A Conversation for A History of Modern and Extinct Celtic Languages

The Revenge of the Babelfish: Indo-European pseudo-history (including Celtic, Germanic and Slavic babblings)

Post 1


I cannot claim to be an expert in this rather wide area but am interested in hearing what others know and think about the subject of Indo-European studies. Here is why: Language is deeply connected to our sense of who we are, and linguistics offers the possibility of enlightening our often primitive presumptions that we are more special and more different than we are. Moreover, the abuse of linguistics has as notorious as a history as that of the abuse of evolutionary theory.

Indo-European studies, in particular, has been bedevilled since it began by the political interests of empires, would-be empires and those who sought to repel them or rebel against them. Nationalisms great and small have exploited the vagueness of all the unanswered questions and the suggestiveness of the real discoveries to support any number of unscientific and often frankly racist ends.

In Germany Indo-European is unfortunately called "Indo-Germanisch" and the Nazis made no little use of the concept of Aryanism (from the name Arya which seems to have been the name used by the Indo-Europeans for themselves) in their claim to be not only the Superrace (die Herrenrasse) but also the original and therefore purest race and rightful owners of most of Europe - das Urvolk!

In India today, some nationalists go so far as to deny any European element in pre-colonial Indian Culture and claim that Hinduism, for example, was a direct descendant of Sumerian religion alone, while the smaller nations of Europe make as much milage as they can out of claims for their languages, going in some cases as far as to define their national identity simply on the issue of language, itself surely a cover for the racist tendencies intrinsic to cultural nationalism.

This is the case in the Czech Republic, for example, where authors writing in German - especially if Jewish - are simply NOT considered Czech, independent of their contribution to Czech culture. All this is a sad legacy of 19th Century Cultural Nationalism (itself a reaction to Colonial Imperialism) which jumped upon the unanswered questions of linguistics in the same way that social Darwinists tried to abuse the blanks on the map of Evolutionary Theory.

In reading about this on the Net and elsewhere, it has become clear to me that the study of Indo-European languages, which has been an area of formal academic study for 200 years or more now, has again become an area of considerable activity, as DNA studies and new statistically-based linguistic methods add hard evidence and methodical logic to much of the speculation that has surrounded the implications of the undoubtedly great linguistic discoveries of 19th and 20th centuries.

It seems that as in many other areas of science, linguistics is now able to benefit from synergies between areas of research that were originally developed - to all intents and purposes - completely independently, such as statistics, DNA studies, climate studies, plate tectonics, archaeology, ethnology and so forth, all of which NOW have something to give to linguistics, and linguistics to them!

The cross-referencing of data from different but potentially correlated areas of research has resulted in scientific advances in areas where further progress was delayed or impossible until now. What had often to be left entirely to the (often perverted) imagination can now be looked at in the light of hard data.

In short, we should are now be coming a lot closer to really answering some of the old chestnuts that have all too often been the arena of racists and all too rarely that of well-intentioned, but misguided speculation alike. Questions such as:

Who were the Indo-Europeans?
Where did they come from?
Why are their languages used where they are today?
When did all this happen?

Wikipedia articles claim that DNA studies have recently traced the Indo-Europeans to Anatolia at 10000 B.C. And statistical linguistic analysis has pushed back the previously accepted 5000 B.C. date as the time of the Proto (or Unified) Indo-European language (PIE) to 6,500 B.C. - which I take to mean that it is from this time that sub-languages began to separate out, such as Hittite, which is the earliest IE language we know, and which in fact looks amazing like the reconstructed IE forms predicted by linguists in the 19th Century.

Hitherto, the main competing theories here are those of Marija Gimbutas with her "feminist archaeology" - who argued that a Neolithic matriarchal society was raided & perverted by a Bronze-age invasion of Kurgan warlords... (smacks of C.S. Lewis in reverse!) and Colin Renfrew's idea that it was in fact the Neolithic revolution that introduced the IE genes, language and culture into the known IE territories. (As in the colonisation of Australia or North America - but not Middle or South America...)

A notable third is the Black Sea deluge theory which talks about the flooding of the previously isolated fresh water Black Sea by rising salt waters through the Bosphorus from the Med about 5600 B.C. Other theories are certainly possible or emerging, including hybrid theories of all the above.

One of my areas of personal interest is the Celtic Question. Another conversation line (of this parish) is discussing just that, but IE studies has a lot to say about it. Renfrew argues that Celtic Culture is a direct descendant of Neolithic culture and evolved or co-evolved in situ in areas of Britain and in Ireland. Certainly there is in Ireland a remarkably complete Gaelicisation of the culture by the start of historic records (about the 5th Century A.D.) which makes the previously supposed arrival date of the Celts of 500 B.C. - 1000 years before - seem ridiculously short to have totally obliterated any linguistic evidence of a previous culture. In Britain even more so.

The 500 B.C. date arouse, I believe, because it was associated with the identification of Iron-age products including La Tene items that archaeologists had no hesitation in identifying with the historically recorded La Tene Celtic culture on the continent. DNA studies roundly repute any idea that the original occupants were "driven into the sea" but just as the modern Irish speak English, but are genetically not Germans, the adoption of Celtic could certainly have been a question of acculturation, creolisation etc.

The question is how long it would take to obliterate the previous culture even down to place-names. In Britain, a few claims are made for pre-Celtic names, for "Thames" for example, but these are so rare that it seems safer to say that we don't know what they mean and leave it at that. On the other hand Celtic names are found over large parts of what has been England for a 1000 years and more. The implication is that 1000 years is just not enough, and that Celtic culture is a LOT older in the British Isles.

It can further be argued that Bronze Age products show a strong cultural continuity in the archaeological record with the Iron Age ones, despite the introduction of novelties in style and technology, so that a model of cultural continuity and innovation through contact and trade - and occasional raids or mini migrations - is a far more believable implication. I am not sure, but maybe this can also be said at the Neolithic/Bronze Age divide as well.

As to Q & P Celtic, it is clear that these linguistic developments involved (or not) all Celtic peoples, and not just Ireland and Britain. It is possible that Britain had a Q-Celtic Population that assimilated to P-Celtic (At the start it was not difficult to understand each other, and would have been more like a new fashion than an invasion!) in line with developments in the nearby Gaulish & Belgic world, while more isolated Ireland and Spain remained outside the loop in their earlier Q-Celtic ways. Indeed, in many ways Irish Celtics failed to share in the typical developments of Gaulish culture, including the development of Celtic towns and cities. The city and even the town, as we know it today, is always a foreign or post-Celtic settlement in Ireland.

As to the path of arrival into the British Islands, it is not at all clear that Britain was the first port-of call for all incoming peoples (at whatever date we are talking about). Travel along coasts and over "sea bridges" (short stretches of sea) allowed of land-fall at multiple venues, and ships coming up from Spain or France could have skirted Britain and arrived in Southern Ireland without the London-Hollyhead / Stansted routes we know today! Indeed, it would have been far quicker and safer than going overland, whether because of previous occupants or the wildlife.

Any comments?

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The Revenge of the Babelfish: Indo-European pseudo-history (including Celtic, Germanic and Slavic babblings)

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