‘On our terms: “Celtic” and “Celts”‘

Published on: Author: Megan 8 Comments

On December 1, 2015, the Centre welcomed Prof Thomas Owen Clancy (Glasgow) to discuss ‘On our terms: “Celtic” and “Celts”‘ for the 10th Annual Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture. The Annual Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture began in 2006 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Chair of Celtic in the University of Glasgow. Prof Angus Matheson was first holder of that chair from 1956-1962. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Prof Thomas Owen Clancy began by saying that a great deal of his lecture was influenced by the exhibition currently displayed at the British Museum entitled “Celts: Art and Identity.” Many have found the exhibition vexatious in various ways, but the heart of the issue is that the exhibition fails to deal with issues of Celticity and Identity. (Undoubtedly when the exhibition comes to the National Museum in Edinburgh, it will tell a different story.)

He identified two of the main issues regarding the British Museum exhibition :

  • The exhibition is virtually free of mention of the Celtic languages, past or present. This is the fundamental, defining characteristic of the people who can be called ‘Celts’, that they spoke or speak Celtic languages. A small number of the scheduled events surrounding the exhibition featured language, including a poetry reading called Celtic Voices: Modern Poetry. However, only one of four poets writes in a Celtic language. In addition, there is a comparative absence of academics from within Celtic studies involved in the exhibition’s academic events and the advisory process leading up to it. Only two people that he would count as Celticists and two modern historians of Celtic countries were involved. Those who are a part of Celtic Studies were not considered relevant to make a major contribution to an exhibition on Celtic Art and Identity, especially when it is central to the exhibit’s argument that this term “Celtic” is meaningless.
  • Secondly, the exhibit has a metropolitan attitude to the term ‘Celtic’. They state that it was used by people to refer to the ‘other’, other than the Romans, other than the Germanic tribes. One of the panels at the British Museum exhibition states:

“languages and art of these Atlantic peoples are given the name Celtic to distinguish them from their Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxon neighbors. But they did not call themselves Celts.”

This is a misinterpretation, as research indicates that Keltoi was likely a word borrowed from Celts by the Greek writers, not the other way around. This is an imperialistic view against which the Celt has no choice but to term themself as “other”, and which reinforces prejudices.


Image from "Through the Looking Glass".
Image from “Through the Looking Glass”.

“Celtic” is not a meaningless term, as it is used within the discipline of linguistics to describe one branch within the Indo-European family of languages. There are precise rules for judging whether a language is Celtic or not. The individual languages and dialects within this branch can be closely compared and the evolution of these languages can be analysed. The term “Celtic” was first used to describe family in 18th century, though this does not make it invalid as a term. It is also irrelevant to the linguist whether or not people in the past who spoke these languages called themselves Celts at the time; other terms for branches within the Indo-European family not used in their modern sense in the past, but have a meaning in discipline of linguistics. Whatever scientific definitions we give to words, they still have lives of their own. “Celts” and “Celtic” have been controversial words due to the values and connotations that are attached to them.

“Celtic” was an accepted term during Angus Matheson’s time, upon his early death in 1962, scholars in Ireland, Wales and Scotland commemorated him in a memorial volume called “Celtic Studies”, published in 1968. However, at times, like now, it has been controversial. Throughout the 19th century, when the series campaign for the creation of a Chair of Celtic began, some campaigned for it to be called instead a Chair of Gaelic. Although the term “Celtic” was a scientific term for a group of related languages, it was also used as an alternative shorthand for the individual Celtic languages themselves. Frequently “Celtic language” was synonymous for whichever language was locally relevant.

There has been anxiety within the world of Celtic Studies over the term Celtic, especially as of late. There has been concern about to what extent the term Celtic was helpful; while it is true that modern Celtic languages are related to each other, some worried that the term “Celtic” eroded the notion that Irish, Welsh, Gaelic are equal subjects worthy of study. There also seems to be the tendency to elevate these languages and their past literatures but to denigrate modern speakers. Prof Clancy gave the example of a 19th century text that argued for pride in Celtic Literature, but wanted to get rid of the Welsh language in “modern” times because it was inconvenient.

Celtic has also been under scrutiny within the discipline as a reaction to interpretative weight that was put on term. The comparative paradigm in research had caused the tendency to uncritically export characteristics of one Celtic speaking region to another across time and space. “Celtic” became an umbrella term under which one could generalize features like politics, religion, and art. The word Celtic is not a diagnostic term. Yes, it is a convenient way of grouping literatures, politics, societies, and religions of those peoples who speak Celtic languages in the regions where they are spoken. The use of this term does not mean that they have similar characteristics or should allow for links between middle ages and modern world. It is not evidence that they share anything other than a common language. Archaeologists who study the Iron Age in Europe are also uncomfortable with Celtic term because overarching generalizations create poor diagnostic tools.

Many of the issues with the term “Celtic” are based on a faulty understanding of linguistics. It is often argued that the term “Celtic” was first used to describe language group is an 18th century innovation and was due to a misconception that modern Breton was a survival of the language of ancient Celts who lived in Gaul rather than a more recent introduction from Britain. It is also argued that the definition of a Celt as someone who speaks or whose recent ancestors spoke a Celtic language is also an 18th century innovation and was wrongly applied to the inhabitants of Britain and Ireland. By this logic, if a term is an innovation of the 18th century, and not original to the time it describes, one cannot use it for those purposes, especially if the term is based on a misconception.  Then the term “Iron Age” should not be used, nor should many terms used in science or medicine.

In addition to the overt dismissal of linguistic evidence, there has been an archaeological assault on the term “Celtic” and “Celts,” which was also used in the British Museum’s exhibition. In the exhibition’s catalogue, it states that “recent research has challenged the idea of the Celts as a single people throughout time.” This has never been an argument in Celtic Studies, as Celticists have always studied different places and times. For example, they have linguistic evidence for a variety of Celtic languages in Iron Age Europe, including various dialects of Gaulish, and are aware that they differ across space and time. There has also been a recent theory put forward by an archaeologist, Barry Cunliffe, who suggests “Celtic Origins from the West”, as opposed to the widely-accepted origins from the east, due to the discovery of an early inscription in Tartessian. This theory was also worked into the British Museum’s exhibition. However, Prof Clancy suggested that most Celtic linguists do not find this theory to be linguistically tenable. He also stated that we, as researchers, must all be more cautious about how we treat separate discipline’s evidence instead of ignoring it.

The British Museum’s exhibition catalogue struggles with talking about language, where it states

“the existence of this long-lived language group across Europe does not help us much with our archaeological evidence. Language did not dictate what objects people used, how they choose to decorate them, or why they decide to bury them”

It also states that

“what we show in this book are not the arts of Celtic-speaking peoples.”

While Prof Clancy explained that it is possible that people who did not speak Celtic languages could have contributed to artefacts and art styles that we now refer to as Celtic, and some Celtic speaking peoples did not use these items, that does not mean that we should ignore linguistic evidence and disenfranchise modern Celtic language-speakers.

Prof Clancy concluded with his own vision of how the exhibition could have been. He would have begun with the linguistic definition of Celtic, shown maps of where we have evidence of Celtic speaking peoples and when, the associated place name evidence, names of tribes, evidence of inscriptions, dedicatory altars, and inscriptions on artefacts. From a linguistic perspective, Britain and Ireland could be classified as Celtic. He would have said that in Celtic-speaking areas there was a development of series of related art styles, which some would have used, and some would not. He would have described material culture found in these areas, like torcs, and he would have explained that there does seem to be some alliance between aspects of material culture, language, and identity.  He would have provided evidence of language and dialectic divisions, and would have explained how the Celtic-speakers intertwined with Germanic peoples in the early medieval period and Greeks and Romans in more ancient times. He contends that this is the art of Celtic-speaking peoples; it is because of language that this art style can be about identity rather than just art.

While the art style associated with the Celts is transnational in scope, by asserting the primacy of the linguistic definition of Celtic one can establish a more coherent and sustainable framework for treating material together, and make more sense out of the origins, spread, and development of what is termed Celtic art.

Prof Thomas Owen Clancy with Dr. Katherine Forsyth at the 10th Annual Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture.
Prof Thomas Owen Clancy with Dr. Katherine Forsyth at the 10th Annual Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture.

Summary by Megan Kasten (PhD researcher)

Our seminar series for this semester concludes on 8 December 2015 with Michel Byrn and Alan Riach (Glasgow) discussing ‘George Campbell Hay/Deòrsa Mac Iain Dheòrsa (8 December 1915-1984: Celebrating the Centenary of a major Scottish poet’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 University Gardens at 5.30 pm. 

8 Responses to ‘On our terms: “Celtic” and “Celts”‘ Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. Congratulations to Thomas on what appears to have been an excellent and stimulating analysis of another modern – and highly publicised – presentation of what the terms Celts and Celtic are taken to mean, and what they might more accurately signify to us today. The deficiencies in the BM Exhibition certainly point up the dangers of failing to consult leading experts in the field.
    Sorry to have missed the lecture, but greatly looking forward to reading it in its entirety.

    • There was also a recording made of the lecture. I’m not sure how they were planning on making it available, but I could update you when I find out!

  2. Interesting article. I must say though that I find the “snowfall effect” on the webpage extremely annoying while trying to read the article.
    You need to include a way to stop the effect.

    • Sorry Janet! It was something that the hosting website found “festive” and must have just gone into effect. I’ve turned it off, hopefully that makes it easier for all to read the post!

    • I personally am not certain how to post recordings on the blog, but I will get in contact with those who recorded the lecture and see how it will be made available. 🙂

  3. Unfortunately Thomas and myself did not have a chance to go head to head at either of the meetings in Glasgow this summer where the Celts were discussed (ICCS and EAA). Such a meeting I hope would be informative and clear up some of the misapprehensions which he repeats here. However I hope we can have a conference when the exhibition comes to Edinburgh next year where all views can be discussed. People such as myself are caricatured as being somehow anti-Celtic when the reverse is true – I have spent much of my life digging up and studying people in central France who considered themselves to be Celts even as late as the 5th century AD. Language can be used to define the modern Celts and also Celtic Studies – I have no problem with that – but it makes nonsense to impose it on the people of the ancient world where the Celts were defined by classical writers (some of them Celts and Celtic speakers) using criteria we do not understand, but certainly not language as there were no reliable classifications of languages until the 19th century. Do we have to call the people always named as ‘Ligurians’ ‘Celts’ because they spoke a Celtic language? It makes a nonsense of history and causes an impossible situation for those of us who are trying to reconstruct some sort of history of the Ancient World. There are in fact many areas where Thomas and I are in agreement, but also fundamental differences which should be aired. We need to sort out the theoretical and methodological basis of what we are doing (and that includes archaeologists like Barry Cunliffe who continue using a paradigm which many of us have rejected). Meantime I can only suggest that people read my book (Celts: origins, myths and inventions), though it needs updating.

  4. Julain Cope (of all people) had a review of the BM exhibition in the Gruaniad a while back, which included this gem:

    “Soon, Celtic elements were being “discovered” in places with little or no historical evidence of the so-called Celt – and so it has continued. Nowadays, even the 4,800-years-old Callanish – that splendid megalithic cruciform sitting high upon a Hebridean headland – has fallen prey to a recent Celtic revival. Its simple Scandinavian spelling – of a fairly commonplace word meaning “boat jetty” – is nowadays given the Gaelic spelling Calanais on tourist signs. Appropriately Celtic this may be, but it is still entirely fanciful.”

    I though, “Er… might the sign be in Gaelic because that’s the language of the people who live there? Or are signs that say “Stonehenge” a fanciful, atavistic pan-Germanic ethnic fantasy, an appropriation of an older cultural remnant that has nothing to do with the English?”

    It was disappointing to see such drivel given a very public platform – this lecture may not have the reach of the Gruaniad, but it is a timely counterblast to some of the stuff we’ve seen in connection with the exhibition. I hope it’s made available as a recording soon – required listening for Celtic Civ students!

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