Possible New Celtic Language Discovered

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.

howimvotingThe 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.

Comments

  1. Awesome, and thank you for the link to the Language Log article! Wouldn’t it be fascinating, to someday see English become its own language family? Not entirely Germanic, not fully Celtic…but a hybrid family of its own, as unique as its contributors :-)

  2. Jeff Lilly says:

    Bernulf, the possibility of English becoming its own language family — very cool thought, and also insightful, because any linguist you ask will tell you that it certainly WILL happen, and has already begun!

    Look at Latin. For anyone reading who doesn’t know, Latin began as a language spoken in the area of Latium in Italy (the area near Rome), and was carried by the Roman Empire all over Europe. Spread as it was over such a wide area, the speakers of the various regions (France, Spain, Italy, Romania, etc.) began to carry the language in different directions. The result, after 2000 years, was a new language family — the Romance family.

    English, of course, is now spread over a much wider area than Latin was. It is also being spoken in a large number of places where it is in extensive contact with other languages — Hindi in India, Afrikaans and indigenous languages in South Africa, French in Canada, Chinese in Singapore and Hong Kong, Spanish in the Americas, etc., etc. In each of these places, the English takes on a special character because of the contact languages.

    It used to be thought that English would never break apart into daughter languages because of electronic communications. But recent studies of dialect have shown that it is breaking apart! What’s typically happening is that each region is developing its own variation on English while at the same time maintaining fluency in “standard” English. The end result, after a thousand years or so, will be a “standard” English that most people worldwide will know, and alongside that, dozens of “nonstandard”, daughter-Englishes that will gradually develop into their own languages.

    You can see this already happening in, say, the southeastern United States, where there are any number of African Americans who are perfectly fluent in “standard” American English, but also know how to speak the “nonstandard” dialect that is spoken in the African American community.

    Let me make clear: by “standard” and “nonstandard” I’m not implying any value judgements, or saying that the dialects of English are any less regular or rule-governed or grammatical or anything like that. On the contrary! I just mean “standard” in the sense of “usual” or “widespread”.

    Now, see? I got started on language, and I just kept going. Sorry about that. :-)

  3. We can see an excellent example of this process in the Arabic-speaking world – most people understand “literary” or “broadcast” Arabic (what the textbooks usually call “Modern Standard Arabic”), whether or not they actually speak it themselves, while also having their regional or national dialect.

  4. Jeff Lilly says:

    Erik, thanks for dropping by. You’re absolutely right about Arabic; and of course it began its expansion over a thousand years before English did, so it’s much further along in the process.

    Chinese is an interesting variation on this theme. Chinese began its expansion what, five thousand years ago? Since then, it’s been basically politically unified, but its dialects have been diverging. Mandarin Chinese, with its nuceus around Beijing, is unintelligible to speakers of the Shanghai or Hong Kong dialects. Nevertheless they share the same writing system; and this is possible because their writing system is pictographic, and has almost no relationship with the sounds of the language.

  5. Wonderful post! It actually kind of reminded me of the Nacirema article (though, of course, with a different aim!).

    I’m excited to see what will come next from this!

  6. Jeff Lilly says:

    Hi Jen, thanks for the compliment and the link! The Nacirema article is hilarious.

    As for what will come next, well, as I said, I think reaching a consensus on this topic will take at least a decade. When the dust settles, I think the most we can expect is that English will be dual-classified as both Germanic and Celtic. The best possible result will be more interest and funding in the preservation of the more “purebred”, non-English Celtic languages and culture.

  7. Fabulous post! Having grown up in Appalachia, I think I’ve heard my share of Celtic in speech and especially in song.

  8. (still laughing…) No.

  9. Yes and no, English is a creole language. It means it has the basic grammar of it’s origins, one Breton family, it has vocabulary adapted to the conqueror, first, Roman, then, came the Saxon, German, It was a Brito-Roman language, a vernacular language like Gallo-Roman. Most words were twisted by the Celtic Grammar and it probably was like that when William the Conqueror invade and broth a creole language with him Franco-Normand.

    So We find words and name with “Gu” or “Gw”, that mutated to a broad “W” like “guard” and “ward” next mutation would go from “W” to “B” We have “Bard” which is a piece of armor for horses. Gauffre, Waffle and Baffle (architecture, sound baffle) and Guillaume became William,shorten Guy, Will, Bill.

    That is also a feature of the Irish Language, they’ll say my vike for my bike. The mutation also exist in Welsh which is from the Brythonic language family. In the Cornish and Breton language there are some difference we also find in German and Alsace language. Like the number Five, Funf and Fenf Pump and Pemp. Knowing that the Belgium were a Celtic tribe that was living next to the German, and Knowing that some of them moved to the British Island, the creole language to a German for via the Celtic Fir Bolg may had an influence the the development of the later Frisian, Franc, and English Language, Because these languages were rather brother and almost no translation was needed to unederstand one an other. Therefore, when the Carolingians send spies they actually didn’t need to learn an other language.

  10. Jeff Lilly says:

    Thanks for your comment, Patrick. I actually agree that English is (or was at one time, or was at multiple times in history) a creole; in fact I wrote a paper on it while doing some graduate work on pidgins and creoles. English is certainly not a standard or canonical example of the type — its history is actually remarkably tangled and complex, as you hint at — but the creolization processes and effects on the language are undeniable.

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