Dialects of the Celtic Language

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Sculpture on a Capital, Priest's House, Glendalough: Beranger 1779

Sculpture on a Capital: Priest's House, Glendalough: Beranger 1779 (From Petrie’s Round Towers)



SECTION 1. Divisions and Dialects of Celtic.

Letter S

ix Dialects.—There are two main branches of the ancient Celtic language:—The Goidelic, or Gaelic, or Irish; and the British; corresponding with the two main divisions of the Celtic people of the British Islands. Each of these has branched into three dialects. Those of Gaelic are:—The Irish proper, spoken in Ireland; the Gaelic of Scotland, differing only slightly from Irish; and the Manx, which may be said to be Irish written phonetically with some dialectical variations. The dialects of British are:—Welsh, spoken in Wales; Cornish, spoken till lately in Cornwall; and Breton or Armoric, spoken in Brittany.

Of the whole six dialects, five are still spoken: the Cornish became extinct in the eighteenth century; and Manx is nearly extinct. Four have an ancient written literature.—Irish, Welsh, Cornish, and Armoric. Neither the Gaelic of Scotland nor the Manx has an ancient literature distinct from that of Ireland: but Scotland has a living modern literature.* All these are derived from the Gaulish or Continental Celtic, which in the course of ages, since the separation of the original Gaulish emigrant tribes, has diverged into the two branches and the six dialects named here.

Three Divisions of Irish.—Irish, like all other living languages, has undergone great changes in lapse of time: so that in fact the written language of eleven or twelve hundred years ago, of which many specimens have been preserved, is now all but unintelligible to those who can read only modern Irish. It is usual to divide Irish, as we find it written, into three stages. I. Old Irish, from the seventh or eighth to the eleventh or twelfth century. This is the language of the Glosses, of the Irish found in the Book of Armagh, and of some passages in the Book of the Dun Cow; but we have very little Old Irish preserved in Ireland. The oldest, purest, and most cultivated form, as found in the St. Gall and other seventh or eighth-century glosses, was called the Bérla féne [bairla faina], i.e. the language of the Feini or main body of the free original inhabitants. II. Middle Irish, from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, marked by many departures from the Old Irish forms. This is the language of most of our present important manuscripts—described farther on (p. 208)—such as the Book of the Dun Cow, the Book of Leinster, the Lebar Brecc, and the Book of Ballymote. III. Modern Irish, from the fifteenth century to the present day. This is the language of most of the Ossianic tales. The purest specimens are the writings of Keating, both historical and religious. There is a vast amount of manuscript literature in Modern Irish.

Glosses.—When transcribing or using the classics, or the Latin version of the Scriptures, Irish professors and teachers of the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, in order to aid the Irish learners, or for their own convenience, often wrote between the lines or on the margin literal Irish translations of the unusual or most difficult words of the text, or general renderings of the sense into Gaelic phrases. These are what are called Glosses. Numbers of these interesting manuscripts, their pages all crowded with glosses, are preserved to this day in many Continental libraries, mostly written in Ireland, and brought away to save them from destruction (see p. 207, infra)but some written on the Continent: and in them are found older forms of Irish than any we have in Ireland. Many have been recently published, with the Latin words and passages, and the corresponding Gaelic. It is chiefly by means of these glosses that the ancient grammatical forms of the language have been recovered; and the meanings of numbers of Irish words, long obsolete, have been ascertained from their Latin equivalents.

It is interesting to observe that here the original intention is reversed. The scribe wrote the Gaelic, which was the language of his everyday life, to explain the Latin text. But while the Latin, being then, as now, a dead language, has remained unchanged, the Gaelic has suffered those changes spoken of in page 198, so that the Gaelic of the glosses is now in many cases difficult and obscure. Accordingly, instead of the Gaelic explaining the Latin, we now use the Latin to explain the Gaelic.

Zeuss.—The first to make extensive use of the glosses for these purposes was Johann Kaspar Zeuss, a Bavarian; born in 1806; died 1856. He visited the libraries of St. Gall, Wurzburg, Milan, Carlsruhe, Cambrai, and several other cities, in all of which there are manuscript books with glosses in the four Celtic dialects; and he copied everything that suited his purpose. He found the Irish glosses by far the most ancient, extensive, and important of all. Most of them belonged to the seventh or eighth century; some few to the beginning of the ninth. At the end of thirteen years he produced the great work of his life, "Grammatica Celtica," a complete Grammar of the four ancient Celtic dialects—Irish or Gaelic—and the three British dialects, Welsh, Cornish, and Armoric: published 1853. It is a closely printed book of over 1000 pages; and it is all written in Latin, except of course the Celtic examples and quotations. Each of the four dialects is treated of separately.

Zeuss was the founder of Celtic philology. The "Grammatica Celtica" was a revelation to scholars, wholly unexpected; and it gave an impetus to the study, which has been rather increasing than diminishing since his time. He made it plain that a knowledge of the Celtic languages is necessary in order to unravel the early history of the peoples of Western Europe. Since the time of Zeuss, many scholarly works have been written on Celtic philology: but the "Grammatica Celtica" still stands at the head of all.

Ancient Glossaries and Grammars.—In consequence of the gradual change of the Irish language, it became customary for native scholars of past times, skilled in the ancient language, to write glossaries of obsolete words to aid students in reading very ancient manuscripts. Many of these are preserved in our old books. The most noted is "Cormac's Glossary," by Archbishop Cormac Mac Cullenan, king of Cashel, who died A.D. 908. It was translated and annotated by John O'Donovan; and this translation and the Irish text, with most valuable additional notes, have been published by Dr. Whitley Stokes. Other Glossaries are those of Michael O'Clery, chief of the Four Masters; of Duald Mac Firbis, and of O'Davoren. In the Books of Ballymote and Lecan there is a very ancient treatise on Irish Grammar, but it has never been translated.

But with all the aids at our command—glossaries, glosses, translations, and commentaries—there are many Irish pieces in the books named below (p. 208) that have up to the present defied the attempts of the best Irish scholars to translate them satisfactorily, so many old words, phrases, and allusions do they contain whose meanings have been lost. This state of things has been caused chiefly by the wholesale destruction of MSS. mentioned at page 206, infra, which left great gaps, and broke the continuity of the Irish language and literature. But the subject is attracting more and more attention as years go by. Great numbers of Continental scholars as well as those of the British Isles are eagerly engaged in studying ancient Irish texts; year by year the difficulties are being overcome; and there is every hope that before long we shall have translations of most or all of these obscure old pieces.

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* In Ireland a vigorous attempt is just now being made to re-create a living written Gaelic literature, and to extend the use of spoken Irish, and a knowledge of Irish lore in general. There is a movement also—following the example of Ireland—to revive Manx and Cornish.