The Decline of the Celtic Languages

Dec 8, 2011 by

BY NATALIE KARL (“Languages of the World”)

The cultures of the Celts and Anglo-Saxons have been at odds in the British Isles since medieval times, and the Celtic language family has suffered because of it. This family, comprising Breton, Gaelic, Irish, Welsh, and the extinct languages Cornish and Manx, has been slowly declining for centuries (Durkacz, 214).  Today there are approximately 1.3 million speakers of these languages, but the numbers are going down. The most widely spoken Celtic language is Welsh with 508,000 speakers, but the vast majority of them also speak English (“Languages of United Kingdom”). Cornish, on the other hand, went extinct in 1777 but has been undergoing a small revival recently and has a few speakers again (“Cornish”). By examining some of the causes of the decline of the Celtic languages and how greatly they affected Welsh and Cornish, it is possible to see how Welsh survived, but Cornish did not. 
            One of the earliest factors contributing to the decline of the Celtic languages was the disunity of the Celtic people during the Middle Ages. Each group had its own kingdom, and they were constantly fighting one another. They even helped foreigners, including the English monarchs, fight other Celts, effectively hurting the survival of their own culture. Thus, the need to unify to protect their heritage was thwarted by internal fighting, and the far more unified Anglo-Saxons were able to expand at their expense (Gregor, 284-291). This lack of unity helped set the stage centuries ago for the slow decline of the Celtic languages. 
One consequence of this disunity was a loss of status of the Celtic languages in favor of the languages of their conquerors, particularly English. This began in the Middle Ages when the Celtic groups defeated by Anglo-Saxons—partly due to the disunity previously discussed—learned the language of their conquerors rather than keeping their own. As the small kingdoms disappeared in the face of a larger, increasingly unified British crown, English became the language of the government and ruling elite. Anything that tied a Celtic population to the government further eclipsed their culture, as it became more closely tied to the monarchy and the language and culture that went with it (Gregor, 294-297).
Loss of status also occurred in the minds of the speakers of the Celtic languages and has continued into modern times. English is a world language linked to success and the higher classes, whereas Celtic languages have become increasingly associated with the countryside, social inferiority, and poverty. Children grow up knowing this, and so are ashamed of the Celtic languages and do not want to speak them. Even if they did, parents do not always teach their language to their children. In Cornwall, after English was decreed the official language of the court in 1362, parents stopped speaking Cornish to their children. It has only been the Welsh, in the reaches of the country untouched by the English, who still sometimes bring up their children speaking their language (Gregor, 292-304). Hence, Cornish lost its status to a much greater degree than Welsh ever did. 
            This loss of status allowed English to take over in a variety of ways. For example, English replaced some, but not all, of the Celtic languages in religious life. Queen Elizabeth I allowed the Book of Common Prayer, the Psalms, and the New Testament to be printed in Welsh because she thought this would help the Welsh learn English, but it actually helped Welsh survive. These texts provided a standard for written Welsh, which would later prove beneficial (Gregor, 311-323). The Cornish, on the other hand, were explicitly prohibited from using their native language for religious purposes (Wardhaugh, 75-77). There was never a Cornish translation of the bible, which would hinder the development of Cornish literature (Gregor, 324-325). Consequently, although Cornish was widely spoken in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the lack of Cornish in religious services or texts contributed greatly to its rapid decline, whereas Welsh survived because of its presence in religion (Durkacz, 214). 
It follows that there would be a shortage of reading material in the Celtic languages. Although there is some literature in these languages, it generally has not been printed, has been out of print for years, or is written in very old forms of the languages that are less accessible to modern readers. Welsh has the greatest amount of available literature, partly due to the standardization the religious texts provided, and Welsh poets have been instrumental in keeping a sense of national pride (Gregor, 304-312). Cornish, on the other hand, never had a Bible to spur the creation or preservation of its literature. 
Finally, there is a lack of instruction of Celtic languages in schools and universities. The English Education Act of 1870 made English the sole language of education, and students heard speaking another language were punished (Gregor, 314-317). As with religion, the Welsh were given some leniency with their language, and Welsh was allowed in classrooms as a means of teaching English, but it was intended to die out after the students learned English. Although now it is required that children in Wales are given the opportunity to learn Welsh in schools, this requirement is not often fulfilled (Wardhaugh, 81-86). Those children who are able to learn a Celtic language at home will often lose that language in the face of the English they learn and are taught in at school. This is particularly true for students who leave the area they are originally from to go to boarding school or university farther away where Celtic languages are unspoken (Gregor, 314-317). The newer education policies will hopefully help Welsh, but they came hundreds of years too late for Cornish. 
In conclusion, the Celtic languages have been declining for hundreds of years. It began in the Middle Ages when the Celts refused to unify in the face of the Anglo-Saxon invaders. The domination of the Anglo-Saxons at the expense of the Celts put the Celtic languages on the bottom of the social hierarchy, and this loss of status has continued through to modern times. English displaced many Celtic languages in religious life, literature, and education. This is particularly true for Cornish, which had no place in any of these areas and quickly went extinct. However, Welsh was granted a degree of leniency that no other Celtic language received and managed to survive precisely because of this. Hopefully, although it is somewhat doubtful, the newfound appreciation of Celtic languages, as evidenced by the attempts to revive Cornish, will allow them to maintain their presence in the British Isles, even if they are unable to grow significantly. 
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Works Cited
Durkacz, Victor Edward. The Decline of the Celtic Languages: a Study of Linguistic and Cultural Conflict In Scotland, Wales and Ireland From the Reformation to the Twentieth Century. Edinburgh: J. Donald, 1983.
“Cornish.” Lewis, M. Paul, ed. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 16th ed. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International, 2009. Web.  http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=cor
Gregor, D. B. Celtic: a Comparative Study of the Six Celtic Languages, Irish, Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Seen Against the Background of Their History, Literature and Destiny. Cambridge, Eng.: Oleander Press, 1980.
“Languages of United Kingdom.” Lewis, M. Paul ed. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 16th ed. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International, 2009. Web.  http://www.ethnologue.com/show_country.asp?name=GB
Wardhaugh, Ronald. Languages In Competition: Dominance, Diversity, and Decline. Oxford, UK: B. Blackwell, 1987.

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  • John Cowan

    It's important to take a broader view of the subject and realize that the great destroyer of the Celtic languages has not been English but Latin and the Romance languages. Though Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh have had a rough time, and Cornish is in a zombie state today, Gaulish is gone from France as if it had never been, with the exception of perhaps 200 words surviving in French, many with counterparts in other Romance languages.

    A few Gaulish words that made it into English via French are: barnacle, beak (probably), beaver, breeches/britches, bugle (the plant), bushel, car, carpenter, cavalier/chevalier, change, cream, embassy, gouge, javelin, lance, league, luge (sled), mantle, mutton, palfrey, petty, quay, talus, tan (the color), ton, truant, and vassal.

  • Anonymous

    I'm not sure that it is any longer true that requirement for Welsh children to learn Welsh is not often fulfilled. I understand that it is now compulsory to GCSE and in fact Welsh medium schools are often better thought of than their English medium counterparts.

  • Rebecca

    The Welsh language has not only survived, speakers of Welsh are increasing in number.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Thank you for the interesting comments!

  • Steve Hansen

    You may be interested to hear that the Gaulish language is currently undergoing a revival as a modern language. All relevant information can be found at: http://www.moderngaulish.com. Please feel free to use it as you see fit.

    • Thank you for the link, Steve! Do you know if there are any native speakers (or any attempts to raise children with Gaulish as their mother tongue) yet?

      • Steve Hansen

        I don’t think there are any native speakers yet. There is a small but growing number of people who have knowledge of it as a second language. There are a few children who have a certain amount of knowledge of it and who incorporate it to some extent in their daily lives. It is however used as a lingua franca among the international community that is interested in various aspects of Gaulish and Celtic culture.

        • Thank you, Steven. It is as I’ve thought. It would be interesting to see if any native speakers of Gaulish emerge in the future. I might do a post on this issue for GeoCurrents (http://geocurrents.info/)

          • Steve Hansen

            Thanks Asya, that would be fantastic. I had a bit of a look at GeoCurrents, and it seems that it is a venue for open debate, which, from the looks of it, can get quite heated. It would be very interesting to bring the topic to the attention of people who might be interested in it, as well as to see what reactions it might draw from your readership. Any ensuing discussions I would be very keen to be involved in.

          • Thanks for your interest in GeoCurrents. We are planning a mini-series on France there so Gaulish might fit right in with that! Stay tuned!

          • Steve Hansen

            No worries, should be good. Please keep me posted.

  • Aidanxc

    Your article does not mention Irish after the second sentence. All Irish children learn Irish up to the the end of their second level education (approx 17-18 years old). It is obligatory. Secondly, there are tens of thousands who speak it as their first language. However, the damage done to Irish over the generations first under British rule and then under ineffective government policy at resurrecting the language has meant that the number of native speakers has been declining since the 1840s. In more recent times independent radio stations and “gael scoileanna” (schools where all teaching is done through Irish) have helped revive the fortunes of the language. In fact, as you said, Irish like other Celtic languages suffered from a lack of status when compared to English. In recent years in Ireland Irish-only schools have acquired a prestige that English once had. These Irish only schools dominate the upper reaches of school leagues and have helped revive the language in a way that government policy has failed to do. It will always be difficult to compete with English but recent developments give one cause for hope.