There are six Celtic languages found around the world. They are Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Only four are considered to be living languages.
I love to explore old sayings, blessings and proverbs, especially those in the Irish language. There is deep meaning to be found there and much to be learned about what it means to be Irish.
And so, today I thought it would be a good idea to explore the origins of this beautiful language.
Is The Native Irish Language Called Gaelic?
Many Americans call Ireland’s native language Gaelic. This term is appropriate, but not quite correct.
I’m going to get a little technical here, and explain why most Irish people do not say Gaelic when referring to our language.
In Ireland, our native language is called Irish.
In the language itself it is called “Gaeilge.” (pronounced gwale-gah).
Now calling Irish by the term Gaelic isn’t completely wrong, so don’t feel bad if that is what you’ve always named our lovely mother tongue.
Irish is a Gaelic language, but it is only one amongst others, and not the only Gaelic language.
Therefore, calling it Gaelic is not specific enough. The term Gaelic is more often used to describe the Scottish Gaelic language, but it is usually accompanied by the clarifying term Scottish.
The Old Celtic Language:
Irish is a Celtic language and thousands of years ago all Celtic people spoke a unifying language which we now refer to as the Old Celtic Language.
This was an Indo-European language, belonging in a branch all of its own, separate from the other Germanic, Anglo and romantic languages of Western Europe.
The languages that evolved from the Old Celtic language are divided into two branches: Goidelic or Gaelic, and Brythonic or British.
This ancient Celtic language was a unifying language spoken by the Celts. Philologists have shown the evolution of six languages from this original tongue.
For those who may wonder about the meaning, (plus a word to teach to my kids), philology is the study of language in oral and written historical sources. It is considered to be the intersection of textual criticism, literary criticism, history, and linguistics.
Now, back to the Old Celtic Language, which is derived from the Indo-European language tradition. Believe it or not, the structure of old Celtic was the closest language cousin to Italic, the language which was the precursor to Latin.
Gaelic and British Branches of the Old Celtic Language:
The Gaelic branch consists of Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic, while the British branch includes Welsh, Cornish and Breton.
There are many similarities between all six of these languages.
Nevertheless, there are greater similarities between the three languages of each branch.
Plus, there are significant differences between the languages in the Gaelic branch and the languages in the British branch.
These two ancient branches of the Old Celtic Language have grown apart over thousands of years and evolved along the way.
I’m sad to report that only four of the original six Celtic languages are still spoken in the world today, and considered to be living languages.
The four surviving languages are Welsh, Breton, Irish and Scottish Gaelic.
In Ireland, the Irish language is an official language of Ireland and of the European Union. Sign posts, government letterhead and communications to the public are all available through Irish, as well as English.
Welsh is also an official language in Wales.
However, Irish is considered endangered. It is spoken in the Gaeltacht areas in the West of Ireland, primarily in parts of counties Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Galway, Mayo and Donegal. There is also a small Gaeltacht in County Meath.
Welsh is the only Celtic language not classified as endangered by UNESCO.
Breton is spoken in Brittany in the northwestern corner of France.
The two extinct Celtic languages are Cornish and Manx.
When Did the Old Celtic Language Start Being Spoken in Ireland?
Our Celtic forefathers are first thought to have arrived on Irish shores, sometime in the window of 2000 to 1200 BC.
They are classified as the q-Celts and their spoken language was Goidelic. Those that settled in Brittany and parts of England are known as the p-Celts and they spoke Brythonic.
Goidelic led to the formation of the three Gaelic languages spoken in Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland. Brythonic gave rise to two British Isles languages, Welsh and Cornish, together with the one surviving Celtic language on the mainland of Europe, in the form of Breton, spoken in Brittany.
Galician – A Celtic Language?
Galicia is a region in northern Spain, near the border with Portugal, and with an Atlantic coastline.
Their language, Galician, is not officially recognized as a Celtic language, but scholars are now beginning to recognize this region as a possible seventh Celtic nation.
Their language retains place-names and words with Celtic origins.
Their region is green and mountainous, with many circular forts, standing stones with Celtic symbols and carvings, some dating back around 3,500 years. Bagpipes are played there, and many inhabitants believe that they too are heirs to the Celtic culture.
Irish Language Speakers In Newfoundland, Canada:
The island of Newfoundland in Canada was once home to a large Irish speaking population.
The Irish language largely disappeared there by the early 1900’s, but some native speakers still live there to this very day.
Mass immigration of native Irish speakers in the eighteenth century brought the language to this eastern Canadian island.
The immigrants were primarily from the counties of Waterford, Tipperary and Cork, so the language spoken there resembles the Munster dialect of the Irish language.
Irish – An Endangered Language:
I believe our Irish language is one of our most prized cultural inheritances. But I am so sad to report we are in grave danger of losing it.
The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger considers the Irish language to be “definitely endangered.” This fact makes my heart skip a beat.
Learning Irish is required in all schools throughout the Republic of Ireland, but only a tiny number of people actually speak the language every day. This figure is given at less than 2% of the Irish population.
And to make matters even worse, it is estimated that only about 40% of Irish people actually have the ability to speak the language. These are some sobering statistics.
We’ll do our best around this blog, to share a little bit of Irish as we explore our Irish heritage together.
Exploring the Cultural Significance of the Irish Language:
The words and phrases of the language hold unique layers of history, wisdom and culture. Old proverbs and blessings capture the stories of the Irish people, the beauty of the landscape, and the deep knowledge of life held in our traditions.
Thank you, for exploring the Irish language with me today, a topic we will return to again and again.
Thanks also for following my recipes and ramblings.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
Here are some more recipes and ramblings you might enjoy…