In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Celtic Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections and Conference Proceedings
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Orthography
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Phonology
  • Morphology
  • Syntax

Linguistics Celtic Languages
Sìm Innes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 May 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0115


Celtic languages constitute one distinct branch of the Indo-European languages. The modern Celtic languages are divided into two subfamilies: the Goidelic (or Gaelic) languages and the Brythonic (or Brittonic) languages. The two subfamilies can also be referred to as P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. P-Celtic refers to the Brythonic/Brittonic languages, and Q-Celtic refers to the Goidelic/Gaelic languages. The modern Goidelic languages include Irish (Gaeilge) and Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig), the former spoken in Ireland and the latter in Scotland. Manx (Gaelg), from the Isle of Man, also belongs to this group. However, Manx is a language revived by second-language learners, because the last native speakers died in the 1970s. Manx-language immersion school education is now available, however. While closely related, the modern Goidelic languages are separate languages and are only superficially mutually intelligible. The Brythonic languages include Welsh (Cymraeg) and Breton (Brezhoneg), spoken in Wales and Brittany, respectively. The Brythonic subgroup also includes Cornish (Kernewek/Kernowek), from Cornwall, although it is also a language revived by second-language learners, because the last native speakers died c. 1800. All of the modern Celtic languages are termed Insular Celtic languages. “Insular” refers to the modern and historic Celtic languages of the British Isles (Great Britain and Ireland), and the term distinguishes them from Continental Celtic languages, or the Celtic languages of mainland Europe. Breton is an Insular Celtic language, brought to mainland Europe by immigrants from Britain. Celtic languages are traditionally thought to have originated in central Europe and spread across vast areas of Europe, being gradually replaced by Germanic, Romance, or Slavic languages in most areas. The Continental Celtic languages, such as Gaulish, Hispano-Celtic, and Lepontic, are all now long extinct. Modern Celtic languages are of interest to linguists due to various features, such as their verb-initial status. Also, the Celtic languages all evidence systems of grammaticalized initial consonant mutations. The languages are of interest from a phonological perspective also, as a result of palatal/nonpalatal contrasts and high numbers of phonemes, particularly in Scottish Gaelic. All of the modern Celtic languages are under pressure from the dominant languages of their nations, either English or French (or Spanish in Patagonia), resulting in endangered, lesser-used, or minority status. Therefore, the languages are often the subject of sociolinguistic study due to the impact of ongoing language shift, obsolescence, and revival. Emigrants created communities outside of Europe where their Celtic languages have survived for further generations, particularly Welsh in Patagonia and Scottish Gaelic in Nova Scotia.

General Overviews

For detailed comparative introductions to the early Celtic languages and their place within the Indo-European family, see Sims-Williams 1998, Russell 1995, and the introduction to Ball and Müller 2010. The individual chapters of Ball and Müller 2010 (and the earlier 1993 edition) provide descriptions of each of the four continuously used living Celtic languages: Welsh, Breton, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic, and of the two resurrected languages, Cornish and Manx. The various entries in Koch 2006 provide useful and accessible overviews. See also Haywood 2001, MacAulay 1992, Price 2000, and Brown 2006.

  • Ball, Martin J., and Nicole Müller, eds. 2010. The Celtic languages. London: Routledge.

    The first edition, published in 1993, contains accounts of the modern Celtic languages, covering phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexis. It includes chapters on Continental and Insular Celtic and sociolinguistics. The second edition (2010) contains additional chapters on historical periods of the languages. Some chapters in the second edition are by new authors, while others have been updated by the original authors. The second edition can be used alongside the first, rather than replacing it.

  • Brown, Keith, et al., eds. 2006. Encyclopedia of language and linguistics. 14 vols. Boston: Elsevier.

    Contains short scholarly entries on the following topics: Breton; Celtic; Cornish; France: Language Situation; Ireland, Republic of: Language Situation; Irish Lexicography; Isle of Man: Language Situation; Scots Gaelic; United Kingdom: Language Situation; Wales: Language Situation; Welsh; and Welsh Lexicography. The amount of descriptive linguistic content in the articles varies.

  • Haywood, John. 2001. The historical atlas of the Celtic world. London: Thames & Hudson.

    Much useful introductory and visual information on the history of the Celtic languages, including maps and entries on subjects such as “Origins of the Celtic Languages” and “The Celtic Languages Today.”

  • Koch, John T., ed. 2006. Celtic culture: A historical encyclopedia. 5 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

    Short accessible entries and suggested further readings on each of the modern Celtic languages. Entries also on historic languages such as Lepontic, Galatian, and Celtiberian. Introductions to Celtic linguistic concepts and terminology such as “Insular Celtic” and “P-Celtic.”

  • MacAulay, Donald, ed. 1992. The Celtic languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Synchronic descriptions of the three modern Gaelic languages and the three modern Brittonic languages. Each chapter adheres to the same format, beginning with a short historical and social perspective followed by detailed descriptions of linguistic variation, syntax, morphology, phonology, and morphophonology of each language, allowing readers to easily make their own comparisons. The chapters on Cornish and Manx are somewhat reduced given their status as revived languages.

  • Price, Glanville, ed. 2000. Languages in Britain and Ireland. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This is an updated edition of The Languages of Britain (1984). It includes social histories and introductions to the literatures of the Celtic languages.

  • Russell, Paul. 1995. An introduction to the Celtic languages. London and New York: Longman.

    An important survey of linguistic scholarship on the historic and modern Celtic languages at the time of writing, with a heavy focus on Irish and Welsh. The chapters are divided into “The Historical Background to the Celtic Languages”; “The Goidelic Languages”; “Irish”; “The Brittonic Languages”; “Welsh”; “The Orthographies of the Celtic Languages”; “Lenition and Mutations: Phonetics, Phonology and Morphology”; and “Word Order in the Celtic Languages.”

  • Sims-Williams, Patrick. 1998. The Celtic languages. In The Indo-European languages. Edited by Anna Giacalone Ramat and Paolo Ramat, 345–379. London: Routledge.

    English translation of the Italian Le Lingue Indoeuropee, first published in 1993. This is a scholarly introduction to the early Celtic languages and their relationships to each other and to the Indo-European family.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.