LINGUIST List 14.2457

Wed Sep 17 2003

Review: Language Description: Ball & Fife, eds. (2002)

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  1. Elizabeth J. Pyatt, The Celtic Languages

Message 1: The Celtic Languages

Date: Wed, 17 Sep 2003 00:19:33 +0000
From: Elizabeth J. Pyatt <>
Subject: The Celtic Languages

Ball, Martin J. and James Fife, eds. (2002) The Celtic Languages,
Routledge, Routledge Language Family Descriptions.

Announced at

Elizabeth J. Pyatt, Penn State University

''The Celtic Languages'' is one of the books in the Routledge Language
Family Series to be published in trade paperback form. The goal of
this volume, as with the others in the series, is to provide a
historical overview of the family, detailed linguistic sketches for
each key language and to include articles relevant to the linguistic
history of that family. This particular volume is divided into four
parts. Part 1 discusses historical aspects of Celtic including an
overview of the ''Continental Celtic'' languages including Gaulish,
Hispano-Celtic and Galatian. Parts 2 and 3 provide grammatical
sketches for the Goedelic languages (Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx)
and the Brythonic languages (Welsh, Breton and Cornish) respectively.
The last part of the volume, Part 4, has a number of articles which
chart the sociological history of the modern Celtic languages
including the current status of each language and attempts to
maintain, or in some cases, revive them. One of the key issues for the
modern Celtic languages is that numbers of speakers have been
dwindling over the centuries; although there have been active attempts
to revitalize each of the languages in the 20th-21st centuries, none
of these languages are what linguists would call ''secure''.

The first article in the ''Historical Aspects'' section of this volume
is an introduction to the study of the Celtic languages written by
co-editor James Fife. Part of this is a catalog of unusual typological
features of modern Celtic languages which have long interested
linguists. These include word-initial grammatical mutations,
verb-subject-object (VSO) word order, conjugated prepositions and
impersonal ''passive'' verb forms. Fife here notes that few of these
features are overtly attested in the earliest stages of Celtic, yet
are found in all the modern Celtic languages. Yet intriguingly, the
evidence from the chronology of phonological change and the oldest
inscriptions suggest that the Goedelic and Brythonic branch split
before these features are attested. Whether these changes were in
earlier forms of Celtic, but not written down at first, or due to
substrate effects in Britain or to typological/areal drift is still
debated by Celtic linguists.

The second article in this volume by Joseph Eska and D. Ellis Evans
discusses ''Continental Celtic'' or the ancient Celtic languages
attested on the European continent in the Roman era. These include
Gaulish, Hispano-Celtic (from Spain, also known as Celtiberian),
Lepontic (Northern Italy) and Galatian (Central Turkey). Unlike the
modern descendants, these are ''typical'' Indo-European languages in
that many of the case endings, which are later lost in the modern
Celtic languages, are still preserved in these inscriptions. This
section covers some issues of the Iberian syllabic script used for
Hispano-Celtic, and some examples from each language. One feature I
would have liked to have seen included are some of the key longer
passages such as the Bottorita inscriptions (Hispano-Celtic) or
Chamalieres and Larzac for Gaulish. Perhaps copyright or issues of
ambiguous translations prevented this, but having these key
inscriptions in one volume would have been very valuable.
Nevertheless, it is welcome to see these sometimes overlooked Celtic
languages covered here.

The last article of the Historical Aspects section by Karl Horst
Schmidt is on ''Insular Celtic'', a term commonly used to refer to the
group of Goedelic and Brythonic languages which represent the families
of the surviving Celtic languages. The term ''Insular Celtic'' refers
to the fact that both Proto-Goedelic and Proto-Brythonic originated in
the British Isles, versus the Continental Celtic languages which
originated in Europe. Part of this article discusses two theories of
how the Celtic family tree is internally organized. The ''Insular
Celtic'' theory places Goedelic (Ireland) together with Brythonic
(ancient Britain) in opposition to the Continental languages (which
are split into Gaulish branch and a Hispano-Celtic branch). A second
theory groups Brythonic with Gaulish in a Gallo-Brythonic branch in
opposition to Goedelic in one branch and Hispano-Celtic in another. As
Schmidt notes, both theories have interesting arguments, but he
ultimately proposes that the second theory better fits the attested
forms. The second part of the article covers the archaic inscriptions
of Britain and Ireland, including a section on the Ogam writing system
used on Primitive Irish gravestones.

Part two of this volume discusses the individual Goedelic languages of
Irish (as written by Gearoid Mac Eoin), Scottish Gaelic (William
Gillies) and Manx (George Broderick). Each chapter presents a brief
history of the attestation of each language followed by a linguistic
sketch covering the phonology, morphology and syntax of the language.
One of the more valuable chapters in this section is the sketch of
Manx because information on this language is particularly difficult to
find. It should also be noted that the Irish chapter discusses
phonological and morphological changes from the Old Irish period to
the Modern Irish period, and this is also a valuable resource. One
additional article that would have been a helpful addition in this
section is a detailed linguistic sketch of Old Irish. As Irish
linguists know, the structure of Old Irish is significantly distinct
from its daughter languages and includes unique morphosyntactic
features not found in the other Celtic languages. A grammatical sketch
of Old Irish in this context would have been very valuable.

Part three of this volume covers the Brythonic languages of Welsh (T.
Arwyn Watkins), Breton (Janig Stevens) and Cornish (Ken George). As
with the Goedelic section, each article discusses the earliest
attestations, phonology, morphology and syntax of each language.
Notably, the Cornish article also includes a sketch of the evolution
of Middle Cornish from Old Cornish. Cornish died in the 18th century,
but significant revival attempts have been underway since the early
20th century. However, the revived form is based on Middle Cornish,
not on Late Cornish, making Middle Cornish a crucial element for
Cornish studies.

The final part of this chapter discusses the sociolinguistic situation
of Modern Irish (Mairtin O Murchu), Scottish Gaelic (Kenneth
MacKinnon), Welsh (Robert Owen Jones), Breton (Humphrey Lloyd
Humphreys) and the revived languages of Cornish and Manx (Ken George
and George Broderick). As a generalization, the Celtic languages have
been victims of governmental policies of the United Kingdom and France
(Breton) which promoted the use of and education in one ''universal''
language. Beginning in the 20th century though, the speakers of the
various Celtic languages have been working for the right to establish
or maintain Celtic speaking institutions including education in Celtic
languages, Celtic language broadcasting and Celtic language
translation of government documents including street signs. Although
there has been some success in increasing outlets for the Celtic
languages, usage is still not up to ideal levels. Each of the chapters
provides a chronology of language decline, detailed maps showing
location of modern speakers, charts of census data, attitudes of
residents towards attempts to increase usage of Celtic languages and a
listing of situations in which a particular Celtic language may be
used. For instance, Breton speakers may use Breton only among friends
and family in the home while Welsh local communities have Welsh
language newspapers and signs.

The last chapter of this section deals with the movement to revive
Cornish and Manx as spoken languages. The last native speaker of
Cornish died in the 18th century, while the last Manx speaker died in
the 1970s (after the language had gone through a long period of
decline). In both cases, groups were faced with the challenge of
codifying a ''standard'' grammar, providing teaching materials and
encouraging people to learn and speak the revived language. Despite
these challenges though, there has been some success in reviving these
languages and gaining official minority language status for them. This
article gives an overview of these efforts, starting from as early as
1899 and leading up to the 1990s.

Overall, this volume is an excellent introduction to the linguistic
study of the Celtic languages. As with other volumes in this series,
the focus is more descriptive than theoretical, yet it provides a good
jumping-off point for further investigations. It is also an excellent
resource for anyone interested in comparing certain features between
Celtic languages. Now that this volume is in paperback, it is much
more affordable for the individual linguist than the hardback edition
had been. I can only hope Routledge continues to publish all their
Language Family Description volumes in trade paperback.


Elizabeth Pyatt earned a Ph.D. in linguistics, specializing in Celtic
phonology and syntax.
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