By Raymond E. Hunter
Beginning in the 800s BC
and lasting through the end of the millennium, a remarkable people spread
from the region of southeastern Germany, part of Austria, and part of
Hungary throughout most of central and Western Europe. Known simply as
Celts when the expansion began, they differentiated into sub-groups
as they settled in present-day Spain, Portugal, France, the British Isles,
northern Italy, southern Germany, parts of Scandinavia, and even parts of
The Celtic people were
great warriors and great artisans; most of the bronze found across the
Mediterranean countries came from Celtic mines and smelters. They provided
many of the fine stonemasons who built impressive edifices in the Greek
and Roman Empires. But they had one characteristic that has retarded our
understanding of the degree to which they dominated European civilization:
they believed that a person's word was the most sacred thing on earth,
that a man would give his life before he would violate his spoken pledge.
As a result, very few "documents" were put into writing, such as deeds,
wills, and the like. Hence, few writings in Celtic have survived, and we
know about the Celtic people mostly from writings by people in neighboring
countries, such as the Greeks and Romans. The Celtic people who settled in
today's France became known as Gauls. When the Romans invaded Gaul in the
first century BC, there ensued a titanic struggle, with the Gauls led by
Vercingetorix. The fierce independence of the Celtic people worked to the
disadvantage of Vercingetorix, as he had to rely on voluntary support from
the independent tribes within Gaul - who were as likely to fight each
other as they were to fight the common enemy. Even so, Vercingetorix
fought the Romans to a standstill - an accomplishment never before
realized during the Roman Empire expansion - until Vercingetorix
made a military mistake in splitting his army. He and part of his forces
were trapped in Alesia, and eventually to save the townspeople, he
surrendered. He was taken to Rome and tortured to death in 45 BC. Many of
the Gauls fled the region rather than submit to foreign rule; they
traveled completely across Europe to settle in what is today central
Turkey. The region became known as Galatia, from the word Gaul (cf. Paul's
letters to the Galatians).
The Celtic people in the
Iberian Peninsula, being more thinly spread, were more easily conquered by
the Romans, who occupied most of the peninsula in the second century BC.
After the Roman Empire began to crumble, the Moors crossed the Straits of
Gibraltar to invade Spain in the 700s AD. Again a titanic struggle ensued,
with the Moors being eventually pushed out after having held the southern
half of the country for many years. The influence of the Moors in the
Spanish bloodlines can be seen today, in the rich black hair and flashing
eyes of the stereotypical senorita. But there is still a substantial
percentage of the Spanish people, particularly from the northern region,
who have red hair and fair skin - the former in particular being a nearly
certain indication of Celtic genes.
It was in the British Isles
that the Celts left their biggest mark. The first wave of Celts, in the
period of about 600 - 400 BC, spread across the islands and became known
as Gaels. In about 150 BC, a second wave, known as Brythons, spread across
southern England. It is from the word "Brython" that we get the names
"Briton," for the people in southern and central England, and "Breton,"
for those who fled the Romans and Anglo-Saxons and settled in northern
The Romans began their
invasion of Britain in 55 BC, but left after two invasion forces had been
thoroughly defeated by the Brythonic Celts. They returned in great force a
hundred years later, and there ensued a costly and tedious effort to
subdue the Celtic tribes in today's England. After nearly a hundred years,
the Romans reached the neck of the island, where Hadrian built the wall
known by his name, across approximately the boundary between present-day
Scotland and England. That wall was built as protection against the Scots
(and/or Picts, as the eastern Scots were sometimes known). But the Romans
could not hold the country against the Scots, the frequently rebellious
Britons, and the Gaels in the western regions, known as Welsh, especially
with the new problems of Angles and Saxons raiding the southeastern
coastline. In 410 AD, the Romans left for good, telling the Britons to
"see to their own defenses." For a period of about 400 years, the Roman
Empire had poured a substantial part of their military might into an
unsuccessful attempt to conquer the Gaels and Britons - whereas in their
other campaigns, they had managed to conquer every country they had
invaded in short order.
In subsequent years, the
increasing pressure of Anglo-Saxons invasions from regions of present-day
Germany pushed the Britons into present-day Wales, southern Scotland, and
the Bretonic region of northern France. The Anglo-Saxon approach to
conquering a territory was somewhat akin to the Israelites under Joshua:
slay all inhabitants. Hence, there was very little mixing of Celtic genes
in the tribes that evolved into the English of today. The stubborn warrior
traits of the Gaels, and especially the Scots, continue down through
history. The failure of the Romans to achieve military victory over the
Scots portended such events as the defeat by the Scots of the English at
the Battle of Bannockbum, where the Scottish army demolished a foe that
outnumbered them by about four to one.
Because of the paucity of
written records, the scope of Celtic settlement across Europe has not been
easy to establish. One feature already mentioned that is strongly
associated with Celtic blood lines is red hair; a great majority of people
in the world who have red hair will be found to have a Celtic ancestor.
But that feature is not uniquely associated with the Celts, so the spread
of Celtic people in such areas as present-day Germany and Scandinavia has
not been accepted by all authorities. During World War II, a discovery was
made that only recently has received meticulous research. A couple of
doctors in medical centers in England noticed that there was a feature of
Scots and Welsh soldiers wounded in battle that was not present with
English, Germans, and other nationalities. The former frequently had a big
toe (or great toe) that was the same length as the next toe; all others
had great toes markedly longer. They marked that down for research after
the war ended, but it was only a few years ago that definitive research
was done that has led to a remarkable discovery. They found that there
were burial sites across Britain where the skeletons were completely of
one ethnic group, such as Celtic burial sites on islands along the
Scottish northwest coast, and pre-Celtic burial sites in southern England.
Results from studies of those burial sites showed that to a 95 probability
Celtic remains had a big toe the same length as, or shorter than, the next
toe, while pre-Celtic remains had a big toe longer than the one next to
it. That study was expanded to cover burial sites in other parts of Europe
and Asia, with the same results. Because the so-called Celtic toe can
disappear after many generations of intermarriage, it is not a necessary
condition to having a Celtic ancestor, but it is a sufficient one: if a
person has the Celtic toe, he or she is almost certain to be of Celtic
That discovery should allow
a much better mapping of the extent of Celtic settlement across Europe.
The Celtic toe has been found in abundance in southern and central Germany
and across western and central Scandinavia. It has been found in
present-day descendants of the Dutch Boers who settled in South Africa
over a hundred years ago; the only source of that gene is from the Celtic
Dutch of two thousand years ago. It could be used to map the Scottish
migration route from the central Atlantic down through the Carolinas and
into Georgia in the 1700s.
A Rose by Any Other Name
The part that the Celts
played in shaping European civilization has slowly evolved during the past
few decades, from a time when the Celtic people were not even mentioned in
school textbooks on European history. That role provokes increasing wonder
but little controversy. Such is not the case on one feature of the Celts,
however. There has arisen an increasingly fractious dispute over how to
pronounce the name of the people: is it "selt-Celt" or "kelt-Celt"? It is
important to understand that no one is around who heard the word
pronounced by the people who called themselves Celts, some two thousand or
so years ago. In the virtual absence of a written record left by the Celts
themselves, etymologists have to rely on clues left in languages for which
we have some knowledge of how words and letters were pronounced.
Present-day authorities are divided; for example, Webster's Seventh New
Collegiate Dictionary prefers "selt-Celt," while the American Heritage
Dictionary prefers "kelt-Celt".
For the word "Celt", there
are two solid clues, mutually contradictory. The Greeks transliterated the
word into "keltoi" (here I use Roman letters instead of Greek, for
clarity). That might lead us to the conclusion that the Celts called
themselves "Kelts." But the Greeks used the letter "k" to transliterate
both the sibilant "s" sound and the plosive "k" sound, so the word "keltoi"
is not conclusive.
In Latin, the word is
written "celtoi" or "celtai." If that word was derived directly from the
Celtic people's pronunciation, it would indicate that the correct
pronunciation is "selt-Celt". But there is some indication that it was
derived from the Greek word "keltoi," leaving us with little to go on, as
it was common to convert Greek "k" sounds (plosive) into Latin "c" sounds
(sibilant). Hence, the Greek "kentrum" became Latin "centrum," from which
we get the English word "center". This is a common development; the Latin
"caesar" was converted in German into "kaiser" (plosive), but into "czar"
in Russian, retaining the Latin sibilant sound.
Celtic language differentiated into several branches many centuries ago,
and the word "Celt" in today's Gaelic (for example) is a late
back-transformation from a different language, probably English. No other
European language gives much help. So we are left with the contradictory
clues, the Greek "keltoi" and the Latin "celtai." Which is correct - "selt-Celt"
or "kelt-Celt"? There are two questions here - first, what did the people
call themselves in, say, 500 BC? Second, how should the word be pronounced
in modem English?
To the first question,
there is no solid answer, and probably never will be. Evidence slightly
favors "selt-Celt," but it is by no means conclusive. To the second
question, we refer to the rules of pronunciation for our language, one of
which is, "c" before "e" is always sibilant, except for a very few foreign
words used in English (such as the Italian word "cello", with the sound "ch").
That is true regardless of the earliest origin of the root word - such as
the Greek "kentrum" evolving into Latin "centrum" and thence into English
"center." The plosive "kelt" heard with increasing frequency today may be
a good guess on the original people's pronunciation, but it is bad
The evolution of the "kelt-Celt"
pronunciation is recent. For both English and American authorities, the
word was pronounced "selt-Celt" universally during the late 1800s and
early 1900s; see English lexicographers John Craig (1849) and Benjamin
Humphrey Smart (1836); American Noah Webster (1828). Webster's, American
College, and Funk & Wagnalls dictionaries up through the 1950s universally
used "selt-Celt" as the preferred or only pronunciation. The dominant
American grammar authority John Opdycke in 1939 wrote " 'Celtic' may also
be spelt 'Keltic', and the two forms are accordingly pronounced 'sell-tik'
and 'keU-tik'..." The Oxford English Dictionary in 1928 sanctioned only "selt-Celt"
and "seltic-Celtic". The giant among English usage authorities, H. W.
Fowler, wrote in 1926 "The spelling C- & the pronunciation s-, are the
established ones, & no useful purpose seems to be served by the
substitution ofk-." In 1999 Charles Elster, the dominant American
authority in orthoepy (proper pronunciation of words) held firmly with "selt-Celt,"
describing "kelt-Celt" as a "beastly mispronunciation."
The "kelt-Celt" heresy
arose in England after the 1950s and spread throughout the rest of Britain
and in the last couple of decades into the United States as well. In 1989
the Oxford English Dictionary finally recognized the "kelt-Celt"
pronunciation, although still listing "selt-Celt" as preferred. It is now
fashionable to hear "kelt-Celt" at Scottish Games in the United States;
indeed, I am sometimes viewed as illiterate when I adhere to the
orthoepically and historically correct "selt-Celt." Interestingly, the
Glasgow Celtic football team (which means rugby, not American football) is
still called the "selticks."
There are those who will
point to the Greek origin and claim that accuracy requires us to violate
the rule of English pronunciation and recast the word as "kelt-Celt".
There is the attendant requirement, for consistency, to do so with all
English words that derive ultimately from Greek. Thus, those who insist on
"kelt-Celt" should be prepared to go to the local building supply "kenter"
to buy some "kedar" lumber - as both "center" and "cedar" derive from
Greek words - or change the spelling to "Kelt" to conform to English
rules. Elster proposes a test: "Try going to a Boston Celtics basketball
game and yelling, 'Go, Kel-tiks!' If you can get out of there without
being slam-dunked, you can say it however you want." None of which can
detract from the growing appreciation of a people who had an enormous
influence on European history, and whose traits of fierce independence,
unparalleled military prowess and courage, and love of education, science,
and the arts continue to wield a powerful influence on present-day world
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