Celtic: /sel tik/ or /kel tik/?

By Maeve Maddox

What is the “correct” pronunciation of the word Celtic?

Boston Celtic fans prefer the soft c sound, but Irish dancers tend to go with the hard c sound.

I prefer the /k/ sound. I like the way the word feels as I say /kel tik/. A less frivolous reason is that I learned to pronounce the word with the hard c when I studied Celtic literature.. In the Irish epic The Táin Bó Cuailnge, for example, the letter c is pronounced /g/ or /k/. Academic usage tends to prefer the hard c pronunciation.

On the other hand, one of my often-consulted authorities, H. W. Fowler, has this to say:

The spelling C-, and the pronunciation /s/, are the established ones, and no useful purpose seems to be served by the substitution of k-.

Fowler was, of course, an old school Englishman whose Modern English Usage was first published in 1926. It’s doubtful that he had much sensitivity when it came to Celtic pride.

I’d say that Celtic is one of those words whose pronunciation changes according to context. Go with your preference in general. Find out how company employees, team members, performers, or club members pronounce it when it occurs in a title.

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17 Responses to “Celtic: /sel tik/ or /kel tik/?”

  • Godlesswanderer

    Personally, I go with the /s/ sound if the thing I’m talking about it relatively modern (a football team, rugby team, etc.) and if I’m talking about something Celtic in the historical sense, I go with the /k/ sound.

  • Thomas

    In Dutch it’s “Keltisch”, so that would be in favour of the hard “c”.

  • Mari

    The cultural group Celtics is pronounced with a hard K. It rubs me completely backward to hear people who know better pronounce it with the S. blech.

  • Jake

    The word ‘Celt’ comes from the Greek word for them, which was Keltoi. Greek words in K- usually end up being pronounced as [s], but this is an exception to the rule. All academics say [k] to denote the ‘Celts’, etc.. The only exception in Scotland is the football team which is pronounced ‘seltik’.

  • –Deb

    One of my favorite sci-fi books (well, trilogy) is the Keltiad by Patricia Kennealy-Morrison, where her world is peopled by Celts, but to avoid having readers mispronouncing it (at least in her opinion), she changed the spelling for the books to Kelt.

    I admit, ever since, I have had a hard time pronouncing it with an “S” sound–regardless of the spelling. Although I’ll concede it for the sports team . . . messing with sports fans is too dangerous for me!

  • seanachie

    Like the Boston basketball team, the Glasgow football team employs the soft ‘c’, and, pace Deb, this is not incorrect usage. The OED accepts both the hard and soft ‘c’ sound. Given that a C followed by a slender vowel in English is generally soft, this one would seem more logical (and the word is pronounced like this in all Latin languages).

    The vogue for the hard ‘c’ dates from the 19th century and generally from the snobbery of Celticists themselves, no doubt driven by the knowledge that, in Celtic languages that don’t employ phonetic transliteration, i.e. Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, a C is only ever pronounced hard. In Irish the word is ‘cealtach’, pronounced with a ‘ky’ sound (the ‘y’ comes from the diphthong that follows). When Irish politician Michael Davitt turned the sod at Glasgow’s Celtic Park in 1888, the locals laughed at his unusual way of pronouncing the word with the ‘k’ sound.

    And while it’s true that the word originates in Greek with its ‘k’-sound, so have many others that have long since morphed into a soft ‘c’, such as ceramic, cinnamon, cittern, centre, centaur.

    In short, both pronunciations are perfectly acceptable.

  • Maeve

    Seanachie,
    Thanks for the informative addition to this post.

  • Deborah

    My opinion: When in Rome …

    On a bunny trail: have you/would you write about Caesar and Kaiser

  • Maeve

    Deborah,
    The spelling of Caesar is mentioned in one of my posts, but so far not the derivation. I’ll get right on it.

  • Carey

    I use the soft C for football teams (e.g. Celtic of Glasgow in the Scottish Premier League) and the hard C for historical references to the Celtic people and culture.

  • Jim

    It’s French from Latin. That makes it a soft c. The hard k version is pretentious and affected, thus favored in academia.

  • Dane

    Well i really think it should be a “K” sound. I speak a Celtic language (Irish) and in these languages C ALWAYS makes a K sound. There is no K in Irish . Seltic for the football team has come out of fans not knowing…

  • kevin gallagher

    the “english” alphabet has 3 letters where 2 should make do. C K and S. K is not in the latin alphabet, it’s a greek letter. C is the latin K. however, in modern english c followed by e is always prounced soft.

  • umber

    This one irks me. The Boston Celtics ARE pronounced “Seltics”, it not a “preference”. In general, the bothersome thing about this is that for its relative chaos, we don’t help English by ignoring the rules that are in place. C’s before E’s are pronounced like S’s. Period. Why should this be an exception? If you want to say Keltic, then spell it Keltic. Celtic isn’t even a Celtic word, so how Celtic speakers say it is entirely irrelevant. Can I “prefer” to say kertain for certain, and kentral for central? Is that Okay, or Osay, too? Dont’ know about elsewhere, but here in the US, the K pronunciation is a recent affectation incubated amongst pretencious academics. Hence the reason the Boston b-ball team is pronounced that way. It was always pronounked that way till rekently.

  • Brad K.

    Umber,

    The thing is – people have this funny way of fragmenting language into dialects. For scholarly and widely-published usage, of course you are correct.

    But when you go to Nebraska, the town name spelled “Norfolk” is pronounced “North-fork”. In Virginia (vuh-jin-ya), it is “nawf-uck”. Telling the fine people of an entire state “you are wrong” may be typical tourist stuff, but won’t win respect.

    Here in north central Oklahoma, the Arkansas (ark-an-saw) river flows south through Arkansas (ar-kan-sus) City, Kansas and Arkansas (ar-kan-sus) City, OK. People here have no problem with keeping the difference straight.

    Strict, “King’s English” is a particular, restricted dialect that many choose to accept as a reference – but other dialects build from that base dialect. Just listen in to a conversation among web designers, among tailors and seamstresses, or among airline pilots. I consider place names to be technical jargon, and the correct usage depends on what the “owners” think it is.

  • umber

    Brad K, I mostly agree with you. Especially about place-names and the like. But Celtic isn’t a place name and no region or area has any particular propriety over its pronunciation. As the e.g. of the variation in Scotland and Ireland illustrate. I also don’t think it has anything to do with dialect. Among people I know of, their pronounce has no correlation with where they are from. In the US, at least, I think the K sound is an academic affectation that is pretty recent (re Fowler). I never heard it pronounced with the K from anyone until around 20 years ago.

  • Adrienne Pollak

    I grew up in a “Rotten Potato” Irish family. They always used the soft c “Celtic”. When I questioned hearing it spoken of as hard c “Celtic”, my mother told me that when Queen Victoria married her German husband, his pronunciation was hard c “Celtic”. Also, that Scotch became Scottish – more like the German “schottisch.” Court habits became adopted by the upper classes. Mother had no written support for the soft c “Celtic” – only usage from earlier in the 1800s. The use of “Scotch”, however, was well- documented in birth, death, marriage and census certificates from before the mid-1800s. She did point out that the Boston Irish who named their sports club had also arrived in North America in that earlier period.

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