Jaime Conrad


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How to Sagely Answer, "Are the Welsh Celtic or Gaelic?"

user image 2024-06-05
By: Jaime Conrad
Posted in: Ancient Wales
How to Sagely Answer, "Are the Welsh Celtic or Gaelic?"

Are the Welsh Celtic or Gaelic? “Celtic” refers to a diverse group of tribal societies with a shared language that once occupied much of Europe. “Gaelic,” on the other hand, is a subdivision of the Celtic family of languages that evolved into Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. 

Are the Welsh Celtic or Gaelic? When we speak of Celtic and Gaelic, it’s important to understand that the terms are related but not interchangeable. “Celtic” refers to the language and culture of a   tribal people   who originated in central Europe as early as 1200 BC. They spread across Europe, Spain, Germany, France, and the British Isles. The common language, in particular, is what classifies them. Beyond that, a single ruler or group never unified the tribes, and each society was different, although they did hold some similar customs and religious beliefs. Even these, however, varied from tribe to tribe.  

The Celtic language is separated into two main branches: Continental Celtic and Insular Celtic. As the names suggest, Continental Celtic was spoken by people who lived in central Europe (on the continent). The Celtiberians, the Gauls, and the Galatians also spoke the language. Insular Celtic was spoken by the people who migrated to the British Isles. 

Insular Celtic is further divided into two branches: Goidelic (or Gaelic) and Brythonic (or British). Goidelic evolved into Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx Gaelic. The shortened terms are Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. The Brythonic branch evolved into the languages of Breton, Cornish, and Welsh. So, the Welsh are Celtic but not Gaelic. “Gaelic” refers to the culture or the language spoken, and it is not the language of Wales.

As mentioned above, in answer to the question, “Are the Welsh Celtic or Gaelic?” the Welsh are Celtic but not Gaelic. “Gaelic” refers to the Goidelic branch of Insular Celtic that evolved into Irish, Scottish, and Manx. The word “Gaelic” is pronounced “Gal-ick” (like “gal” as in “galaxy”) and   not   “gale-ick” (like “gale” as in a gale of wind). The Welsh people speak Cymraeg (Welsh), which came from the Brythonic branch of Insular Celtic. To further clarify this, you could say that Gaelic is always Celtic, but Celtic isn’t always Gaelic. It depends on the language the person speaks. 

Other commonly asked questions are: 1. “Are the Welsh Celtic?” and 2. “Is Welsh Celtic?” The answer to the first question is yes, as the DNA of the Welsh people traces back to the tribal societies of Europe, which held the ancestral Celtic language in common. The second question refers to the Welsh language itself. Yes, Welsh is a Celtic language from the Brythonic language group of Insular Celtic.   

What Are the Six Celtic Languages?

Six Celtic languages are still spoken today—the modern Celtic languages. These are Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Breton, Cornish, and   Welsh . All six Celtic languages are referred to as “living, “meaning they are still spoken. Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton have been continuously spoken. Manx and Cornish had died out, but thanks to a revival, they are now spoken again as a second language by several thousand people. Of all the Celtic languages, Welsh is the only one not considered endangered by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). In fact, from 2008 to 2020, the number of Welsh speakers has actually increased. In an   article published by the BBC   in 2020, a group of scientists from New Zealand say that within 300 years, 74% of the Welsh population will be able to speak and write Welsh. 

Where Are the Celtic Languages Spoken?

Irish   is spoken mainly in Ireland and Northern Ireland. However, Irish speakers are elsewhere in the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia. 

Scottish Gaelic   is the Celtic language spoken along the northwest coast of Scotland, the highlands, and the Hebrides Islands. Speakers can also be found in Australia, the US, and Canada (mainly Nova Scotia). Another language, separate from Gaelic, called “Scots,” evolved in the Middle Ages in the lowlands of Scotland. Scots is more similar to English, as it’s a Germanic language that developed from the Angles’ tongue. Scots has four different regional dialects. 

About 200,000 people speak   Breton   in Brittany in northwestern France. 

Manx   is spoken on the Isle of Man. Since revival efforts began, around 2000 people are believed to be speaking the language. 

Cornish   (“Kernewek”) is spoken in Cornwall in southwestern Britain. Like Manx, Cornish currently has around 2000 speakers. 

Cymraeg ( Welsh)   is spoken primarily in Wales and the Welsh colony in Patagonia, Argentina. There are also speakers in England, Scotland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the US. 

Are Welsh and Irish Related?

Welsh and Irish are related in the sense that they are both Insular Celtic languages. In other words, they are Celtic languages that evolved in the British Isles. Insular Celtic divides into Brythonic (British) and Goidelic (Gaelic). The Welsh language is Brythonic, while the Irish language is Gaelic.   

The Brythonic branch is also called “P-Celtic,” while the Goidelic branch is referred to as “Q-Celtic.” These labels came about because of how the words in each branch developed from Indo-European. Several words are common in each branch. However, on the P-Celtic (Brythonic languages) side, the “p” sound more frequently occurred in those words. The hard “k” sound was more prevalent on the Q-Celtic side. 

On this note, another question people ask is, “Is Welsh Gaelic?” No, Welsh is not Gaelic. As mentioned earlier, Welsh is Brythonic. Which leads us to the question: Are the Irish Celtic or Gaelic? They are a Celtic people, but they   speak   Irish (“Gaelige”), which comes from the Gaelic language group. “Gaelic” can also refer to their culture (Gaelic games, for example).

Scottish Gaelic vs. Welsh

Many words in Scottish Gaelic and Welsh are cognate. Cognate words are those that evolved from the same source word over hundreds or thousands of years. However, since Scottish Gaelic and Welsh don’t belong to the same branch of Insular Celtic, there are more similarities between Irish and Scottish Gaelic, for example. Irish and Scottish Gaelic are both Gaelic languages, whereas Welsh is Brythonic.

Here’s a comparison of some related words in Scottish Gaelic and Welsh. 

English Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) Cymraeg (Welsh)
river abhainn afon
name ainm enw
soul, spirit anam enaid (also, the Welsh name “Enid” means soul; life)
bread bairín bara (the word for “bread” is “bara” in all three Brythonic languages: Welsh, Cornish, and Breton)
small beag bach, bychan
brother bráthair brawd
cheese càise caws

It’s interesting to see that although the words differ in Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, there are some similarities. The Gaelic words aren’t exactly like the Welsh, but they’re not entirely foreign, either. Having the English words there also makes a nice comparison. We can see that, for the most part, the English words are quite different than the Celtic ones. That’s because they evolved through the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. The words for “bread” and “cheese,” though, manage to be a little similar across the board with Celtic and Germanic alike! 

Welsh vs. Irish Culture

As with Scottish Gaelic, a Welsh speaker would find it hard to understand Irish. They might be able to pick up a few words here and there, but this is another example of the differences between the Goidelic and Brythonic languages. After all, they had thousands of years to grow apart. Still, with Wales and Ireland within 300 miles of each other, there are certainly links between the two cultures. There’s a history there of helping one another. 

Both countries take pride in their languages, the history behind them, and in keeping them alive. They do this through literature, cultural events, music, and policies in their respective education systems. According to the 2021 census, 17.8% of the Welsh population speak Welsh. In the Republic of Ireland, however, in 2022, the percentage of Irish speakers was 39.8%. In Northern Ireland, as of 2021, 12.4% said they had some ability to read, write, or speak Irish.

Similarities and Differences

Both the Welsh and Irish love their sports! In Ireland, Gaelic games like Gaelic football, hurling, handball, and rounders are the most popular. In Wales, rugby is the winner. 

Welsh culture is known for its friendliness and hospitality; Irish culture is similar. Ireland is very well known for its food and drink. The Welsh are renowned for their music, customs, and festivals. 

Wales is part of the United Kingdom and operates as a devolved constitutional monarchy. Ireland, however, is an independent nation with a unitary parliamentary republic form of government. It means that parliament runs the nation. (Note: Northern Ireland is not a part of the Republic of Ireland but is one of the four countries that make up the UK.)

Generally speaking, the Welsh and Irish are close with one another as fellow Celts and neighbors. They’ve been trading, swapping stories and songs, and helping each other when needed since at least the Iron Age. It’s a friendship that goes way back.

Now you understand the difference between “Celtic” and “Gaelic.” If anyone ever asks you, “Are the Welsh Celtic or Gaelic?” you can smile sagely and tell them that the Welsh are Celtic but not Gaelic since Welsh is a Brythonic language. 

Jaime Conrad
06/13/24 08:15:13PM @jaime-conrad:

Thank you, Ceri! No worries, I've been quite busy myself. Thanks for sharing the article!

Ceri Shaw
06/11/24 06:52:30PM @ceri-shaw:

Diolch yn fawr for posting Jaime. I have been thoroughly preoccupied and distracted for a while BUT I plan to devote lots more time to AmeriCymru from now on. Will post links to your blog on social media this evening :)