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Languages in prehistoric Europe north of the Alps

Theo Vennemann gen. Nierfeld

University of Munich

I would like to give a brief survey of my views of the linguistic prehistory of

Europe north of the Alps, by which I mean, more generally, Europe north
of the main divide which extends from the Pyrenees in the southwest to the
northern Balkans in the east, or north-east, relatively speaking. I will say
nothing about the Uralic languages, and I will also remain silent about
possible further languages that may have extended to the area north of the
divide but that we really think of as belonging to the south.1 After a very
brief synopsis of the scope and contents of the theory, I would like to
formulate a number of theses, or propositions, with explanations and with
I begin with a brief sketch (from Vennemann 1998a) which may be
viewed as an illustration of thesis G 1 (G for general bachground).

G 1. Languages of three genetic groups were spoken in prehistoric Europe

north of the Alps:
1. Old European
2. Atlantic
3. West Indo-European

To understand the prehistoric linguistic development of Europe, one has to

keep in mind that the relevant time to consider is relatively short. There
naturally will have been languages in Europe north of the Alps for tens of
thousands of years, but in a very precise sense they do not matter. During
the last ice age the region between the polar ice which reached south into
Great Britain and Northern Germany on one hand and the Alpine ice which
reached north into regions which are now densely populated, this region
between two formidable ice sheets were inhospitable to human beings.
Human beings surviving there as hunters, fishers, and gatherers numbered
very few, and experience shows that when people with more advanced

1. E.g. the languages to which Etruscan and Rhætian belong, if Rix

(1998) is right in his assumption that the Rhætic language or languages
were relatives of the the Etruscan language spoken in Southern and
Northern Tyrol (and possibly beyond).
Vennemann, “Languages in prehistoric Europe north of the Alps”, page 2

economic systems, such as herdsmen and agriculturalists, enter such a

region, the languages of the earlier populations vanish, and usually without
leaving many if any traces in the languages of the newcomers. The point of
this consideration is that the climate in Europe north of the Alps only
improved to support large populations about ten thousand years ago, but
then rather rapidly, creating nearly subtropical weather conditions until
about six thousand years ago.

G 2. The three genetic groups of prehistoric Europe north of the Alps

had the following filiations:
1. Old European: Vasconic
2. Atlantic: Semitidic
3. West Indo-European: Indo-European

Vasconic Semitidic

Basque Old European Semitic Atlantic

Point 1. The Old European languages I consider Vasconic, i.e. related to

contemporary Basque, the only survivor of the Vasconic family of
Point 2. The Atlantic languages I consider Hamito-Semitic. There exist
two views of Semitic, a wider one which includes Egyptian and Libyco-
Berber, the latter with Guanche, the extinct pre-Spanish language of the
Canary Islands, and a narrower one which excludes them. For want of a
better term, and a bit on the model of Basque and Vasconic, I call this group
Semitidic. But since the languages that left their influence at least in the
lexicon of the West Indo-European languages seem to have been most
similar to Semitic in the narrower sense, so that the impression often is that
they were Semitic languages, I will often simply say “Semitic”. Whatever
their exact filiation, the Atlantic languages themselves died out in prehistoric
times or, perhaps, in early historic times, namely in the middle ages, if my
view is correct that Pictish was the last survivor of the Atlantic languages.
Point 3. The Indo-European languages are those which ousted most of
the other languages from the continent. Whether they have relatives outside
Vennemann, “Languages in prehistoric Europe north of the Alps”, page 3

the Indogermania, as is assumed within the socalled Nostratic theory, is of

no significance to my theory.
I assume the following movements of the speakers of the languages of
the three posited families.2 When the Continent was becoming warmer
about ten thousand years ago and the ice sheet was beginning to withdraw
from large parts of Europe, both in a northerly direction toward the pole
and in a southerly direction into the Alps, the Vasconic Old Europeans
moved forward in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe starting from
Southern France, so that nearly the entire Continent became Vasconic.3 If I
were permitted to venture a guess on their main economy, which as a
linguist I am probably not, I would surmise that gradually it came to be the
raising of goats and sheep, supplemented by a primitive form of agriculture,
while, needless to say, hunting, fishing, and gathering did not cease, having
indeed continued to the present day.
Why is it plausible to assume that those Old Europeans beginning their
gradual expansion spoke Vasconic languages? At the beginning of history,
when the first reliable information about languages in Southern France
becomes available, the only clearly recognizable non-Indo-European
language of that region, Aquitanian, was Vasconic (Michelena 1954,
Gorrochategui 1984, 1987, Trask 1997: 398-402). Therefore it appears to be
a reasonable assumption that Southern France was Vasconic before the
arrival of Gaulish, Greek, and Latin. There was also Ligurian, but too little
material has survived for a genetic identification. Since the Vasconicity at
least of a large part of prehistoric Southern France is certain, it appears to
me the most reasonable assumption that the first major post-glaciation
languages of Europe north of the Alps were indeed Vasconic. The system of
Old European river names supports this assumption (Vennemann 1994b).
Next I turn to the Atlantic peoples. From the fifth millennium onward,
Semitidic peoples, bearers of the megalithic culture, moved north along the
Atlantic coast to all the islands and up the navigable rivers as seafaring
colonizers, until they reached Southern Sweden in the middle of the third
millennium. Their main economy, if I may guess again, I suppose to have
been an advanced form of cattle breeding as well as agriculture including
fruit-culture, also increasingly mining and trading.

2. A version of this view, in which however the Vasconic languages were

not yet accommodated, is contained in Vennemann 1988; an improved
version is in the appendix of the 1994b article.
3. Aspects of a theory of a once Vasconic Europe are anticipated in
Simon 1930 and Cowan 1984.
Vennemann, “Languages in prehistoric Europe north of the Alps”, page 4

Why is it plausible to assume that those Atlantic colonists and megalithic

builders of the Atlantic Seaboard spoke Semitidic languages? At the dawn of
history we find the Western Mediterranean dominated by Phoenicians, a
Semitic people; the wars between the Romans and the Carthaginians were
the last chapters in the story of this dominance, essentially describing its
decline. The megalithic culture is by many specialists, though not by all,
considered of Mediterranean origin. If this view is accepted, a Semitic
filiation of prehistoric seafaring colonizers emanating from the
Mediterranean and carrying this culture is in my view the default
assumption. And since for one of the most intensely megalithicized
prehistoric areas, Ireland, a Hamito-Semitic pre-Celtic substratum had been
suspected and demonstrated by Morris Jones (1900), ascertained by
Pokorny (1927-30), and—in my view—established once and for all by
Gensler (1993), there exists more to go by than the default assumption. My
own view, as is easy to see, is merely a generalization from Ireland, or the
British Isles, with their well-known megalithic monuments, to the entire
Atlantic Littoral, the megalithicized coastal regions stretching from North
Africa and Spain to Southern Sweden.
As for the spread of the Indo-Europeans into the region I am
considering, I take a rather conservative view. I assume them to have
moved, beginning in the sixth millennium, from the Pannonian Basin (the
fertile region surrounded by the Carpathian mountains) into the area north
of the Alps in all directions, reaching the basin of Paris in the middle of the
fifth millennium and Scandinavia about the beginning of the fourth
millennium. Their main economy I suppose to have been an advanced form
of farming including both agriculture and cattle-breeding.4
The theory that the Indo-Europeans brought farming to Europe north of
the Alps has independently been developed, and elaborated much further, by
Renfrew (1987). But I think Renfrew then caused more harm than good for
it by assuming that those farmers directly spread into the areas where we
find them at the dawn of history. This is untenable because the southern and
eastern Indo-European areas were only Indo-Europeanized much later,
essentially between the fourth and the first millennia B.C., and by military
bands not by farmers. In my view these later great Indo-European
migrations or Völkerwanderungen are a result of the militarization of
Europe north of the Alps as a consequence of over-population in the fourth
millennium, which was itself caused by three factors: a deterioration of the

4. This is sketched in my 1988 paper and taken up briefly in 1994a.

Vennemann, “Languages in prehistoric Europe north of the Alps”, page 5

climate, loss of land around the North Sea, and advances of the Atlantic
peoples in the West.
From this theory of the expansion of the three posited linguistic groups, I
derive the stratal relationships for the languages of the three families
formulated in thesis G 3:

G 3. Stratal relationships among the three prehistoric language

G 3. a. The Vasconic Old European languages, the first languages of the
three families moving north, eventually became adstrata and, as they
were superseded by languages of the other two groups, increasingly
substrata of these other languages.
G 3. b. The Semitidic Atlantic languages were initially, in their areas of
influence, superstrata and adstrata. In the West this affected the
Vasconic Old European languages; in the Continental Northwest and
in the North, where the Indo-Europeans arrived before the Atlantic
peoples, especially in the area which was to become Germania, it
affected the Indo-European languages as well.
G 3. c. The Indo-European languages became everywhere in their areas
of influence superstrata and adstrata, except for the Continental North-
west and the North where they became in part substrata of the
Atlantic languages. In a much later wave of military expansion, in the
last millennium B.C., Indo-European languages, viz. Celtic languages,
became superstrata and adstrata of the Atlantic languages of the
British Isles.

The theory sketched here which assumes a minimum of language

families for prehistoric Europe (north of the Alps) is confronted with the
opposite proposal that when the Indo-Europeans moved into Europe they
found many small languages, some related among each other, some not.
This opposite position is the patchwork theory.

G 4. The patchwork theory

Patchwork theory: “The idea that the invading Indo-Europeans would
have encountered a linguistically homogeneous Europe seems
Vennemann, “Languages in prehistoric Europe north of the Alps”, page 6

implausible in the extreme. Far more probably, what the Indo-

Europeans found was a patchwork of languages, large and small,
some related, some not, resulting from previous millennia of
settlement, displacement and language shift, just like anywhere else.
Consider, for example, the linguistic position of the pre-Roman Iberian
Peninsula” (Trask 1997: 364).
The patchwork theory is wrong.

I have previously presented arguments against the patchwork theory

(Vennemann 1998a) and will not repeat them here. It would not, of course,
be wise to preclude the possibility of other languages to have existed in
prehistoric Europe at the time under consideration. But the existence of such
languages has to be demonstrated and cannot be assumed as a matter of
course. Europe north of the Alps after the last glaciation is not “like
anywhere else”.
I would now like to turn to a number of theses relating individually to
the Vasconic and the Semitidic contact languages of West Indo-European,
which I mark and number with the the letters V and S, respectively.

V 1. The original Old European hydronymy of Hans Krahe (1963, 1964) is

Vasconic. More generally: The original Old European toponymy is

I have devoted several papers to this question (Vennemann 1993, 1994b,

1995, 1999a, b, 2000a) and personally think that it stands a good chance of
being true.

V 2. Certain Greek mythological names without accepted etymologies can

be traced to toponymical or directly to Basque etyma.

Even though I like some of these etymologies (cf. Vennemann 1997c,

1998a) very much, I anticipate that they will be contested. But since Greek
does not belong to the West Indo-European languages in a strict sense, they
are not central to the theory.

V 3. Certain West Indo-European words without accepted etymologies can

be reconstructed as Vasconic loan-words. These for the most part give
the impression of substratal loans or, in some cases, of Wanderwörter.
Vennemann, “Languages in prehistoric Europe north of the Alps”, page 7

I think that a respectable number of such words has been assembled

(Vennemann 1995, 1996, 1997a, 1998a, b, f, 1999c). It will be interesting to
see attempts at a refutation.

V 4. Certain non-Indo-European structural properties of the West Indo-

European can be understood as carry-overs from the Vasconic
substrata, among them:
a. the vigesimal way of counting in the Romance languages, in Insular
Celtic, in Danish, in Albanian, and sporadically elsewhere;
b. the first-syllable accent in Germanic, Italic, and Celtic;
c. the persistence of prespecifying syntax compared to the early move
to postspecifying syntax in Insular Celtic (Basque is nearly consistently
prespecifying, SOV);
d. the comparatively strong drive toward postspecifying attributive ad-
jective placement in Romance, especially if compared to Germanic
(postspecifying attributive adjective placement is the only exception to
the otherwise consistently prespecifying syntax of Basque).

On point a, Vennemann 1998a may be compared, on point b, Vennemann

1994b, on points c and d, Vennemann This volume.
I turn now to some theses concerning the substratal and superstratal
influence of Semitic.

S 1. Certain toponyms around the British Isles and across the North Sea
— names referring to maritime objects such as straits and islands that
have no accepted etymologies — have been identified as Semitic in

This seems to me to be an area of great potential. Cf. Coates 1988,

Vennemann 1995, 1998c , 1999a.

S 2. Certain features of Germanic and Insular Celtic mythology including

Germanic mythological names without etymologies can be traced to
Semitic religion or mythology including Semitic names.
Vennemann, “Languages in prehistoric Europe north of the Alps”, page 8

These features have long been known but can now be explained within the
theory of a once Semitic North-West (Vennemann 1997b, 1998a).

S 3. Certain West Indo-European words without accepted etymologies —

especially in Germanic — can be reconstructed as Semitic loan-words.
These for the most part give the impression of superstratal loans,
underlining the advanced culture of the Atlantic seafaring colonists in
comparison with the primitive farming societies of the Indo-

This is a very fruitful area of study, especially for Germanic etymology,

exactly as predicted by the theory of language contact: Germanic took many
expessions from the superstratal Semitic languages (Vennemann 1995,
1996, 1997a, 1998a, d, e and, for the second statement, 1998b, 2000b).

S 4. Certain non-Indo-European structural properties of the West Indo-

European languages can be understood as substratal influence (Insular
Celtic) or as superstratal influence (Germanic) of the prehistoric
Atlantic languages, among them:
a. much of the Insular Celtic syntax that is more similar e.g. to that of
Old Testament Hebrew and Classical Arabic than to that of any other
Indo-European language including Continental Celtic, a fact which can
be explained as the effect of Atlantic substrata in the British Isles at the
time of their Celticization, an explanation which is far superior to the
assumption of typological convergence or of chance;
b. perhaps the development of the divided word order of the North
and West Germanic languages, with preserved Indo-European
prespecification in most dependent syntagmas but a shift to initial
placement or to modified initial placement5 of the finite verb, a
syntactic system which may be explained as the result of attempts on
the part of the coastal Palæo-Germans to imitate the verb-initial syntax
of prestigious Atlantic languages spoken in the region — but only at
the topmost syntactic level which is the most accessible to imitative
c. perhaps the systematization and functionalization of the verbal and
deverbal e-o-zero ablaut in Germanic, for which no explanation

5. Holland (1980: 29, n. 4; 185) for “gedeckte Anfangsstellung”.

Vennemann, “Languages in prehistoric Europe north of the Alps”, page 9

outside this theory exists but which may, inside the theory, be
explained as having originated in the language shift of the superstratal
speakers of Atlantic, i.e. Semitic languages with their all-pervading
ablaut patterns, to Palæo-Germanic with its several unsystematic
ablauts inherited from Proto-Indo-European.

Point a has been sufficiently demonstrated by Morris Jones (1900), Pokorny

(1927-30), and Gensler Forthc. Point b is discussed in Vennemann 2000b
and This volume, point c in Vennemann 1998a and 2000b. — An extension
of S4a is E1:

E 1. Several specific features of the syntax of English can be explained as

the effect of substratal Insular Celtic influence and can in turn in some
cases be traced further back to substratal Semitic influence.

The first statement is surveyed in Preusler 1956 and Tristram 1999, while
the second statement is illustrated in Vennemann 2001, Forthcoming.
As already mentioned, the insular Celtic languages were in prehistoric
times heavily influenced, or rather transformed into a different type, by
Semitic substrata. Insular Celtic is Semiticized Celtic. Some of the same
linguists who identified the Semitic substratal features of Insular Celtic, such
as Pokorny and Wagner, also noticed that some of these features can even
be found in English, where they set English apart from the other Germanic
and Indo-European languages. This is to be expected, because just as Insular
Celtic developed on a Semitic substratum, so English developed on an
Insular Celtic substratum. The same people — or rather: their descendants
— who gave up their native Semitic languages and learned Celtic, thereby
transforming it into Insular Celtic, later gave up Insular Celtic and learned
Anglo-Saxon, thereby transforming Anglo-Saxon into English. This is
succinctly formulated as thesis E 2.

E 2. English is Celticized Anglo-Saxon and, by transitivity, Semitized

Anglo-Saxon English

Celtic Insular Celtic

Vennemann, “Languages in prehistoric Europe north of the Alps”, page 10

Explanation of symbols: : substratal influence on
: transformation into

The time levels for these changes are exactly as taught by the theory of
language contact. It took several centuries and social upheavals for the
Semiticized varieties of Celtic to reach the highest social level and enter into
writing, where the pre-Semiticized syntax is found in archaic residues. And it
likewise took several centuries and considerable political and social upheaval
for the Celticized varieties of Anglo-Saxon to reach the highest social level
and enter into writing, where in Late Middle English the pre-Celticized
syntax is found in archaic residues. The former of these transformations has
been amply documented by the cited aurhors. Also the latter, that of Anglo-
Saxon into English in Late Middle English times, has found attention, as
already mentioned.
These influences, to stress this oint again, are structural not lexical,
because they are substratal not superstratal. It has been a recurring error in
the argumentation of those teaching that English has not been influenced by
Celtic that they refer to the fewness of Celtic loan-words. Lexical influence is
the major effect of super-stratal rather than substratal contact. And indeed,
lexical influence from the superstratum is what we find in Middle English:
the massive Norman-French lexical borrowing in the wake of the Norman
invasion of 1066. And this influence was swift, because it did not have to
work its way up the social ladder but came in at the top, when the French-
speaking ruling class switched to English which, after the elimination of the
Anglo-Saxon ruling class, was the English of the lower strata.
Considering the Continental origin of Anglo-Saxon as well as the
substratal and superstratal influences working on it, and abstracting away
from other important influences such as those from Latin and Scandinavian,
we may complete our characteristic of English succinctly as in thesis E 3.

E 3. English is a structurally Semiticized, lexically Romanized German

Norman French

Anglo-Saxon English

Celtic Insular Celtic

Vennemann, “Languages in prehistoric Europe north of the Alps”, page 11

Explanation of symbols: : superstratal influence on
: substratal influence on
: transformation into

Completing this picture with what was said above about Vasconic
influences in West Indo-European and about Semitic influences on early
Germanic, we receive a new kind of graphic representation of the descent of
a language, a genealogical tree, or Stammbaum, for English, as in E 4.

E 4. A genealogical tree, or Stammbaum, for English

Atlantic Norman
(Semitidic) French

Proto-Indo- West-Indo-European Germanic > Anglo- English

European Pre-Germanic Saxon
Old European Celtic Insular Celtic

Explanation of symbols: : superstratal influence on

: substratal influence on
: transformation into
> : development into

This ends my brief survey of how I view the languages of prehistoric

Europe north of the Alps and their influences in the shaping of the linguistic
landscape of the Continent.

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