Ancient language and extra-Indo-European language in Britain

by Linden Alexander Pentecost, February 2022

I have always felt connected to the Celtic languages, and to the people who speak them. Celtic languages are classified as Indo-European languages. But the definitions ‘Indo-European’ and ‘Celtic’ have never really felt right to me in their ability to convey or describe the entirety of these languages.

I remember when I was sixteen, I was in Ireland a fair bit that summer, in County Galway, Contae na Gaillimhe. For some reason I became interested in carving holes in a certain type of seashell, and making necklaces from them. And when I was in Ireland I visited a sacred tree, connected to the fair folk. I went to an ancient enclosure too, and just generally I wanted to take in and appreciate everything around me. By carving holes in these shells with a stone, and creating jewelry with them, I was, without realising it consciously, repeating something that ‘early modern humans’ did in Europe a very long time ago, including with those types of shell which I had found.

The earliest people in Ireland, and Britain, came to the land far earlier than the recorded ‘Celtic’ peoples. And even though these earliest cultures, with their languages and knowledge, are said to have disappeared, I do not believe that to be the case, at all. On the contrary, I feel that the magic of different ancient peoples does continue to exist in the cultures and languages of today, and indeed in our world today. And I feel that, the ancient languages within our own, can show something far vaster than the ‘Indo-European’ title so readily applied to our Celtic languages and their words. I suspect that the central features of Indo-European are indeed very old, but that, over time, and perhaps further extended through the invention of writing, ‘Indo-European’ influenced how language across much of Europe was presented and standardised.

As well as a language family, I have also come to think of Indo-European as a kind of musical, and poetic metre for expressing similar ideas about language, culture and spirituality. This might have meant that Indo-European also acted as a kind of formula, or set of related formulas, for the arrangement of words and names. This is a little similar to the way in which non-Latin words, are given Latin case endings during the creation of a scientific name. As well as ancient Indo-European languages, I suspect also that there were once languages in Britain and Ireland, which might be classified as non-Indo-European, whilst still showing some relationship to Indo-European. I feel perhaps that these languages may also have simultaneously ‘maintained’ a common connection to Celtic, over thousands of years, with Beurla Reagaird being one possibility.

With Indo-European itself being so difficult to define in itself, I find understanding how Indo-European might connect to other language families, to be even more difficult. If, for example, Indo-European is a new formation, or re-patterning of already existing languages and connections, then Indo-European languages could contain previous ‘patterns’ of connection that thread to languages outside of Indo-European.

With most of these words below, I have drawn comparisons with the Afro-Asiatic languages specifically. These words, mainly in reconstructed Proto-Afro-Asiatic, were reconstructed by Alexander Militarev and Olga Stolbova, and are available on the website starling.db. Words from this source are marked (1).

Please note that the drawn comparisons between Aboriginal British language and Afro-Asiatic, are connections, but I do not believe that these ancient languages in Britain were Afro-Asiatic per-se. Whilst there may be some connection, it is also possible that what we are looking at is something that is shared in the prehistory of Europe and North-Africa, perhaps related to Proto-Afro-Asiatic, but not to Afro-Asiatic as its current language family. The following words are from the Essex dialect of English. I found them in the dictionary: A contribution to an Essex Dialect dictionary, by Edward Gepp, vicar of High Easter, Essex. This is marked here as (3)

weir – pond (3), (dammed off pond?) The normal meaning in English refers to the raise which creates a small waterfall or overflow of water, partitioning an upper part of a river or marsh from a lower part. However if we think of the meaning as being a ‘held body of water’, perhaps we can connect it to the Proto-Afro-Asiatic word *wVʕVr- ~ *ʕVrVy- ‘lake’ (1). A further connection could exist to the Finnish word järvi – ‘lake’, and possibly to English rivers which contain the root Yar-, as in the River Yar. Note that ‘weir’ in the more common sense of the word, has an Indo-European etymology meaning to ‘cover’; but with regards to the wider meaning and previous examples, I doubt that this is all there is to the word. In England there are also several similar-sounding river names, like the River Wear in Northeast England, and the River Wyre in Northwest England.

hob – moth (3), Semitic *ʔibḫ- - kind of bug (1). Others have reminded me that ‘hob’ is simply a diminutive form of ‘Robert’, although I doubt whether this is so in the entirety of meanings attached to the word ‘hob’.

pan - hard clay subsoil caused by continuous ploughing at the same depth (3), Proto-Afro-Asiatic *panVw/y/ʕ- (re)turn (1). If these two words are linked, it would appear to suggest a link between Afro-Asiatic languages and agriculture in ancient Britain. However, the semantics of the words, to me suggest that the agricultural meaning was applied independently of Afro-Asiatic. Further meanings of ‘pan’ in English may be connected to a pre-Greek word, apparently via French.

mess – a dish of cooked food (3), compare English ‘meat’, Welsh mes – acorns, Proto-Afro-Asiatic *mVsaw/y- - cereals (1), compare also Squamish smeyts – meat (2), and Latvian mieži ‘barley’, a root which, in other Indo-European languages seems to commonly mean ‘mix’.

toar - old, rough grass, Proto-Afro-Asiatic *curiy- plant, grass (1).

The following words are from Scottish Gaelic.

laogh – calf, Old Irish lóeg, Irish lao, Manx lheiy, Cornish leugh. Perhaps Proto-Afro-Asiatic *ʕVlag- ~ *lVgʕ- - ‘calf, bull’ (1). This etymology surprises me in its close similarity to the Celtic words. I have pondered if this is due to the arrival of farming in Britain, but, actually, Scotland did have wild aurochs in the ancient past, perhaps making it possible that this word is a pre-farming word in Scotland.

monadh – mountain, this Scottish Gaelic word is supposedly a Pictish word from P-Celtic. Whilst there absolutely is a link between this word, and the Welsh word mynydd – ‘mountain’, Cornish menydh, I believe that the word itself existed originally outside of Indo-European. We could also compare the Squamish word smánit – ‘mountain’ (2), and even the Samoan word mauga perhaps. It is interesting I feel that members of the Celtic languages, Salish languages and Polynesian languages, commonly have the verb-subject-object sentence order.

freumh – ‘root’, Old Irish prém or frém, Irish fréamh. Whilst there are other Indo-European cognates to this word, a reconstructed proto-form might give something like *wre-, without the m-. In Proto-Afro-Asiatic, there is a root, *ʔarVm- ‘root’ (1), East Chadic *ʔwaram- (1), which shows this -m; perhaps indicative of a deeper pattern of relation in this word, where the Gaelic form is ‘Indo-European’ but also simultaneously closer to the Afro-Asiatic form.

Note

Although Indo-European is often associated with the Bronze Age, there are at least two languages, described as ‘cants’ or mixed languages, that have an association with metal working. These are Beurla Reagaird in Scotland, and Béarlagair na Saor in Ireland. I do not feel that ‘mixed language’ justly describes them. From my own perspective, they have a connection to Goidelic, but they also have distinct grammar and words. I do not know how these languages relate to Indo-European, but, I feel that they are in fact very ancient, and they at least do not appear to hold many of the common ‘archaic’ features, common to ancient Indo-European written languages.

Whilst I feel that it may be practically impossible to ‘date’ language, I feel that it might be possible to find word associations with particular historic cultures and ancient sites. This includes the Scottish Gaelic word ciuthach for example, a name given to a giant, sometimes associated with caves. It is interesting that some of this folklore comes from parts of Scotland known to have been inhabited or visited by Mesolithic people, some of whom would have used caves. This is not a direct association, and caves would likely have been used later on too, but the association with certain places, and these particular giants, may be a link to another culture, which has perhaps since merged into the culture and language of Scottish Gaelic. Note that ‘giant’ in the context of folklore can often refer to something animistic and spiritual, connected to the land itself, and often to the sites of ancient people in the land. Often I feel that ‘giants’ are connected to ancient peoples, who are also ‘giant’ in their knowledge and connection to the landscape.

Having looked at some of the rock art found along the coast of North Wales, from my observations, there does appear to be some continuity in these artistic styles, from around the end of the Ice Age, until at least the ages of megalithic stone monuments. I do not want to share too much about this art here, as I feel it is quite potent and sacred. This unknown culture might also be linked to ancient copper mines in the area. Despite the common association with the Bronze Age and speakers of Indo-European, ‘some’ of the word associations from this region may show some connection to Afro-Asiatic. One of the Bronze Age mines, known as Paris, may be, I believe, distantly linked to the word ‘brass’ in English, and to pres in Welsh. An Afro-Asiatic connection may be visible in the Proto-Afro-Asiatic word *bir-, ‘metal’ (1), although this alone does not explain the name Paris.

Parts of Northwestern England have Goidelic place-name elements, but many of these elements are words where there seems to be no well-established etymological origin. One such example is the Irish word airghe, which may be connected to the -er element the name Torver, in the English county of Cumbria. But even though these names are said to have arrived quite recently, Cumbria and Ireland have been connected for thousands of years. And so, whilst these words correspond to Goidelic words, I don’t think we know whether or not their language was actually Goidelic, or even strictly Indo-European.

Another example is the place-name on old maps, Pool Darkin. The way this is ordered is similar to how it might be done in Modern Goidelic, with the word pool, or Goidelic poll coming first. To write this in Classical Gaelic orthography, makes me think of the word Deircean. Kate on the DASG blog, writes about Beurla Reagaird, on a post titled Am Beurla Reagaird, and includes some notes by Alec Williamson, a traveller from Cataibh/Sutherland. From this blog, I came to understand that deircean is the Beurla Reagaird word for ‘eye’, which I think may indicate that the language in the name Pool Darkin might not have been a Goidelic language per-se. Even though this word is found in Goidelic, it is not the usual word for ‘eye’.

Whilst this would indicate a strong Indo-European connection to Beurla Reagaird, generally speaking, this word *derk- in Indo-European seems to have come to mean ‘see’ and ‘be visible’, with the meaning of ‘eye’ being quite specific. Furthermore, in some instances, Old Irish derc means a pit, or hollow area. Whilst physically connected to how an eye works, in letting light in, the Goidelic meaning perhaps shows other, underlying meanings, which are in a sense less ‘Indo-European’. Judging by the map, Pool Darkin does indeed seem to be a river and boggy area in a hollow between hills.

Interestingly, the ancient contact between Ireland and Cumbria, was likely connected to trading, including things like stone axes, and perhaps later, things like copper. Although evidence is scanty on this. The people of this region in Western Cumbria and Lancashire, may have been connected to the Setantii, tribe which is attested in the name of a port on Ptolemy’s map. This name Setantii is perhaps connected to the name Setanta, which may have been the original name of the warrior Cúchulainn in Irish mythology. Some stories connect Cúchulainn with the town of Dundalk, located directly across the sea from Morecambe Bay in North Lancashire and South Cumbria, likely close to the Port of the Setantii reported by Ptolemy. (This word is not linked to the word ‘Satan’).

There is a high likelihood that Indo-European etymologies have been suggested for the words I have listed here, and I am not saying that an Indo-European derivation isn’t necessarily also true; what I am implying is that there may be more dimension to these words that what we can see in Indo-European alone, and that there may be deeper interconnectedness, and underlying patterns, which exist in Indo-European, and which connect Indo-European to other language families. And more specifically, that these deeper connections make themselves obvious within the regionalisation of Indo-European.

Further notes

Etymologies talked about here were connected through my own research. The title noun, extra-Indo-European, is about the only noun I could conjure for describing what I am talking about, as I do not feel that pre-Indo-European or non-Indo-European are entirely true descriptions of what I am describing in terms of ancient and prehistoric language. Although extra-Indo-European might be adequate for talking about the possibly vast relationships between languages, it too is not adequate for describing the actual names and nature of ancient languages in Britain. At this moment we do not know.

A note on the Irish word airghe. This word can mean a ‘milking place’ for cattle in the Irish language. The Scottish Gaelic word àraich ‘to rear’ or ‘to breed’, is probably related. But understanding the original meaning of this word in place-names, is something that I will not attempt to do here. But a particular place associated with cattle might be a possibility. To the ancient people of Ireland and Britain, cattle would have been sacred, as were all animals. I feel this is something to live by in the present.

References

  1. Afro-Asiatic vocabulary by Alexander Militarev, and Olga Stolbova, vocabulary items were sourced from starlingdb.org, database by S. Starostin. Olga Stolbova has done a lot of work on Chadic languages, also the Chadic Lexical Database project.
  2. Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim-Xwelíten Sníchim, Sḵexwts, Squamish-English Dictionary, Squamish Nation Dictionary Project, copyright Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Uxwumixw Ns7éyx̱nitm ta Snewéyalh/the Squamish Nation Education Department
  3. A contribution to an Essex Dialect dictionary, by Edward Gepp, vicar of High Easter, Essex

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