How to pronounce ‘Celtic’

I don’t normally mark St. Patrick’s Day in any linguistic fashion, but this year I have a short article at Mental Floss about how to pronounce Celtic – is it /ˈsɛltɪk/ ‘Seltic’ or /ˈkɛltɪk/ ‘Keltic’?

Muiredach's High Cross, Monasterboice, County Louth, IrelandIn my own usage it’s both, depending on the context, but there seems to be a lot of uncertainty and debate over which is the ‘correct’ pronunciation. So I hope my article goes some way towards resolving the matter. Here’s a excerpt:

Celtic pronounced “Keltic” is an outlier in English phonology. Nearly every other English word beginning ce- has a soft-c sound: cedar, ceiling, cell, cement, cent, cereal, certain, cesspit, and so on (cello, with its “ch-” onset, is another anomaly). So it shouldn’t surprise us that “Seltic” was once overwhelmingly the norm. The now-dominant pronunciation “Keltic” is a modern innovation.

You can read the rest at Mental Floss, and feel free to leave a comment either there or below.

[photo by Adriao]

30 Responses to How to pronounce ‘Celtic’

  1. The word “cello” is not an anomaly. It is an Italian loan word, so it follows the pronunciation and orthographic rules of its source language.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You missed my point, which is that cello is an anomaly in English phonology. I’m aware of its origin.

      • I see the point that you were trying to make. But I think that a loanword cannot really be cited to make that point, because we don’t expect a loanword to conform to English pronunciation norms.

        If you count “cello”, then you’d have to count every Italian loanword that has a C in that environment (“concerto”, “vermicelli”, “cappucino”, etc.).

        By contrast, a good example of an anomalous pronunciation of C in front of E or I in an English word would be the electrical term “arcing”, the participle of the verb “to arc”, in which the C retains the K sound despite being followed by an I.

        • Stan Carey says:

          The context is a discussion of English words beginning with the letters ‘ce-‘. Nearly every such word starts with the sound /s/. Cello, which starts with /tʃ/, is therefore anomalous in that context. Perhaps it wasn’t the best example, but I didn’t want to ignore it.

  2. Damean Mathews says:

    Many people have tried to explain eloquently and failed, but you did a great job with it!

  3. Lady Demelza says:

    Oh, I’m kind of devastated. But not surprised.
    I was really attached to Keltic. My etymology obsession tells me that Keltoi has to evolve into Keltic, it’s only logical. But you are right, when did logic ever have anything to do with it anyway. But I never hear Seltic. I thought that ‘the Selts’ only referred to some American football team or other. I only ever heard one person in all my life tell me that it should be pronounced Seltic, and unfortunately the gentleman in question was known to me to be a pathological liar, and generally creepy, so I have a negative emotional memory attached there. I’m just going to keep saying Keltic and not tell anyone I read this post. But I promise never to contradict anyone who says Seltic, if I find one.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I never hear ‘Seltic’ either except in reference to the Scottish soccer team. Even friends at college who were doing Celtic studies said ‘Keltic’, though I can’t vouch for everyone in the department. I’ll keep saying ‘Keltic’ too, since there’s no reason to forsake it on the grounds of tradition: usage does its own thing.

  4. John Cowan says:

    My personal rule is “/k/ unless speaking of sports (or speaking French), then /s/”.

  5. Loved your demolition of the idea that there ought to be just one correct pronunciation :)

    And it was interesting to hear the history behind this word – I’d never have guessed it was borrowed from French!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Meirav. :-) Yes, the history is pretty interesting, not least the fact that the contrary ‘Keltic’ pronunciation was spread by academics. They’re more usually the ones complaining about young people’s reckless and illogical use of language!

  6. cynthiamvoss says:

    Very interesting that both are correct. Nice research. I always thought it was “seltic,” because of the Boston Celtics. But then noticed that I heard “keltic” in reference to culture, music, etc. So I had always thought maybe keltic was correct, but for whatever reason we call the team the seltics, and even though it’s incorrect we keep doing it because no one wants to ever change sports traditions.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It seems to be very pervasive, the idea that only one form of a word can be right. I know I internalised it before learning otherwise. Prescriptive grammarians have a lot to answer for in this respect. They tend to dislike variants automatically, maybe out of some bizarre need for tidiness or something. Others adopt the fallacy, and we’re left with the implicit idea that you can’t have multiple equally acceptable versions of a word. Which is a pity.

      • cynthiamvoss says:

        I agree, it is a pity. But I can understand the need for tidiness and dislike for variants. English is such a wild and untidy language already. Every rule has so many exceptions, and now you want to let people pronounce things multiple ways?! I get that the scholars wouldn’t like that. I like what you said in your article, that we speak the same way as the people around us. It’s funny how if I meet someone with an obviously different accent, I wouldn’t try to correct their pronunciation of something. I think “they are from someplace else, so it’s OK that it’s different.” But if I feel they are from “my” same area I might judge them. For example, when my sister says “da-ta” instead of “day-ta” I silently think “you’re doing it wrong.” I don’t know if data has a geographical norm in terms of pronunciation because I hear it both ways pretty frequently. Is one grammatically more correct?

  7. Andrew says:

    Similarly with Gaelic, but that may be a Scottish/Irish distinction (which you may have discussed previously). So, various ways to say “Celtic Gaelic”

    • Stan Carey says:

      I haven’t discussed that before, but a friend told me recently she was corrected for saying ‘Irish’ when she meant, well, Irish. The other person felt she should say ‘Gaelic’.

      • Kevin Flynn says:

        That surprises me, Stan. I take it your friend was in America, because in Ireland — where the Irish language (Gaeilge) is overwhelmingly called “Irish” when speaking in English — the reverse is true: it’s calling the language “Gaelic” that may cause frowns, since the G. word is generally confined to the area of “Gaelic games” (hurling etc.) or else to that of Gaelic culture more generally (which includes the Irish, Scottish, and Manx Gaelic languages). Scottish Gaelic IS, by contrast, frequently referred to as just “Gaelic” — but in that instance the word is pronounced differently: as /ˈɡalɪk/, not /ˈɡeɪlɪk/.

        • Stan Carey says:

          Yes, it was an American friend, and the discussion took place with other Americans.

        • John Cowan says:

          One thing I don’t understand is whether /ˈɡalɪk/ is the pronunciation in Scotland of the word Gaelic in all contexts, or whether it’s confined to the name of the language.

          • Kevin Flynn says:

            Interesting question, John! I guess that one way to find out might be to collar the next passing Scotsman and ask him what he calls that game they play in Ireland with a round inflated ball that you can throw, kick, or punch. (Probably too Ireland-specific though: I suspect that /ˈɡalɪk/ probably does relate just to the language spoken in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.)

  8. egbertstarr says:

    ask, acsian comes next..

  9. Tadhg says:

    ..but when referring to Celtic football team/club it’s ‘seltic’ :-)

  10. Victor says:

    Celtic, pronounced Seltic is not an anomaly. Celtic arrived into the English by way of the French “celtique” The “C” is soft. A Kelt is an ocean fish after spawning. A Kelt is a diseased salmon. The Boston ball club got it right. Boston “S”eltics. The people, the warrior race, are “S”elts. The culture is “S”eltic. Celt is Selt; unless you’re talking about fish.

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