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Continental Celtic

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Continental Celtic

Continental Celtic
Formerly continental Europe; Asia Minor
Linguistic classification: Indo-European

The Continental Celtic languages are the Celtic languages, now extinct, that were spoken on the continent of Europe, as distinguished from the Insular Celtic languages of the British Isles and Brittany. The Continental Celtic languages were spoken by the people known to Roman and Greek writers as Keltoi, Celtae, Galli and Galatae. These languages were spoken in an arc stretching across from Iberia in the west to the Balkans and Anatolia in the east.

Continental Celtic is divided into the Hispano-Celtic and Gaulish languages. Gaulish is subdivided into Transalpine Gaulish, Cisalpine Gaulish, Galatian, Lepontic and Noric, with the precise relation between these subgroups being uncertain or unknown.

Even though Breton is spoken in continental Europe, and has been since at least the 6th century AD, it is not considered one of the Continental Celtic languages. It is a Brittonic language closely related to Cornish and Welsh. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that there is a Gaulish substratum in the Vannetais dialect (Galliou and Jones 1991), and François Falc'hun considered Breton a descendant of Gaulish, but the historical and linguistic evidence shows otherwise.

Attested Celtic languages

Although it is likely that Celts spoke dozens of different languages and dialects across Europe in pre-Roman times, only five such languages are commonly said to be actually attested:

  • Lepontic (7th to 4th century BC)[1] was spoken on the southern side of the Alps. Lepontic is generally considered an early dialect of Gaulish, and Galatian may be a late one as well. It is evidenced in a number of inscriptions as well as place names.
  • Gaulish or Gallic (3rd century BC to 2nd (?) century AD)[2] was the main language spoken in greater Gaul. This is often considered to be divided into two dialects, Cisalpine (the Italian side) and Transalpine (the French side). It is evidenced in a number of inscriptions as well as place names and tribal names in writings of classical authors. It may have been a substratum to Breton, as noted below.
  • Galatian, spoken around Ankara. Classical writers say that the language is similar to that of Gaul. There is also evidence of invasion and settlement of the Ankara area by Celts from Europe.
  • Noric, which is the name given sometimes to the Celtic dialects spoken in Central and Eastern Europe. It was spoken in Austria and Slovenia; only two fragmentary texts are preserved and there are plenty of personal names and toponyms.
  • Celtiberian or Northeastern Hispano-Celtic (3rd to 1st century BC)[2] is the name given to the language in northeast Iberia, between the headwaters of the Douro, Tagus, Júcar and Turía rivers and the Ebro river. It is attested to by some 200 inscriptions as well as place names. It is distinct from the Iberian language.
  • Gallaecian or Gallaic or Northwestern Hispano-Celtic known from a small corpus of Latin inscriptions containing some linguistic features that are unmistakably Celtic forming a continuum of Celtic dialects, while other inscriptions have archaic features that appear to be similar to Lusitanian.[3]

Possible Celtic languages

  • Lusitanian was spoken in the area between the Douro and Tagus rivers in what is now Portugal and part of Spain. It is known only by five inscriptions, together with various place names.[4] It is an Indo-European language and some scholars have proposed that it may be an early or proto-Celtic language in a dialectic continuum with Gallaecian, given its archaic character.[4][5][6] Others disagree with an early or proto-Celtic designation and see affinities with Italic and Old European.[7][8]
  • Tartessian, spoken in the south-west of the Iberia Peninsula.[9] Tartessian is known by 95 inscriptions with the longest having 82 readable signs.[3][5][10]

Use of term

The modern term Continental Celtic is used in contrast to Insular Celtic. While many researchers agree that Insular Celtic is a distinct branch of Celtic (Cowgill 1975; McCone 1991, 1992; Schrijver 1995), having undergone common linguistic innovations, there is no evidence that the Continental Celtic languages can be similarly grouped. Instead, the group called Continental Celtic is polyphyletic and the term refers simply to non-Insular Celtic languages. Since little material has been preserved in any of the Continental Celtic languages, historical linguistic analysis based on the comparative method is difficult to perform. However, other researchers see the Brittonic languages and Gaulish as forming part of a sub-group of the Celtic languages known as P-Celtic. Continental languages are all P-Celtic except for Celtiberian, which is Q-Celtic, and have had a definite influence on all the Romance languages.

See also



  • Ball M and Fife J (1993). The Celtic Languages.
  • Stifter, David (2008), Old Celtic 2008 (classroom material), [1]
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