Deciphering those Mysterious Celtic Languages….

I decided to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year by writing a little bit about the different branches of Celtic languages which are still spoken today. There are quite a few within Britain and one in the Amorican peninsula of France- that of Brittany- in which different dialects of Gaelic are spoken and written. “Written,” you say ? Yes, most are put to print and writing even though they can be primarily taught phonetically. This is due, in part, to the realization of languages in a modern context. I’m always supportive of preserving any language- including those of Native American Indians- and this is why I decided to bring up the subject. That, and a lifelong interest in studying languages makes the Gaelic tongues particularly interesting. In addition, without making a language accessible in a Roman alphabet format there is no feasible way to promote the continued usage of these languages outside of their respective native area.                           
There are two main branches of the Gaelic languages. One is Brythonic which pertains to Welsh, Cornish and Breton of which the latter is spoken only in the northwest part of France. Brythonic languages are also referred to as Cymric. The other branch is Goidelic who are the true Gaelic people and includes Irish Gaelic (also known as Erse), Scottish Gaelic and Manx. Scots Gaelic is so close to that of Erse that the two languages are often indistinguishable when spoken. Manx is spoken on the Isle of Man, which sits in the large bay separating England from Ireland. The island teems with English-speaking people and tourists today but you will find Manx Gaelic on road signs, spoken in pubs and taught along with English in schoolrooms. Cornish has close kinship with the Bretons across the water but is most often kept to events and festivities which occur in Brittany at regular intervals and celebrations.
A little known fact of the Gaelic Scots people is that they emigrated from Ireland to the Scottish Highlands and the western portions, originally from the 6th century, as a Christian colony (whom the Romans referred to as Scoti) and settled around the area of Argyll, founding a subkingdom known as Dalriada. Before that time, the mainland of Scotland was inhabited by the Picts and it was known as Pictland. The immigrants went about converting the mainlanders as more and more came over the water with further settling into the eastern portions of today’s Scotland. The Scoti became so prosperous and powerful that by the 9th century their King, Kenneth I MacAlpine, took claim to the throne of Pictland by combining the two and making Scotland one country. The rest is history, as they say. What little is known about the Pictish people, it has been speculated whether they were responsible for the monolithic monuments scattered throughout Scotland and it is obvious today that their culture was simply inundated and overwhelmed by the advanced civilization the Scoti people brought with them. Pictish language was not preserved in any form so its native form is lost, however, since it was pre-Celtic it may have shared some characteristics with the Scots immigrants. Many experts agree that Pictish was more likely affiliated with the Brythonic branch than to the Goidelic.
From the Dalriadic immigration until the raiding and settlements of the Norsemen in the 9th century, Ireland and Gaelic Scotland became culturally blended. Scandinavian influence was prevalent among the islands of the Hebrides, to the islands of Orkney and Shetland and to the greater part of Caithness. This caused a temporary cleavage between Scotland and Ireland; the Gaelic language, already enriched by Pictish words, absorbed Norse characteristics which are still discernible to the Irish people along with the difference in accent. When relations between Ireland and Scotland were gradually resumed in ecclesiastical and literary matters, the differences in language were not pronounced. As a consequence of the influence of the Colomban clergy, Gaelic became the official language of the Scottish court and it remained the ordinary speech of the kingdom until the reign of Malcolm III MacDuncan (surnamed Canmore= Kenmore) in the 11th century. Malcolm’s queen, Margaret Atheling, was not in sympathy with Celtic culture nor with the Columban church, which failed to agree with Rome on certain administrative matters and Gaelic came to be considered barbaric to the court. The use of English became prevalent throughout Scotland after harshly repressive measures were taken against the Highlanders by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. For a time, the teaching of Gaelic was forbidden in the schools of Scotland. English became predominant throughout the Gaelic-speaking area but the preference for Gaelic continued in the west and north, where it is still commonly spoken.
As a result, the differences between Erse and Gaelic are only dialectical by nature and the variations are not fundamental and can be ignored for the most part. Only in print and writing were they distinguishable, as Erse can be written in old Gaelic script which is indecipherable to most people of any language- spoken or written. It was written in the ogham alphabet which is composed of four sets of up to five simple straight line strokes vertically or diagonally against a horizontal line and is read from the bottom, upwards. The alphabet is composed of only the following Roman letter equivalents: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, L, M, N, O, Q, R, S, T, U, NG and Z. This Druidic script can still be found on ancient gravestones in Ireland but is no longer used. Scots Gaelic, on the other hand, is written in the Roman alphabet like most western languages. Both Gaelic languages have lost great amounts of inflection in nouns and verbs and borrowed largely from Latin and English. Additionally, in modern times, the archaic forms have been modified so that Gaelic is most similar to the way it is spoken in Scotland and Ireland at the present time.        
Now, the Welsh language, even though it is more ancient and more encompassing than that of Cornish or Breton (Breizh), has fought to hold its place as a literary language even more so than Erse. Across the United States there are many Welsh Societies who hold regular festivities involving their language, folk music, dance, cooking and traditions. I have been to many of the holiday festivities of the Colorado Welsh Society and have found that quite a few members are native Welsh who continue to keep up their culture even though their herds are beginning to thin. The BBC stepped in some years ago and built a language course which was also aired on American shores by PBS television stations to preserve the Welsh language so that it could be spoken wherever Welsh people lived and continued to celebrate their national holidays.
Monuments and funeral inscriptions in Wales date back as far as the 5th century and manuscripts which have been preserved date back from the 8th to the 10th century. As a result, a good part of their history, chronicled in the 6th century by the cynferdd which included Merlin and Taliesin, is largely folklore and the stories are rich in imagination, so well told often, that it is difficult to tell fact from fiction. Much of the tangible substance being that of bardic poetry and prose romance around the 12th century, the entire catalog is rich and fascinating. During the period of skirmishes between the Saxons and Welsh, bards (poets) were an important class in society and a large quantity of their work has been preserved and fueled by an unusual passion for music. Their strongest period in history appears to extend from the time of Gruffudd ab Cynan’s return from Ireland in 1080 to the death of Llewelyn ab Gruffudd in 1282. Welsh poets at that time were Meilyr and his son Gwalchmai, Owain Kyveiliog and Howel ab Owain Gwynedd (the last two being royal princes), Einion and Meilyr (sons of Gwalchmai), Dafydd Benvras, Llywarch ap Llewelyn, Cynddelw, Elidir Sais and Phylip Brydydd. A pinnacle in Welsh historical prose was William Morgan’s translation of the Bible which was published in 1588. It was later revised by Bishop Parry in 1620 and continues to be in use up to the present.
In 1893 the Gaelic League was established to promote the use of Erse as the official national language of Ireland. Two founders of this movement were Douglas Hyde and Reverend Eugene O’Growney and soon after its inception started publication of Irisleabhar na Gaehilge (Gaelic Journal) which was a monthly publication. When the publication was changed to weekly papers, the name was changed to Claidheamh Soluis (means, Sword of Light) and eventually made inroads before two decades had passed to a much wider acceptance of the language. More and more books in Erse began to be printed and taught in the primary schools, and the ban on teaching Irish history was also removed. Irish literary classics soon gained wide popularity and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921 brought the League into greater influence with the end result of Erse being taught in all schools in Ireland. Today, the Gaelic League has branches in England, the United States, Canada, South America and Australia.
The first book printed in Scots Gaelic was the first dictionary, compiled by Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair, in 1741 and less than ten years later a collection of the same author’s verse Ais-eiridh na Seann Chanain Albannaich (The Rebirth of the Old Language of Scotland). A popular poet during this time was Duncan Ba`n MacIntyre who was published first in 1768 and further editions of his works continued to be published well into the 20th century. His descriptions of the Highlands are beloved and his Màiri bhàn òg is commonly accepted as the most beautiful of all Gaelic love songs. The controversial nature of Macpherson’s Ossian although discredited by English scholars for the validity of his claim that he translated the epic of Fingal from old manuscripts, still sparked an interest in Scots Gaelic and a trend toward keeping the language alive was set with the Jacobite rebellion hot on its heels. However, it wasn’t until 1940 when a small volume, Seventeen Poems for Sixpence, published in Edinburgh, set in motion a Gaelic renaissance with a plethora of 20th century poets and keep a tradition alive very much like one enjoyed in Ireland today.
Celtic art can be found throughout the British Isles and very well distinguished by the use of bronze primarily and occasionally silver and gold. Motifs include elliptical curves, divergent spirals and chevrons formed in high or low relief with the use of chased or engraved lines and dots on plates and often enameled with champleve’ in vivid reds, yellows, blues and green. Pottery was done in heavy form of oinerary urns, drinking vessels and cups, incense holders often imperfectly fired but of fine workmanship, nonetheless. Celtic art began in complex and intricate designs and then took on Christian religious symbols and is especially evident in the Book of Kells displayed at Trinity College in Dublin and the Lindisfarne Gospels which are now in the British Museum. Lots of examples of their sculpture in stone can be found in the incised cross slabs and monumental stones of Scotland with striking similarities to those of the Brythonic tribes from the south.     
Brittany retains quite a bit of the ancient Breton culture and traditions in specific areas and towns. This is most prevalent in Quimper and portions of Finistere- Land’s End- especially at the Parish Closes such as Guimiliau, Lampaul-G. and St-Thegonnec. Pays Bigouden also has the Breton culture firmly entrenched and you will find genuine costumes worn by locals at the Chateau Musée Bigouden. Festivals and pardons are still carried on there and in Quimper which include traditions such as traou mad (biscuits that are similar to Scots shortbreads), crêpes and cider along with Celtic music. Many tourists and true Celtic enthusiasts attend their festivals and traditional religious ceremonies each year. There are schools devoted to teaching the Breton language but they are few and exclusive, on the whole. Many native Bretons no longer speak the native language but the signs, ancient and modern, still abound.
In the southern portion of Brittany, at Carnac, a pre-Celtic site of stone megaliths, very much like the stone circles which exist throughout Britain, is well visited. Carnac is unique in that more than 3,000 stones are set up in long formations which could appear to be writings or code when seen from the air. The tallest stone which is referred to as giant Manio is nearly 22 feet high and was re-erected circa 1900 by Zacharie Le Rouzic overlooking the Kerlescan alignment. There isn’t another site quite like it in the world and there is, of course, a lot of folklore attached to the site.

© 2012 Evelyn M. Wallace
All Rights Reserved by author
No quotes, copies or paraphrased usage without written consent

Duw fo’ch noddfa, nes cawn eto gwrdd,

The Castle Lady


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5 Responses to Deciphering those Mysterious Celtic Languages….

  1. eyeonwales says:

    You might want to extend your interest to place names, the North of England and Southern Scotland are littered with what would today be recognised as ‘Welsh’ placenames.


    • Evelyn says:

      I’m not surprised that place names from Wales can be found in so-called far-flung places and I’ll bet Welsh names appear in Irish and Scots graveyards as well. It rather goes with the territory. Thanks for bringing that up. I get quite a few people that are looking for their ancestors in Great Britian. Cheers!


  2. Uri Knight Geller says:

    You wouldn’t believe it but I’ve spent all day digging for some articles about Celtic languages. You may be a lifesaver, it was an exceptional read and has helped me out to no finish. Cheers!


  3. David Kelley says:

    I understand that another Gaelic language, Gallegos, is being revived in the Northern coastal area of Spain. Franco tried, but failed, to wipe it out. Now there is a TV station there which broadcasts in Gallegos. This info is on the Internet.


    • Evelyn says:

      Well, General Franco tried to wipe out everything, as near as I can tell. From 1939 to 1975 he ruled as head of state in the most repressive government Spain has ever witnessed. I have never heard of that Gaelic language but I cannot refute it. I’ll have to look into that…
      Thanks for commenting ! The Castle Lady


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