An Introduction

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The Celts: A Very Short Introduction

Barry Cunliffe
Oxford University Press


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Introduction to Early Medieval Western Europe, 300-900

Michael Innes

This resource positions the history of the groups who spoke Celtic languages within the wider historical context. This resource uses maps and archaeological evidence to trace the history of people groups, and explains the developments and changes in the Western medieval world through the lens of innovations in military tactics, agriculture, and writing.

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A Timeline of Irish History

Richard Killeen

This resource outlines the history of Ireland from antiquity to the twenty-first century, highlighting the events which have helped to shape the island and its culture.

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The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish History

Alvin Jackson, editor

This resource explores Irish history from the seventeenth century to the present, following the themes of nationhood, migration, and diaspora, and offering scholarly perspectives drawn from numerous disciplines, including history, political science, literature, geography, and linguistics. 

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A Concise History of Wales

Geraint H. Jenkins

This resource outlines the history of Wales from Neanderthal times to the opening of the Senedd, the home of the National Assembly for Wales, in 2006, while exploring the historical research and debates about Wales, Welshness, and Welsh identity.

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A History of Wales

John Davies
2007, revised edition

This resource traces the political and cultural movements from antiquity to the present day in Wales, and weaves together a narrative about how these movements and their related individuals and events defined the course of Welsh history. 

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A History of Scotland

Rosalind Mitchison
2002, third edition

This resource tells the history of Scotland through the reigns of its rulers and leaders and the social ideas which influenced the course of events.

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Conceiving a Nation

Gilbert Márkus

This resource examines the extant literary sources and material culture from early Scotland to reconstruct the history of the area and its peoples before 900 C.E. 

Celtic Languages


Irish is recognized as the first official language of Ireland and is recognized in Northern Ireland as a minority language, and is spoken by approximately one-third of the population of the island. The language is predominantly spoken in the Gaeltachtaí, or Irish-speaking regions of, mostly, western parts of the island; but can also be heard in cosmopolitan cities such as Belfast and Dublin, and is even used by a number of communities outside of Ireland. The language is taught in preparatory schools and is required or preferred for certain jobs in Ireland. 

The oldest examples of writing in Ireland are inscriptions from the fourth and fifth century C.E. written in the Ogham alphabet, an early medieval alphabet in which letters were represented by vertical lines with different numbers of horizontal branches. The oldest records in Old Irish (c. 600 - 900 C.E.) written in the Roman alphabet date from the sixth century, appearing as notes and marginalia in religious and legal manuscripts written in Latin. There exists a large corpus of literature written in Middle Irish (c. 900 - 1200 C.E.), including the famous Ulster Cycle, a cycle of sagas and legends about heroes from northeastern Ireland. In the thirteenth century, the Irish language began to be standardized and developed slowly into what is known as Modern Irish, and which is still spoken today. 

There are television, film, radio, and print journalism in Irish, continuing a tradition of poets and fiction writers that dates back to the sixth century. An extraordinarily rich oral tradition of wondertales, legends, and songs survived in Ireland well into the twentieth century, and are the oldest surviving non-Greek or Roman, European literature, and they, in addition to early Irish law and history, offer valuable insights into the structures of a European society outside the Roman Empire, as well as continuing to influence modern culture to this day. 


Welsh is recognized as an official language in Wales, and government and business in Wales are carried out in both Welsh and English. Until the twentieth century, the majority of people in Wales solely spoke Welsh, and there are still areas, such as the northwestern region of the country, where Welsh is still the primary language. Today, Nearly one-third of the population can speak some Welsh, with a little less than one-fifth of the population speaking it daily. As well, there are Welsh-speaking communities in Argentina, Australia, Canada, and the United States. All students in Wales are required to study Welsh, and one-fourth of the schools in Wales teach completely in Welsh. Welsh language abilities are highly preferred, and are even required, for some jobs in Wales. 

The oldest extant text in Old Welsh (c. 800 C.E. - c. 1100 C.E.) is from an inscription on a stone cross in St Cadfan's Church, Tywyn, Gwynedd, and is believed to date to the eighth or ninth century C.E. Other surviving examples of Old Welsh are notes, and even legal transactions, written in the margins of manuscripts. There also survives a body of poetry in Old Welsh, preserved largely in manuscripts from the Middle Welsh period (c. 1100 C.E. - 1400 C.E.), such as the Book of Aneirin and the Book of Taliesin. Many early Welsh poems, prose tales, and laws were written down between the twelfth and the fourteenth century. They were recorded in Middle Welsh and were collected together in manuscripts; some of the most famous are the Black Book of Carmarthen, the Red Book of Hergest, and the White Book of Rhydderch. With the translation of the Bible into Welsh in the sixteenth century C.E. the language became more standardized and developed into Modern Welsh. 

The traditions of poetry and prose narrative in Wales have continued into the modern day, and Wales continues to produce a number of influential poets and writers, as well as a good amount of Welsh-language art and media. Wales has its own Welsh-language media industry, which produces films, television programs, news broadcasts, radio stations, stage performances, concerts, and pop music in Welsh. There are lively Welsh-speaking communities across the country, as well as Welsh-language cultural events, such as choral concerts and eisteddfods. Welsh stories, poetry, and music have influenced, not only culture in Wales, but literature and arts in the Western world. For example, the texts which make up the famous collection of Welsh prose tales known as the Mabinogion, some of the earliest Arthurian legends, come from Middle Welsh manuscripts.

Scottish Gaelic

The Gaelic language of Scotland is considered an indigenous language, and is spoken primarily in communities of the West Highlands of Scotland and the Hebrides, a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland, as well as on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. In Scotland, around two percent of the total population speak Scottish Gaelic, but in areas where it is spoken, it is spoken by up to half the populace. Scottish Gaelic is taught in a small number of schools and in several university programs across the country. The language is beginning to be introduced into certain aspects of government administration, such as signage and official communications with the European Union. 

The oldest Scottish Gaelic writing to have survived dates to the twelfth century C.E. and is found in the margins of a manuscript. A number of early heroic Gaelic ballads were written down in the sixteenth-century C.E. in The Book of the Dean of Lismore, some of which were composed by female poets. There is a body of poetry by seventeenth-century poets in Scottish Gaelic, again including a number of compositions by women, which was preserved in the seventeenth century C.E. in the Black Book of Clanranald, the Red Book of Clanranald, and the Fernaig manuscript. In the eighteenth century C.E., Scottish Gaelic became more standardized with the publication of various religious works into Scottish Gaelic and the production of a Scottish Gaelic vocabulary. Many medieval Scottish Gaelic poems, which had survived for centuries in oral form, were written down in the eighteenth century. Likewise, Scottish Gaelic poetry continued to be composed into the eighteenth-century by Scottish poets. 

Today, there are poems, short stories, and essays written in Scottish Gaelic. There is both a Gaelic-language radio station, Radio nan Gàidheal, and a Gaelic-language television channel, BBC Alba, in Scotland; and programs in Scottish Gaelic are frequently aired on other channels. The oral tradition of Scottish Gaelic poetry persisted for centuries in Scotland and both commented on and influenced its culture.


Breton is recognized as a minority language in France, and is spoken in the Brittany region. The majority of individuals in Brittany spoke Breton before the twentieth century and the language was spoken by about half of the populace at the end of the Second World War. Today around one fifth of the population of Brittany still speak the language. Breton speakers can as well be found in French cities, including Paris, Le Havre, and Toulon, and in other countries, such as Canada and the United States. About two percent of students in Brittany attend Breton-language schools, and some literature and art and a little language instruction in Breton are offered at other schools. A few university Celtic languages programs around the world offer courses in Breton. 

There are a few instances of Old Breton writing in lists and glosses in manuscripts from the eighth to the eleventh century C.E. There are a handful of written verses in Middle Breton (c. 1000 C.E. - c. 1600 C.E.). Modern Breton began to develop in the seventeenth century C.E. when Julien Maunoir published his phonetic orthography of the language. A number of religious texts were produced in Modern Breton. In the nineteenth century, a number of Middle Breton poems, ballads, folklore, and legends, which had been transmitted orally for centuries, were recorded. 

In the modern era, there are periodicals, plays, poetry, short stories, and novellas in Breton. Radio broadcasts and television programs in Breton are broadcasts on multiple stations and channels. As well, a number of works in other languages have been translated into Breton. The Breton language is tied to ideas of Breton identity, and the language itself has played a historical role in influencing the literature and culture of wider western Europe. 


The Manx language is considered a regional language and is spoken on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. Until the nineteenth century, the majority of inhabitants spoke Manx. By the twentieth century, a third of the populace still spoke the language; the last native speaker dying in 1974. Currently, about two percent of the population on the island have learned and practice the language. Manx is taught as a secondary language in schools on the Isle of Man and there is one Manx medium school on the island, as well as a few Manx language courses. Though Manx is not officially used by the government, Manx phrases are sometimes used in ceremonies and in court, as well as on some signs.

The earliest written works in Manx date to the sixteenth century C.E. and are translations of religious works, including the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. From the seventeenth century to modern times, several works famous in other languages have been translated into Manx. At the same time, folklore, ballads, and a distinctly Manx type of carol known as "carvels", which had long been passed down orally, were recorded. 

A handful of short films have been produced in Manx since the 1980s. There are two radio programs in the Manx language and Manx is used in several others. The first full-length, original novel in Manx was published in 2006 and literature in the language continues to be produced, or translated from other languages, as the number of Manx learners grow. Historically, the language was intertwined with Irish and Scottish Gaelic and speakers of Manx interacted with speakers of, not only these other Celtic languages, but also with speakers of Norse. The inhabitants on the Isle of Man had interactions with the Vikings. All of these interactions led to cultural exchanges between these different cultures, and study of Manx is important to both understanding the culture on the Isle of Man, but also aspects of other languages and cultures in Northwestern Europe. 


Cornish is a revived language and is recognized as a minority language spoken in Cornwall in England. Cornish speakers have relocated all around the world, including Australia, Mexico, South Africa, Canada, the United States, and the Caribbean. Today, the language is spoken by somewhere between three hundred and two thousand individuals in Cornwall, less than one percent of the population of the region. Cornish is taught in fifty schools across the region and at a few universities. 

The earliest evidence of Old Cornish (c. 800 C.E. - 1200 C.E.)  is a gloss from a ninth century C.E. manuscript. There also survives a glossary from the twelfth century which contains vocabulary in Old Cornish. The largest amount of works written in Cornish were written in Middle Cornish (c. 1200 C.E. - c. 1600 C.E.), and many were religious works, the most famous a cycle of three mystery plays known as the Ordinalia. There are a few prose texts dating to the seventeenth century C.E.; however, the language did not develop a standard orthography and, by the eighteenth century the language had become extinct. Linguistics began producing works, often poetry, in Cornish again in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They also attempted to reconstruct and standardize the language, beginning with the publication of the Handbook of the Cornish Language in 1904.  

There is one radio program broadcast and several television programs in Cornwall which includes content in Cornish. There are a handful of Cornish periodicals, and articles in Cornish appear in several newspapers. Some Cornish-language podcasts and music are produced. Three original novels have been written in Cornish in modern times, and there are a handful of contemporary poets who compose in the language. Some works written in other languages have been translated into Cornish, and Cornish language and culture have been included in some English works. The Bible was translated into Cornish and a feature length film made in the language in the 2000s. The language is closely related to Welsh and Breton and both the place, its place names, and its legends are central to literature in numerous European countries related to King Arthur. Understanding of Cornish improves understanding of the culture of Cornwall, aspects of other Celtic languages, and some of the influences on Western European literature. 

Language Statuses

Languages are classified in two different ways. Firstly, they can be defined by whether or not they are spoken and used. Secondly, they can be defined by their place and function in a society.

Status by Speakers and Use

A living language is a language which is still spoken and used.

An extinct language is a language which is no longer spoken. It is a language which is not in use in any form. 

A dead language, also called a historical language or classical language, is a language which does not have any living native speakers but which is still used for various purposes. Latin and Ancient Greek are examples of dead languages.

A revived language is a language which fell out of use and was no longer spoken, but which has been intentionally reintroduced, usually because it is considered important to the cultural identity of a region or country. 

Status by Function

An official language is a language which is used in a country in government, education, administration, legislation, and business. This type of language has legal status.

national language is a language associated with a nation and its identity. It may or may not also be an official language used by the government. As well, it may or may not be used by the majority of the population of a nation. Its status is tied more to its cultural significance. 

De facto national languages are languages which are spoken by the majority of the population of a country. They may or may not be recognized as official national languages.

De jure national languages are languages which have been recognized by the government of a country as a national language. They may or may not actually be spoken by the majority of the populace but have been designated a national language, usually for cultural reasons. These national languages have legal status.

An indigenous language is a language which is spoken by groups historically associated with a specific region or country. It is also called a native language because it is "native" or original to a specific area and spoken by the group of people considered "native" or original to a region. Indigenous languages may also be considered regional or minority languages. An indigenous language does not necessarily have legal status.

A regional language is a language which is spoken in a part or region of a country. A number of minority languages are regional. These languages are not usually official languages, because their use is limited primarily to only one part of a country. A regional language does not necessarily have legal status.

A minority language is a language which is spoken by only a minority of the population of a country. These languages are only very rarely also official languages of a country; Irish being an exception in Ireland. A minority language has legal status.


What does legal status mean?

Languages with legal status have some level of privilege, power, and protection defined in legislation.


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An Introduction to the Celtic Languages

Paul Russell

This resource is an introduction to the history and nature of Celtic languages. It describes the historical background of the language groups, surveying Irish and Welsh in detail. It then identifies and explains the features of Celtic languages.

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The Celtic Languages

Martin J. Ball & Nicole Muller, editors
2010, second edition

This resource describes the history and the structure of the six modern Celtic languages, as well as their place in the communities in which they are spoken.


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The Concise Oxford Companion to Irish Literature

Robert Welch, editor

This resource includes entries on the history and the genres of literature produced in Ireland from the fourth century C.E. to the present, as well as entries for major Irish authors and works. The resource provides sociohistorical context for these works and places them in relationship to each other.


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The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature

Geraint Evans & Helen Fulton, editors

This resource traces the development of literary traditions in Wales, from the earliest surviving poetry forged in the battlefields of post-Roman Wales and the 'Old North' of Britain to the Welsh-language poets of today. This resource, as well, considers the bilingualism of Welsh literature and its influence upon both the nature and the identity of Welsh writing. Written by leading scholars, this resource provides a comprehensive chronological guide to fifteen centuries of Welsh literature and Welsh writing in English against a backdrop of key historical and political events in Britain.

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A Guide to Welsh Literature

A.O.H. Jarman & Gwilym Rees Hughes, editors
1992 - 2003, seven volumes

This resource is a seven volume survey of Welsh literature from the oldest extant writings to the works of present day.

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The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature

Gerard Carruthers & Liam McIlvanney, editors

This resource describes the literary traditions of Scotland in the context of its unique culture and landscape, its complicated history of inclusion and resistance to the United Kingdom, and its trilingual reality. This resource covers works from the pre-medieval period to the post-devolution present in three languages, Scots, Gaelic, and English, written by individuals in Scotland or a part of the Scottish diaspora around the world. In addition, this resource contains essays by prominent scholars which explain key periods and movements, genres, and major authors.