Ask the Celticist

I have a doctorate in folklore, but with a specialty in Celtic languages & literatures. There’s a thread about Celtic language revival going on in IMHO, and so I thought there might be some interest. I’m fluent in Welsh, but I’ve had to learn all the Celtic languages as reading languages. I’ve taught Celtic subjects in both university situations and to heritage groups in the U.S. As a North American, I’m not Celtic myself (though I have ancestors who were), but my partner is, and I’ve lived or spent time in all of the Celtic countries except the Isle of Man.

ETA: Now that I’ve posted, this looks kind of pretentious and annoying. I didn’t mean it that way, just fodder for the reasonable questions of “what the hell were you thinking” (complicated) and “how has that worked out for you?” (So-so.)

Hard C or soft C?

What do you make of the claims of Ogam petroglyphs in the U.S.?

All the academics I know say hard-c “Celtic” (Keltic) as do I. It would have been /k/ in the ancient languages and in Classical Latin. However, soft-c “Celtic” (Seltic) is not wrong in English, as it’s a regular sound change, and French Celticists always pronounce celtique as “sell teak.” The only thing that is wrong, wrong, wrong is the Boston “Celtics” — why not just the Boston Celts?

Nonsense. Not because such a thing is inherently impossible (it was the Irish who first visited Iceland, after all), but because such claims invariably invoke special pleading. The American ogam inscriptions are on the face rather than the edge of the stone, for example. Also, they often invoke the specter of St. Brendan, without really understanding the literary context of his purported voyage.

Because then a player would be called a Boston Seltzer?

So did Brendan visit America?

Do you think Breton will survive in France?

How did Old Norse influence the Celtic languages when the Vikings controlled parts of France and the British Isles?

Do you know Dan Melia?

One of the things that strikes me as very different about the US is how much emphasis people put on ethnic or racial identity.

Not to start an argument, but I’ve been surprised (and rather put out) when Americans have introduced themselves to me as ‘Welsh’ because their grandfather was.

In what sense do you think the American descendants of emigrants from Celtic countries are (eg) ‘Irish’? (Not meaning to start a fight here, genuinely interested).

Also, how do you feel about the modern ‘Celtic’ identity? I’m somewhat on the side of those who feel uncomfortable with it.


No. The idea behind voyage is all mixed up with pre-Christian ideas of the Otherworld being accessible by sea to the west, with the genuine Irish custom of immrama (going out to sea in a rowboat just for the religious solitude), and the hagiographical notion of Celtic saints travelling improbable distances in improbable ways.

Yes, but I wouldn’t put money on it. I’ve encountered many Bretons who claimed they couldn’t speak it and then turned out to be fluent (heard through walls, or talking to fellow [Irish] musicians as opposed to me). I think the late 21st century will be Breton’s make-or-break moment.

Scots Gaelic & Manx: hugely, in everything from phonetics to vocabulary to folklore to vernacular architecture to fishing. Wales & France: about the same as England, really. Significant in the middle ages (there was a short-lived Viking takeover of Brittany), but minor thereafter.

Yes, quite well. He was my undergraduate thesis advisor, something I think we’d both like to forget.

No, this is a really strong point, one I’m constantly making to the students. I used Shirley Bassey as my example of a modern Welsh person at the beginning of this term just to make that point: Welsh people go, “Oh, yeah,” while Americans go, “but she’s black!”

I first got into Celtic Studies as an undergraduate because I had been brought up to believe I was Irish. That is essentially fictional: both of my parents are about a quarter Irish, but genetics is not culture. The last Irish immigrant left in the 1820s, and the last Irish speaker probably died in the mid-19th century. But there’s still a persistent belief even among people who know better that only people with Celtic heritage should be interested in Celtic Studies, as if it were somehow different from any other area studies. People (both here and in Wales) are genuinely shocked that an American who has no Welsh ancestry should have learned Welsh.

I think the American Celtic phenomenon is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the interest brings money and attention to embattled cultures which are real and need it. Tourism dollars can make a difference (though they can also accelerate decline as people shift to English to get those dollars). On the other hand, it lumps all the cultures together as if they were similar, like taking a set of siblings and going, “oh, they’re all basically Fred.” Plus, there’s a tendency here to say Celtic = Irish, which does a disservice to both. I think the interest in real, modern, identifiable cultures (North Welsh, Galway Irish) is more accurate and more productive, but a harder sell over here.

(Further on American Celts)

Some of our tendency to identify as Irish, Welsh, etc. because our grandparents or further were from there is our way of distinguishing ourselves from the mainstream of 200,000,000+ other white Americans. Plus, as the Celts are oppressed minorities, it makes us feel better about the oppressed minorities in our own culture. We can pretend that we’re just like them while simultaneously benefitting from being mainstream.

Do you know Professor Catherine McKenna of Harvard?

Yes. She’s wonderful. (I quite like Dan, too, in case that wasn’t clear from the earlier post — it’s just that my thesis was terrible.)

She is (and also drop-dead gorgeous). I’m not a Celticist, or an academic of any kind, but I’ve known her for many, many years.

Further to earlier posts on Americans’ claims for Celtic identity: I was rushing to dinner when I posted above. I often come across a bit harshly on that subject because I get embarassed, since that was me as a young adult. I thought that being Irish, therefore Celtic, was what made me special and interesting. It was a bit of a rude awakening to discover I was nothing of the sort! I see it in a lot of my students, too, the idea that we have some sort of claim on someone else’s culture. I think it’s harmful because it makes Celtic Studies all about us instead of an area of study like any other.

I know nothing of Breton, but my parents live in Pas de Calais. The local patois is Ch’tis, a language so obscure, it doesn’t even have it’s own wiki page (they did manage to make a film and some beer though). It’s not taught in schools, and it’s rare for anyone under 60 to speak it. It’s probably going to cease to be a living language within twenty years.

Is halloween Celtic or not? I thought it was based upon the Celtic Festival of Samhain-is this correct?

One of my Indo-Europeanist friends describes Old Irish as “the hardest language I’ve not-learned.” This is someone who passed qualifying exams in Ancient Greek, Vedic Sanskrit, and Old English, and reads Gilgamesh in Akkadian in her spare time. What makes Old Irish so hard to learn in particular? I’m familiar with the crazy phonological changes that happened between IE and Celtic, but seems like there must be more than that.

Where do you stand on an Italo-Celtic subgroup of IE, or is this too far outside of your linguistic expertise to comment on? I wrote a term paper about it once, and concluded that the evidence was slender but there.

How widespread was the Irish kinship inauguration rite, the “feis”? (I might remember the name wrong) I ran into it one day reading Calvert Watkins’ “How to Kill a Dragon,” and wondered…

Well, it has Celtic roots. There are two tracks: the Catholic Feast of All Saints / All Souls may (and, in my opinion, probably does) relate to customary behavior in early medieval France that is ultimately connected to the Gaulish cognate of Samhain. There’s a bit on a first-century calendar, the Calendar of Coligny, that says “trinox Samoni,” literally 3-night «Samhain» (though it is possible that the Gaulish word didn’t mean the same as the Irish), probably referring to a three-day festival at that time of the year.

The modern Halloween, with its trick-or-treating etc., probably comes from Irish and Irish-American customs (guising, etc.) around that time of year. There is ample evidence from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany that that date was connected with the dead and the supernatural, and that probably in turn derives from the pre-Christian period. What we know about Samhain in medieval Irish tradition is pretty far removed from begging for candy, but yes, ultimately connected.

Italo-Celtic first: I’m a believer, insofar as it matters. Of the surviving branches, Italic is closest to Celtic, and the logical hypothesis, especially given the geography, is that they diverged from each other later than other Western IE languages. As you say, the evidence isn’t strong, and I can’t argue on the technical grounds.

The tarbféis (bull-feast, that is, the specific inauguration festival in Watkins) is attested in only a couple of places in literature, so it’s hard to say how widespread it was, but the comparative evidence is pretty compelling. There’s no unambiguous direct historical evidence at all, though, so if it really happened it probably did not happen much after the 8th century.

Old Irish is hard. Way hard. It’s mostly the verbs. Here are some forms from a regular verb, do-beir, “to bring” or “to give,” cognate with English bear:

Do-beir, He/she/it gives.
Ní tabair, He/she/it does not give. is “not,” but it and a number of other particles change the stress patterns of the following verb.

Now add object pronouns:

Dom-beir, He/she/it gives me (something).
Ní thabair, He/she/it gives him/it.

These are infixed pronouns, which are stuck into the middle of the verb. The “-m” for me changes the pronunciation of the following b /b/ to /v/, not reflected in spelling. The infixed pronoun in the second example is invisible, but it changes the pronunciation of the /t/ to /θ/ [th]. So:

Do-beir could have an invisible infix (pron. do-ver), and be “He/she/it gives him/it.” And that’s only the third person singular, present tense, absolute forms.

There’s also the horrible Irish spelling system and mutation. Take the sounds /p/, /b/, and /v/ (as in pat, bat, and vat).

Old Irish P is /p/ at the beginning of the word, /b/ in the middle or at the end
Old Irish B is /b/ at the beginning of the word, /v/ in the middle or at the end

However, any given word that starts with P will sometimes start with B.

púca (pooka, a kind of supernatural being), a phúca (his pooka), a púca (her pooka) a búca (their pooka)
bó (cow), a bhó (his cow), a bó (her cow), a mbó (their cow)

It takes some getting used to!