Language, Culture, Celts

Let me start by saying that this is a speculative blog post. I’m a dabbler, not a historian and I am not qualified to hold much of an opinion on this subject! So, I’m just sharing some things that occurred to me, that might, or might not be meaningful.

Nomadic hunter gatherer people tend not to go in for writing. Writing calls for kit, and storing writing clearly isn’t ideal if you’d have to heft it all about with you. People who need to travel lightly tend to have oral cultures and depend on memory. Nothing controversial there.

Writing seems to go with keeping records. I’m not aware of any instances where we think a culture started writing because it wanted to keep its poems for posterity! Written records become necessary when you want to keep track of ownership and/or debt. If wealth is held in common, you don’t need records. You might need records in a larger and more complex community that is sharing resources – you might want to track that to understand what happens. So at the very least, writing represents organised and self conscious social structures, probably.

It’s very difficult to have tax without written records. It’s difficult to keep track of debt, or tithing or any other system where ownership and contribution are related. These can of course be very good things in a culture, making systems to share out the goods. But at the same time you can’t have functioning hierarchies without some kind of paperwork. Arguably the difference between a barbarian horde and a colonial project is whether you can follow through with accountants and tax the people you just rampaged over.

This leaves me with some interesting thoughts about the Celts. What are the implications of the Celts not having a written language? What does it mean about their social structures? How much of our sense of them as a hierarchical community depends on them having been depicted that way by the Romans, and by those later writing down their stories? The stories we have are full of Kings and nobles. But is that a fair reflection of Celtic peoples in Europe, or of their systems of interacting with each other? Here I am speculating, but I think it’s worth wondering about what the absence of writing might suggest.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

14 responses to “Language, Culture, Celts

  • bish

    I like the direction of your wandering…

  • contemplativeinquiry

    My sense, again based on limited information, is that Celtic speakers in the ancient world were very diverse – living in, or moving through, many places over a long period of time. People who lived close to the Mediterranean (Southern France, and parts of Turkey where they were called Galatians by St. Paul) were literate in Greek, because it was the international language of commerce. What we do know is that we haven’t found written records of their traditional knowledge in their own languages, though there are fragments in France and Britain in Latin (calendars and inscriptions) – as well as the outsider perspectives of Roman writers. Thanks for raising very interesting possibilities about a tantalisingly enigmatic group of cultures!

  • Blodeuwedd

    The ancient accounts we have of the Druids (which are, admittedly, of dubious worth) tell us they did not write down their teachings, as they were considered sacred, but for all other things they used Greek, suggesting a literate or at least partially literate culture, even if they didn’t write down their own language.

  • Sheila Murrey

    When we went to Ireland, England, and Scotland last summer, we were told the Irish passed down their history by telling stories. And we heard a few there. So very powerful!
    When we went to Bath, England, we visited The Book of Kells. It was quite fascinating. Then we went to Scotland and experienced the magic of the faerie kingdoms. Nature based. And saw footprints of dinosaurs. Such mysteries abound! Love your post! ❤️🦋🌀🙏😘

  • ShiraDest

    “tax without written records” -true, though the Incas did manage to run the Incan empire using Quipu records: string or twine one direction with other textures of yarn running perpendicular, with various sizes, colors and locations of knots to tell how many, when, where, and apparently even why. The Quipu could be wound up or tied as a belt for the runners carrying messenges along the mountains, and the Spaniards even used Quipus for a few short years after the conquest, apparently, for administration until they got their own administrators up and running in Peru and the other now Andean nations.

  • Bogatyr

    Why do you think Celts didn’t have a written language?

    To slightly correct Blodeuwedd’s comment above, Caesar mentions that the Druids did not commit their teachings to writing but that for other matters, personal and private, they used Greek characters. Note the difference: not the Greek language, but Greek characters. Consider how many languages today are written using the Latin alphabet, and I’d say it’s a near-certainty that they were writing in their own language.

    Of course, like most societies for most of human history, most people would have been illiterate, because there were no schools and, anyway, like most people until the industrial revolution, the ordinary tribespeople would have had no need for it.

    Why did nothing survive? I suspect the Romans, and their anti-Druid campaign, had something to do with that!

    • Nimue Brown

      I would think the most likely reason for non-survival is materials used – so much doesn’t survive after a couple of thousand years. For me the question is not one of whether they later borrowed a script, but what the implications are of not choosing to develop one.

      • Bogatyr

        Well, why didn’t English-speakers choose to develop one?

      • Nimue Brown

        By the time we get to ‘English’ this is an amalgam of people from many different backgrounds drawing on all kinds of existing writing.

      • Bogatyr

        Just as with German, French, Norwegian etc etc. So isn’t likely that the Celts, not yet having developed a written system, bumped into the Greeks, thought “That’s a good idea”, and borrowed then adapted the Greek system. I also kind of like the alternative idea that the Druids were like the Amish: they might have tried out writing to see how it affected their culture and decided that the negative consequences outweighed the positive, so they just chose not to use it…

      • Bogatyr

        That should read “the Greek system?”.

    • Blodeuwedd

      That’s a fair point. Thank you.

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