Today, the word Celtic may inspire thoughts of red-headed folks dressed in green, living in places like Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, complete with a few shamrocks—and maybe it's your favorite Scottish football club or Boston basketball team reinforcing these stereotypes. 

The ancient Celts left quite an impression, too… on the Spanish language! Here's how the Celts of the past spread their language around the world, through Spanish.

All roads lead to Iberia

For centuries, Celtic people from northwestern Europe were in contact with Latin-speaking inhabitants of the Roman Empire. As a result, Latin (and later Spanish) ended up with quite a few words of Celtic origin. Celtic languages, including Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh, are part of the big family of Indo-European languages, which also includes Romance languages (like Spanish and French) and Germanic languages (like English and German).

Because the Celts were living and working with Romans throughout the Empire, some Celtic words were adopted into Spanish right from the territory that would later become Spain, while other words had a more circuitous path around Europe before settling into Spanish.

The Celts were all over Europe

The westernmost part of the expansive Celtic territory, to the west of the Pyrenees Mountains, was known by the Romans as Iberia, and includes modern Spain and Portugal. Celtic people are thought to have inhabited the majority of the Iberian peninsula, stretching from the Atlantic coast in the west nearly all the way across to the Mediterranean and as far south as Córdoba.

Many place names in Spain are thought to be from Celtic, including Verdú (near Barcelona), Segovia, and Cantabria. In fact, Galicia, the autonomous community in northwest Spain, is named for the Celtic people (the Callaeci, or Gallaeci) that were living there when the Romans first arrived. Within Galicia, town names like Céltigos and Bretoña (related to the name for the Celtic inhabitants of Britain) show the influence of the Celtic tribes who once lived there.

How did Celtic words get around? Cars!

One part of the Spanish vocabulary that owes its origin to Celtic people is the set of words related to cars. Carro (car) comes from the Celtic name for a chariot or wagon (think cart in English), as does carpintero (carpenter). Since wagons were mostly made of wood, its meaning evolved from "person who constructs cars" to "woodworker"!

There are other Spanish words that were formed from the Celtic "car" words, like cargar ("to load," as in loading a wooden cart) and carril (lane or track… for cars). Even carrera (career) comes from the metaphor of one’s professional life taking a particular route or track!

Commonplace, but not mundane

Latin (and consequently Spanish) enjoyed the power and prestige of the Roman Empire, so we don't find many Spanish words of Celtic origin for fancy cultural ideas. Instead, they are associated with pastoral, everyday activities like crafting, trades, and working the land:

  • Everyday technology: camino (road), mina (coal mine)
  • Terrain and biology of the region: álamo (poplar tree), conejo (rabbit), alondra (lark)
  • Cultural items and practices: bruja (witch), camisa (shirt), cerveza (beer)

Raise your glass to the Celts

The connection between Celtic and Spanish runs deep! The next time you see someone ordering a green cerveza to celebrate a Celtic-related holiday, remember the Celts as distant linguistic cousins of Spanish speakers.