How do you enunciate the word Celtic? Is it pronounced “keltic” or “seltic?” If you and your friends have been in an argument over how the word is pronounced you can stop. You are both correct. But is one more correct than the other?
The controversy arises because of the several things. The origin and manipulation of the word “Celtic” is not very clear, and depending on what language it derived from and time period, or even where you live, the pronunciation could be different.
The most popular theory is that it derived from the Greek word Keltoi, which means “people who hide.” From this Greek term it is believed that the classical Latin term Celtus (keltus) was derived. These terms referred to particular tribes of people speaking unique languages such as Cambric, Cornish, Manx, and more, who lived throughout Europe at the time.
The English words “Celt” and “Celtic” didn’t come into use until the early 1700’s, when scholars were describing early inhabitants of Great Britain. It was an academic term used by scholars studying these early settlers. As used then, “Celtic” appears to have come from the French word celtique (selltique). That French word is thought to have come from the Latin word celticus. Modern British Latin pronunciations were different than classical Latin so the “ce” in “celticus” would have been said like an “s” in the 1700’s. In classical Latin it would have been a “k” sound. The “ce” in French words is also pronounced like “s.” If all of this is true than the 18th century enunciation of the words “Celt” and “Celtic” would have been “selt” and “seltic.”
It is usually proper to speak words the way your particular language enunciates them and not how they were spoken in another time period by another group of people. Since the term “Celt” came from a French word pronounced with the “c” sounding like an “s”, and nearly all English “ce” words enunciate like an “s” (cement, cereal, cent), it would have been correct at the time that the word “Celt” was pronounced like “selt.”
Celt pronounced as “selt” actually remained popular until the mid 20th century. Because of this, old sports teams adopting “Celtic” as part of their name pronounced it as “seltic.” That is why the Boston Celtics and the Glasgow Celtic football club pronounce it “seltic.”
In the 20th century the Germans of academia got into Celtic studies more and they pronounced the “c” as a “k”, because that is how it is enunciated in their language. It spread around the academic world that scholars were now pronouncing “Celt” like “kelt.” How this trend really got started is unknown. It may have been because of the old Greek word “Keltoi” or not. It is interesting to note that the Welsh and Gaelic pronunciation is “kelt”, and always has been. Perhaps that also played a part in the change. Whatever the reasons, scholarly circles now consider “kelt” to be the correct pronunciation among the educated. Of course this does run counter to English grammar rules for words starting in “ce.”
The argument still goes back and forth as to the completely correct pronunciation of “Celtic”, but you can be sure that there is a valid argument on both sides and neither may be more correct than the other, in case you are ever again in a disagreement with friends or family on the subject.