The Question of Italo-Celtic Unity Anthony D.

Yates The Italo-Celtic hypothesis, an Indo-European subgroup uniting Italic and Celtic into a single entity, has, since its inception in 1861 (Lottner Kuhns Beiträge 2.309 ff.), sufficiently intrigued generations of scholars as to gain a kind of cyclical immortality. This sort of immortality is not without death; on the contrary, the theory has perished many times, 1 but has always been resurrected—including, notably, by Cowgill 1970 from Watkins 1966. 2 The principal appeal of this and other theories of subgrouping lies in their contribution toward the resolution of a question fundamental in Indo-European studies, as framed by Watkins: “wie es eigentlich gewesen?” (1966: 29). An intermediate ItaloCeltic subgroup, existing in the vast temporal grey space between Proto-Indo-European and its relevant end-points, i.e., the daughter languages of the separate Italic and Celtic subgroups, provides valuable insight as to the process. The hypothesis itself originated to explain several shared innovations between the two branches. To these, the principal criteria for linguistic subgrouping, Watkins would add shared retentions and divergences as equally valid measures of linguistic verisimilitude—and rightly. 3 The principle evidence for Italo-Celtic unity is compiled by Meillet in his seminal work Les dialectes indo-europeéns (1908: 51-56), an essentially

1 2

Watkins 1966: 29 n.1 lists at least twelve such studies affirming or rejecting the hypothesis. Cowgill employs a memorably grisly metaphor: “[I]n reopening the grave just closed by Watkins I have found neither an empty coffin, nor a living adult prematurely buried, but a stillborn infant.” (And yet we wonder why linguists may not always be invited to parties.) 3 Although he draws very different conclusions from Watkins, Cowgill 1970:193 affirms the significance of these data-points.

exhaustive list of features common to Celtic and Italic alone. This list of seven items, as it provides the fundamental shape for later discourse, is reproduced here in an Appendix. 4 Items 2), 5b), 7), and 8) are dismissed in Watkins 1966. In the first, he cites a 1956 study of J. Kurylowicz, 5 which shows that this development of IE. *r, *l̥ is not unique to ̥ Italo-Celtic, but is common to a larger group including Greek and Armenian. Similarly, Watkins’ own earlier work 6 has proven the shared property 5b) to be a “historical accident:” the origins of the Celtic subjunctive in -s- is a Celtic aorist indicative, whereas in Latin, an -s- future). Item 7) he rejects on the grounds of incomparability of structural contexts; its development he regards as important only insofar as it represents a broader shared “negative” innovation 7 —viz. a limiting of the productivity of deverbative nouns. The final item is likewise disallowed, citing, inter alia, the general weakness of such evidence, and the absence of Celtic cognates for Latin ab, ante, apud, circum, ob, per, and prae. The striking innovation of 3) remains unclear. It is not exclusively Italo-Celtic; Messapic too shows stems in -o with genitive singular in –ihi, supposed to be -ī. Watkins 1966 notes significant variation in these forms in the various Indo-European languages, and so suggests the possibility that there was no original Indo-European form; innovation is thus to be expected, and the shared isogloss in Italic and Celtic may be due to contact. Items 1), 4), 5a), and 6) have been a source of significant disagreement. As to 4), 4), Watkins is skeptical, citing the remarks of Kurylowicz (op. cit); in contrast, Cowgill

The Appendix provides easy reference (sc. detachable) to the individual items, which will be cited by number throughout this work. 5 L’apophonie en indo-europeén 166 ff. (Wroclaw, 1956) 6 Indo-European origins of the Celtic verb. I. The sigmatic aorist (Dublin, 1962) 7 Watkins believes that “negative” innovations, properties of the proto-language that have been restricted or eliminated in its daughter languages, play an important role in subgrouping alongside the more commonly cited “positive” innovations.


emphatically concludes that the Celtic and Italic use of “-r as a voice marker pure and simple IS an innovation,” comparing Hittite and Tocharian which use it primarily as a tense marker (1970: 221). Watkins’ disputations of 1) and 5a) can essentially, with respect to the views articulated by Cowgill, be reduced to problems of relative chronology. The debate on 1) focuses on Latin quercus, cognate with Celtic toponym Ἑρκύνια. The latter indicates that in Celtic the assimilation of p…kw to kw … kw occurs after the change of kwu to ku, while the former, the opposite chronology. While Watkins believes that this is sufficient evidence for independent development,8 Cowgill 1970: 191 doubts its significance, certainly to the extent that it rules out a Italo-Celtic subgroup. Similarly for 5a), the major differences in the modal systems of Celtic and Italic identified by Watkins 1966: 41-3 are, in the view of Cowgill, the result of secondary divergence postdating the creation of -ā- subjunctive ending. Finally, with regard to 6), Cowgill 1970 brilliantly demonstrates that the foremost problem advanced by Watkins with Meillet’s original theory—viz. the existence of two separate superlative suffixes *samo and *isamo—is no problem at all: the suffixes can be reconciled to a single *-ismmo-; hence, they are absolutely and entirely of their own kind, a unique innovation ̥ common to Celtic and Italic. Based on a consideration of this evidence, Watkins 1966 firmly rejects the notion of Italo-Celtic unity, concluding: “The only common language from which both Italic and Celtic can be derived is Indo-European itself” (43-44). Yet the same evidence has led Cowgill 1970 not just to posit unity, but to forward a plausible migratory theory to account for it. His theoretical model assumes an extreme western Italo-Celtic group
Watkins 1966: 34 draws additional support for this conclusion from a proposed derivation of déac from *dwei-penkw-. Cowgill 1970: 191-2 n.1 disputes this derivation with good cause, favoring a derivation from *dekan-os, from which the OIr. deec by a metasthesized *deankos.


speaking a very late form of Proto-Indo-European, including only very basic developments (such as laryngeal loss) and its distinct set of shared innovations. Their contact was terminated by an influx of Germanic peoples, setting the stage for a millennium or so of independent development (222-3). While a reconciliation of Watkins’ conclusion with this account may be no easy task, it is certainly not the proverbial case of a square peg and a round hole. While the efforts of Cowgill 1970 have been supplemented and reinforced by, inter alii, Kortlandt 2007: 25 ff., which presents further evidence for an early period of common development followed by a much longer divergence before the first extant texts (25 ff.), a general acceptance of a Italo-Celtic unity is, however, far from a reality. The irresolution of 3)—long held to be important evidence for unity, as well as the tremendous differences these systems manifest by the period of the earliest texts present for many scholars a formidable obstacle to effective subgrouping. Moreover, one of many potential fissures may be found in the developing controversy over Italic unity, a question which would seem to presuppose an Italo-Celtic unity. 9 Nevertheless, barring significant new evidence, Cowgill’s irrefutable demonstration of the unique, shared innovation of the superlative suffix has likely guaranteed to the Italo-Celtic hypothesis a future, if not one of universal acceptance, then one outside any graveyards.


Watkins 1970 puts aside the question, as his rejection of Italo-Celtic unity renders it irrelevant for his purpose, and because the issue was treated separately at the same conference and appears in the same publication (Beeler, M. “The Interrelationships Within Italic.” op. cit. 51-58). Needless to say, much has been discovered, since Meillet—perhaps flippantly—discarded the possibility of a separation in Italic (“These small common features establish the validity of a period of Italic unity” [1908: 50]); thus the question is, at least, worthy of consideration in any discussion of Italo-Celtic unity.


References Cowgill, Warren. 1970. “Italic and Celtic Superlatives and the Dialects of IndoEuropean.” In: The Collected Writings of Warren Cowgill. Jared Klein, ed. New York: Beech Stave Press, 2006. Kortlandt, Frederik. Italo-Celtic Origins and Prehistoric Development of the Irish Language, Leiden Studies in Indo-European Vol. 14. Rodopi. Meillet, Antoine. 1929. Ancient Indo-European Dialects. transl. Samuel N. Rosenberg. Alabama Linguistic & Philological Series No. 15. Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1967. Watkins, Calvert. 1966. “Italo-Celtic Revisited”. In: Ancient Indo-European Dialects: 2950. Birnbaum, Henrik; Puhvel, Jaan eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.


Appendix 1) p…kw > kw… kw (Lat. quinque, Ir. cōic, Wel. pimp < IE. *penkwe; cf. Gk. πέντε, Skt. páñca) 2) The separate treatment of IE. *◦r, *◦l (> ar, al) and *r, *l̥ (> Lat. or, ol, Celt. ri, li) ̥ 3) Stems in -o with genitive singular in -ī (Lat. virī = OIr. fir, Ogam Ir. maqi) 4) Passive in -r 10 5) Subjunctive endings in a) -ā- and b) -s- (Lat. feram, OIr. bera; Lat. dīxim, faxim, OIr. tīasu, tēis) 6) The superlative suffix *-samo- (Lat. maximus, O. nessimas, Umbr. nesimei, Wel. nesaf) 7) The suffix –tiō/n- 11 8) Identical vocabulary, esp. prepositions and preverbs (Lat. dē = OIr. dī, Bryth. di; Lat. cum=Ir. com)

It only later became known to Meillet that this was a shared retention, not an innovation (Watkins 1966:39) 11 Meillet calls this suffix *-tei- “supplemented by a nasal infix