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Both /kɛlt/ and /sɛlt/ are considered acceptable pronunciations of the noun Celt and similarly of the adjective Celtic. Is there a reason for the different pronunciations? Which is the more common? Is each variant perhaps particular to a geography? Scottish vs. Irish, maybe?

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In my experience, soft-C Celtic is a Scottish football club. All other usages are hard-C Celtic. But I believe the word may be used differently in the linguistics community. –  TRiG Dec 1 '12 at 19:37
Celtus, Celti, celticus are Latin, representing Greek kelt- and originally pronounced with a /k/; but this changed in the Romance languages through the process of palatalization before entering English. The Celtic peoples I know of use forms with /g/: Gaul, Gaelic, Galicia, Galatians. –  StoneyB Dec 1 '12 at 19:38
There's a soccer club in Stalybridge (Greater Manchester) called Stalybridge Celtic, pronunciation as for the Glasgow club. They have famously good pies, but that probably has little bearing on pronunciation. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 1 '12 at 19:52
The NBA team in Boston, Massachusetts is always pronounced with the /s/. –  Andrew Lazarus Dec 4 '12 at 7:21
@Stoney The similarities are treacherous: Celtic isn't related to Gaulish, Gallic, and Galician, which isn't even the same as Gaelic, to make things worse… –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 6 '14 at 2:51

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

According to OED 1, Celt is first recorded in English in 1607, probably Anglicized from Latin. At that time it designated the peoples whom the ancients called Celtae (Latin) or Keltoi (Greek): the Gauls and those of Spain and Northern Italy “believed to be of the same language and race”. Celtic first appears in Blount’s Glossography as a French word, Celtique, defined as “pertaining to the people of Gaul”. The modern sense arose in the 18th Century; it

began in French, and in reference to the language and people of Brittany, as the presumed representatives of the ancient Gauls: with the recognition of linguistic affinities it was extended to the Cornish and Welsh, and so to the Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic.

(That recognition, it might be remarked, was in great part due to the labours of the undeservedly neglected Welsh naturalist, antiquarian, and Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum Edward Lhuyd (his reformed spelling of the name “Lloyd”). Lhuyd’s Archaeologia Britannica, 1707, laid the foundations of Celtic linguistics and contributed to his countryman Sir William Jones’ epochal recognition, three generations later, of the kinship of what we now call the Indo-European languages.)

There is no reason to think that the pronunciation at that time was anything other than /ˈsɛlts/, as in both French and contemporary Englishing of Latin. Scholarship had generally recognized at least as early as Leibniz (Collectanea Etymologica, 1717) that the name should “properly” be pronounced with a /k/ (the characterization suggests that the usual pronunciation was with /s/), and spellings with /K/ begin showing up among speculative antiquarians at the end of the 18th Century. These spellings gain a modest currency in the 19th century, but (according to NGrams) never offer a serious challenge to spellings with /C/.

We may presume, I think, that in the 19th Century the pronunciation with /s/ likewise dominated that with /k/. OED 1 (the Cast-Clivy fascicle was published in November 1889) gives this pronunciation first, followed by “Also Kelt (kelt).”

Since the 19th Century, spellings with /K/ have almost disappeared; but my experience is that pronunciations with /k/ have gained ground over the last 50 years.

The pronunciation with /k/ has existed as a minority variant alongside the pronunciation with /s/ for over 200 years. As The Celtic Wiki hints, it is mere linguistic politics to stigmatize either as “ignorant”.

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This says: There is no such thing as a Celt. There are artefacts of Celtic design and there are languages that are described as Celtic: Welsh, Gaelic, Breton and Gallego... There is no demonstrable link between the Celti or Keltoi of Classical sources and the people who live in Scotland, Ireland, Mann, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany or Spain, popularly identified as Celtic areas today, or indeed their kin elsewhere in the world. These can claim descent from Britons and Cymry or from Gaels and that's about it. –  tchrist Dec 2 '12 at 2:47
@tchrist That says a whole bunch of stuff, some of which is correct, some of which is conjecture, and some of which is pure rubbish. The relationship between language and "race" and "culture" is always tenuous (as OED 1 acknowledged in 1889). But there is certainly a language family which the scholarly literature names Celtic, and its branches are demonstrably related to the language attested in Roman-era inscriptions in the areas where the ancients said the Celtae lived. In any case, I confined my remarks to the origin and development of the term's English spelling and pronunciation. –  StoneyB Dec 2 '12 at 3:04
Great summary. The point that is never clearly stated up front in all these discussions is that Celt is not a label the ancient people we are talking about used themselves, but a word used by other ancient Europeans to describe them. The Greeks called them Kelts and this was later latinized into Selts. This is why the assumption by some people that they are being more correct by using Kelt rather than Selt because they believe it is more "Celtic" (more authentic to the Celt's language) is wrong. Either pronuciation can be justified, but neither is the Celtic pronunciation. –  user47362 Jul 7 '13 at 14:06

A page at The Celtic Wiki has a lengthy explanation of the reasons for the two pronunciations.

To summarize, it says that the /sɛlt/ pronunciation is the etymologically original pronunciation in English and has been associated with various under-classes, but that the /kɛlt/ has long been the standard in academia, gradually making its way into mainstream English.

My own interpretation: the /sɛlt/ pronunciation is a result of many early American immigrants not knowing how to pronounce the word brought by their neighbors from another country, similar to how many American surnames are pronounced differently from names spelled the same way in other countries.

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A point that always angered my German-born mother who insisted that names should be pronounced as they would be their originating language ...which really pissed off our neighbors (the Wessons) whom she called "Vayzons". :-) –  Kristina Lopez Dec 1 '12 at 20:26
So, Americans influenced the pronunciation of the Glasgow football club? –  GEdgar Dec 1 '12 at 20:44
Similarly, they say "Caesar" is pronounced Kaiser ... –  GEdgar Dec 1 '12 at 20:47
The Celtic Wiki does not attribute the /s/ pronunciation to ignorance; that's what one partisan is quoted as saying, and he's contradicted by others. And it's not immigrants to America who are involved, but Irish immigrants to Glasgow. –  StoneyB Dec 2 '12 at 2:32
@StoneyB Thank you for pointing out the issues with my response. Not wanting to post a link without a summary, I had hastily skimmed the article from the Celtic Wiki and pulled out a small part of it. Being new to the site, I've watched the article all day to see if anyone would have the academic rigor to bother following the link and finding that my summary was biased strongly by my own location in Boston. I'm glad to see that someone did. I appreciate your academic rigor (+1 to your comment). If this is an example of the culture on this site, I think I'll stick around. :) –  3nafish Dec 2 '12 at 3:04

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