Are Language and Political Autonomy Correlated in the Celtic World?

From the Lecture Series : The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America
An image of the Carnac stones, an exceptionally dense collection of megalithic sites, in Brittany, France.
Regional autonomy in Brittany and Galicia, political struggle in Northern Ireland, and Scottish independence are important issues even today. (Image: yggdrasill/Shutterstock)

Isle of Man, a Cultural Melting Pot

England has controlled the Isle of Man since the 14th century. It is a self-governed region and not a part of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Instead, it enjoys political autonomy on its internal affairs, only to be controlled by the British Government in matters of defense and foreign affairs.

The Liberal Vannin Party is one political party of the Isle of Man which demands for greater legislative autonomy, but has not found much support among the locals.

Manx and English are the two official languages of the Isle of Man. Manx, a Celtic language spoken by about 1,700 people, is recognized under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and is classified as “critically endangered”.

In order to revive the language, a Manx-medium immersion school has been established on the island. There is also an option for all schoolchildren to learn the language. Further, the road signals are all bilingual and there is also some limited broadcasting in the Manx language.

Learn more about the Celts and the classical world.

Cornwall and Its Celtic Connect

The next largest amongst the Celtic regions is Cornwall. Though Cornwall was a participant of the 19th century Celtic revival, the marginal status of the Cornish language has made it difficult for Cornwall to be noticed by the larger Celtic powers.

Just as in Isle of Man, there are bilingual streets in Cornwall. There are also bilingual daycare centers to encourage and promote the revival of the language among parents and children. Books are increasingly available in Cornish, and BBC Cornwall also has broadcast hours in Cornish.

There were occasional demands for autonomy based on the Celtic heritage of the Cornish people. Earlier, petitions to recognize Cornwall as an official minority hardly received any support. Attempts to create a decentralized legislative assembly for Cornwall in line with the ones in Wales and Scotland had also failed. Nonetheless, the Cornish culture was well integrated with the British culture.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Brittany, the Brythonic Country

Sculpture of a Celtic Warrior in a
museum of Brittany.
The Bretons identify so much with Celtic circles. (Image:
Paul Barlow/Public domain)

Brittany, in the northwestern peninsula, has always had a distinct identity from the rest of France. The region shares a rich tradition of Celtic culture that is more in sync with other Celtic regions than with France.

The Bretons identify so much with Celtic circles that dedicate themselves to music, literature, language, and distinctive customs of Brittany that there are at least 200 to 300 Celtic circles in Brittany alone. One instance that makes this identity evident is the recent revival of the traditional lace headdress.

There were two million Breton speakers in the beginning of the 20th century, but that number saw a steep decline to 200,000 by 2007. Though there are some scant bilingual signs and private schools that teach through immersion, the language has no official support as other indigenous languages of Celtic origin.

Breton has also not been ratified in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and it is illegal to use languages other than French as a medium of instruction in France.

Polls in 2013 suggested that the idea of nationalism in Brittany weakened over the years, as hardly 20% of the Bretons wanted independence while the majority preferred greater autonomy.

Learn more about Celtic religion and the Druids.

Wales, the Least of Separatist

Following a narrow referendum, in favor of devolution, the Parliament of United Kingdom granted Wales its own legislative assembly in 1998.

There seems to be no specific correlation between the survival of a Celtic language and the need for a separatist nation. One very clear example is Wales, where the largest number of Celtic language speakers exists. As in a few other regions, bilingual streets are a common sight in Wales. The number of Welsh speakers was about 19% of the population as per the census in 2011.

Around 16% of students go to Welsh-medium schools and all students learn Welsh until the age of fourteen. As a result of this strong support of Welsh in schools, Wales has the largest number of Celtic-language speakers than any other realms.

However, the Welsh have the least of separatist intentions.

Learn more about Celtic churches.

Scottish Gaelic or the Tartan

The use of tartan to symbolize a pan-Scottish identity shows that the revival of the Scottish identity in the 19th century focused on cultural features rather than the Celtic language.

The second referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014 ended with Scotland voting against the proposal to be an independent country and deciding to continue as part of the United Kingdom.

The nationalist sentiment and support for the Gaelic language in Scotland has amplified recently. In 2016, less than 2% of the country’s student population had any knowledge of Gaelic at all. There were hardly 4,000 students enrolled to Gaelic-medium schools.

As for broadcasting, the time allotted for Scottish programs is quite less in comparison to other Celtic realms.

Thus, in Scotland, political autonomy and support for the indigenous Celtic language do not seem to be correlated.

Learn more about Celtic women, families, and social structure.

Ireland, the Most Complicated of the Celts?

There are hardly any parallels to Ireland in the Celtic region for its complicated nationalist agenda. Even today, huge resources are spent to promote and support the Irish language.

Irish is a compulsory language for school-going children and a mandatory subject in the Leaving Certificate exam in Ireland. Websites in Irish language and the state broadcaster running Irish-language channels in both radio and television demonstrate the importance for the language in the country.

Despite the efforts, the number of Irish language users refuses to climb up and remains at a minuscule 6%. Support for the language is often seen as a measure of patriotism, and a little wavering in the support for Irish lands even major political parties in trouble.

Thus, in Ireland, nationalism and the Irish language are largely correlated.

But the Celts are about more than parades and bagpipes and whiskey. The Celtic story is also about the persistence of art and creativity in the face of adversity, and. as such, it belongs to people of all backgrounds.

The Celtic world is for everyone.

Common Questions about Correlation Between Language and Political Autonomy in the Celtic World

Q: What is the agenda of the Liberal Vannin Party of Isle of Man?

The Liberal Vannin Party of Isle of Man is a political party which demands for greater legislative autonomy.

Q: What happened with the second referendum on Scottish independence?

The second referendum on Scottish independence ended with Scotland voting against the proposal to be an independent country and deciding to continue as part of the United Kingdom.

Q: Which region has the largest number of Celtic-language speakers?

Wales has the largest number of Celtic-language speakers in the realm.

Keep Reading
The Celtic Fringe: Changes in Brittany under Norman Control
History of Cornwall as a Celtic Area
Were the Britons Celts?
Historical Evidence and the Celtic Identity