Celtic Europe

The Extent of Celtic Europe, from “Dictionary of Languages” by Andrew Dalby

Following on from Thursday’s post I thought I’d show the above map that shows the spread of Celtic languages in Europe. I’m sorry that the picture isn’t great but I scanned the map from a big hardback book and the map spreads across the fold as you can see.

The Celtic languages at the time depicted in the map (1st Century BC) were all oral languages, but when the Roman Empire spread across Europe about two thousand years ago it came into contact with the major dialects. Evidence for these can be found in place names, from Mediolanum (modern-day Milan, originally in cisalpine Gaul) to Singidunum (the Roman name for modern-day Belgrade) and Laccobriga (Lagos in Southern Portugal).
Belgium gets its name from the Belgae, regarded by Julius Caesar as the bravest and most fearsome of the tribes of Gaul. There are also words recorded in early inscriptions and in reconstructions based on later texts from which it is possible to glean clues about these languages. The picture that emerges is of a network of dialects spoken by Celtic peoples that inhabited a swathe of Continental Europe from the Iberian peninsula in the West to Galatia in the East, much of the Danube valley, and from Cisalpine Gaul (now part of Italy) in the South to modern-day Germany in the North.

Galatia (in classical Asia Minor) merits a special mention. St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians was addressed to the young Christian churches in this Celtic-speaking enclave which was then a distant province of the Roman Empire.

Linguists refer to the language that was spoken in Ireland at this time as Goidelic and it sits apart from the others because Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire. Brythonic is the name given to the dialects spoken in Britain. Continental Celtic is the name given to the dialects stretching all the way from Spain to Galatia of which the largest group was Gaulish. The language of the Scottish highlands Pictish may have been a separate subdivision but I don’t think anybody really knows because the language is extinct.

None of these groups was homogeneous. The Celts lived in relatively small communities and there were many regional variations even within each major group. Irish has four main dialects, roughly aligned with the four provinces. In Description of Ireland (1577), Richard Stanyhurst wrote:

As the whole realme of Ireland is sundred into foure principal parts so eche parcell differeth very much in the Irish tongue, euery country hauing his dialect or peculiar manner in speaking the language.


Our Irish teacher speaks the Irish of Connacht in which some pronunciations are very different from Leinster, which is the province I live in. As an absolute beginner this is the least of my worries at the moment.

The Goidelic group comprises Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic group that comprises Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These are sometimes referred to as q-Celtic and p-Celtic, respectively, although not everyone agrees that is a useful categorization. It stems from the fact that the “q” in Indo-European languages morphed into a “p” in the Brythonic languages. The number five in Irish is a cúig which has a q sound (though there is no letter q in the Irish alphabet); five in Welsh is pump. Contrast with the number two: a dó in Irish and dau in Welsh.

Incidentally, Scottish Gaelic is not the language spoken by the Celtic people who lived in Scotland at the time of the Romans, the Picts, which is lost. Scottish Gaelic is actually descended from Middle Irish due to migration and trading contacts. The Ulster dialect of Irish is in turn much influenced by reverse migration from Scotland. Languages do not evolve in isolation or in any simple linear trajectory.

Contrary to popular myth, Breton is not a Continental Celtic language but was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people, which peaked in the 6th Century AD, from South-West Britain, fleeing the Anglo-Saxons. The Saxons won a great victory in battle at Dyrham (near Bath) in 577 after which they advanced through Somerset and Devon, splitting the Celts of Cornwall and Wales and leading to the formation of two distinct Brythonic language groups, Welsh and Cornish. Breton is much closer to Cornish than Welsh.

The Continental Celtic languages are all extinct, except for fascinating remnants that linger here and there in local dialect words in French and Spanish.

12 Responses to “Celtic Europe”

  1. Dave Carter Says:

    Belgium is interesting because there is evidence from place names there that, in times long before the Roman invasions, they spoke an ancient Indo-European language which was not closely related to either Celtic or German. This is probably controversial, but a couple sources I have say this.

    • telescoper Says:

      This is entirely possible. The Celts did not migrate into a vacuum nor was their migration instantaneous. There were other groups, eg the Slavic languages and different Celtic groups arrived over an extended period of time. All we know from the Romans is the Belgae were different from the other Gallic groups. Even in Ireland, which was isolated and therefore presumed simple, is now thought to have had at least four different Celtic invasions.

    • telescoper Says:

      P.S. Not also that the Basque language is not even a member of the Indo-European group…

      • Presumably it was here before the Indo-Europeans came. Other non-Indo-European languages in Europe are Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian, which are related to Asian languages. Actually the first two are related to the last as well, but very distantly. Also, the Sami language and people are also obviously of Asian origin and also distantly related to the Finnish.

        Despite the new-age hype, Stonehenge (which is about the same age as the pyramids) was built long before the Celts.

      • telescoper Says:

        I think Basque it is the only pre-indo-European language that survives in Europe. There is also Maltese, the only semitic language recognised as an official language of the EU.

      • telescoper Says:

        I think Etruscan was also a pre-indo-European language. Quite a lot of text survives in that language, though it was replaced by Latin (an Indo-European).

      • Tartessian is another pre-Indo-European one which is well attested through inscriptions found in South Portugal and South-Western Spain. Makes me wonder how much these pre-Indo-European languages influenced the Celtic languages of those regions, and how much of these ancient languages still remain fossilized within the modern European languages through words or phonotactics.

      • If survive means that it is spoken today by native speakers, then only Basque, but if survives mean that something written has survived, then there are a few more.

      • Hard to say how much is left in modern languages. Both the Celts and the Romans were in England for a long time, but modern English contains very little contribution from either. English is basically Germanic with a heavy dose of Norman French, less but still tangible Viking influence, and perhaps a bit more foreign words from the Renaissance and later times than many other languages.

      • telescoper Says:

        Relics are more likely to be found in regional dialect words and phrases than in standard English. Same goes in France and Spain I think.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Mediolanum was also the name of the Roman fortress settlement of Whitchurch in North Shropshire, presumably because it is midway between Chester and Wroxeter (outside Shrewsbury), both large Roman towns.

  3. Today I learned that the Spanish word for beer “cerveza” comes from an old Celtic word “cerevisia”.

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