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DEVELOPMENT & SPREAD OF CELTIC LANGUAGES

BY: Bards Joy and Chris Dunkerley (President and Secretary of CANSW)

AFTER: Cunliffe, 2012

The Newsletter of the Cornish Association of NSW (CANSW)
Newsletter No. 384 ISSN 1321-3199 December 2013 - January 2014

Indo-European develops around Anatolia and the SE shores of the Black Sea c.7000 BC. Its westward spread along the Mediterranean basin, evolves into Celto-Italic c.5500 BC; this being confined to the northern shores of the Mediterranean, from Italy, through southern Gaul and southern Iberia by c.5000 BC.

Further evolution into proto-Celtic takes place in a region centred on the Tagus estuary in southern Portugal c.4500 BC, and spreads northward with Passage Grave tradition. This spread of “Atlantic Celtic” complete by c.3000 BC, covers western Iberia, Brittany, Ireland, and the western half of Britain, west of an approximate line from Southampton Water to the Orkneys, indicating a high degree of maritime connectivity and the need for a lingua franca to facilitate this.

From the same region around the Tagus estuary, Celtic also spreads northward and eastward, along coastal and river routes. This coincides with the spread of metallurgy and Beaker 'ideologies' between 2700-2400 BC. By c.2000 BC, this phase of language spread had developed a 'Continental accent'. By that time, Celtic had spread across the northern two-thirds of Iberia, the eastern half of Britain, the whole of Gaul and to those areas of central Europe where Celtic was previously thought to have originated (first mooted in C17), thus paving the way to the later Hallstatt and La Tène cultures. The Atlantic accent continues in the west, evolving through the spread of Corded Ware-Single Grave communities.

At some stage, perhaps by the Middle Bronze Age, c.1500-1200 BC, ‘Continental Celtic’ (P-Celtic) becomes dominant across Britain, restricting ‘Atlantic Celtic’ (Q-Celtic) to Ireland, [from where it is infused into the Isle of Man and western Scotland in the early post-Roman period, probably from the 4th century AD].

With the coming of Rome to large parts of the Island of Britain Latin is spoken widely among noble classes, towns, and around military outposts. British (Brythonic) Celtic is still the main speech but is influenced during the occupation in the eastern zones. Far north of the Antonine Wall and free of Roman influence it is thought to have developed into Pictish. With the breakdown of Romanised administration between 380AD and 500AD, the resurgence of the 'old' Celtic speaking tribal identities and cultures, and the coming of competitive Germanic ruling classes in the east; other than in the Christian church Latin slowly gives way to a fast changing British Celtic, spoken by all, and written among the literate.

The land isolation of the 'old north' (Cumbria and Strathclyde) by 700AD and West Wales/Dumnonia 600AD from the area of Wales leads to divergence in the Celtic british language. British speakers for centuries in hill country to the east and north influence the development, but not the vocabulary, of old english dialects. Welsh develops in its own direction, Cumbric was lost eventually by c. 1,100 AD, and South Brythonic is also lost over much of what becomes south western England. It developes though between 650-800AD into Old Cornish, west of the River Exe; and into closely related Old Breton (in Armorica / Brittany) where britons had crossed into 'vacant' lands from 360AD on).

(After Cunliffe, 2012)