Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Celtic Languages: From Breton to Welsh

Here at The Lingua File we're fascinated by the interconnected nature of languages, so we've dedicated a handful of posts to the Romance, Germanic, Slavic, and Uralic language families over the past several months. Today we'll be focusing on a much smaller, yet equally fascinating language family: the Celtic languages!

Unlike the much larger language families we've looked at in the past, the Celtic language family only contains six living languages. These six languages are further divided into two branches: the Brythonic languages and the Goidelic languages.

The Brythonic Languages

The three Brythonic languages (also known as the Brittonic languages) all evolved from Common Brittonic, a language spoken throughout Great Britain until the Anglo-Saxon invasion, which eventually led to the widespread use of Old English. Around the 6th century, Common Brittonic split into the dialects that would become the Welsh, Cornish, Breton, and Cumbric languages. However, Cumbric, which was spoken in what is now northern England and southern Scotland, became extinct around the 12th century.

Pointe du Raz in western Brittany, France.
Welsh is the most spoken Celtic language, with over 500,000 native speakers. While the vast majority of Welsh speakers live in Wales, there are also small populations that live in neighboring England as well as the Chubut province of Argentina. Back in 2014, we featured a guest post for St. David's Day that took an in-depth look at the Welsh language, including its fascinating history.

The second most spoken Celtic language is Breton, with just over 200,000 native speakers. Breton is primarily spoken in Brittany, a historical province in northwestern France. While the number of speakers of Breton has declined significantly in recent decades, there have been efforts to save the language from extinction, especially by focusing on teaching it in schools and encouraging people to use it in everyday life. These efforts even led to it being added as a language option on Facebook in 2014.

Cornish, the third Brythonic language, has few, if any, native speakers. After being used for centuries in Cornwall, the southwestern peninsula of Great Britain, it is thought to have become extinct sometime in the late 1800s. Around this time, some linguists became particularly interested finding the last native speaker of Cornish, while others focused on reviving the language. Since the early 1900s, revival efforts have led to the creation of Cornish textbooks, Cornish music, and Cornish films. The language has also been taught in local schools, which is why there are now several hundred people who speak Cornish as a second language.

The Goidelic Languages

Throughout history, the Goidelic languages (also known as the Gaelic languages) have been used in Ireland, western Scotland, and the Isle of Man. The three living members of this branch of the Celtic language family are Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx.

The Calf of Man, a small island off the coast of the Isle of Man.
Irish is the third most spoken Celtic language, with over 250,000 native speakers living in Ireland and Northern Ireland. While Irish was the primary language used throughout the island of Ireland for most of its modern history, its use has steadily declined since the 17th century, when English was introduced. Today it is relatively uncommon as a native language, but has seen increased popularity in recent decades due to revival efforts and increasing public interest.

The second most popular Goidelic language is Scottish Gaelic, which is the native language of over 50,000 people in Scotland. As with Irish, it is relatively uncommon as a native language, but it is occasionally taught in schools. There are also Scottish Gaelic programs on radio and television stations.

Finally, there's Manx, a language spoken on the Isle of Man, which is located between Ireland and Great Britain. Manx was considered extinct with the death of its last native speaker in the 1970s, but there has been a recent revival movement that has led to the existence of a few hundred non-native speakers. It is taught at all of the schools on the island due to its cultural importance.