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Gaelic in modern Scotland
Gaelic in modern Scotland

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2.4 The insular Celts

In the early part of the first millennium AD, the continental Celtic languages came under pressure from other linguistic groups, most notably the Romans, and by AD 500 even the once-powerful Gaulish had been all but extinguished. In Britain and Ireland, however, Celtic languages and cultures were still vibrant. This group, from which all of today’s Celtic languages (including Breton) have evolved, is called Insular Celtic.

Figure 14 A map showing the ‘Celtic countries’ of today – Scotland, Ireland, Man, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany – each of which boasts its own Celtic language. All of them, including Breton (which was taken to Armorica by British settlers), are classified as Insular Celtic languages

Even by this stage, Insular Celtic was far from uniform. From a theoretical Proto-Celtic common ancestor, two groups had evolved – P-Celtic (also known as Brythonic) and Q-Celtic (or Goidelic) 14. The P- and Q- names are based on how each group treated the ancient ‘Q’ sound in Proto-Celtic. The Goidelic speakers simplified this to a ‘c’ sound, while the Brythonic Celts converted it to a ‘p’ sound. Each branch of Insular Celtic was represented in both Ireland and Britain, but Ireland was dominated by Goidelic speakers, while most of Britain was Brythonic.

The major division within Insular Celtic is still in evidence today. The surviving Brythonic languages – Welsh, Cornish and Breton – bear similarities to each other and permit some degree of mutual comprehension. The Goidelic languages – Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic – also have close relationships to each other; a fluent speaker of Scottish Gaelic, for example, can understand the basics of a simple conversation in Irish Gaelic. Even in Columba’s day (6th century AD), however, a translator was required for the Irish-born saint to converse with a Pictish king: the churchman’s language was Q-Celtic, whereas the Picts spoke a P-Celtic language.

The difference between the two groups can be seen in words still in currency in modern Celtic languages. For example the Goidelic mac (‘son’) has its equivalent in the Brythonic map and the Goidelic ceann (‘head’) is analogous to the Brythonic pen. Here are some other comparisons, using Welsh and Scottish Gaelic as examples:

Table 2 Comparisons between Goidelic and Brythonic words still used in modern Celtic languages
Welsh (Brythonic/P-Celtic)Gaelic (Goidelic/Q-Celtic)English