Proto-Celtic

Proto-Celtic

Language classification
Indo-European
Proto-Celtic

The Proto-Celtic language, also called Common Celtic, is the putative ancestor of all the known Celtic languages. Its lexis can be confidently reconstructed on the basis of the comparative method of historical linguistics. Proto-Celtic is an Indo-European language of the Centum group, possibly via a common Italo-Celtic stage or Sprachbund. The area in which the language seems to have first become distinguishably Proto-Celtic may correspond to the Hallstatt culture, on the western fringes of the Urnfield in the early 1st millennium BC.

The reconstruction of Proto-Celtic is currently being undertaken. While Continental Celtic presents much substantiation for phonology, and some for morphology, recorded material is largely still too scanty to allow a secure reconstruction of syntax. Although some complete sentences are recorded in Gaulish and Celtiberian, the oldest substantial Celtic literature is found in Old Irish, the earliest recorded of the Insular Celtic languages.

Phonological reconstruction

Consonants

The phonological changes from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Celtic consonants may be summarised as follows. (An asterisk [*] prior to a letter or word designates that the phoneme or lexeme is not attested but is a hypothetical, reconstructed form.)

PIE Proto-Celtic Example
* * * > * 'father'
* * * > * 'three'
* * * > * 'sing'
* > * 'hundred'
* * * > * 'four'
* * * > * 'deep'
* * * > * 'see'
* * * > * 'to glue'
* > * 'jaw'
* * * > * 'woman'
* * * > * 'carry'
* * * > * 'suck'
* * * > * 'take'
* > * 'sickness'
* * *gʷʰn̥- > * 'kill, wound'
* * * > * 'old'
* * * > * 'mother'
* * * > * 'nephew'
* * * > * 'lick'
* * * > * 'king'
* * * > * 'young'
* * * > * 'dominion'

In contrast to the parent language, Proto-Celtic does not use aspiration as a feature for distinguishing phonemes. So the Proto-Indo-European voiced aspirated stops *, *, * merged with *, *, *. The voiced aspirate labiovelar * did not merge with *, though: plain * became * in Proto-Celtic, while aspirated * became *. Thus, while PIE * 'woman' became Old Irish ben and Welsh benyw, PIE * 'to kill, to wound' is the source of Old Irish gonaid and Welsh gwanu.

Proto-Indo-European * was lost in Proto-Celtic, apparently going through the stages * (as in the table above) and * (perhaps attested by the toponym Hercynia if this is of Celtic origin) before being lost completely word-initially and between vowels. Adjacent to consonants, Proto-Celtic * underwent different changes: the clusters * and * became * and * respectively already in Proto-Celtic. PIE * became Old Irish s and Brythonic f; while Schrijver (1995, 348) argues there was an intermediate stage * (in which * remained an independent phoneme until after Proto-Insular Celtic had diverged into Goidelic and Brythonic), McCone (1996, 44–45) finds it more economical to believe that * remained unchanged in PC, that is, the change * to * did not happen when * preceded. (Similarly, Grimm's law did not apply to *p, t, k after *s in Germanic.)

Proto-Celtic Old Irish Welsh
* > * 'shine' las-aid llach-ar
* > * 'seven' secht saith
* or * 'heel' seir ffêr

In Gaulish and the Brythonic languages, a new * sound has arisen as a reflex of the Proto-Indo-European * phoneme. Consequently one finds Gaulish petuar[ios], Welsh pedwar "four", compared to Old Irish *cethair and Latin quattuor. In so far as this new /p/ fills the space in the phoneme inventory which was lost by the disappearance of the equivalent stop in PIE, we may think of this as a chain shift.

The terms P-Celtic and Q-Celtic are useful when we wish to group the Celtic languages according to the way they handle this one phoneme. However a simple division into P- and Q-Celtic may be untenable, as it does not do justice to the evidence of the ancient Continental Celtic languages. The large number of unusual shared innovations among the Insular Celtic languages are often also presented as evidence against a P-Celtic vs Q-Celtic division, but they may instead reflect a common substratum influence from the pre-Celtic languages of Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and Wales, , in which case they would be irrelevant to Celtic language classification.

Q-Celtic languages may also have /p/ in loan words, though in some early borrowings from Welsh into Irish /k/ was used by sound substitution, as in Gaelic Cothrige, an early form of "Padraig". Gaelic póg "kiss" was a later borrowing (from the second word of the Latin phrase osculum pacis "kiss of peace") at a stage where p was borrowed directly as p, without substituting c.

Vowels

The Proto-Celtic vowel system is highly comparable to that reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European by Antoine Meillet. Dissimilarities include the incidence of Celtic *ī for Proto-Indo-European *ē (e.g., Gaulish rix and Irish , "king"; compare Latin rēx) and *ā in place of *ō.

PIE Proto-Celtic Example
* * * > * 'river'
* * * > * 'brother'
* * * > * 'old'
* (any laryngeal between consonants) * * > * 'father'
* * * > * 'true'
* * * > * 'wheel'
* in final syllable, * * > * 'nephew'
elsewhere, * * > * 'gift'
* * * > * 'world'
* * * > * 'number'
* * * > * 'blind'
* > * 'age'
* * * > * 'god'
* * * > * 'one'
* before , * > * 'young'
elsewhere, * * > * 'stream'
* * * > * 'mystery'
* * * > * 'silent'
*;
*
* * > * 'people'
* > *
* before stops, * * > * 'wide'
before other consonants, * * > * 'rooster'
before stops, * * > * 'act of bearing; mind'
before other consonants, * * > * 'dead'
* * * > * 'subdue'
* * * > * 'tooth'
* before obstruents, * * > * 'lordship'
before sonorants, * * > * 'hand'
* before obstruents, * * > * 'betrayal'
before sonorants, * * > * 'grain'
* *
(presumably same distribution as above)
(none?)
* * or *
(presumably same distribution as above)
probably * > * 'knowing'

The vowel * is the so-called "schwa indogermanicum", now interpreted as a laryngeal between two consonants.

Transition to Welsh and Cornish

The regular consonantal sound changes from Proto-Celtic to the Welsh language and Cornish language may be summarised in the following table. Where the Welsh graphemes have a different value from the corresponding IPA symbols, the IPA equivalent is indicated between solidi. V represents a vowel; C represents a consonant.

Proto-Celtic consonant Late Brythonic consonant Welsh consonant Cornish consonant
*b- *b b b
*-bb- *-b- b b
*-VbV- *v/b? f /v/ v
*d- *d d d
*-dd- *-d- d d
*-VdV- *-d-? -ð- dd /ð/ d
*g- *g- g g
*-gg- *-g- g g
*-VgV- *-VjV- (lost) (lost)
*h- (lost) (lost) (lost)
*-h- (lost) (lost) (lost)
*j- *i- i i
*-j *-ð -dd (ð) *-dh (ð)
*k- *c- c k
*-kk- *-cc- ch /x/ gh
*-VkV- *-c-? -g-? g g
*kʷ- *p- p p
*-kʷ- *-b- b b
*l- *l- ll /ɬ/ l
*-ll- *-l- l l
*-VlV- *-l- l l
*m- *m- m m
*-mb- *m? mb? m m
*-Cm- *m m m
*-m- *v? m? f /v/ v
*n- *n- n n
*-n- *-n- n n
*-nd- *n / nn n, nn n, nn
*-nt- *nt / nh nt, nh n, nn
*r- *r- rh /r̥/ r
*-r- *-r- r r
*s- *h-, s h, s h
*-s- *-s- s s
*t *t t t
*-t- *-d-? -t-? d dh
*-tt-, *-ct- *th? *tt? th /θ/ th
*w- *v- gw gw
*sw- *hw- chw /xw/ hw
*VwV *w dd dh
final vowel Vh Vch Vgh

Morphology

Nouns

The morphology (structure) of nouns and adjectives demonstrates no arresting alterations from the parent language. Proto-Celtic is believed to have had nouns in three genders, three numbers and five to eight cases. The genders were the normal masculine, feminine and neuter, the three numbers were singular, plural and dual. The number of cases is a subject of contention : while Old Irish may have only five, the evidence from Continental Celtic is considered rather unambiguous despite appeals to "archaic retentions" or "analogical levelling". These cases were nominative, vocative, accusative, dative, genitive, ablative, locative and instrumental.

Nouns fall into nine or so declensions, depending on the stem. There are *o-stems, *ā-stems, *i-stems, *u-stems, dental stems, velar stems, nasal stems, *r-stems and *s-stems.

*o-stem nouns

*wiros ‘man’ (masculine)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *wiros *wire *wirom *wiri *wirūi *wirū *wirū *wirei
dual *wirou *wirou *wirou *wirūs *wirobom *wirobim *wirobim *wirou
plural *wiroi *wirūs *wirūs *wirom *wirobo *wirobi *wirūs *wirobi

*dūnom ‘stronghold’ (neuter)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *dūnom *dūnom *dūnom *dūni *dūnūi *dūnū *dūnū *dūnei
dual *dūnou *dūnou *dūnou *dūnūs *dūnobom *dūnobim *dūnobim *dūnou
plural *dūnā *dūnā *dūnā *dūnom *dūnobo *dūnobi *dūnūs *dūnobi

*ā-stem nouns

E.g. *alisāalder tree’ (feminine?)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *alisā *alisa *alisām *alisās *alisāi *alisī *alisī *alisāi
dual *alisai *alisai *alisai *alisajous *alisābom *alisābim *alisābim *alisābim
plural *alisās *alisās *alisās *alisānom *alisābo *alisābi *alisābi *alisābi

E.g. *kumbāscoomb’ (masculine)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *kumbās *kumba *kumbām *kumbās *kumbāi *kumbī *kumbī *kumbāi
dual *kumbai *kumbai *kumbai *kumbajous *kumbābom *kumbābim *kumbābim *kumbābim
plural *kumbās *kumbās *kumbās *kumbānom *kumbābo *kumbābi *kumbābi *kumbābi

*u-stem nouns

E.g. *matus ‘he-bear’ (masculine)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *matus *matu *matum *matous *matou *matū *matū *matū
dual *matou *matou *matou *matowou *matoubom *matoubim *matoubim *matoubim
plural *matowes *matowes *matūs *matujom *matoubo *matoubi *matoubi *matoubi

E.g. *dānuvalley river’ (neuter?)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *dānu *dānu *dānu *dānous *dānou *dānū *dānū *dānū
dual *dānou *dānou *dānou *dānowou *dānoubom *dānoubim *dānoubim *dānoubim
plural *dānwā *dānwā *dānwā *dānujom *dānoubo *dānoubi *dānoubi *dānoubi

*i-stems

E.g. *albisalp’ (masculine?)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *albis *albis *albim *albeis *albei *albī *albī *albī
dual *albī *albī *albī *albjous *albibom *albibim *albibim *albibim
plural *albejes *albejes *albīs *albjom *albibo *albibi *albibi *albibi

E.g. *rīganīsqueen’ (feminine)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *rīganīs *rīganīs *rīganīm *rīganos *rīganei *rīganī *rīganī *rīganī
dual *rīganī *rīganī *rīganī *rīganou *rīganībom *rīganībim *rīganībim *rīganībim
plural *rīganes *rīganes *rīganīs *rīganom *rīganībo *rīganībi *rīganībi *rīganībi

E.g. *blawi ‘hair’ (neuter?)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *blawi *blawi *blawi *blaweis *blawei *blawī *blawī *blawī
dual *blawī *blawī *blawī *blawjous *blawibom *blawibim *blawibim *blawibim
plural *blawjā *blawjā *blawjā *blawjom *blawibo *blawibi *blawibi *blawibi

Velar and dental stems

Before the *-s of the nominative singular, a velar consonant was neutralised to *-x-: *rīg- "king" > *rīxs. Likewise, final *-d became *-t-: *druwid- "druid" > *druwits.

E.g. rīxs ‘king’ (masculine)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *rīxs *rīxs *rīgem *rīgos *rīgei *rīgī *rīge *rīgi
dual *rīge *rīge *rīge *rīgou *rīgobom *rīgobim *rīgobim *rīgobim
plural *rīges *rīges *rīgas *rīgom *rīgobo *rīgobi *rīgobi *rīgobi

E.g. *druwitsdruid’ (masculine)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *druwits *druwits *druwidem *druwidos *druwidei *druwidī *druwide *druwidi
dual *druwide *druwide *druwide *druwidou *druwidobom *druwidobim *druwidobim *druwidobim
plural *druwides *druwides *druwidas *druwidom *druwidobo *druwidobi *druwidobi *druwidobi

E.g. *karnuxscarnyx’ (masculine?)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *karnuxs *karnuxs *karnukem *karnukos *karnukei *karnukī *karnuke *karnuki
dual *karnuke *karnuke *karnuke *karnukou *karnukobom *karnukobim *karnukobim *karnukobim
plural *karnukes *karnukes *karnukas *karnukom *karnukobo *karnukobi *karnukobi *karnukobi

E.g. *dantstooth’ (masculine)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *dants *dants *dantem *dantos *dantei *dantī *dante *danti
dual *dante *dante *dante *dantou *dantobom *dantobim *dantobim *dantobim
plural *dantes *dantes *dantas *dantom *dantobo *dantobi *dantobi *dantobi

Nasal stems

Generally, nasal stems end in *-on-, this becomes *-ū in the nominative singular: *abon-- "river" > *abū.

E.g. *abūriver’ (feminine)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *abū *abū *abonem *abonos *abonei *abonī *abone *aboni
dual *abone *abone *abone *abonou *abonobom *abonobim *abonobim *abonobim
plural *abones *abones *abonas *abonom *abonobo *abonobi *abonobi *abonobi

E.g. *kangsmãstep’ (masculine)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *kangsmã *kangsmã *kangsmanem *kangsmanos *kangsmanei *kangsmanī *kangsmane *kangsmani
dual *kangsmane *kangsmane *kangsmane *kangsmanou *kangsmanobom *kangsmanobim *kangsmanobim *kangsmanobim
plural *kangsmanes *kangsmanes *kangsmanas *kangsmanom *kangsmanobo *kangsmanobi *kangsmanobi *kangsmanobi

*s-stem nouns

Generally, *s-stems end in *-es-, which becomes *-os in the nominative singular: *teges- ‘house’ > *tegos.

E.g. *tegoshouse’ (masculine)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *tegos *tegos *tegesem *tegesos *tegesei *tegesī *tegese *tegesi
dual *tegese *tegese *tegese *tegesou *tegesobom *tegesobim *tegesobim *tegesobim
plural *tegeses *tegeses *tegesas *tegesom *tegesobo *tegesobi *tegesobi *tegesobi

*r-stem nouns

  • r-stems are rare and principally confined to names of relatives. Typically they end in *-ter-, which becomes *-tīr in the nominative and *-tr- in all other cases aside from the accusative: *φater- ‘father’ > *φatīr, *φatros.

E.g. *φatīrfather’ (masculine)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *φatīr *φatīr *φater *φatros *φatrei *φatrī *φatre *φatri
dual *φatre *φatre *φatre *φatrou *φatrobom *φatrobim *φatrobim *φatrobim
plural *φatres *φatres *φatras *φatrom *φatrobo *φatrobi *φatrobi *φatrobi

E.g. *mātīrmother’ (feminine)

number nominative vocative accusative genitive dative ablative instrumental locative
singular *mātīr *mātīr *māter *mātros *mātrei *mātrī *mātre *mātri
dual *mātre *mātre *mātre *mātrou *mātrobom *mātrobim *mātrobim *mātrobim
plural *mātres *mātres *mātras *mātrom *mātrobo *mātrobi *mātrobi *mātrobi

Verbs

The Insular Celtic verb shows a peculiar feature unknown in any other attested Indo-European language: verbs have different conjugational forms depending on whether they appear in absolute initial position in the sentence (Insular Celtic having Verb Subject Object or VSO word order) or whether they are preceded by a preverbal particle. The situation is most robustly attested in Old Irish, but it has remained to some extent in Scottish Gaelic and traces of it are present in Middle Welsh as well.

Forms that appear in sentence-initial position are called absolute, those that appear after a particle are called conjunct. The paradigm of the present active indicative of the Old Irish verb beirid "carry" is as follows; the conjunct forms are illustrated with the particle "not".

  Absolute Conjunct
1st person singular biru "I carry" ní biur "I do not carry"
2nd person singular biri "you carry" ní bir "you do not carry"
3rd person singular beirid "s/he carries" ní beir "she/he does not carry"
1st person plural bermai "we carry" ní beram "we do not carry"
2nd person plural beirthe "you carry" ní beirid "you do not carry"
3rd person plural berait "they carry" ní berat "they do not carry"

In Scottish Gaelic this distinction is still found in certain verb-forms:

Absolute Conjunct
cuiridh "puts/will put" cha chuir "doesn't put/will not put"
òlaidh "drinks/will drink" chan òl "doesn't drink/will not drink"
ceannaichidh "buys/will buy" cha cheannaich "doesn't buy/will not buy"

In Middle Welsh, the distinction is seen most clearly in proverbs following the formula "X happens, Y does not happen" (Evans 1964: 119):

  • Pereid y rycheu, ny phara a'e goreu "The furrows last, he who made them lasts not"
  • Trenghit golut, ny threingk molut "Wealth perishes, fame perishes not"
  • Tyuit maban, ny thyf y gadachan "An infant grows, his swaddling-clothes grow not"
  • Chwaryit mab noeth, ny chware mab newynawc "A naked boy plays, a hungry boy plays not"

The older analysis of the distinction, as reported by Thurneysen (1946, 360 ff.), held that the absolute endings derive from Proto-Indo-European "primary endings" (used in present and future tenses) while the conjunct endings derive from the "secondary endings" (used in past tenses). Thus Old Irish absolute beirid "s/he carries" was thought to be from * (compare Sanskrit bharati "s/he carries"), while conjunct beir was thought to be from * (compare Sanskrit a-bharat "s/he was carrying").

Today, however, most Celticists agree that Cowgill (1975), following an idea present already in Pedersen (1913, 340 ff.), found the correct solution to the origin of the absolute/conjunct distinction: an enclitic particle, reconstructed as * after consonants and * after vowels, came in second position in the sentence. If the first word in the sentence was another particle, * came after that and thus before the verb, but if the verb was the first word in the sentence, * was cliticized to it. Under this theory, then, Old Irish absolute beirid comes from Proto-Celtic *, while conjunct ní beir comes from *.

The identity of the * particle remains uncertain. Cowgill suggests it might be a semantically degraded form of * "is", while Schrijver (1994) has argued it is derived from the particle * "and then", which is attested in Gaulish.

Continental Celtic languages cannot be shown to have any absolute/conjunct distinction. However, they seem to show only SVO and SOV word orders, as in other Indo-European languages. The absolute/conjunct distinction may thus be an artifact of the VSO word order that arose in Insular Celtic.

Dating

The date when Proto-Celtic became a separate language is controversial. In the past an association with particular archaeological cultures had been assumed, then the method of glottochronology was used. Both are not satisfactory for many reasons. In the last decade or so a number of groups have addressed this question using modern computational methods, with differing results. Gray and Atkinson estimated a date of 6100 BP (4100 BCE) while Forster and Toth suggest a date of 8100 BP (6100 BCE), but such early dates are not generally accepted. Both these dates are subject to considerable estimating uncertainty, perhaps +/-1500 years. In the Paleolithic Continuity Theory Celtic is proposed to have emerged from the Iberian refuge after the Last Glacial Maximum, but this theory is not generally accepted.

Proto-Celtic may have been spoken to as late as 800 BCE, see Celtic languages.

See also

References

  • Cowgill, Warren (1975). Flexion und Wortbildung: Akten der V. Fachtagung der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft, Regensburg, 9.–14. September 1973. Wiesbaden: Reichert.
  • Evans, D. Simon (1964). A Grammar of Middle Welsh. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
  • Forster, Peter and Toth, Alfred. Towards a phylogenetic chronology of ancient Gaulish, Celtic and Indo-European PNAS Vol 100/15, July 22, 2003.
  • Gray, Russell and Atkinson, Quintin. Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin Nature Vol 426, 27 Nov 2003.
  • Lane, George S. The Germano-Celtic Vocabulary, Language (1933), 244-264.
  • McCone, Kim (1996). Towards a Relative Chronology of Ancient and Medieval Celtic Sound Change. Maynooth: Department of Old and Middle Irish, St. Patrick's College. ISBN 0-901519-40-5.
  • Pedersen, Holger (1913). Vergleichende Grammatik der keltischen Sprachen. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 3-525-26119-5.
  • Schrijver, Peter (1994). "The Celtic adverbs for 'against' and 'with' and the early apocope of *-i". Ériu 45 151–89.
  • Schrijver, Peter (1995). Studies in British Celtic Historical Phonology. Amsterdam: Rodopi. ISBN 90-5183-820-4.
  • Thurneysen, Rudolf (1946). A Grammar of Old Irish. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

External links

A reference for Proto-Celtic vocabulary is provided by the University of Wales at the following sites:

Alternatively, the Leiden University provides a Proto-Celtic dictionary:

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