Celtic Language Celtic Culture Edited by A.T.E. Matonis and Daniel F. Melia

“Celtic” applies to a group of related languages in the Indo-European language group and the cultures that developed in the communities that speak these languages. Many people in the scholastic communities consider that Celtic identity is not based on genetics or “blood” but on being part of this linguistic and cultural grouping.

In the preface of the book the editors tell us that the book was compiled in honor of the achievements of Eric P. Hamp, and that the book can be considered to be a labor of love.  The book is a collection of essays written by Eric P. Hamp’s students, and people who were affected by his achievements.  The book is divided into five parts; the first is concerned with the Continental Celts and the Indo-Europeans, the second with the Irish, the third with the Scottish Gaelic, the fourth with the Welsh and the fifth part with the Bretons.

Part one consists of six essays, two of which are in German (I believe).  In order to understand fully the first essay in the book you have to have a working knowledge of Irish, when it comes to sentence structure.  This first essay is trying to prove or disprove the relation of proleptic object pronouns to the development of the placement of verbs in Insular Irish.  How is this related to the Continental Celts?  The author uses two Gaulic inscriptions to show the relation (and advancement) of the sentence structure between the Hispano-Celtic (Subject/Object/Verb) to Gaulish (Subject/Verb/Object) then to Insular Celtic (Verb/Subject/Object).  In the end the author concluded that there may be some relation but not to the extent portrayed by other authors.  The next essay is a short note on the Celtibri.  Basically the note poses the question, what is in a name?  Are the Celtibrians, two different peoples living mixed together (the Celts and the Inberians) or are they inhabitants of Spain (Iberians) that are Celts?  The author of the note makes a good point in that the name comes to us from the Greeks and we really don’t know what they meant exactly by it.  The next two essays are in German and unfortunately I do not have the linguistic skills to read them.  The fifth essay is a look at whether the similarities in some phrases between Indo-European peoples are ultimately genetic in character.  The author offers two cases, the first is an oath “I swear by the gods that my people swear by” and he shows how you can find it in Old Irish, Greek and Russian in the same form.  So he postulates that it could be an Indo-European way of oath forming.  The second case is the phrase “pillar of x” as in pillar of the community or pillar of Troy.  Here the author gives us the examples of the same formation of the phrase one in Irish and one in Greek, and one in old English.  Again he postulates that its origin is from an Indo-European formation of “Hero”.  Seeing patterns even when they are not so obvious is interesting and can help relate the languages to each other and to the Indo-Europeans.  The final essay in this section is entitled “Some Celtic Otherworld Terms” and just by reading the title I was hooked.  This happens to be the longest essay of the section and the author begins it with a discussion of whether it is advisable to see the Celtic peoples as one culture with a singular tradition when the two “majorly” Celtic cultures (i.e. Wales and Ireland) do not exhibit similar traditions.  In fact the author tells us, when you look at the Irish history you can barely see much evidence of what was considered Celtic (i.e. the Hallstatt and the La Tene cultures) and the same can be said of Wales.  All of which is true.  What we can say is that these two nations can be called Celtic because they all come from the Pro-Celtic branch of the Indo-European family of languages.  The author tells us that his specialty is Irish vernacular records and their influence on Welsh vernacular records, and he tells us that the conclusion he reached through a philological comparison is that most of the names in the Irish and Welsh mythologies are similar enough to have been ascribed to a common origin.  He gives the Otherworld as an example.  The author notes an interesting theory, that the translation of the Otherworld is actually a Christianized idea of this world that we live in and the other world.  In Welsh mythology Annw(f)n seems to be one kingdom which has sub-kingdoms that are fighting with each other over the title of The King of Annw(f)n while the Sìd of the Irish was a conglomerate of mounds that have their different kings and seem to be living in peace together.  The author thinks that they seem to be reflecting the state of each nation at the time these mythologies were written.  He goes into the possible origins of each name and how it was viewed in mythology, as well as possible locations, citing such authors as Carey, Koch, O Rahilly and O Cathsaigh who have written on the subject. A must read essay for all interested in the Otherworld and derivations of it.

Nine essays make up the Irish part of this book.  The first four essays of this section deal mostly with notes on the uses of certain vowels, consonants and combinations of them as well as searching through the etymology of words in Modern Irish.  They are interesting in that you can see the progress of the words or suffixes through the language and where they had come from.  I love the Irish language and reading about why certain words are written this way was fascinating for me.  The fifth essay in the section is very interesting.  It talks about a word “audacht” and its impact on stories from the Cath Maige Tuired and the story of Socht’s sword.  The word itself was thought to be of Latin origin but was proven to be of Indo-European origin by Eric Hamp.  The author then takes us through the two stories that prove the real meaning of the word.  What is even more interesting is that this relatively small word cares with it a huge meaning.  The wide range of semantics and meanings incorporated in the word “Noínden” is explained in the sixth essay of the Irish section.  The author tries to explain how one word could mean the many things it does.  It is the sickness that over takes the Ulstermen in the Táin and it is also a huge gathering of a great host, as well as a heroic deed.  The author along the way explains the illness of the Ulstermen, which the word is used to describe most often.  Then he explains the meaning in which it is the ritual of fertility and group initiation, and then he describes how it could be a heroic adventure.  This essay is a good example of how one word can incorporate so much in the Irish language.  In the seventh essay of the section the author explores the semantic fields of terms for ravens, crows, blackbirds, and other species of black birds in early Irish to underscore the mythological and religious dimensions of the linguistic usage.  It’s very interesting for people who are into the mythical and religious meanings of birds.  The last two essays of this section deal with poets and poetry, harpers and women in early Irish literature.  There is a wealth of stories and poetry in these two essays as well as explanations of the parts they played in the Irish society of the time.

The third part is made up of only three essays.  The essays were very interesting in that rather then talking about poetry or mythology they covered the language itself.  The first essay was about the historiography of the Scottish Gaelic dialect studies and how the combine Celtic studies with descriptive linguistics.  The second essay is about a construction in Scottish Gaelic that is used in poetry and prose, that is the use of the word (a) bhith to give an action an impersonal meaning.  The author gives a lot of examples from poetry because it is there that it is very clear.  The third essay is about a person who writes Scottish Gaelic without actually reading it.  Its interesting how she was able to do that and the author explains how it was done.

The Welsh part of the book is made up of eight essays.  The first essay discusses the positive declarative sentence in the White book version of Kulhwch ac Olwen in great detail.  I must say that some of it went over my head but it was still an interesting read.  The second essay in this section is by a name well known in the Celtic Mythology world and that is Mac Cana.  In this essay he discusses the sentence word order in Old Irish and compares it to Middle Welsh giving examples from myths.  To me it was a fascinating read.  The third essay takes the reader on a journey to discover where the Waterfall of Derwennydd is.  The author is trying to perhaps date a cradlesong that can be found in the Book of Aneirin.  Essay four is an interesting investigation of two verbs in the Canu I Gadfan, a Welsh poem dating from the second or third quarter of the twelfth century and preserved in the fourteenth century Hendregadredd manuscript.  The following essay is an interesting examenation of the problems relating to the composition of the Welsh Bardic grammars.  This is a must read essay for anyone interested in the subject or indeed interested in Welsh literature and vernacular texts.  For anyone who has read the early Welsh tale of Culhwch ac Olwen essay six is important.  It talks about the hero of the tale and makes some interesting observations about him.  Essay seven is about a phrase in the story of Branwen that might actually be an Anglo-Saxon pun.  It’s amazing how this one word could cause so much trouble.  The final essay in the section is about Dylan Thomas’s “A Grief Ago” and how it ties into Irish Folklore.

The final part is made up of two essays.  These two essays are about linguistics in the first degree.  The first essay compares a Welsh adverb to a Breton one and the second gives us the simple tenses of a Breton verb.

The bibliography of Eric Hamp is added after the final section (Breton), it shows the extensive amount of wok that Eric Hamp has done in the field of Celtic culture.  It certainly is a fitting tribute!

As can be seen from the simple summaries provided above the two parts that had the most essays were the Irish and the Welsh.  This is probably because (and I could be wrong) of the fact that with these two the language is still spoken somewhat widely and there are much in the way of literary material to deal with.  Ireland and Wales have a tradition of vernacular material that is very impressive compared to any other Celtic nation.

The book is interesting in that it shows you that you can not really separate linguistics from mythology and poetry, which naturally leads to not being able to separate language from culture.  I would also venture out and say that to understand people you need to know their archeology, history, and culture.  Having said that I should also warn people that the book takes the language part of the title literally, if you are not interested in linguistics then many of the essays in this book if not all of them will be boring to you.  On the other hand you will also miss out on the mythological aspect of the essays, which the authors use the meaning of a word or name to explain.


3 thoughts on “Celtic Language Celtic Culture Edited by A.T.E. Matonis and Daniel F. Melia

  1. chevrefoil says:

    Hello! I’ve poked around your blog a bit and I think it’s really great stuff. Check out mine, I think we’ve got some interests in common!

    • Charles Dickson says:

      Please pass this along to an undergraduate as this is a simple favor and low in scholarly challenge.

      I am an American that desires a company name to remind me of my origins.

      What is Gaelic for :

      “Where is the magic?”

      Or, “The magic is here”.

      As an American, I don’t want to butcher Gaelic as we butcher English. 

      On a more generic note, perhaps you can clear up this.

      What is the difference between Celtic and Gaelic.

      Is one a people and the other a language?

      It seems the terms are used interchangeably, is this a mistake?

      The Celts were in the north of Britain and the Gaul’s in France, but did the Celts speak Celtic or Gaelic?

      This is a fundamental misunderstanding I have of the division between the people and the languages.

      Answer my questions, and I swear to promote the cause of Gaelic scholarship at any and every opportunity.

      Thanks to any and all that might pass this on.

      A descendant of the Dicksons by way of the Douglas’s and the Keiths.

      Oh, Is there any difference between Scotch whiskey and Irish whiskey? And would the Celts have liked it if it were available?

      Just having some fun there.


      Charles Dickson

      • celticscholar says:

        Hello Charles,

        For the translations you might want to try the Daltaí boards they would be happy to help you.

        Re: What is the difference between Celtic and Gaelic? Celtic is the name of the branch of the larger Indo-European Family tree that contains Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig), Manx, Breton, Welsh, and Cornish. They are both languages.

        Re: The Celts were in the north of Britain and the Gaul’s in France, but did the Celts speak Celtic or Gaelic? Celtic is a language designations. When people say Celts they usually mean people who spoke ONE of the Celtic languages. Only the Irish spoke Gaelic. The Celts are not defined by blood but by language and culture. They were a conglomerate of tribes.

        Re: Irish or Scottish Whiskey? I have no idea lol.

        No need to promote anything if you don’t want to lol.

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