Throughout Europe’s many bloody wars, countless cultures and languages were marginalised and lost. Celtic history is particularly full of these invasions. Whether it was Julius Cesar’s attack on Gaul, the Viking invasion of Scotland, or the invasion of the Saxons in Anglia, Celts had to endure much strife and have been driven almost extinct as a culture. Yet Celtic influences still remain on almost all of today’s European nations, almost like a common ancestry. This can be explained by the fact that Celtic speakers used to span the majority of the European continent, before they were almost completely wiped out.
Few areas still exist today, where Celtic languages are spoken on a daily basis. These include:
- Ireland (Irish / Gaeilge)
- Scotland (Scottish Gaelic)
- Isle of Man (Manx)
- Wales (Welsh)
- Cornwall (Cornish)
- Brittany (Breton)
Sadly, none of the original Celtic Hallstatt culture remains in Central Europe today. The only Celtic tradition celebrated there today is the main Celtic festival (marking the beginning of winter and the new year) Samhain, more popularly known as Halloween, which ironically made its way back to Europe through the commercialisation of the festival in the USA. But while much of the old Celtic cultures was lost, its linguistic influence still remains in modern languages today. I asked a few modern Celts to share their expertise with us:
Irish / Gaeilge
Dominic (26) had this to say: “Firstly I wouldn’t say that ‘celtic’ influence is very strong beyond certain attractions of historical significance and stories learned in school about ogham stones and Celtic settlements. The Irishness of today I feel comes more from the period of Gaelic revival in the late 19th century, when efforts were made to recreate an idea of Irish identity to a people living in a miserable era in Irish history. It was during this period that Irish language clubs and organisations were set up to try to conserve the language, Irish dancing took the form we know today, and Irish sports were codified and properly established with the dawn of the Gaelic Athletics Association. The latter organisation is still one of the most important organisations for the fabric of Irish society in 2018, which shows how it has stood the test of time. Developing ideas of Irishness also can’t be fully understood without reference to the Catholic church which has been an integral part of Irish life for many years. It set us apart, as did our newly fine-tuned Gaelic identity, from the English, who at a political level frequently ignored and dismissed Irish concerns. The Ireland of today is the result of what must be some of the most rapid social and cultural transformations seen anywhere. EU membership, economic prosperity, globalisation and multiculturalism have changed people’s lives, and with it, their ideas of themselves. Gaelic influence, or modern interpretations of it, remains strong however, and is propagated all around the world where Irish people have settled. Irish people are now much better off than at any point in our history, we are well-educated and open to the world. Integration at a regional level has served us well, and through good will and excellent cultural diplomacy, Ireland has established itself as a friend to all and a great place to trade and do business. Whether that be the positive reactions received to Irish football fans abroad, or the wealth of foreign direct investment coming to our shores, we now perceive ourselves as having lots to offer and able to influence the world on a way we scarcely thought possible previously.”
Barra (32): “What “Celtic” means, if anything at all, is very difficult to say. Certainly if by Celtic we mean “Gaelic” then yes, there is far more than a “lingering” sense of Celtic influence in Ireland. Every day, from road signs, to the way people speak (English in Ireland being very influenced by Irish) to the sports we play, the influence is everywhere. Also – and this is the trick of nationalism – I feel “closer” to Scottish and Welsh people than I do to English people.”
It appears that historic events also still influence people’s feelings about English and England. However, Barra doesn’t blame the English for the demise of Gaeilge as Ireland’s main language.
Barra continues: “It is what it is. The history of Ireland and England is not just “dark” – the truth is far more complicated. In my home town for example, Irish has not been the lingua franca for centuries, and this has nothing to do with English dominance, but rather to very normal migration flows and trade routes. While I do of course look at the repression of the Irish language by centralised English power (especially from the 1600s onwards) as reprehensible, I am also fully aware that it was often old “English” families such as the Fitzgeralds who became some of the leading supporters of independence of Ireland and Irish culture. So, I don’t feel historically bound by some kind of resentment of English dominance. If anything, most Irish people are very proud of how well Irish literary greats such as Joyce, Beckett, and Yeats took the language to new heights. If anything, we do like to joke about the English in Irish, and can be a bit smug that we have a language that they don’t understand, but I personally don’t hold a grudge.”
But is Irish still important today? What justifies efforts to preserve this language, when English is far more useful internationally?
“Yes it is,” Barra says, “I speak Irish pretty fluently, and would use it on a daily basis in communication with certain friends and family. On the one hand, I have a great respect for the cultural need to protect all languages that may be in danger of extinction, but on another, as an Irishman, I feel a duty to ensure that the Irish language survives. On a purely practical note, kids in Ireland who do their schooling through Irish are far more adept at learning other languages, and this is an advantage I feel should be exploited.
I don’t think Irish will ever again become the lingua franca of Ireland – nor do I think it should. But it retains an inherent cultural and historical value that, to my mind, justifies its protection and its incentivisation.”
Dominic concurs: “Irish is important to me, and I feel privileged to be able to speak it, even if I rarely use it. There are a number of initiatives around Ireland to encourage the learning and use of Irish, with Seachtain na Gaeilge or ‘Irish week’ taking place every year in the run up to St Patrick’s day, songs translated and performed into Irish for YouTube, and regular social events through Irish, among many other initiatives. This is in addition to the standard policy of bilingual road signs in Ireland, Irish language television, radio and an increasing number of Gaelscoileanna or Irish speaking schools. I went to a Gaelscoil myself for primary school, and it was here that my fluency and interest in the language was first established. While there is a small number in Ireland who can speak Irish fluently, learning Irish in school is a common thread, with references often made in conversation about amusing aspects of the Irish final exam, which everyone sat, given that Irish remains a compulsory subject.”
“As for English, it has long been the tongue most widely spoken in Ireland, so its dominance is not questioned. Instead, Irish people have developed an attachment to the English spoken in Ireland, which has largely taken on its own form, structure and oddities. This difference goes beyond accents to particular phrases and even attitudes that define Irish people and distinguish them from other native English speakers. This could also explain the fact that very few people now view English bitterly as a direct result of English occupation, but rather a reality that we have come to own in a sense. We are of course reaping the benefits of speaking English, as it becomes the universal language for travel, business and even politics in many parts of the world. While Irish is being promoted and encouraged, there are very few who actually envisage a return to Irish as the common tongue in Ireland. This arises no doubt from practicality, but also the fact that Irish, unlike English, is an incredibly difficult language to learn and master and the manner of teaching of the language in schools has arguably failed to encourage its widespread use beyond the school system. So in summary I would say that Irish certainly has significance for many people and will hopefully continue it’s revival, but it is clear that English (or Hiberno-English) will remain as the most significant means of communication.”
Morgane (25) hails from Brittany, but doesn’t speak Breton. For a change, I wanted to hear the perspective of a native, who doesn’t know the regional language. She had this to say: “There is obviously a lingering Celtic influence in Brittany, mainly through:
- Breton language, despite the fact that few people speak this language;
- Music, for instance with the Interceltic Festival of Lorient which occurs every year in August
- Myths and legends, with the Arthurian legend, druids, etc. When I was a child, I remember a narrator used to come to my school to tell stories of elfs and other fantastic creatures living in forests.
However, I think this Celtic influence is very much entertained today, because of tourism and cultural industries and Brittany has been influenced by many civilisations, so it is hard to know what was originally Celtic and what was not.”
“Personally, I don’t really feel Celtic in my way of life. For instance, I don’t speak Breton and I don’t listen to Celtic music. But, I feel Breton because today, far away from those entertained Celtic symbols, there is a real Breton mentality. The main characteristic is maybe the fact that we have long been known as travelers, and this is undeniable. We are generally proud of our region, but also open to Europe and to the world.”
“The language is not very important to me. I don’t speak Breton, except for a few words like “Kenavo” for “goodbye” or “Yec’hed mat!” for “Cheers!” No one in my family or friends speak Breton, which partially explains my point of view.”
This goes to show that a common language is not necessarily required for a strong common identity. For Morgane and her fellow Bretons, this feeling of belonging and pride seems to stem more from their shared values and attitude towards life than anything else. Perhaps, this is also a lesson for the rest of Europe and indeed, the European project.
As Morgane doesn’t speak the language, I wanted to know, how she feels about recent initiatives to revive the language and whether she thinks it will continue to play a role in her community in the future.
“The most important thing to me is that we have the choice to learn Breton or not. Compared to a few decades ago, when speaking Breton was forbidden, the current situation has improved significantly.
There are bilingual schools called “Diwan schools” or bilingual classes in public and private schools. Some regular schools also offer the possibility to learn Breton.”
“However, I think Breton is important to preserve as a cultural symbol. For instance, road signs in Brittany have a French name and a Breton name. There are also some programmes in Breton on TV and radio channels. By the way, when I was in Brussels, I remember having found a Breton channel called “TV Breizh”, which was transmitted on the Belgian TNT! Bretons are definitely everywhere, haha.”
To summarise, to me, Breton is important not as a way to communicate but as a tool to remember our cultural roots.”
“I think it will stay relevant, at least in the mid-term, thanks to a few policy initiatives: In 2004, the Regional Council of Brittany has adopted a linguistic policy, with the aim to guarantee a better transmission of Brittany languages (the Breton but also the “Gallo”) and to improve their presence in our daily life. In 2008, the French Constitution has been reformed. Article 75-1 recognises regional languages as part of “French heritage”.
Since then, we can see a development of public initiatives for the defense of Breton, as I mentioned before.
But all of this is a matter of policy initiatives. Among the Bretons, I think the majority are not interested in learning Breton. Even if it is not a dead language such as Latin, it is not useful in daily life. Besides, only about 5% of Bretons speak Breton. However, it will also stay relevant because Brittany is a touristic destination. So, as a cultural symbol, it is important to actively display our heritage.”
Ronan (25) also doesn’t speak Breton, nor does he have Breton ancestors, but he was born in Brittany and lived there for 22 years. As such, he can provide us with another unique perspective:
“Celtic culture is very present in Brittany because it is a Celtic territory through the language and the culture. Breton is a Celtic language, spoken by thousands of people all over Brittany and even beyond. Some of my friends have a grandmother or an uncle who still speak Breton daily. My younger cousins learn Breton at school. Like more and more people, they are learning Breton in a ‘Diwan’ School (providing classes in Breton) which are multiplying all over Brittany, year after year.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t speak Breton but the promotion of this regional language is fundamental to preserve our regional identity and I am very attached to the local culture. It is hard to define precisely the Celtic culture, but Brittany, like other Celtic territories, is a welcoming place, open to the rest of the world, but very proud of its identity. Brittany is seen as a very particular part of France because this strong identity, directly influenced by Celtic culture.”
“As I said, there is a resurgence of the Breton language and I am sure that this will continue to grow. In a globalised world, local culture becomes even more important for people’s identity – the language is a key part of this. The specific identities of most other French regions has been diminished, largely through the loss of language. But I would hope that the promotion of the Breton language would not create barriers, as this would, in itself, mean a part of Breton culture (openness) has been lost.”
It seems that even in areas where Celtic languages have faded, there still is an interest in preserving and celebrating Celtic heritage as part of a common culture, or at the very least, to attract the attention of outsiders to their region.
Check back next week for one final entry in the series, looking at Slavic regional languages.