What do Welsh, Cornish, and Breton have in common? They’re all from the same language family! Keep reading to learn more about the Brittonic branch of the Celtic language family, including its history, some useful phrases, and how the languages are doing today.
The Celtic Language Family
The Celtic language family is made up of a group of related languages that descended from Proto-Celtic. They make up a branch of the Indo-European language family, which also includes languages like English, Greek, Hindi, Farsi, and Ukrainian.
During the 1st century BCE, Celtic languages were spoken across much of Europe and central Anatolia. Nowadays, still-spoken Celtic languages can be found on the northwestern fringes of Europe and in some diaspora communities.
Of these languages that are still spoken, three are part of the Goidelic branch – Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx – and three are part of the Brittonic branch – Welsh, Cornish, and Breton.
All of these are Insular Celtic languages, which means they originated from the region that is now the United Kingdom and Ireland. Even Breton, which is spoken in northern France, is Insular Celtic. It was brought to mainland Europe by migrants from the southwest of Britain and is now the only Celtic language still spoken on the mainland.
Still, there were Celtic languages that were once spoken there. These include languages such as Celtiberian, Galatian, and Gaulish, which all originated on the continent.
Brittonic and Goidelic languages
The Celtic languages that are still spoken today make up two branches of the Celtic language family: the Brittonic and Goidelic branches.
The Goidelic languages are also known as Gaelic languages. Historically, this was a dialect continuum that stretched from Ireland, through the Isle of Man, and to Scotland. Although Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx are not mutually intelligible now, they are all descended from the same language – Middle Irish.
Middle Irish is descended from Old Irish, which in turn is descended from Primitive Irish. This is the oldest written Goidelic language. There are Ogham inscriptions in Primitive Irish that date back to around the 4th century CE.
The endonyms of these languages (the names of the languages in the language) are Gaeilge (Irish), Gaelg (Manx), and Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic). All these names are similar, and this is because they are derived from the Old Irish word Goídelc. This word, in turn, came from the Old Welsh Guoidel which meant ‘pirate’ or ‘raider’.
During the 6th century CE, the kingdom of Dál Riata emerged in western Scotland. This is how Scottish Gaelic spread through the region. The kingdom grew in size and influence and it is believed that the Gaelic language and culture was eventually adopted by the neighbouring Picts who lived throughout Scotland. Before this, the Picts spoke their own, presumably Brittonic, language – Pictish.
Manx is notably different to Irish and Scottish Gaelic due to influences from Old Norse. There were numerous instances of contact with or invasions from Vikings on the Isle of Man, and this has had an impact on the language that is still spoken there today.
The term Brittonic or Brythonic came from the Welsh Celticist John Rhys. He took it from the Welsh word Brython, which means Ancient Britons.
All the still spoken Brittonic languages – Welsh, Cornish, and Breton – are derived from the Common Brittonic language. This was spoken throughout Great Britain during the Iron Age and Roman period.
Then, in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, emigrating Britons took this language to the continent. Mostly, this was to Brittany and Britonia.
Over the next few centuries, Common Brittonic split into several dialects. These evolved into Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Cumbric, and probably Pictish. Cumbric and Pictish are now extinct, having been replaced by Goidelic and Anglic languages.
Descended from Proto-Celtic, Common Brittonic was spoken from around the 6th century BCE until the 6th century CE. It is closely related to Pictish, which is either a sister language or also descended from Common Brittonic.
During the Roman period, Common Brittonic was heavily influenced by Latin. This was particularly noticable in terms related to the church and Christianity.
From the 6th century CE until around the 9th century CE, Common Brittonic was replaced in most of Scotland by Scottish Gaelic (the north and west) and Old English (the south and east).
Pictish stopped being used as a spoken language around 1,000 years ago. It was the spoken language of the Picts, who lived in northern Scotland.
It was either replaced by or subsumed into Gaelic during the final centuries of the Pictish period, and by around 1100 CE, there were almost certainly no speakers remaining.
There has been significant debate as to whether Pictish was, in fact, a Celtic language at all. Evidence from geographical and personal names do give some evidence that it was closely aligned with the Brittonic languages.
For example, we can still see some place names that likely came from Pictish, such as Aberdeen. This translates to ‘mouth of the River Don’, with aber existing as a word in Welsh meaning ‘estuary’ or ‘confluence’.
There are also some place names that likely came from Pictish but then were replaced by Gaelic names. For example, in 1290, Inverbervie was known as Haberberui. The Pictish aber was replaced by the Gaelic inbhir (‘inver’ when anglicised), which mean the same thing.
Gaulish is another Celtic language that is no longer spoken, but was very similar to Common Brittonic. It was spoken in parts of Continental Europe before and during the period of the Roman Empire.
Generally, Gaulish is considered to be the language of the Celts of Gaul. This would, nowadays, include France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, Northern Italy, and the parts of the Netherlands and Germany that are on the west bank of the Rhine.
The first true inscriptions in Gaulish appeared in the 2nd century CE.
In western Europe, Gaulish was supplanted by Vulgar Latin and various Germanic languages from around the 5th century CE onwards. It is thought to have gone extinct some time around the late 6th century CE.
Interestingly, a Swiss folk metal band, Eluveitie, say that some of their songs are written in a reconstructed form of Gaulish. They ask scientists for help writing songs in the language.
Brittonic languages still spoken today
Welsh is spoken natively in Wales, by some people in England, and also in Y Wladfa, a Welsh colony in Chubut Province, Argentina.
Welsh is the only Celtic language that is still spoken which is not considered to be endangered by UNESCO. According to Ethnologue, almost 575,000 people speak the language.
Historically, it has also been known in English as ‘British’, ‘Cambrian’, ‘Cambric’, and ‘Cymric’.
The word ‘Welsh’ descended via the Old English word wealh or wielisc. These came from the Proto-Germanic word *Walhaz, which was derived from the name of the Celtic people that the Romans knew as Volcae. This term came to refer to speakers of Celtic languages and, later, was used indiscriminately to talk about people of the Western Roman Empire.
In Old English, the term went through semantic narrowing. This is when the meaning of a word becomes less general over time. Eventually, it came to refer specifically to Britons, or in some contexts, only to slaves.
On the other hand, the Welsh word for the language – Cymraeg – descends from the Brittonic word combrogi. This means ‘compatriots’ or ‘fellow countrymen’.
While Welsh has been continuously spoken in Wales throughout recorded history, it had become a minority language in the country by 1911, when less than half of the population were speaking it on a daily basis.
Numbers began to increase again by the start of the 21st century, and in the 2011 census, 19% of the population of Wales claimed to speak Welsh. While there are not as many speakers as there once were, the status of the language is improving.
If you visit Wales and are looking to find some Welsh speakers, then there are specific areas where you might find them! Generally, Welsh speakers are concentrated in the north and west of Wales. This includes places like Gwynedd, Conwy, Denbighshire, Anglesey, Carmarthenshire, north Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, parts of Glamorgan, and the northwest and extreme southwest of Powys.
12 useful Welsh words and phrases
|Please||Os gwelwch yn dda|
|Good morning||Bore da|
|Good afternoon||Prynhawn da|
|How are you?||Sut wyt ti? / Sut ydych chi?|
|Fine, thanks||Iawn, diolch|
|What is your name?||Beth yw dy enw di? / Beth yw eich enw?|
|My name is…||Fy enw i yw… / Fy enw i ydy…|
There are estimated to be around 3,000 people who say they have minimal skills in Cornish, and approximately 500 fluent speakers. It is closely related to Breton and the two were likely mutually intelligible for as long as Cornish was used as a community language
Cornish is a revived language. Between 1300 and 1800, use of the language declined, with Dolly Pentreath (1692-1777) considered to be perhaps the last monolingual speaker.
It stopped being used as a community language in Cornwall at the end of the 18th century, although knowledge of Cornish – and some speaking ability – was passed on within families and by individuals.
In the early 20th century, a revival of the language began. The Standard Written Form (SWF) was introduced in 2008, and in 2010, UNESCO announced that its former classification of the language as ‘extinct’ was ‘no longer accurate’.
12 useful Cornish words and phrases
|Thank you||Meur ras|
|You’re welcome||Wolkom owgh|
|Good morning||Myttin da|
|Good afternoon||Dohajydh da|
|How are you?||Fatla genowgh?|
|Fine, thanks||Yn poynt da, meur ras|
|What is your name?||Pyth yw agas hanow? / Py hanow owgh?|
|My name is…||… yw ow hanow|
Breton is the only Celtic language that is still spoken on the European mainland. It is also the only still-spoken Celtic language that is not recognised by a national government as an official or regional language.
It was brought from Great Britain to Armorica (the part of Gaul between the Seine and Loire, which includes the Brittany peninsula) by migrating Britons during the Early Middle Ages.
In 1950, there were around one million speakers, but this number has since declined. In the first decade of the 21st century, there were estimated to be around 200,000 speakers. UNESCO classifies it as severely endangered.
At the beginning of the 20th century, as well, half the population of Lower Brittany only spoke Breton, but it seems likely that there are no monolingual speakers left today.
There are efforts being made to maintain and promote Breton, and these exist on a regional and local level. The Ofis Publik ar Brezhoneg began a campaign in the early 2000s to encourage daily use of Breton in the region by both businesses and local communes. There are bilingual classes that students can attend and some bilingual signage.
If you are interested in learning Breton, then you should be aware that there are four traditional dialects of the language. These correspond to medieval bishoprics rather than linguistic divisions and are: leoneg, tegerig, kerneveg, and gwenedeg.
There are no clear boundaries between the dialects because they form a continuum and only vary slightly from one village to the next. Still, if you’re going to learn gwenedeg, that may require some more study to be intelligible with most of the other dialects.
12 useful Breton words and phrases
|You’re welcome||Gant plijadur|
|Good afternoon||Endervezh mat|
|How are you?||Penaos emañ kont ? / Mont a ra ?|
|Fine, thanks||Mont a ra mat-tre, trugarez|
|What is your name?||Petra eo da anv ?|
|My name is…||… eo ma anv.|
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the Brittonic languages with us today. Let us know if there are any facts you think we should know – and if you’re learning a Brittonic language, which one? How are you finding it?
Hopefully, these languages will continue to go from strength to strength in the future.
In the meantime, give the Brittonic languages a try on the uTalk app. You can get started with Welsh, Cornish, or Breton for free by trying out our Free Starter Words.
Happy language learning!