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Review of  The Celtic Languages, Second Edition

Reviewer: Andrew Carnie
Book Title: The Celtic Languages, Second Edition
Book Author: Martin J. Ball Nicole Müller
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Breton
Gaelic, Scottish
Welsh, Middle
Irish, Middle
Irish, Old
Welsh, Old
Language Family(ies): Continental Celtic
Issue Number: 22.1915

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EDITORS: Martin J. Ball and Nicole Müller
TITLE: The Celtic Languages, Second Edition
SERIES TITLE: Routledge Language Family Series
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
YEAR: 2009

Andrew Carnie, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona


The years 1992-1993 provided Celtic linguists with a plethora of descriptive and
theoretical material. In that two-year span, two major collections of articles
on the language family were produced. One edited by Donald MacAulay (1992) was
published by Cambridge University Press. The other, edited by Martin Ball and
James Fife (1993), came out in the Routledge Language Family Series. (A review
of the trade paperback version of the latter book (2002), written by Elizabeth
Pyatt can be found at: A
significant new edition of the Ball and Fife book has been released with the new
editorial team of Ball and Müller.

Not your typical reissue, this book contains a vast array of new articles on the
topic. Half of the articles are entirely new, written by new authors; and the
other half have been thoroughly revised and updated. The new edition stands
alongside the first as an important contribution to the description and analysis
of the Celtic languages.


The book, at a hefty 785 pages, is divided into four major parts: (I) Historical
Aspects, (II) The Goidelic Languages, (III) The Brythonic Languages, and (IV)
The Sociolinguistics of the Celtic Languages. Each part consists of three to
five chapters written by areal experts.

Part 1 opens with what was the introduction to the first edition, but which has
now been restructured as a standard chapter: James Fife's ''Typological Aspects
of the Celtic Languages''. Fife observes that definitions of what it means to be
a Celtic language have been variously based in ethnicity, history, archaeology,
and comparative reconstruction. Each of these give different results for the
internal structure of the language group. He suggests instead that we can use
typological characteristics of various strengths as diagnostics for Celticity.
These criteria range from initial consonant mutations and VSO order to
specialized impersonal verb morphology. Although he doesn't take the strong
position in favor of the idea that Celtic is best divided into Continental vs.
Insular groups -- as opposed to the classic P/Q split -- it is clear that the
evidence he presents points us in such a direction.

In the next short chapter (''The Emergence of the Celtic Languages''), however,
Joseph Eska explicitly argues for an Insular Celtic model. He also revisits the
controversial status of the Italo-Celtic group.

In the third chapter (''Continental Celtic''), Eska and D. Ellis Evans consider
the major properties of the extinct Continental Celtic languages. Identifying
the languages of this group is notoriously complex, so one important
contribution of this chapter is the significant delineation of the murky
substructure of the group. This chapter is accompanied by some important
description of new sources about these languages.

David Stifter addresses the grammatical structure of the early varieties of the
Goidelic Languages in the chapter entitled ''Early Irish''. This chapter takes us
from the reconstructed early Goidelic (pre 4th century) right up to the textual
sources of the Middle Irish Period (10th to 12th centuries). This chapter is
different from the previous three in that it is really best viewed as providing
synchronic descriptions of each of the major periods rather than a diachronic
analysis. Stifter provides a concise description of the major properties of Old
Irish phonology, orthography, morphology (particularly the famously complex
verbal morphology) and syntax. Shorter descriptions of Primitive Irish and
Middle Irish are given. While a short description of Primitive Irish is to be
expected given the lack of sources, I really wish there had been more discussion
of the major differences between Old Irish and Middle Irish, since the only real
description of this distinction is available in Modern Irish (Breatnach 1994)
and thus inaccessible to most linguists. Nevertheless this chapter is an
attractive short alternative to the much more formidable and comprehensive
grammars of Old Irish that are out there (including Thurneysen's epic work and
Stifter's own excellent textbook of the language.)

A similar chapter about the historic Brythonic languages (Late Brythonic, Old
Welsh and Middle Welsh) is given by David Willis in ''Old and Middle Welsh''. Here
again we have synchronic description of each of these languages. Sifter's and
Willis's articles are organized quite differently; where Stifter gives sections
organized by the language variety, Willis provides descriptions of each stage in
the language grouped by linguistic subarea (i.e., one finds the phonology of all
stages of Welsh discussed together as a group). This is only a matter of taste
-- since both are excellent examples of description -- but I found it harder to
follow when all the languages were mixed and matched within the linguistic
subfield. One very important and novel contribution of this article is a
critical evaluation and discussion of the surprising V2 order found in Middle
Welsh: Willis claims that V2 order is actually found as part of a mixed system
in older varieties as well as Middle Welsh.

Parts 2 and 3 provide summaries of the major linguistic properties of the modern
Celtic languages (including the two revived languages) of Irish (by Dónall Ó
Baoill), Scottish Gaelic (William Gillies), Manx (George Broderick), Welsh (Gwen
Awbery), Breton (Ian Press) and Cornish (Ken George). These chapters all contain
fairly detailed descriptions of the phonology, morphology, syntax and lexical
structure of each of these languages. As a collection, this is a fabulous
resource of description and comparison. Although I've been working on Irish and
Scottish Gaelic for years, I learned new things in these chapters that have
stimulated my interest in revisiting some old questions. Gillies' description of
the nominal inflectional system of Scottish Gaelic is particularly important.

I do have a couple of critiques of these chapters, but I'll save those for the
evaluation section below. But before I do, I would like to note the importance
one of these articles. Broderick's chapter on Manx, although largely the same as
the one that appeared in the first edition, is a critical work on the language.
No serious in-depth descriptions of Manx are easily available and this chapter
goes a long way to providing it. The new chapters on Irish, Welsh and Breton
also provide new and up-to-date information on the languages not found in the
related articles in the first edition.

The odd man out in the descriptive section is the chapter on Cornish. This
article describes Traditional Cornish, which died out in the late 1700s, rather
than any of the varieties of revived Cornish. The chapter has a lot of
diachronic analysis and almost no synchronic description (for example the
section on Cornish syntax is very thin). As such, this chapter looks a lot more
like those that appear in the first part of the book and might have more
properly been placed there -- perhaps with a companion chapter on Old Cornish
and Middle Breton, descriptions of which are entirely missing from the volume.
There is some description of the varieties of revived Cornish in the chapter
George co-authored with Broderick. I can't help but feel that that discussion in
that other chapter, greatly expanded upon and fleshed out, would be better
placed in part 2 with the other synchronic descriptions of the Modern Languages.

The last part of the book centers on the sociolinguistics of the Celtic
languages. All of the Celtic languages are minority languages. Some are more
stable than others, but all are at risk. All also have significant on-going
revitalization and maintenance. Looking at the successes and the failures of
these movements across the languages is an interesting lesson in endangered
language health, policy and preservation. Things change fast in the world of
endangered languages, so I was particularly pleased to see that with the
exception of the George and Broderick article, this part of the book was almost
entirely new.

Ó hIfearnáin's contribution (''Irish speaking Society and the State'') provides a
history of Irish language policy, including some fascinating details of language
planning and policy decisions in the early period of the Irish Republic. He
examines in detail the effects of policy about the civil service, education,
Gaeltacht (Irish speaking regions) borders, media, language standardization and
dialect variation. One thing I found very valuable about this chapter was its
evaluation of recent changes -- both in terms of language policy and in language
usage -- such as retreats in unpopular policies about language competency in the
civil service, foundation of an education board, the establishment of Irish
language television (TG4), the 2003 Official Languages Act, and perhaps most
importantly the change in policy where local officials are encouraged to ''become
the primary agents of their linguistic future'' (pg 583).

Kenneth MacKinnon's ''Scottish Gaelic Today'' takes a totally different approach
than Ó hIfearnáin. MacKinnon addresses the question of Gaelic language usage
from a sociological perspective, focusing on statistical studies of attitudinal
perspectives rather than being focused on historical or policy issues (although
these are also addressed). Of particular interest are the detailed charts on
domains of language usage (i.e., the contexts in which Gaelic language use is
the most likely across gender and age factors).

Welsh is often held up as a poster child for language revitalization success,
because of the extensive and impressive returns from systematic investments in
language teaching at all levels and in the use of Welsh as a medium for
education. But the chapter by Robert Owen Jones and Colin H. Williams (''The
Sociolinguistic Context of Welsh'') demonstrates that a more nuanced view of the
revival movement is required and that perhaps a less enthusiastic view of Welsh
revival is in order.

Lenora Timm's contribution (''Language Culture and Identity in Brittany'') reveals
a depressing reality about the status of Breton -- the only Celtic language of
the European continent. Different from language revitalization movements
elsewhere in the world, Breton language proponents face the daunting task that
the language has strong connotations of being reactionary, non-progressive and
anti-French, even among the people of Brittany itself. These feelings date from
the World War II period when the Breton language revival movement affiliated
itself with certain fascist and collaborationist groups. Although 65 years have
passed since the end of the war, these associations are still strong. As a
consequence, there is strong resistance to institutional support for language
revitalization in Brittany. This is compounded by challenges brought on by
significant dialect variation and the effects of a written standard on language
attitudes. While I was saddened by the content of this chapter, one thing that I
thought was particularly important: a discussion of the impact of the web and
social media on the language, and a thorough discussion of job prospects for
Breton speakers. These topics were not really discussed in the other chapters in
this section and it seems to me that they would have done well to do so.

The concluding chapter of the book ''The Revived Language: Cornish and Manx'' by
Ken George and George Broderick briefly looks at the significant challenges of
revitalizing a moribund or dead language ranging from agreeing on what spelling
system to use to finding the right way to offer classes in the languages.


This collection is extremely valuable. I suspect that people who already own the
first edition will want to own both. Because of the large number of new chapters
contained in this second edition, this is essentially an entirely new
contribution to the description of the language family.

About half the articles in this edition are written by the original authors in
the first edition. All these articles have been thoroughly revised and updated,
but in a couple of cases their age is apparent. For example, Fife's article on
typology has no references after 1992. It makes the startling assertion that no
theoretical work has been done on Initial Consonant Mutations. One can, in fact,
easily find important works on that topic since 1992, such as Greene 2006, 2007,
Grijzenhout 1995, Tallerman 2006, Stewart 2004, Pyatt 1997 and Ní Chiosáin 1991
(among many others).

My greatest critique of this book lies with the descriptions in parts 2 and 3 of
the volume. When a linguist decides to write a short description of a language,
he or she has some very difficult choices to make. For example, to what degree
should dialect variation be described? Should one describe an abstract standard
form? What level of abstraction is appropriate for capturing the patterns of the
language? The authors of the descriptive chapters, unsurprisingly, have
different takes on these questions, but the choices they make have a profound
effect on the chapters as descriptive entities, where the level of abstraction
reveals as much about the theoretical and analytical biases of the authors as it
does about the languages themselves. Take for example, the description of
voicing contrasts in Gillies' article on Scottish Gaelic. Gaelic has no phonetic
voiced plosives (except perhaps after homorganic sonorants); the classic
Indo-European voice/voiceless contrast is realized in the language by a contrast
in aspirated vs. unaspirated forms. In the article on Gaelic, however, Gillies
largely represents the contrast using /b, d, g/ vs. /p, t, k/ symbology, with
certain ''voiced'' consonants being marked with an undercircle as devoiced. This
analysis, which is not without theoretical merit, reveals however, a set of
assumptions and analytic choices about the phonological system that are not
overtly acknowledged and will be surprising to many linguists who work on the
language. When it comes to matters of dialect variation, one could not find a
clearer contrast than that of Ó Baoill's article on Irish and Awbery's article
on Welsh. Awbery presents a rich description of variation to center the reader
in on the patterns that hold of the language as a whole. Ó Baoill's description
by contrast largely abstracts away from dialect variation, leaving the reader
uncertain about whether the particulars of the description were of a particular
dialect, of the constructed standard dialect (An Caighdeán) or of some
linguistic abstraction of underlying forms.

I would like to make it clear that I do not know if I would have done anything
differently than the authors I have just critiqued. These are decisions we all
have to make as field workers and linguistic analysts. They are indeed hard
decisions to make. One has to make choices especially when one only has a small
number of pages to describe the major properties of an entire language. I do not
think any one approach is necessarily better than the other. One suggestion I
have about this issue, however, is that when constructing linguistic
descriptions for any audience, linguists need to lay their analytic and
theoretical biases out on the table so that the consumer of the description can
understand the quantity and nature of any abstractions the field worker has
imposed on the system. These imposed abstractions are a necessary part of our
jobs, but it is incumbent upon us to be explicit about what we are doing.

The other concern I have is that all of these chapters, except notably Awbery,
fell into the conceit found in many traditional works on Celtic linguistics:
they do not provide interlinear glosses for the sentences and complex
morphological forms in the languages. A translation is not enough, and the core
consumers of these descriptions are unlikely to know enough about each of the
languages to develop their own word-by-word or morpheme-by-morpheme glosses.
This practice has plagued Celtic linguistics for years, and makes the languages
and their analyses completely inaccessible for non-specialists. If there is a
future edition, the editors should take great care to make sure that three line
interlinear glosses are added for all the complex syntactic and morphological
forms in this book.

This is a big book, and it comes with a big price. At the time of writing this
review the hardcover costs $315 on Amazon (£185 on, €263 on, and the Kindle price is a ridiculous $252. The Nook version costs
the same as the hardcover. I, of course, understand that the market for books
like this is small, but I get the impression that linguistics publishers have
the mistaken impression that only institutions buy their books. By pricing books
in this way they create a self-fulfilling prophecy: ordinary linguists cannot
afford such costs, thus reinforcing the narrow view that institutional pricing
is appropriate. This is utterly foolish and economically unsound. Academic
libraries around North America and the world have cut back on their book buying
budgets significantly, and that means that books like this -- with a small
readership and big price tag -- are unlikely to be bought any more. The
consequences of this are dire. It means that it will be harder and harder for
authors to find publishers willing to distribute high quality scholarship like
this book. It would make far more sense to price these books in such a way that
both cash-starved state institutions and your everyday linguist could afford the
book. The publishers are more likely to sell more copies and the work will have
much greater impact and distribution (and consequently generate more sales).
While the editors and authors of this volume have much to be proud of, I hope
its publishers regret their decision on price.

This is an impressive and important collection of work about the Celtic language
family. It has something for everyone, from historical linguistics to phonology
to language policy. Any serious Celticist needs to have this close to hand,
despite its hefty price tag, even if they own the first edition. It contains a
wealth of new insight, and makes important results newly available for us.


Ball, Martin (with James Fife). 1993. The Celtic Languages. Routledge

Ball, Martin and James Fife. 2002. The Celtic Languages, Trade Paper Back
Edition. Routledge.

Breatnach, Liam. 1994. An Mheán-Ghaeilge. i K. McCone. D. McManus, C Ó Háinle,
N. Williams agus L. Breatnach (eag.). Stair na Gaeilge in ómós do Pádraig Ó
Fiannachta. Má Nuad (Maynooth): St. Patrick's College. pp 221.333.

Greene, Anthony D. 2006. The independency of phonology and morphology: the
Celtic Mutations. Lingua 116: 1946-85

Greene, Anthony D. 2007. Phonology Limited. Universtitätsverlag Potsdam.

Grijzenhout, Janet. 1995. Irish Consonant Mutation and phonological theory.
Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Utrecht

MacAulay, Donald. 1992. The Celtic Languages. Cambridge University Press

Ní Chiosáin, Máire. 1991. Topics in the Phonology of Irish. Ph.D. dissertation.
University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Ó Siadhail, Míchael. 1992. Modern Irish: Grammatical Description and Dialectal
Variation. Cambridge University Press.

Pyatt Elizabeth J. 1997. An integrated model of the syntax and phonology of
Celtic mutation. Ph.D. Dissertation. Harvard University.

Stewart, Thomas W 2004. Mutation as morphology: Bases stems and shapes in
Scottish Gaelic. Ph.D. Dissertation. The Ohio State University

Stifter, David. 2006. Sengoídelc: Old Irish for Beginners. Syracuse University

Tallerman, Maggie. 2006. The syntax of Welsh ''Direct Object Mutation'' revisited.
Lingua 116:1750-76

Thurneysen, Rudolf. 1946. A Grammar of Old Irish. Translated by D.A. Binchy and
Osborn Bergin. Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.

Andrew Carnie is a Professor in the Linguistics Department at the University of Arizona. He is also the Faculty Director of Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs in the UA Graduate College. His expertise lies in both in syntactic theory, with specializations in phrase structure, case and verb initial word order and in the structure of the Celtic languages, with a particular emphasis on Irish and Scottish Gaelic. He has written numerous articles and authored and edited several books including The Syntax of Verb Initial Languages (2000, OUP), Syntax: A Generative Introduction (2002, 2nd edition 2007, 3rd edition coming soon, Wiley-Blackwell), Formal Approaches to Function in Grammar (2003, John Benjamins), Verb First (2005, John Benjamins), Irish Nouns (2008 OUP), Constituent Structure (2008, 2nd edition 2010, OUP), and Modern Syntax: A coursebook (2011, CUP).

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