Sorting Out the Confusables: Gaelic, Gaulic, and Celtic
Updated: May 29
Confusables doesn’t sound like a real word, but it is—now. Grammar sites such as https://grammarist.com/ and www.englishgrammar.org use it to describe words that are commonly confused with one another. Some examples are affect/effect, imply/infer, and farther/further. Grammarist cites Gaelic / Gallic as confusables. I would add Celtic / Gaelic to the list of confuasables. Many people use them as if they are synonyms. They’re not. In today’s post, I hope to clear up the confusion. Cross your fingers, hold your breath, and let’s dive in.
Getting the Gauls Over With
I want to address the Gauls upfront because we won’t be talking about them after this (Poor Gauls!). Both the Galls and the Gaels were Celts but they did not belong to the same group of Celts. Okay, I know. Huh? Historians describe the Celts as a conglomeration of Indo-European people consisting of numerous tribes loosely related through a shared culture and religion. These people occupied a large swath of the European continent plus the islands now known as Britain, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. They spoke separate but linguistically related languages. The Gauls lived in Gaul (aka Gallia). Approximately 191,000 square miles in size, the region of Gaul included what are now France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. It also included parts of Germany, Switzerland, and northern Italy.
Coming to prominence around the 5th century B.C., the Gauls reached the height of their power and influence in the 3rd century B.C., becoming a threat to the Romans with whom they engaged in many conflicts. They are said to have continued as a distinct people until the 5th century A.D. but the Romans had conquered Gaul by 50 B.C. leading to a decline in the power and influence of the Gauls.
They spoke a language called Gaulish or Gallic (note: this was not Gaelic). Gaulish became extinct, dying out by the 6th century A.D. at the latest.
Historians debate where the Gaels originally came from. A historical source from the 10th century says that they came from the island now called Ireland and migrated in 500 A.D. to the area now known as Scotland (the Gaels called it “Alba.”). This is disputed by https://www.scottishorigenes.com/news/origin-scottish-gaels-revealed-their-dna. According to the website, if the Irish immigrated to Scotland, today’s Scots would have “earlier detectable links” with the Irish, but instead the Irish have “earlier detectable links” to the Scots. I don’t have the expertise in DNA studies to debate that claim, so you can choose whichever theory you prefer.
The more important information from DNA studies of modern Irish and Scottish people is that the genetic results demonstrate that they share “a Gael identity.” The website goes on to say that the first Gaels arrived in what is now Scotland about 2,000 years ago. It claims that the DNA of their “Proto-Gaelic” ancestors traces back to Bohemia and that these Gaels then migrated through the areas that are now the Czech Republic into Germany and, eventually to Belgium before crossing to the island of Britannia. Since they spent some time in the area now known as Belgium, could the Gaels and the Galls have intersected? It’s possible, but there is no clear evidence of it.
Language: Celtic vs. Gaelic vs. Irish
First, let me make clear that Celtic is not a language. However, there is a family of languages known as the Celtic languages. Linguists classify the six surviving Celtic languages into two branches, the Brythonic and the Goidelic. The Brythonic languages are Welsh, Cornish, and Breton (spoken in Brittany, France). The Goidelic branch consists of Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx. Some sources say Goidelic alternatively is called Gaelic. Most sources, though, assert that Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx, while they are derived from a common language (Gaelic) have evolved over the centuries into three distinct and separate languages. The only one of the three still considered Gaelic by the language sites I have researched for this and previous posts is the native language of the Scots.
While some people—both in speech and in writing—may casually refer to Irish as “Gaelic,” technically it is not. It is derived from Gaelic just as French and Spanish are derived from Latin, but it now is its own language. Its English name is “Irish.” In Irish, it is called Gaeilge. The word is pronounced gwale-guh, but to the eyes of an English speaker, it may look like it’s pronounced gael-ij, leading non-Irish speakers to believe the language is Gaelic. But, according to linguists, it isn’t. It is Irish. The name for Gaelic, in Irish, is Gàidhlig. This indicates that Irish speakers also consider Irish and Gaelic as different languages.
The Isle of Man was settled, according to historians, by people from Ireland and Scotland. So, they share a Celtic culture with the Scots and Irish. Their language, like Irish, is derived from Gaelic but has evolved into its own separate language called Manx.
Only the Scots are said to speak Gaelic, specifically Scots Gaelic. If you disagree with the idea that Irish and Manx are Gaelic-derived but not actually Gaelic, please take it up with the linguists. I’m merely sharing their assertions.
The fact that Irish and Scots Gaelic are distinctly separate languages rather than dialects of the same language becomes clear when you compare simple sentences in each language. Take “Today is sunny.”
Irish: Tá an lá innui grianmhar. Scots Gaelic: Tha an-diugh grianach.
Or try “My dress is green.”
Irish: Tá mo gúna glas. Scots Gaelic: Tha an t-aodach agam uaine.
Just for fun, here is a comparison of “My dress is green” in the related but separate romance languages Spanish and French.
French: Ma robe est verde. Spanish: Mi vestido es verde.
Are Irish and Scots Gaelic related? It seems clear they are. Are they the same language? Clearly not. By the way, I wanted to include Manx in the comparisons, but I have never studied the language (I have some experience with Irish and Scots-Gaelic), and I could not find any resource to help me translate from English to Manx. Sigh.
All right. Now that we’ve got the languages sorted out, let’s turn to the question are the Scots and Irish (and their respective cultures) Celtic or Gaelic?
People and Culture: Gaels are Celts, but Celts aren’t Necessarily Gaels
In writing posts for this blog, I consistently refer to the Irish, Scots, and Welsh as Celts and their culture as Celtic. In reading other articles or blogs, you may read about the Gaelic Irish or the Gaelic culture of the Scots. So, which is it? Are they Gaelic or Celtic? The answer is they’re both. Simply put, the Celts are a massive group of Indo-European people who emerged in the Iron Age. The Gaels are a subset of that group. They were a Celtic people, just as the Galls were Celtic people, but distinct from the Gaels. At some point in history (approximately 2,000 years ago, maybe more, depending on the source), the Gaels migrated to the places now called Ireland and Scotland.
Thus, the Irish and the Scots genetically are Gaelic. Since the Gaels were a subset of the Celts, the Scots and the Irish also are Celts. Finally, since all the Celtic tribes had a shared culture, Irish and Scottish culture can properly be referred to as Celtic.
That said, the Welsh are believed to be descendants of a different Celtic sub-group that moved from Brittany to Britannia. Historians have labeled these Celts as Britons. The Welsh, therefore, are Celtic cousins of the Irish and the Scots, but they are not Gaelic.
Whew! Hopefully, the difference now between Celtic and Gaelic is clear. As for the Galls, well, let’s just let them be.
Thanks for joining me on this journey of sorting out these confusables.
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Slan go foil!
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