I always get excited about new linguistic discoveries. This new discovery isn’t certain yet, and the final linguistic consensus may not arrive for decades, but it’s an exciting possibility anyway.
The Celtic languages were once spoken all across Europe, from Ireland to the Ukraine and from Denmark to the valley of the Po. Slowly, as the Romans, and then Germans, encroached on Celtic territory, the language family shrank. Today Celtic languages are spoken only in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Nova Scotia, and Brittany. They are lovely, with a verb-initial syntactic structure rare among the world’s languages, and a beautiful and tricky phonemic inventory. They are also almost all endangered.
The possible discovery of a new Celtic language is very exciting. This new language has been studied by linguists for quite some time, but heretofore it hasn’t been recognized as Celtic. The reason for this is that it shares almost no vocabulary with other Celtic languages. Instead, its “Celticness” lies in its syntactic structure, which is itself quirky and lovely — and indeed shares many features with the distinctive syntax of the Celtic languages.
Why doesn’t it share many words with other Celtic languages? Most likely because of an intense and extensive language contact situation. To be specific, the speakers of this language were probably conquered by speakers of another language — a Germanic language — and ended up borrowing so many Germanic words that the resulting mixture has usually been assumed to be Germanic. But the syntax and morphology of this “Germanic” language has long been known to be quite different from that of other Germanic languages, for reasons that have been controversial.
For example, while this new Celtic language is not verb-initial as other Celtic languages are, it does show several interesting verb-related phenomena that are not known in the Germanic languages. Negation in Germanic languages is typically indicated by simply inserting a negative polarity item (e.g. “nicht”) near the verb, but in this language, this is illegal. Instead, this “Germanic” language obligatorily inserts a semantically bleached auxiliary, as well. This same auxiliary is required for polar questions and tag questions, a requirement that is unknown among the Germanic languages. However, this behavior is perfectly standard among the other Celtic languages.
This possible new Celtic language is spoken on an island off the northwest coast of Europe, near the other Celtic languages. It is also spoken in some fomer colonies of that island. It is not endangered, and in fact has a great number of speakers and even a sizeable internet presence. If it were classified as Celtic, it would immediately become the most widely spoken Celtic language, with the greatest number of speakers; and the Celtic language family, instead of being confined to the margins of Europe, would become the most widely spoken language family in the world.
Yes, of course! It’s English.
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