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Review of  The Celtic Languages

Reviewer: Elizabeth J. Pyatt
Book Title: The Celtic Languages
Book Author: Martin J. Ball James Fife
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Issue Number: 14.2457

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Date: Tue, 16 Sep 2003 12:45:00 -0400
From: Elizabeth J. Pyatt
Subject: The Celtic Languages

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

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

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

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.

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