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P-Celt and Q-Celt

People often speak of the 'Celtic' peoples of Ireland and Scotland. What do they mean? What is it that these 'Celts' have in common with each other?

People even speak of 'Celtic Europe' - a great exhibition of Celtic art and other archaeological evidence made a magnificent spectacle in Venice's Palazzo Grassi in 1991. Are we to suggest that there was once a great civilisation stretching across Europe, self-consciously Celtic, sharing great swathes of cultural life and social organisation which they held in common with each other, and which made them different from other cultures? If this is the question, the answer must be a resounding 'no'. For most of their history, for example, the Welsh and the Gaels, neighbours as they are, have had no idea that they were both 'Celtic'. It was only with the rise of comparative linguistics in the early modern period that anyone realised that these two cultures had a certain common element.

As Gearóid Mac Eoin pointed out in the concluding pages of the vast and splendid tome that accompanied the exhibition, The Celts:

That which all the Celtic countries have in common and which distinguishes them from other countries of western Europe is that they have all in recent centuries had a Celtic language as their vernacular. The Celtic languages, though today mutually unintelligible, are closely related to one another and belong to a group which was once spoken throughout all of western and much of central Europe.

It is language which is the defining characteristic of the 'Celtic'. Not politics, as Celtic peoples have lived as part of many different political scenarios, in alliance with all kinds of non-Celtic groups, colonised and colonising, rural and more or less urban.

It is not art or technique that makes Celts 'Celtic' - though it is clear that among people who spoke Celtic languages there were at some times and in some places shared artistic traditions. But to listen to the way some people extol the art of 'Celtic knotwork' as a great symbol of Celtic identity and even of Celtic spirituality - complex, interwoven, mysterious - you would think that it wasn't a widespread phenomenon in non-Celtic Europe and beyond. But it is, and it is therefore not particularly Celtic.

Language remains the only ultimately useful criterion for talk of Celtic identity, then.

The surviving Insular Celtic languages fall into two groups. One group, the P-Celtic, includes modern Welsh and Cornish, both more or less close to the Breton spoken in northern France. These are sometimes called what are called British or Britonnic dialects, and are akin to the now defunct language, Pictish. The other group, 'Q-Celtic' includes the daughter languages of Old Gaelic - Irish, Scottish and Manx.

The insular distribution of Gaelic and British
speech circa 500 AD [note there were
some local variations in this pattern]

The terms 'P' and 'Q' in this context refer to peculiarities of the sounds made by the two different groups. In Indo-European words which contained an original /kw/ sound, the P-Celts developed in one direction, dropping the /k/ and hardening the labial /w/ to a /p/ sound. The Q-Celts developed in the other direction, dropping the /w/ sound and remaining with the velar /k/.

This can be shown on a table, where Middle Welsh and Old Gaelic words are compared with each other.



English meaning











cland > clann





Gaelic's dislike of the p sound is also reflected in the way that it borrowed words from Latin in the earliest period of Christian conversion. So Latin vesper, 'evening', becomes Old Gaelic fescor. Latin apostolus, 'apostle', became Gaelic Axal in a poem written around 600 AD. (Clancy and Márkus 1995, 106)

Such alternations of p and q sounds are not peculiar to Celtic languages. It is a pattern among other Indo-European languages, a wider family of which Celtic is one branch. For example, the Latin word equus, 'a horse', is equivalent to the Greek hippos.

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