Ancient Celtic Languages

This essay (or rather a series of brief essays) explores various ancient Celtic languages. The Gaelic that can still be heard in a few scattered enclaves in the British Isles and elsewhere, is by no means an ancient Celtic tongue. It is a modern Celtic tongue. In its current form, Irish Gaelic only dates back about 400 years. Very different languages were spoken by the ancient Celts.

The ancient Celtic languages are known to us chiefly through written documents left behind by the ancient Celts themselves. These are mostly inscriptions. There are several hundred of them, though the exact number varies depending on how one counts them. Mostly they are very short, but often offer an important glimpse into ancient Celtic life. Occasionally a longer one surfaces, such as the extensive Coligny Calendar or the first Botorrita inscription.

BB III, Column Two, Lines 4-12

There are several points that the reader may find it useful to bear in mind up-front. Firstly, it should be understood that scholars do not yet fully understand all of the Celtic inscriptions which have come to light, and their translation is often controversial. They are, after all, written in languages that have been lost to the ages, and are only intelligible at all via comparison with the later Celtic languages, and the powerful tool of historical linguistics. Secondly, it should be born in mind that our knowledge of ancient Celtic languages is too fragmentary to make the classification of them easy. Often it is difficult to tell exactly what is a distinct language and what is merely a dialect. Therefore, the identification of ‘Lepontic’ or ‘Galatian’ as separate languages should be thought of merely as a convenience and a tentative identification. Finally, it is helpful to understand some basic linguistic concepts (inflection and language change).

As has been noted, the modern Celtic languages were quite different from the ancient Celtic languages. This is because all languages naturally change over time (even branching off into separate, mutually unintelligible languages). In particular, the Celtic languages underwent rapid change at the dawn of the Middle Ages. The last evidence for the survival of declining tongues like Gaulish and Galatian disappeared, and the surviving tongues, British and Irish, underwent drastic sound-shifts and morphological changes. While on the one hand we eventually ended up with the ‘six modern Celtic languages’ (Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Manx Gaelic, Welsh, Breton and Cornish), on the other hand, all of the Celtic languages are thought to have evolved from a single, now-lost language, known as ‘Proto-Celtic’ or ‘Common Celtic’.

Ancient Celtic languages, like Greek and Latin, were highly inflected, that is, they made extensive use of suffixes to indicate the grammatical relationships between words in a sentence. Languages that are less highly inflected, like modern English, use such devices as word-order, prepositions, and context to supply the information that word-endings furnished in ancient Celtic languages. Thus, instead of saying ‘for Latumaros’, an ancient Celt would simply say ‘Latumarui’.

The following list contains the names of some of the ancient Celtic languages. Click on a name to learn more about a particular language.

Proto-Celtic
Lepontic
Celtiberian
Lusitanian
Pictish
Tartessian
Gaulish
Galatian
East Celtic
British
Irish
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