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The Interesting History of the Celtic Languages

January 13, 2017

The popularity of several historical fiction television shows, such as Outlander (STARZ), has revived a fascination with the Celtic languages. When hearing about Celtic, most people instantly think of Scottish Gaelic, the Celtic language spoken in Scotland. What many don’t realize is that the Celtic languages actually originated on the mainland in what is central and southern Europe today.

During the first millennium BCE, Celtic languages were spoken across much of Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula to the Black Sea and even in part of Asia Minor. Most of these native speakers were either assimilated into the Roman Empire or naturally died off. These versions of the Celtic languages are known as the Continental Celtic languages, a geographic distinction before a migration to the British Isles. Today, all the Continental Celtic languages are extinct.

The Celtic languages that developed in the British Isles are known as the Insular Celtic Languages. Since these Celtic languages have gone through declines and revivals, the exact numbers of native speakers aren't exact. However, by most estimations, we can confidently say there are nearly 1 million speakers of Celtic languages in total. Welsh, spoken mainly in and around Wales, has roughly 508,000 speakers, 310,000 of which are fluent. Irish Gaelic has 80,000 proficient speakers and about 2 million people who know some of the language. Scottish Gaelic has a better ratio with 57,000 people being native speakers and 87,000 speaking some. There is also a small Scottish Gaelic community of roughly 2,300 people in Cape Brenton, Nova Scotia, Canada. In the Brittany region of France there are 226,000 speakers of Breton, another Insular Celtic language. The last two groups, Cornish and Manx, have very few speakers with Cornish coming close to extinction recently and today has only a few hundred speakers. Manx, spoken on the Isle of Mann has about 100 proficient speakers and a few thousand who understand the language.

In an effort to preserve this historic and cultural languages, many schools in the United Kingdom are offering classes in the Celtic languages. In some areas children can experience their entire education in their local and native Celtic language.

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