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Re: Bronze age British languages

From:Jörg Rhiemeier <joerg_rhiemeier@...>
Date:Thursday, April 27, 2006, 13:51

On Thu, 27 Apr 2006 11:33:02 +0100, Peter Bleackley wrote:

> Our recent discussion of Celtic languages has established that the word > order VSO is peculiar to Insular Celtic languages, while Continental Celtic > languages are typically SOV. This suggests that prior to adopting the use > of Celtic languages, the British may have spoken VSO languages, and adapted > the Celtic language to the syntax they were used to.
This is at least possible.
> Do we have any other > evidence of what these languages may have been like - for example, are > there words found in Insular Celtic that do not have cognates in other IE > languages?
Theo Vennemann proposed that the languages of Bronze Age Britain were Afro-Asiatic, based on typological similarities which chiefly revolved around VSO word order. But VSO word order isn't all that rare, and many of the similarities between Insular Celtic and Afro-Asiatic (which, BTW, is not VSO in its entirety, only the northern group consisting of Semitic, Egyptian and Berber) seem to be general typological correlates of VSO order found in VSO languages all around the world. The other famous "exotic" feature of Insular Celtic, the initial mutations, are not found in Afro-Asiatic at all, and aren't particularly difficult to explain. They are the result of fairly typical sound changes such as the lenition of intervocalic stops, the only thing special about them being that these changes sometimes operated across word boundaries, which can be explained by assuming that in early Insular Celtic, phrases were phonetically run together much like the French liaison. What can be said about the language we are looking for is that it is probably related to languages that were spoken in continental western Europe at the same time or earlier. This is because many place names and especially river names all over western Europe contain recurring name elements. These names are found in Germany and its environs, the Baltic, southern Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, northwestern Spain, and Italy. This layer of old river names has been named the "Old European hydronymy" by the German linguist Hans Krahe in the 1960s. What kind of language this was is uncertain until today. Krahe assumed that "Old European" was an IE language ancestral to Italic, Celtic, Germanic and Baltic as some of the elements seem to have IE etymologies. However, there are two problems with this: 1. The languages in question show so few shared innovations at the exclusion of other IE languages that the common node proposed by Krahe is pure speculation. 2. The word material, if it is Indo-European at all, doesn't comply with the well-established sound changes characteristic of the IE languages of western and central Europe. Especially the vowels seem odd: there is /a/ all over the place, and /i/ and /u/, but no /e/ or /o/ which are the most frequent vowels in IE. This means that the names were not inherited by the recent western and central European IE languages, but borrowed from another language. A student of Krahe, Wolfgang Schmidt, addressed the first problem by assuming that "Old European" was PIE itself, and concluded that the homeland of PIE was in western central Europe. This doesn't solve the second probklem, however, and has been abandoned soon after. Theo Vennemann (the same who proposed an Afro-Asiatic substratum in the British Isles) proposed that "Old European" was a family he calls "Vasconic", of which Basque is the only surviving member. This seems to solve both problems mentioned above, but it raises three other problems: 1. Vennemann's Basque etymologies are weak and contrived, and the Basque "cognates" are often river names that have no transparent meaning in Basque - making the whole argumentation rather circular. Krahe's IE etymologies are a tad more convincing, once the problem that they have /a/ where the IE forms have /e/ or /o/ is accounted for. 2. This hypothesis clashes with another hypothesis of the same author, namely the Afro-Asiatic substratum in the British Isles, because the Old European hydronymy is well-attested in the British Isles as well. 3. The Old European hydronymy appears to be absent from the area where Basque was spoken in antiquity, namely, Gascony. My personal assumption is that were are dealing with a family of languages here which were spoken across wide stretches of central and western Europe before the kmown IE languages spreaded there. These languages seem to be remotely related to Indo-European, having separted from the latter at a time when ablaut had not fully developed and the language had a three-vowel system with a highly freuent /a/ and somewhat less frequent /i/ and /u/. The speakers of "Proto-Old-European" could have been the Neolithic farmers of central Europe known to archaeologists as the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture. The western, northern and southern extensions of Old Europan can be attributed to daughter cultures of LBK - the Funnel-Beaker culture in the north, and the Bell-Beaker culture in the south and west. The LBK culture appeared in central Europe shortly after the year 5500 BC, together with three related cultures, the Vinca culture on the Balkan peninsula, the Tripolye-Cucuteni culture in eastern Rumania and western Ukraine, and the Sredny Stog culture in eastern Ukraine. The latter is probably the population that spoke PIE. It has been speculated that all of these cultures were founded by Black Sea Flood refugees. (According to the geologists Walter Pitman and William Ryan, the Black Sea as we know it was formed in a cataclysmic flood shortly before 5500 BC when the sea burst through the Bosporus. Before that, the Black Sea basin held a freshwater lake at a much lower level. During this cataclysm, a fairly large stretch of fertile land must have been flooded within a few years on the northern shore of the lake, as the northern parts of the Black Sea are rather shallow.) There are also quite a few words in Celtic and/or Germanic that lack cognates in other IE langauges and are often assumed to have been borrowed from a pre-IE language. A list of such words was posted to the Indo-European mailing list ( in early 1999 by Rick McCallister. The posts can still be found in the archive under the URL above. I also posted them to the lostlangs mailing list ( on September 12, 2005. ObConlang: I am building my main conlang family on these speculations. Old Albic is the language spoken in Britain before the Celts moved in. The Albic languages are in turn a branch of the wider Hesperic family, which consists of (largely unexplored) languages scattered about western Europe.
> (If the older language was IE, it would probably be impossible > to recover, as we would need to compare Insular Celtic to Continental > Celtic to find the surviving terms, and Continental Celtic probably isn't > sufficiently well attested).
Continental Celtic is not very well attested because it never was a language of written literature. What we have are several inscriptions, and names mentioned in Greek and Latin sources. OK. This has grown quite long, and I'll shut up now. ... brought to you by the Weeping Elf


Peter Bleackley <peter.bleackley@...>