2 September 2010

Celtic from the West

How old are the Celtic languages once spoken in the Iberian Peninsula? Where did the 'Celts' come from? Were they from central-eastern Europe, as tradittionally assumed, or did they originate in the west? The debate about these issues is quite lively, with new proposals being made as the research in this field continues its development. The identification of some ancient languages of western Iberia as 'Celtic' is one of the most relevant developments.

A series of specialists, e.g. José Antonio Correa and Jürgen Untermann, have argued for the possible celticity of some words in Tartessian, a language of southwest Iberia. The Tartessian inscriptions are remarkably old (in some cases as early as the 7th c. BC), which makes them particularly relevant for celtologists. A similar case is Lepontic, in northern Italy, a Celtic language attested in very early inscriptions. Prof. John T. Koch has provided some further evidence to prove that Tartessian was a Celtic language, or at least that there was a significant percentage of Celtic elements in it (Koch's article is available here). If we add to this other proposals about the celticity of Gallaecian and Lusitanian (vid. Ballester 2004, "Hablas indoeuropeas y anindoeuropeas en la Hispania prerromana". Elea 6, 107-138), one has the impression that the chronological horizons of Celtic elements in Iberia must be much earlier than previously, or traditionally, assumed. This, of course, has far-reaching implications for our global understanding of the Celtic language group, or about the origins of the 'Celts' themselves. And there are of course some scholars already following these new lines of research.

In 2008 the University of Wales launched a research project called Ancient Britain and the Atlantic Zone, also known as ABrAZo. The project is coordinated by Prof. Koch, and its aims are explained in this web-page. Obviously, the abbreviation used for the project (ABrAZo) is also the Spanish word for 'hug' or 'embrace', exactly the same as in Galician (abrazo) and very similar to the Portuguese one (abraço). The name is actually quite appropriate, as the project aims to find common elements in the archaeology, languages and genetic components of these Atlantic areas (western Iberia, Armorica, Ireland, western Britain) as a single archaeological entity. I guess the inspiration for the project comes from the work of archaeologist Barry Cunliffe and his theories about the peoples of the Atlantic Façade, which he outlined in his book The Ancient Celts (1997) and developed in his influential Facing the Ocean. The Atlantic and its Peoples (2001). In fact, Cunliffe is co-editor (with John Koch) of the first volume emanated from the ABrAZo project: Celtic from the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archaeology, Genetics, Language and Literature (2010), Oxbow Books, and has also contributed with an article. Another author in this volume is Stephen Oppenheimer, whose theories have already been discussed in this blog (see here).

There are many more things to say about this issue (Celtic, Lusitanian, Tartessians), and I'll be publishing more posts about it in the future. Un abrazo!


Maju said...

Honestly, after reviewing again Koch's paper, I find it highly inconclusive. Of the 19 supposedly Celtic names in his list of Tartessian inscriptions, I find only 4 plausible and 15 not clear at all (attributing them to Celtic is highly biased in these cases, not scientific).

As for argyros/argos and Gargoris, there are perfectly valid Vascoid reconstructions (cf. argi=light, bright; gar=flame; gor=deaf, gorri=red - or even -kor, as G/K are interchangeable in Iberian scripts, as are B/P or D/T).

While the presence of Celts in West Iberia after the 7th century BCE should not surprise anybody, I find no possible explanation for any earlier presence. There's some mystery on where did the South Portuguese Bronze Age horizons come from, as they do appear as a belligerant, expansive non-urban group, different from what existed in the Chalcolithic (urbanized, Megalithic) but they look not like Celts, and pre-date by many centuries the Urnfield culture expansion. Bell Beaker is not any explanation either because it's not a proper culture but a minorities' phenomenon within continuous cultural contexts of mostly Megalithic origins.

Jesús Sanchis said...

The celticity of Tartessian and other languages of wetsern Iberia is of course a matter of current debate, and any proposal in this area, including Koch's, is stated with a considerable degree of caution. In general, I find his proposal interesting, and I like the idea of the Atlantic area as an archaeologically meaningful unit, an idea first proposed by Almagro and later by Cunliffe.

You mention some possible Basque interpretations for some of the Tartessian words. In general, I think that the application of Basque readings in the area of paleo-Hispanic languages, especially when we're focusing on the south west, is possibly quite wrong. But who knows? The debate, as I said, is quite open. A project such as ABrAZo might be in the right direction, at least for one thing: it offers a global explanatory framework for multidisciplinary work in the area. And the theories behind the framework are more than reasonable.

However, there are some points in Koch's article that I don't really agree with. On page 347 he writes the following:

"the Celtic languages in the Iberian Peninsula— possibly unlike those of Gaul and Britain — cannot be explained as the result of the spread of the La Tène and Hallstatt archaeological cultures of the central European Iron Age".

Can the Celtic languages of Britain and Gaul really be explained simply as a consequence of La Tène and Halstatt expansions? I doubt it. In any case, Koch uses the word "possibly", which is cautious enough.

Maju said...

"I like the idea of the Atlantic area as an archaeologically meaningful unit, an idea first proposed by Almagro and later by Cunliffe".

I agree that the Atlantic area in both Iberia and West Europe has a strong personality but that seems to last only up to the Iron Age, when, following the classical models, it was Celticized. At that moment, I understand we cannot anymore talk of an Atlantic area at the level of Europe and the Iberian Atlantic area specifically gets fragmented.

It's been however very typical to call those pre-Celtic elements "Celtic" but what seems apparent is that Celtic invasions actually cut those naval relations at least to a large extent.

"In general, I think that the application of Basque readings in the area of paleo-Hispanic languages, especially when we're focusing on the south west, is possibly quite wrong. But who knows?"

I understand that (on light of the persistence of Vasco-Iberian family/sprachbund theory and the existence of one or several theoretical frameworks proposing a Vascoid or otherwise PIE area) this is something every unbiased (non-opinionated) linguist should test in every case. It should be routine to ponder possible Basque affinities in all the area with some potential "Vascoid" connection.

If something that gives a questionable resemblance to Celtic/IE also gives a questionable semblance to Basque, then no conclusion can be reached (at least not at that stage).

"Can the Celtic languages of Britain and Gaul really be explained simply as a consequence of La Tène and Halstatt expansions? I doubt it".

It is the classic model and there is no alternative model to explain it anyhow, AFAIK. The only alternative I have ever been presented with is the Bell Beaker phenomenon but it is not really acceptable because of the minority characteristic of whatever was the Bell Beaker "people" (sect, guild, whatever).

I understand you sympathize with a diffuse concept of IE languages having somehow existed in all Europe since "always" but this doesn't seem even thinkable precisely because of how closely and clearly are IE languages related from Celtic to Bengali and Sinhalese. Also the presence of so many other language families (from Basque to Dravidian, going through the Caucasus and attested proto-historical languages from Tartessian to Elamite) in that area is strongly suggestive of higher past diversity.

But well...

Jesús Sanchis said...

Obvioulsy, I'm not going to start another endless discussion about the origins of IE languages, etc., a topic that has been discussed many many times in this blog. Anyone interested, please check previous posts.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why this is so controversial. First we have Herodotus place the Celts beyond the pillars of Heracles (where we find the Tartessians and the Celtici). Diodorus of Sicily, writing in the mid first century BC, presumably from contemporary or near contemporary sources, refers to the Celts and the Gauls as separate entities within the Carthaginian mercenary pool. He even describes to us who the Celts were; they were the mercenaries of the un-warlike Tartessians.

Celtic and Gaul have, for some reason, become synonymous and errors have been slowly piled up one on top of the other. Galatian, for example, has been used to fill out Gaulish, but there was no reason to believe that Galatian was a Celtic language, except for the linking of Gauls with Celtic.

Maju said...

Anon: read something like Venceslas Krutas, who is considered the father of all Celtic studies, please.

The mainstream model sees the Celts (Gaels, Gauls) in Central Europe, from Rhine to Mid-Danube, expanding with La Tène (no doubt), Hallstatt (important for the case of Iberia) and maybe Urnfields (which would be more generically Western Indoeuropean in fact).

As for the word "Celt", IMO it is a Basque-Iberian despective exonym related to modern Basque keldo (something like dirty, miserable), the root "kel-" is also found in some other negative words. Greeks but not Romans adopted it (keltos, keltoi) via Massilia and Emporion, while Romans, who are more closely related and knew them more directly called them by their endonym of Gaels (Galli, Gauls).

Let's not forget that Romans also introduced the toponym Gallaecia (Galicia). Finally there's a heavy linguistic corpus linking Celtiberians with mainland and island Celts.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Dear Anonymous:

I think the problem with your comment is that you have mixed several concepts and historical eras. It would be nice if you could expound your ideas with more detail or clarity.


Thanks for the reference. I'll try to read some of Kruta's writings. By the way, it seems his surname is Kruta, not Krutas.

The etimology you propose for the word "Celt" is just a non-verifiable idea.

Maju said...

"By the way, it seems his surname is Kruta, not Krutas".

Very true. My bad.

"The etimology you propose for the word "Celt" is just a non-verifiable idea".

Of course. Just like so many things in linguistics. I just say it may make sense.

In any case it is clear that Celt (Keltos) is a Greek name, while Gaul (Gallus) is a Roman one.