Gaelic in modern Scotland
Gaelic in modern Scotland

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Gaelic in modern Scotland

2.2 The rise of the Celts

The majority of Europe’s languages, including Gaelic, belong to a family known as Indo-European, so labelled because it includes most of the tongues of South Asia (with the exception of southern India), as well as Europe. Until a major expansion from the 15th century onwards, including the creation of overseas empires, these languages were largely restricted to Europe and southern and western Asia. Now they have a global distribution, with almost 3 billion native speakers and include some of the world’s most populous languages, such as Spanish, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, German and French.

Within the Indo-European family, there are several subgroupings identified by linguists. For example, English, Dutch and Norwegian belong to the Germanic subgroup, French, Italian and Spanish to the Italic subgroup, with Russian, Slovak and Polish being classified as Slavic tongues. One of the subgroups is Celtic, which contains the six living Celtic languages – Gaelic, Irish, Manx, Welsh, Breton and Cornish – and some that are now extinct eg Gaulish, Galatian, Celtiberian, Pictish and Cumbric.

Figure 7 One model of a language tree showing the relationships between (major) languages of the Indo-European family

The earliest records of the Celts date from around 500 BC, when Greek texts referred to peoples to their north as Keltoi. The Latin term was Celtae, used of tribes and nations now understood to have been Celtic-speaking. The term was at this stage restricted to continental peoples.

The use of Celtic in relation to peoples of the British Isles dates from the 17th century when the linguist Edward Lhuyd made a comparative study of Welsh, Gaelic, Irish, Cornish and Breton, and established that these were related to each other and also to the extinct language of Gaul, which was indisputably Celtic.

For example the Gaulish mapos (‘son’) has its equivalent in modern Welsh mab and the Gaelic mac; the Gaulish tarvos (‘bull’) is closely related to the Welsh tarw and the Gaelic tarbh.

The following table shows some words in Gaelic, Irish, Welsh and Cornish which would appear to share a common origin (in a common Celtic ancestral language):

Table 1 Words in Gaelic, Irish, Welsh and Cornish which share a common origin

Scottish Gaelic Irish Gaelic Welsh Cornish English
aimsir aimsir amser time, weather
anail anáil anadl anall breath
cath cath cad kas battle
caol caol cul cul slender
cnò cnó cneuen know nut
creamh creamh craf wild garlic
ci ki dog, hound
làn lán llawn leun full
roth roth rhod ros wheel
taigh teach ty ti house
troigh troigh troed troes foot

The continental Celts were not a politically unified people – there was no such thing as a Celtic empire – but Celtic-speaking peoples, sharing some degree of common culture, lived across a wide swathe of Europe. They left virtually no written records so our knowledge of them comes largely from the Greeks and Romans, from the archaeological record, and from the place names they left behind.

The first Celtic culture to emerge, around the 8th century BC, is associated with finds made near the Austrian village of Hallstatt and is known as the Hallstatt Culture.

Rosemania/Flickr
Figure 8 A golden torque, an example of Hallstatt culture

Excavations provided evidence of a rich material culture and trading links to the Mediterranean world. Around the 5th century BC, we see the emergence of the La Tène Culture, named for excavations made at La Tène in Switzerland.

Figure 9 An example of La Tène art

This was also Celtic and appears to have been more expansive in nature; decorated metalwork of La Tène style have been found in Britain and Ireland, for example.

Figure 10 A Romano-Celtic mirror

It is uncertain what languages were being spoken in the British Isles at the time, but it is likely that Celtic was already among them. By the 3rd century BC, the Celts had spread across a large part of continental Europe, from modern Portugal to Belgium and Germany, into northern Italy, through the Danube basin and even down into Turkey.

Figure 11 The spread of Celtic languages through continental Europe (Above and below)
Gaelic_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has over 40 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus