The Development of the Irish language 1

An overview of the development of the Irish language 1: From Indo-Europeans to Celts

The Irish and English languages may look and sound very different, but they are in fact distantly related.

Both belong to the great Indo-European family of languages, which descend from a language spoken at least 5000 years ago by people who originated between the Baltic and the Black sea. Their descendants migrated in many different directions, and over time their languages altered. Today, Indo-European languages extend from Iceland to India.


Scholars discovered the existence of an ancient common language by comparing later languages and common words. Old Irish, for instance, shares words with Sanskrit, the ancient classical language of India. Thus, in Sanskrit, arya means ‘freeman’, and in Irish aire means ‘nobleman’. Sanskrit naib means ‘good’, while Old Irish noeib means ‘holy’, becoming the modern naomh (pronounced neev) meaning ‘saint’.


Many Indo-European languages have the same words for close family members and for the numbers one to ten. ‘Mother’ is máthair (pronounced ma-hair) in Irish, madre in Spanish, and mutter in German. The number
‘one’ is aon in Irish, uno in Spanish, and eins in German.


The Indo-European family has eight branches. Irish belongs to the Celtic branch, while English belongs to the Germanic branch.

Migrations to Ireland


The Irish language probably originates more than 3000 years ago, when Celtic peoples from mainland Europe migrated to Britain and Ireland, merging with the people already there.


Other peoples had lived on these islands for thousands of years, but we know little about them. First came hunters and gatherers who
made tools out of flint. They lived near rivers, lakes and the sea, eating fish, fruit and game. Their way of life lasted from around 7500 to 4000BC.


Next came early farmers from about 4000 to 2300BC. Their mysterious mounds, tombs and stone monuments can still be seen from Spain to southern Scandinavia, and throughout Britain and Ireland. These monuments were often aligned to the sun’s movements, as at Newgrange in the Boyne valley, where the
rising sun illuminates the inner chamber on the winter solstice. These people also left huge circular enclosures, possibly assembly places, such as the Giant’s Ring near Belfast.

The early farmers worked with flint, stone, bone, and wood. From around 2000BC, the European climate seems to have become colder and wetter, and many of their early settlements were covered over by bog.


In about 2300BC, bronze working began. New skill may have been brought by the new arrivals. The Bronze Age people made delicate gold ornaments, and erected stone and wood circles, again aligned to the sun.
Many stone circles survive in Ireland and Britain, and across the sea in Brittany.

Coming of the Celts


The word ‘Celt’ comes from the word the Greeks used for them, Keltoi, whose meaning is uncertain. The Romans called them Galli or Galatae. They left only fragments of written
material, so the main source for information about them is Greek and Roman geographers, historians and military commanders.


The Celts originated at the headwaters of the rivers Danube, Rhone and Rhine, which all
have Celtic names. The Danube bears the name of the mother-goddess Dana or Danu, as does the Rhone (Rhodanus or great Danu). The Rhine is from renos meaning sea. A farming and bronze working people, the Celts spread out over much of western Europe, and divided into tribal groups which developed their own dialects. They identified themselves by tribal names.


The first Celtic speaking people may have made their way to Ireland and Britain in small groups during the late Bronze Age some time after 1200BC. These people spoke the language that developed into Gaelic. Some may have come across the sea from the Iberian peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal).
We cannot be sure whether the incomers merged peacefully with the previous inhabitants or waged war on them, or a mixture of both.

The late Bronze Age was a prosperous time, and a remarkable number of high-quality bronze and gold objects were made. However, there are also signs of disturbances. More than 600 swords have been found, and many well defended forts were built on cliff edges, mountains and promontories.


From around 500BC, Celtic tribes on the continent went on the move, either seeking new lands to farm, or having been pushed out by other, stronger peoples. They possessed the new iron-working technology, which provided them with powerful weapons and effective tools for clearing forests. They travelled in tribes or confederations of tribes, sometimes numbering many thousands of people.

The tribes moved outwards in every direction—into Gaul (part of modern France) and the Iberian peninsula, into Britain and Ireland, through Holland and Belgium, and east as far as Turkey. They sacked Rome around 390BC, and slayed the oracle at Delphi in 279BC.


Gaels and Britons

The Celts who arrived in Britain during this period were known to the Romans as Britons. They drove the Gaelic speakers west and north. While Gaels predominated in Ireland, some British tribes seem to have arrived there as well.

Over time, as populations moved and separated, the Gaelic and British languages subdivided. Today, the Gaelic languages are Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx (the language of the Isle of Man). The British languages are Welsh, Cornish and Breton (the language of Brittany).


The Gaelic and British languages have certain
features in common which set them apart from other Indo-European languages, such as the verb coming at the front of the sentence. Then there is ‘mutation’—the beginnings of words change their sounds in systematic ways to indicate grammatical changes. Also prepositions are combined with pronouns.


One difference between the Gaelic and British languages is that a ‘c’ or ‘q’ sound in Gaelic becomes a ‘p’ sound in the British languages. Thus the word for tree is crann in Irish but prenn in Welsh. Ceann,
‘head’, in Irish becomes penn in Welsh. Mac, ‘son’, in Irish becomes map in Welsh. And so on.


Linguists do not regard this difference as particularly important, but they use it as a convenient way of distinguishing the two groups. Thus the Gaelic languages are known as Q-Celtic, while the British languages are known as P-Celtic.

Irish Gaelic is called Gaeilge when speaking the language, but in English it is usually called Irish.


Further Reading

‘Language in Prehistoric Ireland’ by JP Mallory in Ulster Folklife 45 (1999); The Celts (1997) by Helen Litton; The Celtic Languages (1993) edited by Martin J Ball; The Celtic Empire (1990) by Peter Berresford Ellis; The Celtic Realms (1967, 2000) by Myles Dillon and Nora Chadwick.


Photographs by Liz Curtis. © Liz Curtis 2004

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