Celtic origins in the British Isles date back thousands of years, emerging from a prehistoric era shrouded in mystery.
The Celtic origins of the people inhabiting the British Isles go back thousands of years, when Celtic was spoken from Kent to Cornwall in the south of England, in Wales – of which the Welsh name is Cymru, in Scotland, and in Ireland.
Prehistoric Populations in Britain and Ireland
Prehistoric populations lived in Britain and Ireland during the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The Celts may have been among the first inhabitants, but they could also have arrived at a later time and integrated with older populations. There is no historical evidence to exclude either of these possibilities.
According to John Davies, author of The Celts, until the 1950s, the introduction of the Celtic language to Britain and Ireland was believed to have come about after the seventh century BC as a result of an invasion. The absence of any descriptive historical reference to a Celtic invasion of Bronze Age Britain exposes the invasion theory as speculative, and indeed the author of The Celts notes that archaeological research offers no evidence of significant immigration either in Ireland or Britain during the centuries following 700 BC.
During the first millennium BC, three Celtic populations were established in the British Isles. The Brythonic speaking Celts lived in modern England and Wales. The Goidelic speaking Celts inhabited most of Ireland and the western regions of Scotland, where they became known as Scots, while the Picts had settled in eastern Scotland and in the north of Ireland. Various theories have been presented as to the origins of the Picts and the language they spoke, but a number of factors indicate that they were probably Brythonic speaking Celts.
In the pre-Christian era, the Celts did not make use of an alphabet. As a result, no written documentation can be found to determine the details of the Celtic origins of the peoples of Britain and Ireland. Even the idea that the Brythonic speaking people arrived in a later period than those of Goidelic tongue can not be historically certified.
The oldest reference to the Brythonic people of Britain, or Britons, stems from the voyages of the Greek explorer Pytheas of Marseilles in the fourth century BC. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the Britons as Celts who arrived in Britain at an unknown date, possibly in the seventh or sixth century BC, who beyond doubt mixed with the original inhabitants.
As there are no earlier written references to the Britons, it is impossible to determine when they first became manifest as a distinct people. This is also the case of the Goidelic speaking Celts of Ireland and western Scotland, who may have been living in the British Isles a thousand, or even several thousands of years before the advent of the Christian era.
Linguistic Definition of Celtic
The definition of Celtic in British and Irish history is based mainly upon linguistic considerations, as all the populations of the British Isles were speaking one or other form of Celtic when the Roman Empire came in contact with Britain in the year 43 AD. In The Celts, John Davies notes that the ancestor language of Brythonic could have been spoken in Britain as early as 4000 BC, and that the same could be true of the ancestor language of Irish in Ireland and of Gaulish in Gaul.
Although the British Isles were inhabited thousands of years before the Christian era, nothing is known in regards to the language that the Stone Age and Bronze Age people spoke. If they were not of Celtic origin, then it is certain that the Celtic speech became the language of Britain and Ireland through cultural assimilation. In this case, the people who were not Celts gradually adopted the language that would later be commonly spoken in its various forms.
Brythonic, which was spoken in Britain and probably among the Picts of Scotland and Ireland, is referred to as P Celtic, whereas the Goidelic speaking Irish and the Scots who settled in western Scotland spoke what is known as Q Celtic. The main difference between these two branches of the Celtic language is that the pronunciation of the k sound of the Goidelic tongue becomes a p sound in Brythonic. In addition to this, the f sound in Goidelic is pronounced as gh in Brythonic.
- The Celts, by John Davies, based upon the S4C television series The Celts, published by Cassell & Co, 2002 edition;
- New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, 2007.
Written by D. Alexander