What Is The Difference Between Celtic And Gaelic?

The words Celtic and Gaelic seem to be causing a lot of confusion for everyone who isn’t a part of the communities that use these words.

From the Irish language being called Gaelic, which it’s not, but we’ll get to that later, to anyone with an Irish accent being called a Celt.

The meanings of these words can seem a little confusing on their own, so keep reading to find out was the difference between Celtic and Gaelic is.

What Is Celtic?

In short, the word Celtic is officially used to describe the group of Indo-European languages that include territories such as Ireland, the Highlands of Scotland, and Wales.

However, there’s much more to Celtic than just a collection of ancient minority languages.

Celtic Languages

There are specific languages that fall under the Celtic languages umbrella. 

They are:

  • Irish
  • Scottish Gaelic
  • Welsh
  • Breton
  • Manx
  • Cornish

This group of Celtic languages also includes some now extinct pre-Roman languages, such as Gaulish. However, it has been many centuries since these Roman Celtic languages were spoken. So they are now called ‘dead languages, much like the once spoken Latin.

These Celtic languages are split into two linguistic groups. 

Firstly, the Goidelic languages include the Irish language, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic are commonly spoken in specific areas of their respective countries.

In contrast, Manx Gaelic is only really spoken by people who have an interest in the language.

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Then you have the Brythonic languages: Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. Cornish became all but extinct in the 18th century, although interest in the language has seen a minor reappearance. However, both Welsh and Breton are still regularly spoken today.

The Gaelic language Breton is a very special Celtic language, in that it is the only one not spoken in Britain or the Islands surrounding Britain. It is spoken in West Brittany, France.

Although these languages are incredibly old, many began around 1200BC as the Celts began to spread through Western Europe. As a result, many of these Celtic Languages are still alive and well and commonly spoken in their native countries.

There has been a recent revival of their native Celtic languages in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, Irish and Scottish Gaelic.

Both these languages were falling out of favor for English. However, with a push from local speakers, education ministers, and localized initiatives, these languages are gaining momentum again. 

The exception to this is the language Manx. It is believed that the last speaker of Manx died in 1962.

This is the perfect time to point out one of the misconceptions regarding misusing the word Gaelic. 

Many people outside of Ireland will refer to their native language as Gaelic, Gaye-Lik, or Irish Gaelicbut the Celtic Irish language is known simply as Irish. However, the Celtic language that is localized to the Scottish Highlands is called Gaelic, Gah-Lik, or Scottish Gaelic.

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Celtic History

Historically, the Celts were a group of central European tribes that shared similar customs, religious beliefs, and lifestyles. The original Celts were first documented in the 7-8th century BC by the Roman Empire, who ruled much of Southern Europe at the time.

By 1200 BC they had begun to spread out into Western European countries like England, Scotland, Spain, and France. By the 3rd Century BC, these Celtic people ruled much of the Northern areas of Europe.

It was the Roman Empire that was the downfall for a lot of the Celtic communities across Europe. They called them ‘Galli’ which meant Barbarians.

You can almost see where the term Gaelic may have come from – and in the 1st Century BC they waged a devastating attack on the Celtic people. Thousands of Celtic tribes were massacred and destroyed Celtic culture throughout mainland Europe.

However, the Romans were always unsuccessful when invading Britain; this is why Celtic culture, language, and the Celtic people flourished in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. You can still see evidence of the Celts’ resilience in Britain today.

Hadrian’s Wall, which sits on the border of England and Scotland, was built by the Romans to keep them safe from the Celtic people that had escaped to Scotland.

This safe place helped Celtic life and culture flourish and it’s why Celtic culture is still so recognisable today.

Celtic Cultures

Celtic culture is still alive and well in these modern times. If we look at Ireland, their folklore stories, songs, and even old methods of weaving and fishing are still used to this day. Although perhaps not as common as modern beliefs and techniques.

Celtic communities were very well known for their rich use of wool in their clothing. The Scots and their tartan kilts are a great example of this, although it is a garment that only came into existence in the 16th Century AD.

Celtic religion and mythology were something else all different Celtic tribes shared. Religious beliefs and mythology were so tightly intertwined that at the time of the ancient Celtic people, they were one in the same thing.

There may have been variations but they all had polytheistic beliefs. Meaning they believed in hundreds of different Gods and Goddesses. Each one belonged to and controlled an individual part of nature or their environment.

Celtic people were also expert metalworkers. They put the metalwork of the Romans and Greeks to shame. They also loved to adorn themselves with beautiful and intricate jewelry. Many pieces of their ancient metal work have been found during archaeological digs.

Many people may romanticize the life of the ancient Celtic people but in truth, they were a fearsome bunch, and fighting was a common occurrence between Celtic tribes. It’s believed that as well as male warriors, there were female Celtic warriors.

However, the Celtic communities were still unequal for women, although women weren’t viewed unfavorably as they were in Greek and Roman culture.

Although adopting Christian beliefs reduced many traditional Celtic cultures, it still runs deep in many of these once Celtic countries.

What Is Gaelic?

Gaelic is the more commonly used term for the Celtic languages, Irish and Scots Gaelic. Although both share similar roots and are closely related languages, they are very different these days.

The Celtic languages, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic languages share origins from the Indo-European language family, specifically the Goidelic branch. They are two living Celtic languages that are still spoken by many of their country’s native people.

So, where does the term Gaelic come from, and why is it used for both languages by some people?

The term Gaelic was inspired by a Celtic group of people from the 6th century called the Gaels. They settled in Scotland after coming from Ireland and although they brought the same Celtic language over with them, as centuries passed, both Irish and Scots Gaelic diverged into two completely separate languages.

So, put simply, Gaelic is the Celtic language spoken in the Scottish Highlands and is sometimes also called Scots Gaelic or Scottish Gaelic.

What Are The Differences Between Celtic And Gaelic?

The difference between Gaelic and Celtic is that the word Gaelic is used to describe the two languages that originated with the Gaels, Irish and Scottish Gaelic.

However, Celtic is almost like an umbrella term. It can describe the ancient people of the Celtic communities that originated in Central Europe.

The term Celtic can even be used to describe what we know as Celtic countries now, such as Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. It’s a term used to describe the varied and rich culture and histories of these Celtic countries including their Gaelic languages.


Are The Irish Celts Or Gaelic?

Technically they’re both. Celts is a broader term used for all Celtic communities and tribes. Such as Galatians, Lepontine Celts, and the better known Insular Celts, the Britons, the Picts/Caledonians, and the Gaels.

The word Gaelic comes from the Gaels, the name of the Irish Celtic people of the time. So, although it is more common to refer to Irish people as Celtic, they are also descendants of the Gaels and thus Gaelic.

This is also an understandable reason why the native Celtic language of Ireland is accidentally called Gaelic when it’s really just called Irish.

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Are The Scots Celts Or Gaelic?

Like the Irish, the Scots are both Celtic and Gaelic however, their ancestry is a little more diverse than the Irish.

Around 500AD the Gaels traveled across the North Channel from Eastern Ireland to Western Scotland.

This is also why the Scottish Gaelic language speaking is only found in the highlands of Scotland. Unlike the ancient Irish people who only ever mingled with other types of people when they were invaded or visited by the likes of the Vikings.

The Scottish Gaels had constant contact with many of Scotland’s other Celtic tribes, such as the Picts, and non-Celtic inhabitants of Great Britain.

However, because of their ancestry origin, they are both Celtic and Gaelic people.

Natasha Peters

I am a British-born copywriter who moved to Ireland over a decade ago and have been captivated by Irish culture, landscape and folklore. I enjoy sharing my passion for Ireland through my writing as a freelancer.

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