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The Goidelic Celtic languages in Britain and Ireland

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Author: Joshua Burns

Some of you may already be aware that although everyone speaks English throughout Britain and Ireland, there are more native languages on the islands. Before English evolved into what it is today, there were groups of Celts that spoke their own languages. These have been passed down and are still spoken even today.

There are six languages in total from both Britain and Ireland. But the curious thing is, they can be broken into two separate groups —the Goidelic languages and the Brythonic languages—. Within each group, while the languages are different, they share common traits*. This means speakers from one group can more or less understand each other, in the same way Gallego and Portuguese speakers can.

However, a speaker of a Goidelic language would have absolutely no idea what a Brythonic speaker was saying. In that way, it could be compared to Euskara and Spanish.

Goidelic languages

In this article we’re going to concentrate on the Goidelic languages. In a following article, we’ll talk about the Brythonic languages. The Goidelic languages originate from Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, a small British island in the Irish Sea.

Scottish

Gaelic Gàidhlig, as it’s called in the original language, comes from Scotland. This language is very similar to the Irish language. It was spoken throughout the vast majority of the country until the Middle Ages when Scottish kings began to speak English instead.

But that doesn’t mean it died out*. Scots Gaelic is still spoken today, with most of the speakers living in the islands off the west coast of Scotland. If you’d like to hear what the language sounds like, it features quite heavily in the TV show ‘Outlander’.

Irish

This was the language I was personally taught in school when I was young and so I know more about it. In the Republic of Ireland, it is a mandatory subject until you’re about eighteen years old. Unfortunately, not a lot of emphasis is put on speaking the language, and most people have a very low level even after many years learning it.

There are communities referred to as the ‘Gaeltacht’ where native Irish speakers still live. Generally speaking, they are along the west of the country, including Co Donegal, where I’m from (although I’m not from a part that speaks Irish).

The language is still very strong in the culture of Ireland. It is one of our official languages and is on all road signs and official documents. Many Irish singers perform in the language, including Sinead O’Connor and Enya, to name a few.

In fact, Enya is a native speaker of the language and comes from a Gaeltacht region. In an effort to promote the learning of the language, many school-age students spend a few weeks in the summer living with an Irish-speaking family and attending a course. I did it for two years in a row* when I was sixteen and seventeen to learn the language. Over the three weeks you’re there, alongside the language, you learn Irish dancing, Irish songs, sports, and other cultural activities.

Manx

This is the last of the Goidelic languages and is the least spoken. There are less than eighty-five thousand people living on the whole of the island, and English is the de facto language. For that reason, there aren’t many Manx speakers and the last native speaker of the language died in 1974.

Even so, the language is still used on the island and is currently undergoing a revival. Like Irish, it is featured on road signs, the radio and there are also bilingual primary schools. As with Irish and Scots Gaelic, speakers can generally understand each other.

In my opinion, the Celtic languages are incredible connections to our roots. I think they sound beautiful, especially as music and poetry. Currently, there is a trend of support among all the languages and they are becoming more popular again. While they will never overtake English for purely practical reasons, it’s encouraging to see them thrive* even in the 21st century.


Glossary

Traits: Aspects in common

Died out: Completely out of use

In a row: Consecutively

Thrive: Succeed

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