Pronunciation of the word "Celt"
The initial consonant of the English words Celt and Celtic can be realised either as /k/ or /s/ (that is, either hard or soft ‹c›), both variants being recognized as “correct” in prescriptive usage by modern dictionaries.
The English word originates in the 17th century, taken from the Celtæ of classical Latin. Until the mid 19th century, the sole pronunciation in English was /selt/ in keeping of the treatment of the letter ‹c› inherited by Middle English from Old French and Late Latin. Beginning in the mid 19th century, Celtic revivalist and nationalist publications advocated imitating the pronunciation ofclassical Latin in the time of Julius Caesar, when Latin Celtæ was pronounced /keltai/. An early example of this is a short article in a November 1857 issue of ‘The Celt’, a publication of the IrishCeltic Union.“Of all the nations that have hitherto lived on the face of the earth, the English have the worst mode of pronouncing learned languages. This is admitted by the whole human race […] This poor meagre sordid language resembles nothing so much as the hissing of serpents or geese. […] The distinction which English writers are too stupid to notice, but which the Irish Grammarians are perpetually talking of, the distinction between broad and narrow vowels—governs the English language. […] If we follow the unwritten law of the English we shall pronounce (Celt) Selt but Cæsar would pronounce it, Kaylt. Thus the reader may take which pronunciation he pleases. He may follow the rule of the Latin or the rule of the English language, and in either case be right.”
A guide to English pronunciation for Welsh speakers published in 1861 gives the alternative pronunciations “sel´tik, kel´tik” for the adjective Celtic.
The pronunciation with /s/ remained standard throughout the 19th to early 20th century, but the variant with /k/ seems to have gained ground during the later 20th century, especially among “students of Celtic culture”. On the other hand, the /s/ pronunciation remains the most recognised form when it occurs in the names of sports teams, most notably Celtic Football Club and theBoston Celtics basketball team.
The corresponding words in French are pronounced with /s/, and English Celtic was formed in imitation of French celtique. The corresponding German terms are Kelten and keltisch, not only pronounced as /k/ but even spelled with ‹k›. This is a regular German treatment of names in Greek kappa, also observed in cases such Cimbri, Cimmerians, Cambyses, etc. These spellings with ‹k› arise in the later 18th century. From the 16th to the early 18th century, the prevalent spelling in German was celtisch.