Studying Celtic Languages at Harvard

Harvard is one of very few colleges in North America where you can study three of the Celtic languages – we offer courses in Irish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, and in the medieval forms of Irish and Welsh as well. Many people in Ireland, Wales and Scotland choose to live their lives in the Celtic languages native to their countries, despite the dominance of English. Speakers of Celtic languages are passionate about the survival of their languages, and tend to feel an immediate bond with other speakers and learners. In addition to preserving a strong sense of cultural community, the Celtic languages are treasure troves of story, poetry and song ranging from the medieval to the contemporary. They are languages fascinating in themselves, quite different in their syntax from the Germanic and Romance languages that underlie English, and extraordinarily rich in idiom. They offer a direct link to the literary traditions of early medieval Europe, while at the same time holding an important position in the growing cultural pride and economic vibrancy of their lively societies.

Classes in the Celtic Department are small, and there is a strong sense of community among undergraduates, graduate students and faculty, enhanced by social gatherings, talks and an annual colloquium to which undergraduates are most welcome.



Irish is the first official language of Ireland, and has been officially recognized in Northern Ireland since 1998. Today you will hear Irish being spoken not only in the Gaeltachtaí, the traditional Irish-speaking areas, but in the pubs of Belfast and Dublin as well, and even in Irish communities outside of Ireland. It is a language very much at home in the lively world of Irish traditional music. There are television, film, radio, and print journalism in Irish, and many wonderful poets and fiction writers continue into the present a literary tradition that dates back to the sixth century. In Irish heroic saga and myth we have the oldest European literature outside the Greek and Roman traditions, and early Irish law and history offer valuable insights into the structures of a European society outside the Roman Empire. An extraordinarily rich oral tradition of wondertales, legends, and songs survived in Ireland well into the twentieth century, and has been recorded since the nineteenth century, and continues to influence contemporary writers to this day.



Welsh has officially had equal standing with English in public life in Wales since 1993, and the 1998 Government of Wales Act enhanced the status of the language further, after more than 450 years during which English was the only official language in Wales. The establishment of the National Assembly for Wales has spurred tremendous growth in an already lively Welsh language culture. The Welsh film, pop music, and television industries are hives of energy and creativity. At the same time, older cultural institutions continue to thrive, including the annual National Eisteddfod, a festival of Welsh language culture in which poets compete with one another in the composition of poems ranging from the lyrical to the satirical to the downright scurrilous in complex metres that date back to the Middle Ages. This lovely language – one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s principal inspirations when he invented Elvish – preserves some of the most enigmatic and captivating of medieval stories, including some that found their way into the legend of King Arthur.

Scottish Gaelic


The Gaelic language of Scotland is spoken primarily in communities of the West Highlands and the Hebrides—a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland; there is a vigorous Gaelic community on this side of the Atlantic as well, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. The Scottish Parliament’s Gaelic Language Act of 2005 has made promotion of the language to a status equal with that of English a priority of the Scottish government. Meanwhile, Gaelic language and culture thrive in poetry, fiction, traditional and contemporary music, oral tradition, and a very lively blogosphere.

Undergraduate students may satisfy the language requirement by taking two half-courses in Modern Irish (Celtic 132 and 133r), Modern Welsh (Celtic 128 and 129r), or Scottish Gaelic (Celtic 130 and 131).

The Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures offers an undergraduate Secondary Field in which a student may combine the study of a Celtic language with courses in which Celtic literatures are read in translation, or may concentrate on language study. Undergraduates are welcome to enroll in any of the courses offered in the Celtic Department, including those marked “Primarily for Graduates.”

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