Why don’t we pronounce the Boston Celtics with a hard ‘C’?


The Boston Celtics and Glasgow’s Celtic F.C. have similar pronunciations. Why is that?

The Boston Celtics logo and Red Auerbach signature are seen on the TD Garden parquet floor before the start of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, in Boston.
Mary Schwalm / AP, File

Bostonians have a notorious track record of forging their own path when it comes to pronunciations and labels.

The accent sure doesn’t do us any favors, most notably when adding R’s that shouldn’t be there onto the end of words. And we’re also at the epicenter of a region that has christened new terms such as “bubblah,” “frappe,” “jimmies,” “packie,” and “parlor.”

Thankfully, though, our trademark drawl doesn’t severely reshuffle our pronunciation of the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, or Celtics.

But what about the start of the word “Celtics”?

Since Walter A. Brown first founded the Celtics in 1946, we’ve always referred to them as the “Sel-tics,” following a similar script as another sports franchise in Celtic F.C. in Glasgow.

The avenue of pronunciation has been ingrained in Bostonians since the days of Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Tommy Heinsohn.

But anyone familiar with the culture rooted in the Emerald Isle knows that the “Seltic” diction more or less stands as an outlier, especially beyond the realm of sports.

So why is there a discrepancy in terms of the pronunciation of “Celtic” — and are the Boston “Seltics” just another example of Bostonians (and Glasgow residents) taking an established linguistic practice and tossing it out the window?

Branching out 

To seek some clarity on which pronunciation is correct, we spoke with professor Catherine McKenna, the Margaret Brooks Robinson Professor of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.

The verdict?

“It’s just a distinction,” she said. “You could say in a sense that the K- sound is more correct. But it’s not a big deal.”

In terms of basic English phonology, the “Keltic” method stands as a deviation from the standard pronunciation of other English words that begin with “ce” — with words like ceiling, cereal, and cement all beginning with that “soft” C sound.

But the origins of the word “Celtic” were set in the ground long before English took hold, as McKenna notes.

“In academia, we say ‘Keltic,’ because we first get the word — it first occurs in Greek, and it’s spelled with a Kappa, with a K,” she said. “So we know they said Keltoi, and then we get it from Julius Caesar, spelled with a C, but we know that Latin at that point would have said Celtae (with a hard C pronunciation). 

“So that’s the way it is. That’s the name. We also know that the Celtic languages always use C to spell the ‘Kuh’ sound, not a ‘Sa’ sound. So that takes care of, yes, technically, ‘Keltic’ is correct.”

Even though both the Greek Keltoi and Latin Celtae might appear different, Merriam-Webster notes in their breakdown on the differences between the “Celtic” pronunciation that it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the letter C in Latin started to be pronounced before vowels as the combination \ts\. Before that, they stuck with that hard C sound. 

However, things started to change when the Celts resurfaced in history, especially as other languages started to take hold across the globe.

“But what happens is, we know about Celts in ancient times from the fifth century BC, right through sort of the second or third century,” McKenna explained. “And then they kind of disappear from history until the 18th century. And when the idea of ‘Keltic’ or ‘Seltic’ comes back, it comes back strong, first of all, in France. So they write C-E-L-T-I-Q-U-E, because that’s how you would pronounce it in French.

“So then that gets picked up in English — in England and Ireland and Scotland — and everybody is saying ‘Seltic,’ right? So that’s what gets picked up in Glasgow. Celtic (F.C.) goes back to the late 19th century … And then there’s a New York Celtics team that dies out and then Boston sort of picks up that name because of the Irish heritage and so on. And by that time, ‘Seltic’ is really common.”

That resurfacing of the “Celtic” word in French offered up the deviation that we now find in basketball and soccer. As is the case with the pronunciation of French painter Paul Cézanne (say-ZAN) or the classic phrase “c’est la vie,” those start with the soft C, rather than the hard “Kuh” sound.

At one point, the “Seltic” pronunciation was viewed as the established pronunciation, as noted by Merriam-Webster. 

This shift in the pronunciation of Celt is fully evinced when comparing H. W. Fowler’s 1926 Dictionary of Modern English with Robert Burchfield’s 1996 revised edition. Here’s what Fowler had to say about Celt(ic): “The spelling C-, & the pronunciation s-, are the established ones, & no useful purpose seems to be served by the substitution of k-.” Decades later, Burchfield observes a different trend: “Except for the football club Celtic (in Glasgow), which is pronounced [SEL-tik], both Celt and Celtic are pronounced with initial \k\ in standard English.”

Ultimately, the “Keltic” pronunciation has resurfaced in recent times as language historians opted for the word to better reflect its origins in Greek and Classical Latin.

But there is no major gaffe or faux pas found in opting for the French-based, “Seltic” pronunciation that was commonly accepted for centuries.

As McKenna notes, “it’s not a big deal.”

As for the Boston Celtics’ origin?

So we’ve broken down the origin of the word “Celtic” and its different pronunciations.

But what about the origin of the Boston Celtics’ name itself?

Referencing former Boston Herald Traveler sportswriter George Sullivan’s comprehensive account of the Celtics’ first 50 years, Richard Johnson — curator of The Sports Museum — revealed that Walter Brown didn’t exactly need to delve very deep for inspiration. 

“[Sullivan] talked to Howie McHugh, who was the first publicist of the team. And the quote from Howie, who was there at the time — Walter Brown said, ‘Wait, I’ve got it: The Celtics. We’ll call them the Boston Celtics. The name has a great basketball tradition. And Boston is full of Irishmen. Yes, that’s it. We’ll put them in green uniforms and call them the Boston Celtics.’”

It shouldn’t come as much surprise that Brown honed in on the Irish-American populace in Boston. But as McKenna noted earlier, the Celtics also paid homage to another basketball club when it came to their appointed moniker.

“Celtics also refers to the team, the Original Celtics, who were a team that played out of New York City in the barnstorming days of professional basketball,” Johnson noted. “So for once, we appropriated something from New York from a sporting standpoint instead of it being the other way around.

“So they named their team both as a practical measure — because of this being a very Irish-American hotbed, and then the fact that there was a team not too long before that, probably 20 years before the founding of the Celtics, that were the Original Celtics. So it worked.”

Well, that answers that.

As for why Boston’s baseball team is called the “Red Sox” instead of the “Red Socks”? Well, that’s a Wickedpedia piece for another day.

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Originally posted 2023-10-24 09:00:00.