Celtic Languages

A French definition says that 'prehistory stops with the first written document'. By this definition the Celts qualify as a prehistoric people. They were the first of the prehistoric peoples north of the Alps whose names were known to the Greek and Roman world, for they shared common features, including some linguistic similarities. The languages of the Celts belong to the great Indo-European family of languages, which also includes Anatolian, Hellenic, Italic, Illyrian, Slavonic, Baltic, Germanic, Armenian, Indo-Iranian, and Tocharian.

We can hypothesize that, at some point of their historical development, the Celts spoke a common Celtic language. Celtic scholars have supposed this common Celtic may have been spoken just before the start of the first millennium B.C.E. during the Urnfield/Hallstatt eras. Soon after, five(?) distinct dialects emerged which may be subdivided as follows:

Hispano-Celtic (now obsolete)
Gallic (now obsolete)
Lepontic (now obsolete)
Goidelic or Q-Celtic' (which includes Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx)
Brythonic or P-Celtic' (which includes Welsh, Breton, and Cornish)

Unfortunately, since no version of Hispano-Celtic, Gallic, or Lepontic has survived, we do not know whether they were distinct dialects, or whether they also were part of the P-Celtic and Q-Celtic variety. Pictish seems to have included a large element of Gallic or Welsh, but of an early type no longer identical with the Welsh of today.

Goidelic is said to be an older form than Brythonic, which may have developed from Goidelic at a later stage. Brythonic simplified itself in its case endings and in changes of gender. The major difference between the two dialects, is the substitution of P for Q in Brythonic, hence the terms P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. This is based on the Indo-European sound "qu(kw)". The sound in Goidelic later became represented by "c" (always hard), which in Bythonic it was replaced by "p". An example of this can be seen in the word for son. In Goidelic it is "mac", in Bythonic it is "map" or "mab".

The Celts did not use the art of writing to any great extent and then only near the end of their independence. A form of writing called Ogham may have been used by certain members of Celtic society, most likely the druids, to record important information. In general, however, they chose to record their past and traditions orally and communicated with other nations only by word-of-mouth. Like many communities all over the world, the Celts paid great attention to the development of an advanced oral technique as a vehicle for the transmission of their thoughts. Among illiterate peoples, the training of the memory is cultivated to a degree unheard of among readers of books, and the proficiency of the Gauls in this respect is commented on by Caesar:

It is said that [the Druids] have to memorize a great number of verse - so many, that some of them spend twenty years at their studies. The Druids believe that their religion forbids them to commit their teachings to writing, although for most other purposes, such as public and private accounts, the Gauls use the Greek alphabet. But I imagine that this rule was originally established for other reasons - because they did not ant their doctrine to become public property, and in order to prevent their pupils from relying on the written word and neglecting to train their memories; for it is usually found that when people have the help of texts, they are less diligent in learning by heart, and let their memories rust.'
To form an efficient means for the widespread transmission of thought, the subject matter must be clothed in an easy to remember form, such as poetry or song, otherwise it would quickly deteriorate and die out.

The whole intellectual life of the Gauls in pre-Roman times was carried on by means of oral teaching, and closely associated with their trained eloquence was their power of memorizing. The education of the young and the intellectual life of all classes was carried on by two classes of men known as druids and bards, who taught entirely by means of poetry orally transmitted. Despite the absence of books their teaching was a intensive and included such subjects as astronomy, nature, religion, and philosophy.

In trying to understand the motivations, attitudes, philosophies, and laws of the Celts, we are handicapped by the early prohibition of the Celts against committing their knowledge to written record. So it was not until the Greeks and Romans began to write their accounts of the Celts, sometimes culturally misconceived and invariably biased, that the Celts emerged into recorded history. So, we view the ancient Celts of continental Europe through Greek and Roman eyes, since they have left no written record of themselves. However, when the insular Celts of Britain and Ireland began to put their knowledge into written form in the Christian era it was not too late to form a perspective, bearing in mind the cultural changes from early times.

Copyright © 1996-1997 Michael Wangbickler. All rights reserved.

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