Centres and Peripheries in Celtic Linguistics

by Maria Bloch-Trojnar (Volume editor) Mark Ó Fionnáin (Volume editor)
©2019 Edited Collection 174 Pages


This book examines various aspects of Celtic linguistics from a general and more specific point of view. Amongst the topics investigated is the system of Irish initial mutations from both a linguistic universal and contrastive perspective. Other contributions analyse and cast new light on deverbal adjectives and assertive and declarative speech acts in Irish, communication and language transmission, change and policy, Breton and Sorbian grammars, as well as other issues of sociolinguistics in Irish, Welsh and Breton.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Editors’ Preface
  • Sonority and Initial Consonant Mutation in Modern Celtic (Martin J. Ball / Nicole Müller)
  • Peripheral, Yet in the Centre – A Note on the Use of -ach in Deverbal Adjective Formation in Irish (Maria Bloch-Trojnar)
  • Variation in the Initial Consonants of Some Irish Pronouns (Magdalena Chudak)
  • Brittonic and Goidelic Word-Initial Consonantal Alterations – Facts and Figures (Krzysztof Jaskuła)
  • Children Prefer Natives: A Study on the Transmission of a Heritage Language – Standard Breton, Neo-Breton and Traditional Dialects (Mélanie Jouitteau)
  • The Role of Context and Common Ground in Utterance Meaning with Assertive and Declarative Speech Acts of Irish (Brian Nolan)
  • Centre and Periphery in Munster Dialects of Irish (Diarmuid Ó Sé)
  • Early Descriptions of Lower Sorbian and Breton Syntax: The Grammar Books by Julien Maunoir and Jan Chojnan (Till Vogt)
  • The Welsh Language in Education from the 19th Century Until the Present Day: Did the Popularisation of Welsh in Education Improve Its General Situation? (Paweł Tuz)
  • Series index

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Editors’ Preface

This volume contains a selection of chapters on various aspects of Celtic linguistics, most of which were presented during the Second Lublin Celtic Colloquium which took place at The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin on 21st–22nd September 2017, but have been generously supplemented by several additions since then. The general theme of the Colloquium was “Centres and Peripheries in Celtic Studies”, and this is reflected in the topics of the chapters in this volume: they cover aspects relating to the Celtic languages in general to more specific aspects of Irish and Breton linguistics and sociolinguistics via historical Breton and Sorbian grammars and modern Welsh-language education.

One of the distinctive traits which sets Celtic languages apart, not just within the Indo-European family but universally, is consonant mutations, whereby word-initial consonants undergo morphosyntactically conditioned phonological changes. This phenomenon has always engendered the interest of phonologists and morphosyntacticians, and despite intense research its complex nature still awaits a comprehensive account. Martin J. Ball and Nicole Müller consider it in the context of linguistic universals, Krzysztof Jaskuła adopts a contrastive perspective, whereas Magdalena Chudak considers its possible effects on a small but important section of the Irish morphological system, i.e. pronouns.

Martin J. Ball and Nicole Müller relate this phenomenon to an ongoing phonological debate concerning general principles of syllable structure in natural languages (such as the Sonority Sequencing Principle and the Sonority Dispersal Principle) and advance a bold claim that the main tenets of sonority theory cannot accommodate the initial consonant mutation systems of Celtic languages. They present the changes in sonority profiles between the unmutated initial consonant and its mutated reflexes in Welsh, Breton and Irish and demonstrate that in all three languages mutations affect syllable shapes in such a way that the resulting onset falls short of the ideal predicted by the Sonority Sequencing Principle. The examination of mutation effects on resulting consonant clusters reveals the inadequacy of the Sonority Dispersal Principle. The account of the widely differing results is contingent on the number of sonority classes one is willing to adopt. The authors conclude that “sonority is an epiphenomenon rather than a constraining principle of phonological systems”.

Krzysztof Jaskuła focuses on the differences in the behaviour of non-plosive consonants (fricatives and sonorants) as opposed to that of stops participating in word-initial consonant mutations in the Q-Celtic (Goidelic) and P-Celtic ← 7 | 8 → (Brittonic) groups of languages. The issue of consonantal prefixations to vowel-initial words is also addressed in the chapter. The author aims to account for the marked differences between these two branches of Celtic languages by tracing their diachronic development side by side with probing into their respective systems viewed in synchronic terms.

Interestingly, the existence of mutations can have puzzling lexical/dialectal reflexes, as evidenced by the phenomenon of reradicalisation in Irish. This is dialectal variation in some open-class items affecting initial segments but having no effect on the semantics or the grammatical function of the word, e.g. pléascbléasc ‘explosion, bang’. In her contribution, Magdalena Chudak addresses the question of initial variations attested in Irish pronouns such as those found in the reflexive pronoun ‘self’ which has three by-forms féin, héin and péin. She argues convincingly that, in contrast to the mutation-based reanalysis involved in open-class lexical items, variations in pronouns stem from a variety of factors having to do with the acoustic and perceptual similarity of segments in certain dialects and with sandhi phenomena.

Apart from mutations, Celtic languages show other unique systemic features which will pose an analytic challenge for phonologists, morphologists and syntacticians for years to come. Instead of taking the tempting path leading to linguistic peculiarities, Maria Bloch-Trojnar tries to bring the processes of forming deverbal adjectives in Irish in line with the generally recognised categorisation, only to discover that, despite fitting in, the Irish language is, in its own way, unique. To be more precise, she investigates derived adjectives marked with the suffix -ach. This suffix is primarily used to form various classes of denominal adjectives, but the chapter focuses on its deverbal uses which are only mentioned in passing in traditional grammars. This is the same situation with many morphologically complex words which, like adjectives in -ach, can be related to the verbal noun (VN) and the verbal adjective (VA), which are the traditional terms for the present and the past participle. The proposed analysis points to the positional variant of the active participle as the derivational base for the adjective. It is not uncommon cross-linguistically for present participles to undergo conversion into adjectives, but Irish is interesting in that the participle acts as the derivational base.

Since phonological, morphological and syntactic considerations form the bulk of literature on Celtic linguistics, pragmatic studies are definitely under-represented and pushed to the periphery. However, in this volume, Brian Nolan develops a formal model of constructing the discourse meaning of assertive and declarative speech acts in Irish. The formalisation of utterance meaning involves linguistic and non-linguistic components and takes into consideration the situation of the ← 8 | 9 → occurrence of the utterance and its context, the beliefs, desires and intentions of the interlocutors and their respective common grounds. It is demonstrated that each of the abovementioned components contributes to the utterance meaning in a principled way. The event and its semantics reflect ‘what is said’, whereas ‘what is meant’ can be constructed at a higher level of abstraction within a situation. It transpires from the comparative analysis that a felicitous declarative speech act is highly dependent on context, whereas assertions call for the construction and maintenance of a shared common ground.

All Celtic languages are characterised by dialectal variation or, dare the word be spoken, fragmentation, which is closely bound up with the turbulent past and the encroachment of a larger, more powerful neighbour and which, in turn, has a bearing on communication, language transmission, language change and language policy. These issues will continue to occupy a central position in research on Celtic languages, as evidenced by contributions by Diarmuid Ó Sé, Mélanie Jouitteau and Paweł Tuz.

Diarmuid Ó Sé offers a stimulating discussion of the dialect geography of Munster in view of the centre vs. periphery distinction, which is crucial in dialectology. In his chapter, 14 peripheral retentions in Munster and 26 peripheral innovations are identified. The author is inclined to support the traditional stand that peripheral areas can be relic areas in which recessive features persist. However, the origin of many of the innovative features of coastal Munster seems less clear than he has initially assumed since diffusion can be observed between areas which are non-contiguous, which cannot be straightforwardly explained by maritime contact.

Mélanie Jouitteau presents interesting findings concerning the syntax of Breton of the native young adults of the missing link generation. Counter to the statistical and sociological models of acquisition, native young adults who received full Breton schooling in immersion schools prefer the input of linguistically secure speakers of traditional dialects when constructing their own generational variety and disregard the features of Standard Breton, which is the socially valued variety promoted by the schools and media.

Paweł Tuz presents an overview of the position of the Welsh language in the educational system from the 19th century to the present day and relates the developments in education to the changing numbers of Welsh speakers throughout this period. The author elaborates on the reasons why the observable rise in the status of Welsh in the educational system has not been reflected in the expected marked rise in the numbers of speakers of the Welsh language. ← 9 | 10 →

Last but not least, Till Vogt brings to our attention the results of a comparative analysis of the presentation of the syntax of Breton and Lower Sorbian in the oldest grammar books from the 17th century. He convincingly argues that both Maunoir and Chojnan projected grammatical features of Latin, French and German onto the minority languages they aimed to describe.

In conclusion, we would like to sincerely thank all the participants of the Colloquium as well as the other authors of the chapters published here, and we would especially like to thank our reviewer, Prof. Sabine Asmus. We are grateful to Prof. Jolanta Szpyra-Kozłowska for making it possible for our volume to appear in the series Sounds – Meaning – Communication. Landmarks in Phonetics, Phonology and Cognitive Linguistics. We also wish to acknowledge the support received from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland via a Cultural Grant-in-Aid, and our very special thanks are due to his Excellency, the Irish Ambassador to Poland Mr. Gerard Keown.

Overall, we sincerely hope that the variety of chapters in this volume will make this collection of chapters a worthy addition to the growing field of research on Celtic and Celtic linguistics.

Maria Bloch-Trojnar
Mark Ó Fionnáin


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
Celtic languages Celtic linguistics Initial mutations Language change Language policy Language transmission
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 172 pp., 2 fig. b/w, 32 tables, 2 maps

Biographical notes

Maria Bloch-Trojnar (Volume editor) Mark Ó Fionnáin (Volume editor)

Maria Bloch-Trojnar is head of the Department of Celtic Studies at The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin. Her major research interests include morphology and its interfaces with other grammatical components, in particular deverbal nominalisations and adjectivisations, lexicology, in Irish, Polish and English. Mark Ó Fionnáin is a lecturer in the Department of Celtic Studies at The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin. His research is primarily concerned with the Gaelic languages, their literatures and related issues of translation.


Title: Centres and Peripheries in Celtic Linguistics
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175 pages