I'm writing something about the Celtic languages of northwestern Europe when the Saxons came to Britain, and described a "continuous but loose-knit group of peoples in France and the British isles". A colleague reminds me of the Celtic peoples of Iberia. But I'm writing about the 6th century or so. Were there still Celtic-speakers in Iberia by then? Or is it fair that I describe the remaining Celts in that part of the world as confined to France and the British Isles?

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    Wikipedia has an article on Languages of Iberia, at various stages of its history. Only one Celtic language is listed.
    – jlawler
    Nov 15, 2016 at 16:23
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    @jlawler Iberian languages do have a few words that once were from a Celtic tongue, like perhaps ES/PT perro for dog and ES zurdo for lefty: ref1, ref2, ref3, ref4, ref5.
    – tchrist
    Nov 16, 2016 at 2:49

3 Answers 3


Actually, there are good chances that a Celtic language was spoken in the 6th century in the Iberian Peninsula, not the ones you would expect but a Brittonic one.

We know for sure that a group of Britons settled in Galicia in the 6th century, when Galicia was the independent kingdom of the Suevi: a bishop of the Britons was present at the 2nd council of Braga held by king Miro in 572, and his name was the Celtic [Mailoc]:

Martinus Bracarensis metropolitanae ecclesiae episcopus his gestis Subscripsi.
Remisol Besensis ecclesiae episcopus his gestis subscripsi.
Lucetius Conimbrensis ecclesiae episcopus his gestis subscripsi.
Adoric Egestanae ecclesiae episcopus his gestis subscripsi.
Sardinarius Lamicensis ecclesiae episcopus his gestis subscripsi.
Viator Magnetensis ecclesiae episcopus his gestis subscripsi.

Item ex synodo Lucensi.

Nitigisius Lucensis metropolitanae ecclesiae episcopus his gestis subscripsi.
Andreas Iriensis ecclesiae episcopus his gestis subscripsi.
Wittimer Auriensis ecclesiae episcopus his gestis subscripsi.
Anila Tudensis ecclesiae episcopus his gestis subscripsi.
Polemius Asturicensis ecclesiae episcopus his gestis subscripsi.
Mailoc Britonensis ecclesiae episcopus his gestis subscripsi.

Records of the Council

Another contemporary document, the Parochiale Suevorum -an ecclesiastical/administrative division of the kingdom of Galicia preserved just in interpolated later 11th-12th c. copies-, states that the authority of the bishop of the Britons comprehended their own churches in Galicia and Asturias and the monastery Maximi:

Ad sedem Britonorum ecclesias que sunt intro Britones+ una cum monasterio Maximi et que in Asturiis sunt. (download link)

So this Briton community was an ethnic community with churches in Galicia and Asturias and under the ecclesiastical direction of a bishop-abbot.

The Britons kept sending bishops to the Visigothic councils of the 7th centuries, but the See was discontinued either in the 8th century, after the Arab invasion, or either in 830 due to a Viking raid. Today there are several hamlets called Bretoña in Galicia, and one called Bretios < Bretonos, but the town of Bretoña, in Pastoriza, near the city of Lugo, is thought to the be continuation of the old “capital” of the local Britons.

Further references at Wikipedia.

Now, for the native Celtic tongues, they probably became extinct during the fist centuries of our era (I don't have any positive evidence otherwise); but, some considerations:

  • In his 5th century Chronicle, bishop Hydatius, a native Galician, apparently distinguished among Romans, living for example in the city of Lugo; native Galicians living in rural areas and even in hillforts; and the newcomers, the Germanic Sueves, Vandals, and Goths. Now, since Galician have been Roman citizens for centuries, I guess that this mean that they preserved enough social and cultural specificity as to be accounted as a distinct subject (versus Romans), and in fact they apparently acted autonomously during their wars with the Sueves; but, well, Rome was falling apart.

  • In the late 7th century Valerio of Bierzo wrote about his life in the Bierzo region, next to Galicia. One of the few uninhabited places he mentioned was called Ebronanto, which is very probably a local evolution of *Eburonantu- 'yew-valley/stream'. This was not a mountain, a river, or an inhabited place, but a pagus, so its name was maybe not too old (assuming that uninhabited places change names much frequently than other places). He also records him and his companions destroying a pagan altar in the top of one hill and building a church in its place.

  • Local Latin charters written during the high middle ages show the preservation of dozens of pre-Latin words in Galicia, Asturias, Northern Portugal, Cantabria and northern Castille. These words were mostly related to farming and land description (camba 'high valley', busto 'dairy', senara 'farmland', laria 'plot', cotto 'hill', lagena 'flagstone', gandara 'badland', brania 'moor', vaica 'river bank', combarro 'shed', corrego 'ravine', arrogio 'stream', vereda 'road', combona 'tidal trap for fishes'... ) and tree and plant names (carbalio 'oak tree', bitula 'birch tree', amenal 'copse of alder trees', togio 'gorse'...). Further readings and references in Josep Coromines' Diccionario Crítico Etimológico Castellano e Hispánico and in the Léxico Hispanico Primitivo, by several authors.

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    Interesting point. Are the linguistic artefacts of the Britons in Northern Spain (besides the personal name(s)), like inscriptions, written documents, or even borrowed words in Galician or Asturian left? Otherwise, a similar argument could be made to "show" that in the modern USA there are many speakers of Irish Gaelic (given modern American naming style and declared self-identification). Nov 17, 2016 at 13:32
  • @jknappen: Essentially, these Britons were the same people who settled Brittany -then Armorica- at roughly the same time, and since we know that Breton is actually an insular Celtic language, then I think that it is probable that they also brought their language with themselves into Galicia. In any case, no, they didn't left any inscription in their language, but neither did Sueves nor Visigoths, and at least in the case of the Sueves -who were pagans at their arrival- I'm pretty sure that they were Germanic speakers. Nov 18, 2016 at 8:55
  • There are 100's of substrate place names and words in Galicia, so any other Celtic addition could be in disguise (the local tribe inhabiting arround today's limits in between Galicia and Asturias were called nothing less than Albiones): * Some scholars thought that the See of the Britons could have been located in a place called Laniobre, since bishops from this place were present at different church councils, but never at the same time than a Briton bishop. Nov 18, 2016 at 9:05
  • This place name is surely related to others ancient and current place names from Galicia and Asturias as Aviliobris (n.), Letiobri (ab.), Maiobri (ab.), Ercoriobri (ab.), Agubri (ab.)... And Alcobre, Anzobre, Baiobre, Canzobre... From Celtic *brigs 'hill, hill-fort' (with local evolution > bris), so Laniobre < *(p)laniobrigs 'hill-fort of the Plain (?)'. But it could be also a British place name in disguise. * As for loanwords, probably the more promising one is Galician 'tona' '(thin, delicate) skin, peel; surface of a liquid'. Nov 18, 2016 at 9:07
  • It is related to Old Irish tonn and Middle Welsh tonn, from proto-Celtic *tondā idem (cf. Matasovic's Etymological Dictionary of proto-Celtic). Since local Hispano Celtic languages preserved, as long as I know, the -nd- cluster, then it must be a loanword; it can't be ruled out the possibility of it being somehow a Gaulish loanword, but it is absent from Castilian Spanish proper, except in areas where it is probably a Galicianism. Nov 18, 2016 at 9:08

For the 6th century CE, the answer is a definite no, there weren't any speakers of Celtic languages on the iberian peninsula.

The attested inscriptions in Celtiberic and Gallacean end in the 1st century BCE. There might be some speakers around after the last inscriptions, but six centuries later is a rather long time.

  • What about Basque? Doesn't that have strong Celtic roots? Nov 15, 2016 at 22:20
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    @BladorthinTheGrey No, Basque is a language of its own. When there are mutual influences, most linguists argue the other way round: The surviving Celtic language may exhibit some Basque influence, separating them from mainstrean Indogermanic languages. Nov 16, 2016 at 0:08

I was in Galicia in 1999. I read that the last speaker of a Celtic language died around the 1600's. I believe he lived in the Ourense area. Galicia and Northern Portugal were one in the same until about 900. There are tens of words in Gallego and Portuguese that are of Celtic origin. Obviously, vulgar Latin came to become the main language under Roman rule, so by 200 AD most inhabitants were speaking that form of Latin, but that does not mean many Celtic words died out or were no longer used. I suggest that the local people of ancient Gallaecia were probably code switching and creating an inter-language for many centuries after Roman control through to the time of the Germanic invasions, much like Spanglish in the USA, a mix of Spanish and English that many Mexican-Americans speak. Eventually the Latin root words and later the Arabic influences from the invasion of the Moors probably leveled this out, though Muslim control in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula was only for a few centuries, and never did they control Austurias.

  • I should have said Galicia, Northern Portugal, Asturias, and Leon, were one in the same: Ancient Gallaecia, later the Kingdom of Galicia of the Suebi, post Germanic invasion and prior to the invasion of the peninsula by the Moors. Dec 26, 2018 at 6:07
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    " I read that the last speaker of a Celtic language died around the 1600's. I believe he lived in the Ourense area." So, you read that in Galicia somewhere? Dec 26, 2018 at 10:47
  • Yes, I did, while in Galicia at that time, June of 1999. It might have been in a book in a bookstore. There happened to also be a very political comic book of the history of the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula, going back to the Bronze Age. It was written in Portuguese and English, up until the 16th century, and then events from there were described in Gallego and English. The chapter on the Spanish Civil War were particularly harsh on the Galician people, for backing Franco, who was one of their own. Dec 26, 2018 at 16:52
  • > I read that the last speaker of a Celtic language died around the 1600's. I believe he lived in the Ourense area > Ey Denis, if ever you can find a source, I would be grateful...
    – Papo
    Mar 19, 2020 at 10:19

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