Ogmios Project

© copyright Meredith Richard
All Rights Reserved
Reprinted with permission 
* Labara: Talking about Celtic Language
Introduction to the Celtic Languages, Part 2:
Structure and Worldview
by Meredith Richard

Tongueish Uponkinshiphangingness

"For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of world-ken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and daily life.

"The underlying kinds of stuff are firststuffs which link together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly, we knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such as aegirstuff and helstuff.

"The firststuffs have their beings as motes called unclefts. These are mighty small: one seedweight of waterstuff holds a tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts.

So begins 'Uncleftish Beholding', an elementary essay on science written in an imaginary English where words of Latin, Greek and Arabic derivation have been replaced by Anglo-Saxon coinages. For instance, 'cleft' is an English word meaning split (as in 'cleft chin'), so 'uncleft' means unsplit - which is the literal meaning of the word 'atom', from the Greek. Since much English vocabulary is from non-Anglo-Saxon sources, the above text is very changed and seems almost foreign. Why, if Anglo-Saxon is the parent tongue of English, is this true?

English was greatly influenced by Anglo-Norman French (a Romance tongue descended from Latin) after the Norman invasion of England in the eleventh century; for a long time, French was the language of the nobility in England and only peasants spoke English. Western European civilisation has also for centuries idealised the Classical cultures of Greece and Rome, and scientific terms were intentionally coined with Greek and Latin elements. These cultural and historical facts resulted in an English where words of French, Latin and Greek origin tend to sound more sophisticated and often have 'better' meanings - for example, a 'mansion' (cognate with French maison, 'house') is a larger and grander version of the Anglo-Saxon 'house'.

So 'Uncleftish Beholding' doesn't evoke science and technology associations for us, or even a feel of academic or cultured discourse. And under the odd texture of the words lies another reality. What sort of world would this be if that were really standard English? Either the cultural flowering of Greece, the Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest never would have happened, or their influence on England (and probably most of Western civilisation) would have been somehow reduced or rejected somehow. That would be a very different world than ours, in everything from religion to art to politics.

Linguistic Relativism

I chose 'modern Anglo-Saxon' to illustrate how words are not simply labels with clear dictionary meanings, but have connotations that resonate much deeper within our psyches than we usually realise. Two words that 'mean the same thing' on the surface may not mean exactly the same thing, and can have very dissimilar secondary meanings and connotations. What this example can’t show is the differences in structure that two languages may have, because even though it’s a very odd variety, ‘Uncleftish Beholding’ is English. A truly foreign language will not only have other patterns of word relations and derivations, but also different grammatical patterns. The differences in two languages’ ‘maps of the world’ may be immense - and those who think in these languages are viewing the world and thinking in different ways, because a language is a way of structuring thoughts and concepts about the world. It shapes our thoughts, just as our new thoughts then shape the language. This idea is called linguistic relativism.

 Neither does the above text demonstrate how a separate language has its own cultural universe, "a very rich and inter-related web of interlocking genres – the world view, in other words, also consists strongly of and is reinforced by the other ‘levels’ – the proverbs, songs, place-names, personal names, stories, etc., all of which borrow from and invoke each other promiscuously." The door to this cultural universe only opens through the language itself. English translations can convey only a tiny part of its full meaning – and of course, the bulk of Celtic literature, song, myth and poetry has never been translated into English at all.

 As Celtic Druids and Pagans, we should be very aware of the fact that our worldview is inextricably entwined with the language we think in. Appreciating the essence of Celtic tradition means having a Celtic worldview, which is embodied in and through Celtic language. This is particularly evident when considering the centrality of poetry to this tradition. Poetry is extremely difficult to translate with any real accuracy, since the art is so very dependent on the precise connotations of words, the way which images are invoked, and the actual sounds of the words; being limited to translations is a serious lack. The more deeply one wishes to understand a culture - the farther from ‘objective’ subjects like science, the closer to the heart of a people’s imaginative being - the more important it becomes to see the world in their terms, in their language.

In the first part of this article, we reviewed the history of the Celtic languages, and briefly defined a Celtic language as one that is directly and organically related to the languages spoken by the peoples identified as Celts in the writings of the Greeks and Romans. The modern members of this family are divided into two branches, the Goedelic (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx) and the Brythonic (Welsh, Breton, and Cornish). How are Celtic languages’ maps different from English?


Grammatical Structure

One major characteristic of Celtic languages is unique among Indo-European languages: in most standard sentences, the verb comes before the noun. For example, in Cornish, the sentence "The woman came’ is Deth an venen, ‘Came the woman’. What is happening is mentioned before who is involved, and in sense the former has priority. Verbs also change their form more drastically than in English when the meaning of a sentence changes. For instance, in the English sentences ‘Is Bríd here?’, ‘Bríd is here’, and ‘Bríd is not here’, the word ‘is’ remains unchanged. In Irish, the three sentences are An bhfuil Bríd anseo?, Tá Bríd anseo, and Níl Bríd anseo. Instead of rearranging the word order or adding a distinct word like ‘not’, in these sentences the verb stays in front, but changes form in each sentence.

However, this does not imply that the word order of a Celtic sentence is rigid - quite the opposite! Instead of stressing words vocally as we do in English, in Celtic languages an emphasized word or phrase is often moved up to the beginning of a sentence and the rest of the sentence is rearranged accordingly, often changing the form of words. For example in Welsh, ‘Gwydion is going to the Eisteddfod’ is Mae Gwydion yn mynd i’r Eisteddfod, but if we want to stress that it is Gwydion who is going (not, say, his brother Elfed), we say Gwydion sy’n mynd i’r Eisteddfod. The verb changes form from mae to sy. (An eisteddfod is a ‘sitting’, a Welsh festival featuring music, literary and poetry competitions.)

Before leaving verbs, the best-known factoid about Celtic languages is that ‘they have no words for yes and no.’ This is true in a way. There is no single word for ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but it is quite easy to give an affirmative or negative response to a question, usually by using the appropriate verb form. In the Irish sentences above, the answer to the question An bhfuil Bríd anseo? is either Tá (yes) or Níl (no). But if the question were ‘Was Bríd here?’, An raibh Bríd anseo?, the reply would be Bhí (yes) or Ní raibh (no).

Another way that words change form are the infamous mutation systems. In other Indo-European languages, most grammatical changes to a word happen at its end, such as adding an ‘s’ to make a plural. In the Celtic languages, the beginning of words also change, and this is called mutation (although this is often known by other terms, such as eclipsis and lenition). For instance ‘a stone’ in Irish is cloch, but ‘the stone’ is an chloch. Similarly in Welsh we have carreg and y garreg. In Breton, ‘brother’ is breur, while ‘his brother’ is e vreur and ‘your brother’ is ho preur. It is not surprising that "There is hardly a language in the world for which the traditional concept of ‘word’ is so doubtful as for the Celtic languages".

Celtic languages are very noun-centered. In particular, many concepts that are expressed with verbs in English are expressed by preposition-noun constructions in the Celtic languages. The importance of this sort of structure is shown by the fact that prepositions have personal forms - instead of saying ‘with me, with you, with her, with him’ and so forth, each phrase has a separate form. For example, in Scottish Gaelic the above phrases are leam, leat, leatha, leis. Preposition-noun constructions show that relationship is a primary concept in the Celtic worldview, contrasting with the default structure in English of dividing concepts up into the actor, the action, and the acted-upon. The preposition-noun structure is particularly evident in the Goedelic languages, which generally have more archaic features than the Brythonic languages.

For instance, the ‘simple’ concept of ‘having’ something is virtually non-existent. Things are ‘with’ you or ‘at’ you, as if by their consent. Mae gen i afal, "I have an apple" is literally "There is an apple with me" (Welsh). In Manx, Ta eem aym, "I have butter" is literally "There is butter at me". Things that one has no control over - unpleasant things, sickness, many emotions - are usually ‘on’ you: Mae eisiau bwyd arnaf i (I am hungry) is "There is a want of food on me" (Welsh). Tá áthas orm, (I’m glad) is "There is joy on me" (Irish). But intentions, which are acts of will, are under you: Tá fúm Cáit a phósadh (I intend to marry Cáit) is "There is under me Cáit to marry" (Irish). Things which you desire are ‘from’ you: Tha leabhar uam (I want a book), "There is a book from me" (Scottish Gaelic). Even love and knowledge are not things that you do or have, but things that are ‘at’ you, such as in the Irish Tá grá agam dhuit, (I love you), "There is love at me to you" and Tá a fhios agam (I know), "There is knowledge at me".

Another way that Celtic languages stress relationship is in certain sentences where what we think of as the passive ‘object’, the person or thing acted upon, is expressed through means of a possessive. In English, we say ‘They are helping me’, but in Welsh, we say Maen nhw’n fy ’nghymorth, ‘They are at my helping’. This is more obvious in the Goedelic languages, which unlike the Brythonic ones still have a genitive case: Tá sé ag moladh Bhríd (He is praising Bríd), ‘He is at Bríd’s praising’ (Irish).


Lexical Structure

Moving into the realm of words themselves, the Celtic languages have their fair share of words which are essentially untranslatable, or whose connotations and associations are significantly different from their nearest English equivalent. Some of these are familiar ‘technical terms’ left untranslated in English-language Celtic scholarship, words such as ogham (the Irish inscription alphabet), filíocht (poetry, the poetic tradition), geis (a type of taboo), cynghanedd (a complex form of Welsh alliteration), or menhir (a type of standing stone). Others, like the Welsh hiraeth, ‘longing’, can be translated, but the English word does not capture the deep, untranslatable yearnings that are conveyed by the Welsh word.

Deep differences are also evidenced by which words - and therefore concepts - are absent in another language, as David Green notes:

"Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Irish language is the reluctance to accept coinages common to most of the languages of Europe. I am not here thinking of technical terms...for which words must, and have been, found, but rather of imprecise metaphors such as escalate and viable....Unfortunately, many people are under the impression that such modern terms as development, influence, interesting represent essential concepts of human thought, and that no language can afford to be without them.... 

"It is not surprising that Irish has been under considerable pressure to admit equivalents, which could then be used with the freedom, and impreciseness, with which they are used in other languages; fortunately the authority of de Bhaldraithe’s English-Irish Dictionary has been brought to bear against the coining of unnecessary neologisms of this type." Greene goes on to list the entries for ‘development’, and it is clear from the literal translations of the Irish terms that the idiom is far more concrete: cultivation (of the mind), widening out (of an idea), advancing (of a district), happening, result, a new turn in the matter, and so forth. He also points out that there is an old word forbairt, which means ‘growing, increasing’, which has recently been used as an equivalent to development, but he notes, "These examples amply illustrate the native resources of the language, as well as the lack of necessity for the revival of the word forbairt which, indeed, never meant ‘development’ at any stage of its history." 

This more concrete vocabulary can affect many types of discourse. Mary Beith notes in her work on traditional medicine of the Highlands, that in Scottish Gaelic, "terms for diseases are concerned more with the way patients experience the problem than from detached observation of the condition. Greim fala or teaghaid, for instance, are two terms for pleurisy and refer to the sharp, spear-like thrust of the acute pain actually suffered, rather than the condition of the lung. The vivid diagnostic vocabulary leaves patients in no doubt that the physician knows exactly how they are suffering. The language as a whole, with its rhythms, perceptions, its strangely subtle precision and its descriptive genius might have been custom made for the doctor/patient relationship."

Many important associations and symbols that we learn about when studying Celtic culture are obvious to a speaker of a Celtic language. The Irish deiseal, ‘clockwise’, means ‘southwards/rightwards’ and echoes déithe, the gods, and its opposite tuathal means ‘northwards/leftwards’ and evokes tuath, the tribe. In Welsh, gogleddol, northwards, may be the ‘sword-direction’ (from cledd(f), ‘sword’), which corresponds interestingly with the associations of the north with the warrior class as set forth in ‘The Settling of the Manor at Tara’. The range of meanings for the word dàn include ‘poetry’, but also ‘gift, vocation’, and ‘fate’. Naoi, ‘nine’ clearly shows its association with naomh, ‘sacred’.

 Colors, too, have connotations. ‘White’ often implies purity and sacredness, and in Welsh, one lovely idiom meaning ‘blessed art thou’ literally means ‘white your world’. An environmentalist poster uses this to great effect: Gwyn ein byd...am pa hyd? ‘Blessed are we’ - that is, white/clean/sacred our world - ‘for how much longer?’

 Many plant and animal names have explicit mythical associations. As Helen McSkimming of Dalriada Celtic Heritage Trust (Clan Dalriada) wrote in ‘The True Tongues of the Celt’, "All these associations and correspondences bring us closer to the ancient flow and to the natural world about us....Even now for me, when I see am bearnan Bride push its sunny face towards me and hear the haunting cry of the gille-Bride returning to the shores, I know that the force of Bride has returned once again to spread new life and growth upon the land and that the warm, sunny days are coming once again." Am bearnan Bride, ‘Bride’s notched one’, is the dandelion, and the gille-Bride, ‘Bride’s servant’ is the oystercatcher bird.

Bride’s own name (in its many forms) has deep associations as well. The Old Celtic derivation is from briga, height, but Alexei Kondratiev points out that the modern Celtic languages evidence more complex meaning: "Scots Gaelic brigh, Irish brí, Manx bree all have the range of meanings ‘force, power, meaning, invigorating essence’ as well as ‘hill’; and in the Brythonic languages, while bre means hill, bri has the sense ‘respect, fame, value’. Thus briga is both something that is ‘raised up’ and something that imparts strength and a sense of meaning by doing so: an upwelling of force."

The Welsh word pen is full of mythical and historical resonance. It means ‘head’ - both one’s physical head and also the sense of ‘chief, leader’. The latter meaning exists in English as well, but not with the same force: ‘head dragon’ doesn’t quite make it as a translation of penddraig, ‘Pendragon’. The importance of the head in the Celtic mythos helped shape this strong association. One famous head was that of Bran the Blessed, and it has been proposed that his epithet ‘the Blessed", bendigaid, was originally an alteration of pen-something. Furthermore, pen not only calls up associations of Bran and the Pendragon, but also of Llewelyn Olaf, the last native prince of Wales, who was murdered in 1282 and whose head was sent to the king of England. His elegy by Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch uses the dual meaning of pen in a powerful outcry of grief. So this, and more, may underlie the use of pen in Welsh, such as its use in David Jones’ mystical poemCara Walia Derelicta.

This is only a small taste of the richness of the Celtic languages. As J.R.R. Tolkien told us in his essay ‘English and Welsh’, "Even single notes of a large music may please in their place, but one cannot illustrate this pleasure by repeating them in isolation." There is no substitute for this music, no translation that can carry the full splendor and multi-layered meanings of the Celtic tradition. Like initiatory secrets that literally cannot be told, this knowledge must be experienced in order to be understood. Fortunately, this is a path that is open to anyone who has the desire and commitment to follow it. Next, we will be looking at how to learn a Celtic language with a focus on the needs of Pagan learners.

 Among several important influences, I would like to specially thank Alexei Kondratiev, whose stimulation of my thinking on Celtic matters has been a major inspiration of these articles and from whose ideas I have borrowed liberally. However, the views expressed above are my own, and responsibility for any errors or shortcomings is mine as well.

Next Issue: Labara 3: Celtic language learning, a guide for Pagans

Poul Anderson, 'Uncleftish Beholding', Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Mid-December 1989

The Celtic Consciousness, ibid

[Index | Mailing List | Forum | Historical Information | Feedback]

If you have any questions or comments please contact the web master via the Feedback page

©Meredith Richard, 1998. All rights reserved.