta ná an leagan Béarla, go forleathan sna siopaí leabhar.