LINGUIST List 14.2457

Wed Sep 17 2003

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

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  • 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.