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 references. 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).

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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


Old European



Point 1. The Old European languages I consider Vasconic, i.e. related to contemporary Basque, the only survivor of the Vasconic family of languages. Point 2. The Atlantic languages I consider Hamito-Semitic. There exist two views of Semitic, a wider one which includes Egyptian and LibycoBerber, 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

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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. 3. 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. Aspects of a theory of a once Vasconic Europe are anticipated in Simon 1930 and Cowan 1984.

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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.

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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 families 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 Northwest 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

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implausible in the extreme. Far more probably, what the IndoEuropeans 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 Vasconic. 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.

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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 IndoEuropean 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 adjective 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 origin. 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.

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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 IndoEuropeans. 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 IndoEuropean 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 modification; 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”.

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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. Anglo-Saxon English Celtic Insular Celtic

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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 AngloSaxon 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 Frenchspeaking 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 dialect. Norman French Anglo-Saxon Celtic Insular Celtic English

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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 (Semitidic) Proto-IndoEuropean Old European (Vasconic) West-Indo-European Pre-Germanic

Norman French Germanic > AngloSaxon Insular Celtic English

Celtic Atlantic (Semitidic)
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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typological evaluation of Celtic/Hamito-Semitic syntactic parallels, unpubl. Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1993, available from University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1995, order no. 9407967.] Gorrochategui Churruca, Joaquin 1984 Onomastica indigena de Aquitania. Salamanca: Universidad de Salamanca, Secretariado de Publicaciones. 1987 “Die vorrömische Onomastik Aquitaniens”, Beiträge zur Namenforschung, Neue Folge 22: 343-355. Holland, Gary B. 1980 Problems of word order change in selected Indo-European languages. Ph.D. diss. University of California, Berkeley. Krahe, Hans 1963 Die Struktur der alteuropäischen Hydronymie (= Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur [in Mainz], Abhandlungen der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse, 1962, no. 5). Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner. 1964 Unsere ältesten Flußnamen. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. Michelena, Luis 1954 “De onomastica aquitana’, Pirineos 10: 409-458. Reprinted in: Luis Michelena, Lengua e historia, Madrid: Paraninfo, 1985, 409-445. Morris Jones, J. 1900 “Pre-Aryan syntax in Insular Celtic.” In: John Rhys and David Brynmor-Jones, The Welsh people: Chapters on their origin, history, laws, language, literature and characteristics, London: T. Fisher Unwin, Appendix B, pp. 617-641. Pokorny, Julius 1927-30 “Das nicht-indogermanische Substrat im Irischen”, Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 16: 95-144, 231-266, 363-394; 17: 373-388; 18: 233-248. Preusler, Walther 1956 “Keltischer Einfluß im Englischen”, Revue des Langues Vivantes 22. 322-350. Renfrew, Colin 1987 Archaeology and language: The puzzle of IndoEuropean origins. London: J. Cape. Rix, Helmut 1998 Rätisch und Etruskisch (= Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft: Vorträge und kleinere Schriften, 68). Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck. Simon, Karl

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Wagner, Heinrich 1959