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Celtic Rant
Originally Posted to the Celtic-Hist Mailing List

by Sharon L. Krossa
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Last updated 31 Aug 2000

Note that the article below was originally written as a posting to a newsgroup or mailing list; it has not benefited from the same level of research and review as my web articles. Please keep its extemporaneous nature in mind while reading!

To: celtic-hist@egroups.com
From: "Sharon L. Krossa" <krossa@a...
Date: Thu, 31 Aug 2000 23:48:39 -0700
Subject: [celtic-hist] Celtic Rant (was: Web Sources)

>--- In celtic-hist@egroups.com, "Sharon L. Krossa" <krossa@a...> wrote:
>>**Hmm, wonder if its time for the periodic rant about the term "Celtic" and its usefulness? ;-)


Well, to expand on my earlier question clarification where I ranted a little ... ;-)

With few exceptions, "Celtic" is a term that is, well, essentially meaningless, or at the very least useless. This is because when people use the term, most of the time there is no way to know what they intend to mean by it.

This is because people use "Celtic" to mean all sorts of things. Some uses overlap others, some have little or nothing to do with other uses. And rarely is it clear from context which meaning is intended.

Let me start by defining some of the academic meanings for the term and the few contexts where using "Celtic" is more helpful than confusing.

"Celtic" and "Celts" are terms that are used by historians, archeologists, and the like to describe a group of peoples living on the European continent during the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

"Celtic" is also a term used by linguistics to refer to the Celtic language family, a family of related languages. Note, however, that there is no *language* called "Celtic", but only a language family. Languages in the Celtic language family include Gaulish, Gaelic, Welsh, Celt-Iberian, and others (even the theoretical ancestor of them all isn't called "Celtic" but rather "Proto-Celtic"). The relationship of these languages to the term "Celtic" is the same as the relationship of English, German, and Norse to the term "Germanic" and the relationship of French, Latin, Italian, and Spanish to the term "Romance".

So, in the certain contexts of people discussing the ancient Celtic people on the European continent during the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans *when _everyone_ involved in the discussion _already_ knows that this is what the discussion is about and therefore that "Celtic" refers to these peoples and not any others later or elsewhere*, using "Celtic" doesn't create confusion and doesn't need to be defined. But think carefully about when this is true! Not in a broad forum like Celtic-hist@. Not in the SCA, where the presumed period is about 500-1600 unless explicitly indicated otherwise.

Similarly, in discussions of language, when all participants understand that language is under discussion and know the difference between a language and a language family (and know that Celtic is a language family), "Celtic" is not only not confusing, it is positively necessary. It is a precise technical term, and can be freely and unambiguously used in contexts where everyone understands that technical term. But whenever there is someone involved in the discussion who may not know the technical terminology, it should be defined to the extent necessary. (Which is why I tend to use the clumsy but clear "a language of the Celtic language family" phrasing rather than "a Celtic language" in forums like this one ;-)

Now, modernly, "Celtic" and "Celts" is often used to refer to people and things having to do with people who speak one of the languages of the Celtic language family or to people who descend from people who spoke such a language. Note that this usage, though commonplace, is the logical equivalent of referring to English and Norse things and people as "Germanic" and "Germans" and of referring to French and Spanish things and people as "Romance" and "Romans". (In other words, it is a rather strange usage, but people do it none-the-less.) But outside of discussing clearly *modern* things, this usage confuses far more than it clarifies, because it is such a broad meaning and, historically, rarely is it appropriate to lump all the people who spoke one of the languages in the Celtic language family together (just as it isn't to lump together all who spoke a Romance language or a Germanic language).

This is because although modernly people who speak (or whose ancestors spoke) a Celtic language often feel a sense of identity and community with people who speak a different Celtic language, and consider themselves to be "Celtic", this "Pan-Celtic" notion is entirely modern. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, people who spoke one of the languages from the Celtic language family didn't consider themselves to have any special connection either with others who spoke a different Celtic language or with the ancient continental Celts of the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. These peoples had different cultures as well as different languages. They didn't consider themselves "Celtic". This is was also in part because the very theory that these various languages are related and descended from those earlier continental Celtic languages is itself modern, dating only to the 18th century or so. Prior to that time, no one considered any language *or people* in Britain or Ireland to be "Celtic".

Now, in addition to this general situation of different meanings for "Celtic" (and in some cases the related senses of "Celt"), which can be confusing enough, there are some downright always misleading meanings applied to "Celtic".

For example, some people say "Celtic" when really they mean specifically the Irish; they have no intention to refer to the Welsh or Cornish or Bretons (let alone the ancient Gauls or Celt-Iberians) -- they don't even mean to include the other Gaels (Scottish and Manx). This is like saying "Germanic" when discussing specifically English people and not at all any kind of Germans or Norse or Dutch, etc. For example, we don't ask for help with Romance clothing when what we really want to know about is 13th century Spanish clothing; we don't ask for help with Germanic clothing when what we really want to know about is 15th century English clothing. How then can we expect people to understand that we want to know about 15th century Irish clothing if we ask about "Celtic clothing"?

It isn't any better to use "Celtic" as synonym for "Gaelic" (which was spoken in Ireland, Man, and parts of Scotland in the Middle Ages). Aside from the fact the medieval Gaels didn't consider themselves "Celtic", how is anyone to know you mean only the Gaels and not the Welsh, Cornish, or Bretons (or the ancient continental Celts)?

Then there are some usages that, while the meaning is clear, strangely preserve using the anachronistic "Celt"/"Celtic". Why say "Irish Celt" for a medieval Irishman when that Irishman would not have considered himself a "Celt", especially given that he *would* have considered himself a "Gael"?

Anyway, my point really comes down to this: Be as specific as possible. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. If you mean to talk about the Irish only, that's great -- but call them Irish so we'll know that's what you mean. If you mean to talk about Gaels in general, that's great -- but call them Gaels so we'll know that's what you mean. If you really do mean to talk about proper Celts (the ones on the continent at the time of the ancient Greeks or Romans),that's great -- but make this clear by adding enough information (such as talking about "ancient continental Celts" or "Gauls" or whatever) so we'll know that's what you mean. If you try to avoid the term "Celtic" as much as possible, you'll end up being clearer in what you say, and others will have an easier time understanding what you mean to say.

(Note that it is nearly always important to specify the period you mean. Looking at the various possibilities above, the term "Celtic" gets used modernly to refer to things across three or four thousand years. That's a big chunk o'time -- make clear which time you mean.)

Finally, I'll leave you all with a few handy mantras:

*Celtic is not a synonym for Irish.

(And neither is Gaelic a synonym for Irish ;-)

*Celtic is not a synonym for Gaelic.

*In the Middle Ages, all the Celts were dead (and buried on the continent).

(With a few possible exceptions -- there may have been some Celts with the Roman armies stationed in Britain who ended up buried there, far, far from home ;-)

Sharon, thinking you should be grateful she has spared you the keltic/seltic rant ;-)

Sharon Krossa, krossa@...

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