Languages

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Introduction

 Language is one of the defining characteristics of the Celtic identity. This is because the Celtic languages are very distinct from the others in the Indo-European family, namely the Germanic (e.g. English, German) and Romance (e.g. French, Italian, Spanish) tongues.

The Celtic languages themselves can be split into two groups; Continental (spoken on the European continent) and Insular (spoken in the British Isles and Brittany in France). The former are long extinct but the latter are very much still alive, albeit in varying degrees of health. That makes language a powerful cultural glue in the Celtic nations.

Four of the six Insular Celtic languages – Irish, Welsh, Gaelic and Breton – are described as ‘living languages'. Cornish and Manx went extinct in the modern era, but efforts to revive and promote the languages have been a key tool for reawakening Celtic identity in those areas.

Here you’ll learn about each of those six separate, but connected languages. We also look at the people and organisations keeping them alive, promoting them and encouraging a new generation of Celts to embrace their roots through learning their native tongue. And we’ll also hear directly from those in the front lines of the Celtic language world.

Explore the Celtic Languages...

Breton - Brezhoneg

Breton came to this part of northwestern France with migrants from Britain in the 5th -6th centuries AD. The language has much in common with Welsh and Cornish. Breton was the dominant language in the region for several hundred years, before going into decline from the 16th century.

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Cornish - Kernewek

Cornish, closely related to Breton and Welsh, was the language of the southwest tip of Britain for centuries. However, it was pushed further and further west by the encroaching English from the 15th century until it effectively died out as a first language in the late 18th century. It is said – though this is energetically debated by scholars – that one Dolly Pentreath of Mousehole in west Cornwall was the last person to speak Cornish as their first language. She died in 1777.

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Irish - Gaeilge

The Irish language has a long and very rich history and has the oldest vernacular literature of any in Western Europe. Irish Gaelic was also exported to Scotland and the Isle of Man, whose languages grew up as a variant of Gaelige. While English made significant inroads from the 18th century onwards, Irish was the majority language of the island until the 19th century. 

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Manx - Gaelg

Manx is closely related to Irish and Scottish Gaelic and came to the island in the 4th and 5th centuries AD with Irish monks and traders. By the 15th century, the Isle of Man had come under and English administration and with official documentation in Latin or English, Manx remained an unwritten language.

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Scottish Gaelic - Gaidhlig

Descended from Irish Gaelic and brought to Scotland by Irish settlers, at one time almost all of the Scottish population spoke Gaelic. A rich heritage of music and folklore developed over the centuries, despite the suppression of the language from the 18th century in the wake of the Jacobite uprisings and subsequent Highland Clearances.

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Welsh - Cymraeg

Welsh is one of Europe’s oldest living languages. However, when Wales was legally incorporated into England in the mid 16th century, efforts were made to suppress the native language. Yet as late as the mid 19th century, the vast majority of the population would still have been Welsh speakers.

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