Celtic connections

Apart from the odd word here and there, the vocabularies of the two living branches of the Celtic language family, Brythonic (British) and Goidelic (Gaelic), appear to bear little resemblance to each other. So far I’ve only found two words that are exactly the same in Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic: blas (taste/flavour) and glas (blue/green).

To some extent, differences in spelling disguise connections between the languages, but even taking those differences into account, only about 2% of the words appear to be related.

Here are a few other related words I’ve found:

capall (each) cabbyl ceffyl (margh) (marc’h) horse
gabhar gobhar goayr gafr gaver gavr goat
cath cat kayt cat kath kazh cat
coo cu ki ki dog
abhainn abhainn awin afon avon (stêr) river
muir muir mooir môr mor mor sea
agus agus as a/ac/ag hag ha/hag and
aimsir aimsir emshir amser amzer time
ainm ainm ennym enw hanow anv name
airgead airgead argid arian arghans arc’hant silver
anáil anail ennal anadl anal anal breath

Note: actually means hound in Irish – dog is madra. Sea is also farraige is Irish, fairge is Scottish Gaelic, and faarkey in Manx.

To find more connections between the Celtic languages, you need to go back to their earlier forms. For example, the word for true in Welsh is gwir, in Irish it’s fíor, and in Scottish Gaelic it’s fìor. These words are all thought to originate from the reconstructed form, wir or weri. Then at some point the initial w become gw in Welsh and f in the Gaelic languages.

A good place to find connections between the Celtic languages is McBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language.

8 thoughts on “Celtic connections

  1. Welsh may also be some kind of bridge. The word for horse as you note is ‘ceffyl’ (am I right in thinking it’s the same Celtic root which is the base for the French ‘cheval’?) whilst it’s ‘marc’h’ in Breton.

    The Breton and Cornish words seem very different, but ‘march’ is also Welsh for stallion, so there’s still a Celtic link there. Maybe ‘march’ has another horse-related word in Irish or Gaelic?

    From a layman’s view, Cornish and Breton (from what I can gather) use many words familiar to Welsh but with a slightly different meaning – as in ‘march’.

    Another ‘link’ for instance is the word for ‘big’. Welsh uses ‘mawr’ which I believe is ‘mor’ in Irish whilst the Bretons use ‘braz’ (or is it bras?). Welsh also uses ‘bras’ but usually in slightly different context – ‘llythrennau bras’ (capital letters), ‘byw’n fras’ (to live well, or even indulgent), ‘camau bras’ (big steps) etc.

    Maybe the same would be true of the Welsh words for boat – ‘cwch’ and/or ‘bad’ – I know that ‘bad’ is used in Breton but maybe a word more similar to ‘cwch’ is used in Irish?

    Irish and Gaelic does look unfamiliar to Welsh eyes, not least because of the spelling. But it maybe that there are several nouns which use words in slighlty different contextes which show a linkinstic link. If I’m correct all Celtic languages make use of mutations (creating much complication to native-speakers and learners alike!).

  2. The words for horse in most of the Celtic languages do indeed share the same root as the French cheval: the Latin capallus.

    In Scottish Gaelic the word capull also means horse or mare, while the word marc, which also existed in Old Irish, means charger or stead, and is the root or a number of words related to riding and horses. In Modern Irish this word appears as part of marchach rider, and related words.

    In Breton caval is another word for horse, while mar’ch also means stallion, and kazeg is a mare.

    Big is bras or meur in Breton, and bras also means great and tall.

    The closest Irish word I can find to cwch is coite, which means a (small) boat.

  3. Isn’t “bád” Irish for boat?

    If you take into account the phonetical changes, such as c/p correspondence (ceathair/pedwar), you’ll find quite enough similarities. (It’s interesting one can find similar correspondence in Romance languages, as in Italian quattro / Romanian patru.) The difference between Welsh and Irish is still big, but no wonder given how long ago these languages split. English and Icelandic were mutually inteligible maybe as late as 1000 years ago, and today you can hardly find any similarities, though. On the other hand, you sometimes find more similar relatives outside the Celtic branch, like Latin argentum seems closer to Irish airgead than is Welsh arian.

    The differences in meaning between etymologically related words is a quite standard thing even in more closely related languages, like Czech and Polish; in fact it’s the main obstacle for intelligibility much worse than distinct phonetics which you can easily get used to. Sometimes it yields funny results, as in the notorious pair
    Pl. szukać = to seek
    Cz. šukat = to fornicate.

  4. Gets my attention that “airgead” is very similar to “argyros” (silver) in greek.
    Gabhar is “cabra” in spanish, Capall is “caballo” also in spanish Muir is “mar”. I know that all these are indoeurpoean languages.

  5. As an Irish speaker who has been trying (unsuccessfully) to learn Welsh on and off for a good few years now, I can confirm that whatever similarities there are between the two languages are not really as helpful as one might think.

    As you get to know the two languages, you notice that many of the structures are indeed the same: both languages have mutations, both have prepositional pronouns (which in Welsh materials are actually called inflected prepositions), both have essentially the same word order, they share a lot of metafors which are unique to them (an illness is said to be ‘on you’ in both languages) and so on.

    The trouble is that they fill these strucures with what looks and sounds like completely different words. The spelling systems and the sound repertoires are so different that they cloud over any underlying relatedness. I’m sure that deep down, the lexicons of the two languages have a lot in common, but you’d almost need to have spent a lifetime studying Celtic etymology to appreciate that.

    Maybe I should have chosen Scottish Gaelic instead. At least that’s a language that looks and feels familiar to something I already know. Then again, where would be the challenge in that? 😉

  6. what would be helpful is a guide to pronounciation for Welsh or Irish (I chose the 2 most popular and widely spoken Celtic languges today).
    In other words even if you don’t speak French or Italian but when you come across the written word you have a good idea or approximation of how to sound the word out.
    But with the Celtic langs looks like I’d have to be a student of the language to know how to sound out a word.

    Is it because Welsh or Irish pronounce letters differently from what most Western-Europeans do? and those very odd vowel combinations how do you pronounce that?

    you know what I mean?

  7. Ismael – there are details of how to pronounce Welsh on Omniglot – and there are links to similar pages about the other Celtic languages from that page.

    Welsh consonants are mostly similar to English, with the exception of dd = /ð/ (like th in the), ff = /f/ (as in off), f = /v/ (as in of), ll = /ɬ/ (an aspirated l) and ch = /x/ (as in loch). c is always pronounced /k/. The single vowels, which include w and y, are straightforward, but the diphthongs are a bit more complicated, as are some of the mutated consonants.

    In Irish quite a few of the vowels, and some of the consonants, are silent. The silent vowels show how to pronounce the preceding or following consonants, eg consonants with i or e before or after them are palatalized.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.