6 Oldest Living Celtic Languages

The Celtic languages are known for their rich cultural heritage and historical significance. Despite centuries of political and social upheaval, these ancient languages have survived the test of time and continue to be spoken by millions of people around the world. With a history that dates back to the Iron Age, the Celtic languages are some of the oldest living languages in the world.

In this article, we’ll explore the six oldest living Celtic languages that have managed to thrive despite the challenges of modernization and globalization. From Breton to Irish, these languages have deep roots and fascinating histories that are worth exploring. So, let’s dive in and discover the beauty and complexity of the Celtic languages.

6. Breton

Year Started: c. 1100 to 1650
No. of Speakers: 210,000
Language Family: Indo-European
Country: Lietuviškai, Lietuvių kalba

Bretonphoto source: Omniglot

Breton is a Celtic language spoken in Brittany, a region located in the northwest of France. Its origins can be traced back to the migration of Celtic peoples into the region around 1100 to 1650. Breton belongs to the Indo-European language family and is closely related to Cornish and Welsh.

The language flourished during the Middle Ages, particularly from the 12th to the 15th century, when it was used in literature and religious texts. However, in the 16th century, the use of Breton declined due to political and social changes in Brittany, and French became the dominant language.

Today, Breton is spoken by around 210,000 people, mostly in Brittany. It is recognized as a regional language in France and has some official status in the region.

Did You Know?

Breton is considered to be endangered, as its use is declining among younger generations. Efforts are being made to preserve and promote the language, such as through the establishment of Breton-language schools and cultural organizations.

5. Cornish

Year Started: c. 600 CE
No. of Speakers: 300
Language Family: Indo-European
Country: Cornwall, United Kingdom

Cornishphoto source: Wikipedia

Cornish is a Celtic language that was spoken in Cornwall, a region in the southwestern part of the United Kingdom. It is believed to have originated from the Brythonic branch of the Celtic language family and was spoken from around 600 CE until the 18th century when it gradually began to decline due to the dominance of English.

Despite being declared extinct in the 18th century, Cornish has been undergoing a revival since the early 20th century, thanks to the efforts of dedicated language enthusiasts. Today, the language is spoken by a small community of around 300 speakers, and there are also many Cornish language learners.

Did You Know?

Many Cornish manuscripts, including religious texts, poetry, and plays, have survived over the centuries, giving us insight into the language and culture of Cornwall during the Middle Ages.

4. Welsh

Year Started: c. 400 to 700 CE
No. of Speakers: 538,000
Language Family: Indo-European
Country: Wales, United Kingdom

Welshphoto source: Historic UK

The Welsh language is an ancient Celtic language that is indigenous to the British Isles. It is primarily spoken in Wales and has a long and rich history. The earliest evidence of the Welsh language dates back to between 400 to 700 CE, and it has played a crucial role in Welsh culture and identity throughout history.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the Welsh language and culture, particularly among younger generations. The Welsh language has also been the subject of political debate in Wales, with some arguing for greater support and recognition for the language, while others express concerns that it is a barrier to integration and economic development.

Did You Know?

Welsh has contributed many words to the English language, including corgi, flannel, and bard. It also has a rich literary tradition, with notable works including the Mabinogion and the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

3. Scottish Gaelic

Year Started: 4th to 5th centuries CE
No. of Speakers: 60,000
Language Family: Indo-European
Country: Scotland, United Kingdom

Scottish Gaelicphoto source: Omniglot

Scottish Gaelic is an ancient Celtic language that has been spoken in Scotland for over a thousand years. It has its roots in the 4th to 5th centuries CE and is part of the Indo-European language family. Today, there are around 60,000 speakers of Scottish Gaelic, most of whom live in Scotland.

While the language was once widely spoken throughout the country, its use declined significantly during the 19th and 20th centuries due to factors such as government policies, migration, and the influence of English. However, efforts to promote and preserve the language have been successful in recent years, with Scottish Gaelic now recognized as an official language of Scotland and being taught in schools.

Did You Know?

One interesting feature of Scottish Gaelic is its unique orthography, which includes some letters and diacritical marks that are not used in English.

2. Manx

Year Started: 4th to 5th centuries CE
No. of Speakers: 2,023
Language Family: Indo-European
Country: Isle of Man, United Kingdom

Manxphoto source: Omniglot

Manx is a Celtic language spoken in the Isle of Man, a self-governing British Crown dependency located in the Irish Sea. Remarkably, Manx was declared extinct in the 20th century, but a group of enthusiasts who collected traditional songs, stories, and other materials in the language rediscovered it. These materials sparked a Manx revival, and the language is now spoken on the Isle of Man once again.

Manx has a rich cultural heritage, and the language has played a significant role in the Isle of Man’s identity. Many traditional Manx songs, poems, and stories have been passed down through generations, helping to preserve the language and the island’s unique culture. In the 19th century, Manx scholars began studying the language and producing written works, raising its profile and popularity.

Did You Know?

Nowadays, Manx is taught in schools on the Isle of Man, and many resources are available for those who want to learn the language. Additionally, Manx has been used in films, TV shows, and radio programs, increasing its visibility and inspiring more people to learn Manx.

1. Irish

Year Started: 4th century CE
No. of Speakers: 170,000
Language Family: Indo-European
Country: Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland

Irishphoto source: Omniglot

Irish, also known as Irish Gaelic, is the oldest living Celtic language that originated in Ireland over a thousand years ago and is part of the Indo-European language family. There are approximately 170,000 Irish speakers today, with most living in the Republic of Ireland, where the language is recognized as official alongside English.

One notable feature of the Irish language is its complex grammar and spelling system. Irish has an initial mutation system where the first letter of a word can change based on its grammatical context, and it also has inflections which means that the form of a word can change based on its role in a sentence. Irish is written using the Latin alphabet, but it includes additional letters and diacritical marks that are not used in English.

Did You Know?

The Irish language has a rich literary tradition, with famous works including poems by W.B. Yeats and plays by J.M. Synge.


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