Labara 3: Talking about Celtic language
Celtic language learning, a guide for Pagans
by Meredith Richard
In the previous articles of this series, we've taken a look at the history, the structure and the worldview of the Celtic languages, and a few of the reasons why Celtic language is the defining quality of Celticness. In essence, we've already dealt with some major reasons that most Celtic Pagans do not learn a Celtic language: unawareness of the existence of the languages, their richness and depth, and their essential role in Celtic culture; acceptance of the majority-culture indoctrination that other languages have nothing truly different about them, but can be translated into English with no appreciable loss of meaning; and unconscious acceptance of the inferiority and irrelevancy assigned to these languages by the same majority cultures. Once over these hurdles, though, there remain certain practical problems; chiefly of finding learning materials and classes, and learning how to learn a language, something that most Americans have little practice doing.
The six modern Celtic languages are Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Manx and Cornish. Your particular interests will probably attract you to one of these. You may also be attracted to learning a older Celtic language in order to be able to read early Celtic mythlogy and literature in the original. This is a worthy goal, but it should be remembered that the Celtic heritage is a living thing: only learning and using a spoken, living language will enable you to appreciate its full beauty and vitality. Until you have used a Celtic language as a real means of communication and expression, you are likely to perceive the old texts merely as things to be translated into English; gut understanding won't be there. Once you have some competency in speaking a modern Celtic language, the older language will become much easier to learn, and your experience of them much more direct.
General principles of learning materials
Ideally, you may be able to take a course in the language, possibly at a college or university, or perhaps through a Celtic organisation near you. If so, the teacher will advise you on necessary learning materials and where to get them. If there are no classes available, you will have to locate some on your own. Here are some general principles:
• Avoid "phrase" books & tapes except as supplements. You won't get very far with them.
• Tapes are essential unless you have a speaker of the language (preferably with the patience of a rock) continually on call to assist you. Even with tapes, it's a very good idea to find a helpful speaker somewhere who will review your pronunciation occasionally, and whom you can ask questions if you get stuck on anything.
• I hate to have to say this, but you should exercise caution when finding a helpful speaker. Within the Pagan community, there are unfortunately people who radically exaggerate their knowledge of a Celtic language, and cannot be relied on to answer questions about pronunciation, usage and such. Also, many Pagan books have badly mistaken pronunciations for Celtic names and terms. If in doubt, look for evidence of non-Pagan qualifications and/or confirmation of language questions from non-Pagan sources.
• Also note that Celtic language learning materials often teach a somewhat standardised form of the language, as opposed to the numerous dialects that are actually spoken, while others teach a specific dialect. When buying books and tapes, understand what form is being taught, and be prepared for dialect differences when you start practicing your languages skills with actual speakers.
Specific Learning Materials
|Celtic League American Branch
PO Box 20153
Dag Hammersjold Postal Center
New York, NY 10017
|Publishes Learning the Celtic Languages, available for $6 (also publishes journal Keltoi and a Celtic Calendar (starting on Samhain), both of which include material of interest to Pagans)|
|Dalriada Celtic Heritage Trust
Dun na Beatha
2 Brathwic Place
Isle of Arran
Scotland KA27 8BN
|Publishes the Celtic Pages, £6 for North American orders (payment in sterling) which is packed with information on Celtic organisations, courses, craftworkers, publishers, shops, and so forth. Particularly valuable when you begin to broaden your studies. (Also publish Dalriada magazine, also of interest to Pagans, run a Celtic BBS and a correspondence course)|
|Audio Forum******||Celtic learning materials and|
|Irish Books and Graphics
New York, NY 10012
|Irish books and learning materials; I also believe they carry some Manx and Scottish Gaelic material as well|
|The Harp and Dragon
25 Madison Street
Cortland, NY 13045
|Welsh imports, learning materials, books, music and harps|
|Gaelic College of Arts and Crafts
P.O. Box 9
Baddeck, Nova Scotia B0E 1B0
|Courses include Scottish Gaelic|
169 Greenwood Avenue, B-4
Jenkintown, PA 19046
|Newsletter of the International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language|
|Breton correspondence course (through medium of French)|
The Old Kiln
Falmouth, Kernow TR11 5RK
|Course covering syllabus of Cornish Language Board; can be used by correspondence|
(Manx Gaelic Society)
Mrs. Audey Ainsworth
3 Glencrutchery Road
Isle of Man
|Write for information on classes, publications, and Manx books|
One critical exercise that is skimped in some books is the 'pattern practice exercise'. When you learn a new grammatical structure, create a table of 'possible sentences' using that structure with vocabulary words you know. For instance, you may have just learned that the English pattern "X is Ying" corresponds to the Welsh pattern "Mae X yn Y." Practice the pattern over and over again, substituting different combinations of vocabulary words for the X’s and Y’s. Furthermore, as soon as you are vaguely familiar with the vocabulary and pattern, resist the temptation to mentally translate into English as you go along. Instead, visualise the meaning. When you say, for example, Mae Twn yn eistedd, ignore the little voice in your head that's echoing in English, "Tom is sitting", and simply visualise a guy named Twm sitting. This is a much faster way to set the new pattern in your mind; it moves you farther toward being able to think in the new language; and it happens to be a damn good mental exercise, especially useful if you're learning magical visualisation techniques.
There are plenty of other strategies for learning languages that are covered in readily available books. Festoon your house with Celtic vocabulary labels. Tape your pattern practice exercises and your vocabulary lists to your bathroom mirror and on your desk at work. Supplement the vocabulary in the book with vocabulary about things you're interested in: while we should be able to talk about Tom at a picnic, we would also like to be able to talk about the standing stone in the field. But do not, on any account, go wild with a dictionary before you have a grasp on the grammar and vocabulary involved. As discussed in the previous article, the patterns and idiom of Celtic languages are much different than that of English; using the dictionary as your principal tool when translating stuff into a new language is the fastest possible route to total gibberish. Instead, try absorb these things in a grammatical and native Celtic context. A children’s edition of mythology and folktales is an excellent place to start.
This brings us to remembering that we are not learning a Celtic
language chiefly for its practical uses, but for its aesthetic, poetic,
and spiritual essence, in order to understand the Celtic worldview as fully
as possible. It is essential to broaden our studies beyond the 'practical'
as soon as possible.
Broadening out – starting to absorb Celtic culture directly
One obvious and enjoyable step in broader 'cultural studies' in the language is vocal music, and the second is poetry (the type with rhyme and meter). Both of these are very good for learning the rhythm of the language, and are very suitable for memorising. And since the English translation is highly unlikely to rhyme or scan, the tendency towards mental translation into English is discouraged.
There is a great deal of music recorded in the Celtic languages; some recordings and albums are nationally distributed (particularly Irish and Scottish artists), while for others you may have to go to a Celtic import shop or order through the mail. There is Celtic-language music to match most tastes: folk and other traditional styles (not all of which are 'folk'), folk rock, rock, pop, country & western, alternative, and so forth. There are also some recordings especially for learners, such as the "Karaoke Ceilidh" tape available from Comunn an Luchd-Ionnsachaidh, the Scottish Gaelic learners' organisation: for each song there is recorded a full version, a karaoke version, and a spoken model of the lyrics. And if possible, listen to the Thistle & Shamrock program on National Public Radio; Celtic-language music is frequently featured.
There are also books of Celtic music. Folk-Songs of Britain and Ireland, which is not too difficult to find, contains much Celtic-language material. For this one, as for some others, you should be cautious of the English lyrics given; the translations are often designed to rhyme and scan in English, rather than to give an accurate version of the Celtic lyrics. In any case, you should not learn only the sound of the words of a Celtic song; work out meaning of the lyrics on your own as well. (And again, I hate to have to say this, but there are also some Pagan albums which commit indecent assault on Celtic grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. Trust 'outside' material first.)
There are a great many books of Celtic language poetry. As Druids and Pagans, a lot of the earlier poetry is apt to be of great interest, and some of it may already be familiar in English translation. Some of these ‘familiar’ poems may be an excellent place to start you acquaintance with Celtic language poetry, and learn just how little even the best English translation can capture of the meaning and beauty; however, these are written in older forms of the languages and you will probably need help to understand them. More contemporary poetry is a good place to start, and it covers a wide range of styles from strict-meter verses (reminiscent of Japanese haiku) to 'folk poetry' like the lovely charms and prayers collected in the Carmina Gadelica.
In prose, an obvious place to start is mythology. Depending on your ability, you can choose from children’s editions in easy language, to full translations into the modern language, to the original versions themselves (again, best tackled after some competence with the modern language is achieved). Folklore, folktales, Celtic folk studies and other Celtic studies are all published in Celtic languages (much of which has not been published in English). There are also magazines and books specifically aimed at learners. And, though most Pagans are not aware of it, there is a healthy amount of modern Celtic-language fiction and poetry based on mythological themes or other subjects of interest to Pagans. Don't neglect the ‘classics’ of Celtic literature, either, no matter what their theme or time period: these will bring you to a much deeper understanding of the Celts throughout their full history. You’ll probably know what to read by the time you’re ready to read at that level; ask your by-then numerous Celtic contacts for recommendations, too.
You should endeavor to use the new language as a means of ordinary communication as much as possible, as soon as possible. You may be able to find other learners in your area, possibly through a local Celtic-interest organisation, or through organisations like the Celtic League. There are learners’ organisations in all of the Celtic countries; they can offer lots of assistance in your studies, and also may help you find a Celtic-language penpal or phonepal. The Internet has Celtic-language mailing lists that you can join. Or take a holiday to a Celtic-speaking area; you could also attend a Celtic-language festival, or take a residential language course (from single weekends to full terms). The relevant tourist board should be able to help you with planning a Celtic-language-focussed holiday (there exists an excellent guide to holidays in Gaelic Scotland, for example), and should certainly be able to refer you to festival boards, organisations and language centers. And there are also residential language courses and festivals in the US and Canada as well, such as at the Gaelic Arts College in Nova Scotia, or Welsh Heritage Week.
As you learn both the language and the culture, you will want to incorporate what you learn into your spiritual life. Some ways will be obvious: as you come across new stories and folklore, new facts and new underlying meanings, you will use this knowledge. Some ways will be less expected: many learners experience the feeling that when speaking in the new language, they are expressing a new self. This isn’t an illusion; it is the beginning of a real conversion to the new language’s worldview, and should be nurtured and listened to. And there are other psychological and spiritual issues to be faced: the challenges to assumptions you may have made about Celtic culture and tradition, challenges to your beliefs; the psychological shift from an imperial worldview (conscious or not) to that of a colonised and minority culture; the challenge of being both Celtic and Pagan in a world where the typical Celt and typical Pagan do not have much obvious in common. You will be walking boundary places between cultures: remember that boundaries are difficult and fruitful places to be, and that spiritual growth will follow. And also remember that becoming part of a culture is a two-way relationship. As you learn from Celtic-language cultures, you should support them; it won't be hard to find ways to help work for their survival.
In the meantime, you could start using Celtic language prayers and blessings
in your daily life, and Celtic language music and poetry in ritual, and
as meditation poetry. You may have the urge to translate your favorite
rituals into a Celtic language, but this is not necessarily a good idea:
most NeoPagan ritual reflects a NeoPagan worldview, not a Celtic one, so
translating the words alone is a grammatical exercise instead of a cultural
insight. You are far better off attempting very simple ritual with native
poetry and texts, and letting the language and culture speak to you through
Dealing with people
In the course of your studies, you will at some point come into contact with native speakers and other, non-Pagan learners. There are some issues that you should be aware of and be prepared to deal with.
Except for the very young and the very old, there are almost no monolingual speakers of Celtic languages. From a learner's point of view, this means that there is not a lot of opportunity ever to get into that most valuable of learning situations: total and uncompromised immersion. Furthermore, because of the social issues surrounding language use (as briefly mentioned in Labara 1), many Celtic speakers are entirely too prepared to use English to a learner. This can be countered by sheer stubbornness: keep the conversation in the Celtic language as much as possible. Have a store of convenient phrases in case anyone tries to speak English 'for your sake' – "Oh, I'm having a good time just listening – I'm only here for the Irish, you know." If you need to know what a word means, ask in the Celtic language, ask your friends to answer in simpler Celtic instead of English if possible, and don't let this be a excuse for the conversation to drift into English . And spend a lot of time listening actively.
Then there is religion. Religion has been and still is a divisive issue in Celtic societies; Pagans should not add to this in any way, and that includes overt anti-Christian sentiments. For Pagans, the current general rule is: do not tell a Celt that you are Pagan unless you know them very well and have already established with them than you are sane, intelligent, and rather well-informed about Celtic matters by their definition. Do not volunteer the information that you are a Pagan or a Druid; if someone inquires, it's usually better to duck the question, frankly.
Aside from the general Pagan PR principle that nice normal people do not bring up their nice normal religions without (at least) being asked, there is a reason for this rule. Your principal purpose in learning a Celtic language and talking with native Celts is come to know the culture from the inside, to assimilate to it as much as possible and thereby understand it deeply. Prematurely announcing your religious views is counterproductive and alienating to this process, since many Celts either have a very negative view of pagans (i.e. the 'godless heathen' viewpoint), or who specifically are aware of NeoPaganism and Druidism and think of us as exploitative outsiders who know nothing of Celtic culture. It is far better to spend your time with Celts – of whatever persuasion and opinions – listening and learning. Let revelations of your Pagan beliefs wait (at the very least) until you have earned people’s respect. In the meantime, stick to ‘being interested in’ Celtic language, mythology, folklore, literature, history, poetry, music, art, and so forth.
Nor should you assume that non-Pagan Celts are ignorant about their own heritage. There is an immense amount of misinformation and over-standardisation of concepts in the Celtic Pagan community, and trying to impart your concept of Celtic culture of whatever era is likely to earn you a reputation as not only arrogant but ill-informed. And, like many aboriginal and colonised peoples, Celts may have a private joke at the expense of those they see as patronising outsiders who think they know it all. But if you go in with an open and respectful attitude, and are willing to learn and listen, you will be amply rewarded.
You will also be amply reward by the satisfaction of learning
Next issue, we will be taking a detailed look at the levels of structure and meaning in some Celtic-language poetry.
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©Meredith Richard, 1998. All rights reserved.