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Survival Celtic or how to start a conversation on the (less) British Isles
Anna Gnoiñska, I NKJO, ul. Zegad³owicza 1, 41-200 Sosnowiec


1. Introduction.

Some years ago, less aware visitors to the United Kingdom could have been surprised to find out that not all native inhabitants of the British Isles spoke English as their first language. In recent times, political and cultural movements for national identity helped to popularise ancient traditions and languages. To an average tourist, hearing some Welsh or Gaelic can be an attraction comparable to sightseeing or tasting the local cuisine. Knowing something about Celtic languages or trying to communicate in them can be both useful and great fun.

Celts were among the first inhabitants of the British Isles. After the Picts and several peoples speaking Basque-Iberian dialects, they arrived from Austria and Switzerland (500-400 BC), France and the Netherlands (400-350 BC), and Belgium (100BC) and brought their traditions with them. Several Celtic languages could be heard there for many centuries to come:



Celtic languages:




Scots Gaelic  (Gaidhlige)


Welsh   (Cymraeg)

Irish Gaelic   (Gaeilge)

Cornish   (Kernwys)

Manx Gaelic  (Gailck)

Breton    (Brezounek)


Just like other languages, Celtic languages went through a number of changes in grammar vocabulary and the writing system (Ogam). The early (5th – 9th c), old (9th – 12th c) and middle (12th  - 15th c) periods of development saw the languages flourishing. The modern (16th – 20th c) period led to their decline. If it had not been for the revival of interest in Celtic culture at the end of the 19th  and the beginning of the 20th centuries, all those languages could have died. Fortunately, at least the major few have been rescued and are still in use.

Wales is a country where Celtic traditions and native literature are well maintained. Wales was conquered soon after the battle of Hastings by Anglo-Norman knights, and later Anglicised by the Tudors and the House of Hanover. Despite the union with England early in history (the Statute of Wales 1284), the Welsh people felt strongly about their roots and fought for their national identity. Fortunately, its periods of national revivals were cultural more than political, which gave them a chance to succeed. First, the professional story-tellers (cyfarwydd) kept the folklore alive, then bards and poetry and drama holidays (eisteddfodau) helped the nation to preserve literary traditions. Many country people have spoken Welsh at home, and used the Welsh version of the Holy Bible.

The history of Anglo-Scottish relations is different. Although the English language and institutions were adopted in richer and more influential regions of Scotland, the country remained independent until the union of 1603 (King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England) and 1707 (Union of Parliaments). The lack of tradition to fight for national identity made people abandon their original language. It was even considered inferior and unwelcome by many Scottish Celts. There was no significant literary tradition in Scotland until after 1801, and still many people could only speak – not write – Gaelic. In 1891 An Comunn Gaidhealach was founded to promote Gaelic. Handbooks were written and a Gaelic-English dictionary was published. As a result, despite long-lasting repression and disdain, the language managed to survive.

The structure and grammatical rules of the Celtic languages are quite unique.

At first sight, the Welsh spelling seems easy. The alphabet consists of twenty simple letters and eight digraphs:





























The letters have sounds attributed to them. However, the mutations, which in certain cases weaken nine of the consonants from radical to soft, changing six consonants into nasals and making three of them aspirate, cause the system to be more complex. There is masculine and feminine gender in Welsh and there are articles. Plural is formed with endings (dyn ‘man’ - dynion ‘people’, afal ‘apple’ - afalau, ffenestr ‘window’- ffenestri), change of the vowel (bachgen ‘boy’ - bachgyn, bardd ‘poet’ - beirdd), or both ways at once (gardd ‘garden’ - gerddi). Case is marked by prepositions or, for personal pronouns, by the position of a noun in a sentence. The word order follows the VSO pattern: the verb comes first in a sentence, and the adjective follows the noun. A most interesting feature is the counting system. There are simple names for numbers 1-10 and 20. Numbers 11 -15 are made by adding digits to 10; for 16, 17 and 19 by adding digits to 15; and 18 equals 2 x 9. Thus, 58 is deunau a deugain (2 x 9 + 2 x 20), and 85 is pedwar udain a phump (4 x 20 + 5). There is no verb ‘to have’ in Celtic languages. You say: y mae gan y ferch = there’s a dog with the girl, or: y mae car gennym ni = there’s a car with us. Vocabulary denoting modern inventions is rather English with Welsh spelling (bws, trwser, compiwter, ambiwlans). Welsh is also famous for long place names, e.g. ‘Saint Mary’s Church in the hollow of white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of saint Tysilio near the red cave’ sounds: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch!

Scottish Gaelic is related to the Irish language and follows similar rules. It has a very complicated spelling system, which may be the reason why people can understand and speak it, but a lot fewer can write in it. The pronunciation is often surprisingly different from what could be expected from the written form of a word. Grammar is also quite complex, with a well-developed system of declension, double and plural forms, a variety of pronouns and unique word order. It should be remembered that Gaelic is spoken in the north-west of Scotland, in the Highlands, and should not be confused with Scots, the dialect used in the eastern half of the country. The origins of Scots are unclear. It is sometimes seen as a ‘compromise’ between English and the native language of Scottish Picts. It has its own characteristics, but is not connected with the Celtic language brought to Scotland by Irish invaders.


2. Learning some Welsh and Gaelic.

1.  Place names. Decide which of the following names are Scottish and which are Welsh.

     Can you see any characteristic features of the languages? How are sounds represented by letters?


Inbhir Pheofharain         Yr Wyddfa        An Gearasdan        Gallghaidhealaibh        Môn Abertawe           Y Fenni         An t-Eilean Sgitheanach          Sruighlea         Casnewydd





1. (Dingwall)

1. (Snowdon)

2. (Fort William)

2. (Swansea)

3. (Galloway)

3. (Abergavenny)

4. (Isle of Sky)

4. (Anglesey)

5. (Stirling)

5. (Newport)


2.                        Place names. Match Scottish and Welsh names with their English equivalents.


Inbhir  Nis             Obar Dheathain

Dun Eideann       Dun Deagh     Alba

      Peairt      Glaschu             Sasann      Dun Phri            An t-Srón Reamhar

Eglwys Cadeiriol        Tyddewi Caerdydd

Cymru          Abaty Tyndern

  Castell Caerffili     Caerfyrddin   Lloegr     Pistyll Rhaeadr          Penfro             Dinbych-y-Pysgod






  1.  Scotland

  1.  Wales

  2.  England

  2.  England

  3.  Edinburgh

  3.  Cardiff

  4.  Aberdeen

  4.  Tintern Abbey

  5.  Glasgow

  5.  Pembroke

  6.  Inverness

  6.  St David’s Cathedral

  7.  Perth

  7.  Caerphilly Castle

  8.  Dundee

  8.  Rhayader Waterfall

  9.  Dumfries

  9.  Tenby

10.  Stranraer

10.  Carmarthen


3.  Which are Scottish, and which are Welsh?

4.  Which are Scottish, and which are Welsh?


Numbers          ?  ?  ?


               Days of the week                   ?  ?  ?


1.  un

  1.  aon


dydd Llun


2.  dau

  2.  dhá


dydd Mawrth


3.  tri

  3.  tri


dydd Mercher


4.  pedwar

  4.  ceithir


dydd Iau


5.  pump

  5.  cóig


dydd Gwener


6.  chwech

  6.  sé


dydd Sadwrn


7.  saith

  7.  seachd


dydd Sul


8.  wyth

  8.  ochd




9.  naw

  9.  naodh




10.  deg

10.  deich






5. Talking Welsh.  Arrange the elements of the conversation as suggested in the English



Farmer 1:

Good morning!

a:   Beth ydi pris y cwrw?


Milk? Tea? Coffee?

b:   Diolch yn fawr. Un arall os gwelwch yn dda.

Farmer 1:

No, thank you.

c:   Un ar ddeg. Beth sy’n bod?


Cold beer?

d:   Bore da!

Farmer 2:

What’s the price of the beer?

e:   Dim diolch.


One sixty.

f:    Llaeth? Te? Coffi?

Farmer 2:

Thank you. One more, please.

g:   Esgusodwch fi, beth ydy hi or gloch?

Farmer 1:

Excuse me, what time is it?

h:   Cwrw oer?


Eleven. What’s the matter?

i:    Rydw i’n mynd i’r gwaith.

Farmer 1:

I’m going to work.

j:    Maén bwrw glaw.


It’s raining.

k:   Mae car gennym ni.

Farmer 2:

We’ve got a car.

l:    Punt a thrigain.


6.  Talking Scottish.  Listen to the following dialogue and then practise it with a partner.

              A:   Madainn mhath!

              B:   Hallo. Ciamar a tha sibh?

              A:   Tha gu math, tapadh leibh.

                     Ciamar a tha sibh fein?

              B:   Tha gu math, tapadh leibh.

              A:   Tha i breagha an-diugh.

              B:   Tha.


7.  Talking Scottish.  Make your own dialogue from the elements provided.


Halló                                                    (hello)

Ciamar a tha sibh?            (how are you)

Tloraidh!                                             (goodbye)

Ciamar a tha sibh féin?     (how are you)

Madainn mhath!                          (good morning)

Tha gu math                     (I’m well)

Feasgar math!                                 (good afternoon/evening)

Tapadh leibh                     (thank you)

Gabh mo leisgeul                            (excuse me)

Mas e ur toil e                   (please)

Is mise                                       (I am …)

‘S e ur beatha                    (you’re welcome)

Dé an t-ainm a thoirbh?      (what’s your name)

Tha i bréagha                    (it’s a lovely day)

Cáit a bheil sibh a’ fuireach?          (where do you live)

Tha i fliuch                        (it’s wet)

Ann an Glaschu                            (in Glasgow)

An-diugh                     (today)

Dé an seóladh a thagaibh?   (what’s your address)

Dé tha sibh ag iarraidh?     (what do you want)

Có ás a tha sibh?              (where are you from)

Tha mi ag larraidh        (I want …)

Dé an áireamh fón a thagaibh?    (what’s your phone number)

Ti agus cofaidh le siúcar    (tea & coffee with sugar)


Other common words  you might want to use  (English - Scottish - Welsh):


Valley     -    gleann    -    dyffryn

family    -    teaghlach    -    teulu

river    -    abhainn    -    afon

dog   -   lorgaich   -   ci

mountain    -    beinn    -    mynydd

milk    -    bainne    -    llaeth

lake    -    loch    -    llyn

beer    -    leann-caol    -    cwrw

Come in    -   thig a-steach    -    dewch i mewn

bread    -    aran    -    bara



¡         Bowen J T & T J Rhys Jones (1960) Welsh London

¡         Dieckhoff H C (1932) A Pronouncing Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic Edinburgh

¡         Jones J M (1913) A Welsh Grammar Oxford

¡         Lewis H & H Perdesen (1937) A Concise Comparative Celtic Grammar Göttingen

¡         Mackimnon R (1971) Gaelic London

¡         Majewicz E & A F Majewicz Jêzyki celtyckie na Wyspach Brytyjskich Kraków 1983

¡         Randle J (1981) Understanding Britain. A History of the British People and Their Culture Oxford

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