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Celtic Languages

I am curious, for those who know several Celtic languages. Which do you think is easiest for an English speaker? How closely are they related? To what extent does learning one help with learning another?

Overall I like learning languages, and have dabbled in Scottish Gaelic on here for curiosity. I didn't get very far with it, and might just be a novelty for me, but curious.

May 5, 2020



In terms of which is easiest to learn for native English speakers, I can only speak for the three on Duolingo. Of them, I would say that Scottish Gaelic is the easiest to learn. It has the simplest consonant mutation system and its verb conjugation is the simplest one of the three. It's spelling system isn't as phonetic as that of Welsh, but it does seem to be more regular than that of Irish.

As for how far apart they are, the similarities between the Goidelic (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx) and Brythonic (Welsh, Breton and Cornish) languages are more obvious when looking at the grammar than the vocabulary. For example, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish all have verb-subject-object word order, they all have consonant mutations that are used in similar circumstances, they all have inflected prepositions etc.

Vocabulary is a little less obvious. Sometimes you get an obvious cognate, like Irish trá vs. Welsh traeth (both mean beach) or Scottish Gaelic nathair vs. Welsh neidr (both mean snake). Sometimes you have the same word mean slightly different things, e.g. glas means green in Irish and blue in Welsh. But for the most part the vocabulary is too different to see any obvious parallels.

As for the extent learning one helps you learn the others: learning Irish will absolutely help with learning Scottish Gaelic and vice versa in every way. Learning Welsh helps a little with the other two and vice versa, but for me it helped more with getting my head into the right place about the grammar rather than remembering any vocabulary.


None are particularly easy for an English speaker.

Irish and Scottish Gaelic along with Manx form one group of Celtic languages; Welsh falls in with Breton and Cornish. Irish and Scottish Gaelic are pretty close, mostly differences in spelling and Scottish has simpler mutations. Welsh is very different from the other two, about like English vs. German.


A great answer!

On a separate but related matter, I love the fact that most of them have bagpipey-type instruments...Scotland = bagpipes, Eire (Ireland) = uilleann pipes, and Brittany = cornemuse for example.

I would guess there may also be a related instrument in Manx, Cornish and Welsh Celtic music?

Do you know if there’s a general Celtic term for this type of instrument?

Thanks :) P.s. this question is related to language because Celtic languages are closely tied up with wider Celtic culture


In Irish you can use the word píb for any kind of pipe (instrument, of course). The distinctly Irish pipe played with the elbows is called the píb uilleann. The bagpipe typical of the Scots are called a píb mhór or píb mhála in Irish. The instrument is common to many parts of Europe and maybe farther. They were at least introduced by the colonial powers to places like Pakistan. Different regions tend to have their own types of pipes.

Scots Gaelic is simpler than Irish. Just one example, in addition to what others have given is the use in Irish of the genitive after verbal nouns: "I am eating an apple" requires the word for apple to be put into the genitive in Irish, but is left in the ordinary dictionary form in Scots Gaelic. I have studied a little Welsh and considerably more Breton. There are many structural similarities between the two branches of the Celtic languages and some basic vocabulary (and modern terms too), but speakers from one branch cannot understand speakers from the other. Or read written material either.


I don’t know if there is a general Celtic term for bagpipes (I quite like the Uilleann pipes, I was kept up late one too many nights with the highland pipes). The Mirandese in Portugal have a similar instrument but I do not know the name. The Mirandese and their Asturian cousins in Spain claim Celtic heritage dating back to pre-Roman Iberia.


That’s fascinating, thank you. It’ll do more research now

Slàinte! :)


The Goidelic languages (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx) and the Brittonic languages (Welsh, Breton, Cornish) diverged from their hypothetical common ancestor – Insular Celtic – somewhere in the beginning of our era (by 4th century, when the Primitive Irish was first written down on ogham stones they were already separate Goidelic and Brittonic languages) – so after the two thousand years they are fairly different.

But the Goidelic languages are still very similar to each other (there is some mutual intelligibility between Irish and Sc. Gaelic – especially of the written language).

I don’t know which would be the easiest to learn for an English speaker (especially since I don’t know almost anything about Brittonic; just simple basics of Welsh), but I guess that the most difficult one is Irish, as it seems to me it has the most conservative grammar (especially the Munster dialects which preserve a lot of conjugated synthetic verb forms – almost non-existent in Sc. Gaelic and rarely used in other Irish dialects; and to some extent separate dative case – but that’s fallen almost completely out of use there too).

But then Goidelic and Brittonic share a lot of common features like grammaticalized consonant mutations (especially lenition which historically occured between a vowel and a resonant (ie. a vowel or /r, l, n, m, j, w/) – even though the lenition of voiceless stops /p, t, k/ developed differently in Goidelic and in Brittonic), two sets of verbal endings depending on whether the verb follows a particle or not (this feature is very strong in Old Irish, but also present in Old Welsh and to some extent in Middle Welsh, it still exists in Sc. Gaelic future tense), heavy use verbal-nouns constructions, VSO word order, conjugated prepositions, etc. point to a close relation between the two groups (either genetic or to parallel development in a sprachbund) and lead most researchers of Celtic languages (Cowgill, McCone, Schrijver, many others) to postulate their genetic relation as an Insular Celtic group separated from continental Celtic languages (Gaulish, Celtiberian…).

For a good idea how the attested Celtic languages were historically written down and developed from a common Proto-Celtic ancestor I’d recommend reading Kim McCone’s Towards a Relative Chronology of Ancient and Medieval Celtic Sound Change – but it is a hard-to-read historical linguistics work that compares different approaches to Celtic languages history and argues in favour of McCone’s one.


Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx are close cousins. I cannot address the others. I’ve been among Bretons and haven’t a clue what they’re saying.


I've only tried Irish and Scottish Gaelic so far. I'm not sure why, but Scottish Gaelic seems quite a bit easier to me so far (Irish has been quite a bit of a struggle for me, while Scottish Gaelic is generally pleasant and fun for me).

Since they are pretty similar, chances are that this is a rather subjective matter. Maybe it is easier because I've already done some Irish, maybe the way the Scottish Gaelic course is set up just clicks better with me than any of the Irish courses I've attempted or it is just something psychological.


I can't speak for Welsh, but SG I find much easier to pick up than Irish. The 2 languages have quite a lot in common, but Irish seems much more complicated. Knowing even the small amount of Gaelic taught here will give you the ability to easily pick up on the general structure of Irish, but certainly not the details.


.. and as far as the many comments here about Irish being "complicated" go, you may not find it so mystifying if you've studied other languages with a highly structured grammar, such as Latin. If on the other hand you've never heard of a genitive or a gerund then that aspect may present an additional learning curve.


Unlike Latin, Irish has a very opaque gender system and extensive mutations that are often tied into that gender system. Studying another language does precious little to help you with the details of Irish. The overall gramatical structure isn't the most difficult part.


Personally, I find the grammatical structure of languages like Latin or Polish a lot more logical than that of Irish (and no, the grammar terms don't give me any problems either). So while some people who are new to learning languages might have that additional struggle, that isn't part of the problem for everyone who is struggling with Irish.


The easiest language to learn, by far, will be the one you're most interested in. None are particularly similar to English, so enthusiasm is going to be what carries you farthest. I suggest picking your favourite(s) based on the culture and sounds of the language, and persevering.


I haven't learned Irish, because... well, I'm not actually sure why. But I've done the other two on Duolingo and have a particular interest in Welsh.

Welsh and Sottish Gaelic are not particularly closely related (probably no moreso than German and English are to each other) but there is nevertheless enough similarity that learning one will definitely help with the other. I learned Welsh first and to my mind there are two features that make it more challenging for English speakers than Germanic or Romance languages are. The first is simply the spelling and pronunciation. The proliferation of lls, ys and ws make the words themselves less recognisable and accessible. Transliterated words from other languages may look very different, which limits the ability to recognise clusters and get a sense of meaning from first impression: sentences have to be decoded to a much greater extent.

The second is word order. Again in Germanic and Romance languages, SVO or SOV are normal. Welsh is sometimes defined as a VSO language word order but the verb is broken up into a number of separate words, which tend to enclose the subject. For an English speaker, this is pretty alien and takes a while to get your head around, especially as the verbs are quite heavily inflected. However, once you have, it all fits together quite nicely and regularly.

From what I recall Scottish Gaelic has similar issues, but I was already familiar with them from Welsh, so I just had to apply the same principles to the new vocabulary rather than rethink sentence structure from scratch.

One thing I will say for Welsh is that because of the English superstrate its non-core vocabulary is quite accessible once you decipher the alphabet. I also have a suspicion that it has affected ancillary word order, such that once you get over the SVO/VSO hurdle, the way sentences and phrases fit together sometimes seems remarkably similar to the way English does it. Although sometimes it's totally different. I didn't get quite the same sense from Scottish Gaelic, but again this might just be because I had already had that experience with Welsh first.

There are additional challenges: possessives can a bit tricky, and mutations are notoriously annoying, but possessives are just another part of grammar, and eventually mutations will come with learning and practice.

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