Ieth Gelteg — a Celtic Language?   Leave a comment

wflagI’m sitting here in nerd rapture with an interlibrary loan copy of Ranko Matasovic’s Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic.  There — I may just possibly have driven away 99% of my readership with a single sentence.

On the off-chance you’re still with me, let me explain.  In “Talking Old”  I tried to convey my delight in the sounds and shapes of our ancestral language — I say “our” because over half the planet speaks an Indo-European language, itself a pretty remarkable fact.  Proto-Celtic is a daughter of Indo-European and mother of the six modern Celtic tongues:  Manx, Breton, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic.  So Indo-European is our “grandmother tongue,” or maybe great-grandmother. Beyond the nerd appeal that only Celticists, conlangers and a few other assorted dweebish types can comprehend, Proto-Celtic is a window into Celtic history and culture, a fragment of our human past — and a potential source for a ritual-liturgical-magical language in the Celtic tradition.

nedmandrellThe Celtic languages today are struggling.  Manx has been brought back from the last edges of extinction — with the last native speaker of Manx, Ned Maddrell (image to the right) passing in 1974.   Take a look-listen at this short video of Manx children and a couple of teachers talking in and about the language.  Cornish died out about 200 years ago, but has been revived and has, depending on your source, a few thousand speakers, and along with the other Celtic languages, a cultural fire banked under it to keep it alive.  Scottish Gaelic is threatened but has speakers in the tens of thousands, and Welsh and Irish are also at risk, but have active communities of speakers.  Breton struggles against an official French-only policy, and retreats annually, as older speakers die, and younger people turn to French to get ahead.  If you’re interested, check out these links to some short clips of speech in these languages.*

prceltbrillThe Etymological Dictionary I’m currently drooling over, confirming everyone’s worst impressions and stereotypes of nerds, provides linguistic reconstructions of Proto-Celtic words — something like a museum restoring missing portions of an old painting or piece of furniture.  As the restoration proceeds, the face of one of your ancestors takes shape before your eyes, and you hear a whisper on the wind of a voice speaking a language gone for over a thousand years.  That’s the closest I can come to the sensation of reading and pronouncing slowly to myself the restored words.

But while you shake your head at one more poor fool taken in by cultural seances and linguistic necromancy, I’m wandering mist-covered hills and listening to ghosts reincarnate in dream, as long as I hold the book open.  I make my very own Samhain-on-the-spot, the veil between the worlds thins, and I converse with the dead, with the Otherworld, with the generations stored in my DNA and blood and bone.  Perhaps you could call it racism in the best sense of the word — a celebration of all who have gone before me and who, by living, have delivered me to this moment of my own life, as I write these words.  It doesn’t last, but it also endures forever.

As a linguist and conlanger it wouldn’t be hard for me to reconstruct a couple of different usable versions of  a Celtic language.  One version could be a somewhat simplified Proto-Celtic, another a sister tongue to Welsh, Breton and Cornish, ieth gelteg, a Celtic language.  Would it be “authentic”?  About as authentic as I am, descendant of so many bloodlines that like everyone else on the planet, I’m a mongrel.  Who would want to speak such a mongrel tongue?  That’s not my concern — I’d restore it for some of the same reasons a museum sets about a restoration: for what it can tell us about our past, and about ourselves as preservers of our past, and for its “thingliness,” its solidity and existence in our world.  These are potent magical reasons on their own.

Why not learn a living and threatened Celtic language instead?  Do something more practical!  I can hear the critics and naysayers.  Can’t you best connect with your supposed past through those alive today, speaking a descendant tongue just as you are a descendant person?  Well, I have.  I know a fair bit about the Celtic languages, as I do about some other endangered and dying languages. And I look at them as I look at the branch of my own ancestral line, destined to die out because my wife and I have no children.  Half of all our current languages are destined to die before the end of this century, along with a comparable number of plant and animal species.  Some have seen a reflection of one in the other.  Given how closely tied human rights, tribal survival and environmental degradation are, it’s not a stretch to see human languages and ecosystems as mirrors for each other.  “What we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

The analogies of blood and speech start to break down, the Samhain door of linguistic reconstruction begins to shudder shut, and I’m back in my diminutive study, holding the hardbound book, more than an inch thick, and shivering a little.  I stand up and step into the living room to stoke the fire in our soapstone woodstove which has subsided to embers during my extended reverie.  And I wonder and remember and plan and dream again.  Celtic twilight is not the same as Celtic dawn, though at any point the light level might look the same.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Images: Welsh flag; Ned Mandrelldictionary.

*Here are short Youtube clips of Irish (a 2-minute weather report), Welsh (a Welsh teenager talking in both languages), Cornish (a story in English and two varieties of Cornish, with a strong English accent), Irish again (4 minutes, this time showing how Manx and Irish speakers can understand each other), Scottish Gaelic (2:14; also a weather report) and Breton (2:10 — short interviews, subtitled in French, that you might mistake at first for French, so strong is the French influence on Breton pronunciation).

Advertisements

Thanks for visiting! Comments?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: