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date: 04 December 2022

Celtic languagesfree

Celtic languagesfree

  • John Penney


  • Linguistics

Updated in this version

Bibliography updated.

The Celtic branch of Indo-European is traditionally divided into Insular Celtic and Continental Celtic. The records of the Continental Celtic languages consist of names, occurring in profusion in Greek and Roman sources, and epigraphic remains from the Classical period; none of these languages can be shown to have survived beyond imperial times. The best known is Gaulish: in the Greek alphabet (borrowed from Massalia), there are funerary and votive inscriptions on stone, mainly from Gallia Narbonensis (c. 200–50 bce; see Gaul, transalpine) but also from central Gaul (c. 100 bce–50 ce), as well as graffiti on pottery. In the Latin alphabet, from the mid-1st century bce onward, from most parts of Gaul, there are inscriptions on stone and a range of other texts, including substantial fragments of a late 2nd-century bronze calendar from Coligny, a sizeable corpus of graffiti in cursive script on pottery from La Graufesenque (c. 40–120 ce), and cursive inscriptions on lead tablets, such as those from Chamalières and Larzac, that are not fully understood. There are also a few Gaulish inscriptions from Italy, probably of the last two centuries bce, written in the Lugano alphabet (see alphabets of italy). Other short inscriptions in this alphabet, from c. 550 to the 1st century bce, found in the region of the Italian lakes, are in a form of Celtic known as Lepontic: the differences between this and Gaulish seem slight. From Spain, there are Celtiberian inscriptions (see spain, pre-roman scripts and languages); claims that a form of Celtic is to be recognised in the “Tartessian” inscriptions from southern Portugal are not convincing. The Celts who, in the 3rd century bce, settled in central Anatolia and gave their name to Galatia, have left no remains of their language beyond names and glosses.

Within Insular Celtic, two language groups are recognized: Goidelic (Irish and its offshoots—Scots Gaelic and Manx) and British or Brittonic (Welsh, Cornish, and Breton). Their classification as Insular Celtic may be understood not simply as a geographical designation but also as implying a shared development from proto-Celtic: this has been challenged by those scholars who prefer to stress links between British and Gaulish.

The earliest evidence for Irish comes from short inscriptions in the Ogam alphabet, found in Ireland, but also in South Wales and elsewhere in western Britain, and assigned mainly to the 5th and 6th centuries ce. Manuscript remains (in the Latin alphabet) first appear in the 7th century, but it is the fuller evidence from the 8th and 9th centuries (principally glosses in Latin manuscripts) that represents classical Old Irish. Later manuscripts have also preserved early material, notably legal texts and sagas, but allowance has always to be made for scribal modernization of the language. There are extensive remains of Middle Irish (c. 950–1200) and an unbroken attestation of Modern Irish from c. 1200 down to the present day. Manx (now extinct) and Scots Gaelic apparently separated from Irish only in medieval times.

British was the language of almost the whole of Britain in the Roman period. Names found in Greek and Roman sources, more rarely in Latin inscriptions, are the earliest attestations (the only direct evidence may be provided by one or two unintelligible fragmentary texts on lead tablets). Following the Saxon incursions of the 5th century ce, and the eventual confinement of the language to western regions, linguistic divisions resulted in separate languages: Cornish, extinct since the 18th century; Welsh, still spoken in many parts of Wales; Cumbrian, which apparently did not survive beyond medieval times. The form of the language taken across to Brittany by British settlers from the mid-5th century onwards developed into Breton (claims of Gaulish influence are doubtful). The first meagre manuscript remains of Old Welsh date from the 8th century, those of Old Cornish and Old Breton from the 9th; more abundant testimony is available for subsequent stages.


  • Ball, Martin J., and Nicole Müller, eds. The Celtic Languages. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2009.
  • Lewis, Henry, and Holger Pedersen. A Concise Comparative Celtic Grammar, rev. ed. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1961.
  • Russell, Paul. An Introduction to the Celtic Languages, London: Longman, 1995.
Continental Celtic
  • Colbert de Beaulieu, Jean-Baptiste, and Brigitte Fischer. Recueil des inscriptions gauloises: Vol. 4: Les légendes monétaires. Paris: CNRS Éditions, 1998.
  • Delamarre, Xavier. Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise. 2nd ed. Paris: Éditions Errance, 2003.
  • Duval, Paul-Marie, and Georges Pinault. Recueil des inscriptions gauloises: Vol. 3, Les calendriers. Coligny: Villards d’Héria. Paris: CNRS Éditions, 1986.
  • Eska, Joseph F. “Continental Celtic.” In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ancient Languages. Edited by Roger D. Woodard, 857–880. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Freeman, Philip. The Galatian Language: A Comprehensive Survey of the Language of the Ancient Celts in Asia Minor. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2001.
  • Lambert, Pierre-Yves. Recueil des inscriptions gauloises: Vol. 2.2, Textes gallo-latins sur instrumentum. Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2002.
  • Lambert, Pierre-Yves. La langue gauloise, rev. ed. Paris: Éditions Errance, 2003.
  • Lejeune, Michel. Lepontica. Paris: Société d’éditions “Les Belles Lettres,” 1971.
  • Lejeune, Michel. Recueil des inscriptions gauloises: Vol. 2.1, Textes gallo-étrusques, textes gallo-latins sur pierre. Paris: CNRS Éditions, 1988.
  • Lejeune, Michel, and Paul-Marie Duval. Recueil des inscriptions gauloises: Vol. 1, Textes gallo-grecs. Paris: CNRS Éditions, 1985.
  • Marichal, Robert. Les Graffites de La Graufesenque. Paris: CNRS Éditions, 1988.
  • Untermann, Jürgen, Monumenta Linguarum Hispanicarum: Vol. 4, Die tartessischen, keltiberischen und lusitanischen Inschriften. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert Verlag, 1997.
  • Weisgerber, Leo, “Galatische Sprachreste.” In Natalicium Johannes Geffcken zum 70: Geburtstag 2 Mai 1931 gewidmet von Freunden, Kollegen und Schülern. Edited by Rudolf Wilhelm Oskar Helm, 151–175. Heidelberg, Germany: Carl Winter, 1931.
  • Wodtko, Dagmar, Monumenta Linguarum Hispanicarum Vol 1: Wörterbuch der keltiberischen Inschriften. Edited by Jürgen Untermann. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert Verlag, 2000.
Insular Celtic
  • Bammesberger, Alfred, and Alfred Wollmann, eds. Britain 400–600: Language and History. Heidelberg, Germany: Carl Winter, 1990.
  • Evans, Daniel Simone. A Grammar of Middle Welsh. Dublin, Republic of Ireland: Institute for Advanced Studies, The School of Celtic Studies, 1989.
  • Jackson, Kenneth. Language and History in Early Britain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1953.
  • MacManus, Damian. A Guide to Ogam. Maynooth, Republic of Ireland: An Sagart, 1991.
  • Thurneysen, Rudolf. A Grammar of Old Irish. Dublin, Republic of Ireland: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1948.