Marcus Tanner,
The Last of the Celts
(Yale University Press, 2004)

Marcus Tanner takes a journalistic and historical perspective on the perilous situation of the six Celtic languages in their homelands, plus the decline of Celtic Nova Scotia and Patagonian colonies.

While he's a sympathetic observer -- he's half Welsh -- his observations are depressing. Even as he is asserting Europe needs its Celtic peoples and cultures to survive, he gives little evidence this is happening. Even Welsh, the one ray of hope for the Celts, is teetering on the brink while Breton seems to be the most recent to have gone over the edge, almost all its speakers now over 60 years of age.

Each generation bears the responsibility of passing on language and culture to the next. Where this link is broken, by a war, famine or outside intervention, language shift occurs, sometimes overnight.

What's the link? Why are all six Celtic languages either dead or in the process of committing suicide? With languages like Czech, Finn and Estonian coming back from the edge in modern Europe, and the turnaround in the use of Basque and Catalan, one might ask: what's wrong with the Celts?

One connection Tanner makes is religion. In almost all cases the Celtic tongues are associated with religious backwardness. Modernity and prosperity are done in English, French and -- in Argentina's case -- Spanish: the metropolitan languages. With the rise of schools and the decline of churches, Celtic tongues were dealt a body blow; particularly in Brittany and the Scots Gaelic lands.

It also helps, but is not sufficient, to have a state apparatus in your language. Many or most people speak English in Iceland, for instance, but Icelandic is in no danger of fading. By contrast, what has the Irish Republic done to bring back Irish? The dream of Irish independence was, for some, a Gaelic-speaking Ireland, but somehow that goal was sidetracked early on.

In South Wales, the rise of the Labour Party and the fall of the more nationalistic Welsh Liberals was a factor in the language's turn-of-the-20th century downturn. Labour leaders like Aneurin Bevan wished to build a broad pan-British working class, effectively promoting English (and British nationalism) at the expense of Welsh. Tanner links the loss of Welsh culture in the Valleys to today's severe social and economic problems. And, he says that unlike Irish culture, Welsh is not and never has been "cool."

By contrast, in North West Wales, where Plaid Cymru replaced the Liberals, the language maintained itself. While culturally fragile, it retains at least a Welsh culture and identity. Caernarfon, possibly the most important Celtic-speaking town left on the planet, was identified as the exception, where "yobs" still buy their beer in Welsh.

Another, more limited success story is that of Irish in the Catholic communities of Northern Ireland where urban Gaeltachts (areas where Irish is the community language) have been established. Yet very few Northern Irish Protestants remember their own Gaelic-speaking roots in Scotland.

Tanner has done his homework, and has done a thorough accounting of each of the six imperiled Celtic tongues. At the very least, The Last of the Celts is a good primer in modern Celtic history, a good read at that. I just wish he had better news to report.

by David Cox
17 March 2006

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