No Proto-Celtic?

Larry Trask larryt at
Wed Apr 25 15:11:18 UTC 2001

The standard position among linguists is that the languages we call 'IE'
are all descended, by various changes, from an unrecorded single common
ancestor, which we call 'PIE'.  That view was attacked early in the 20th
century by C. C. Uhlenbeck, by Nikolai Trubetzkoy, and by Antonio Tovar.
All of these denied that PIE had ever existed.  Instead, they maintained,
the IE languages came into existence as a result of extensive contact
between speakers of two -- or possibly three -- quite distinct earlier
languages.  The idea is that each branch of IE resulted from a somewhat
different mixture of elements from these two or three earlier languages,
and that therefore Slavic, Germanic, Celtic, and so forth, are all "mixed
languages" in origin, with no single ancestor.

I regard this view as perfectly crazy, but I'll be interested to hear any
comments on it.  In any case, I had thought it was dead and buried.

But I have recently discovered that a similar view is currently being
actively defended, not for IE as a whole, but for Celtic.  Almost all the
proponents appear to be archaeologists, though there is perhaps a Celticist
or two among them.

The idea this time is as follows.  A vanilla variety of Indo-European
spread across a huge area of Europe something like 7000 years ago, and then
stayed put.  Over a period of 4000 years or more, this vanilla IE
interacted with a variety of local non-IE languages, and the resulting
speech varieties interacted with one another.  As a result, a group of very
similar languages emerged separately in various parts of Europe.  And these
were the Celtic languages.  In other words, the Celtic languages arose by
'crystallization' out of what was originally a more diverse linguistic
position.  Accordingly, Proto-Celtic never existed, and the similarities
among the several Celtic languages result as much from convergence (from
interaction) as from common ancestry.

I also regard this view as perfectly crazy, but again I'll be glad to hear
any comments.

A version of this idea is warmly presented by the archaeologist Colin
Renfrew on pp. 244-247 of his 1987 book Archaeology and Language.  Renfrew
cites, in apparent support, the archaeologist Christopher Hawkes and the
Celticist M. Dillon.  A similar position is defended with some vigor by the
archaeologist Barry Cunliffe on pp. 294-297 of his new (2001) book Facing
the Ocean, where he suggests that Celtic, or at least what he calls
'Atlantic Celtic', arose as a trade language, a lingua franca.
I have corresponded with Professor Cunliffe, and he confirms that he holds
this view, which he ascribes also to the Celticist John Koch, whose
writings I have not seen.

For the life of me, I can't imagine how such a scenario can be taken
seriously in the face of the very well understood and highly regular
phonological and morphological prehistory of Proto-Celtic (vis-a-vis PIE)
and of the individual Celtic languages.  Nor do I understand how a trade
language, or any sort of mixed language, could have retained so much of the
elaborate PIE morphology, while at the same time introducing such
picturesque novelties as the initial consonant mutations -- not to mention
the Old Irish verbal system.

Interestingly, the one person I have found who has dismissed this view as
wholly untenable, on purely linguistic grounds, is another archaeologist:
J. P. Mallory, in note 19 on p. 274 of his 1989 book In Search of the
Indo-Europeans -- and again, this time with a splendid linguistic example,
on p. 101 of J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams (1997), The Encyclopedia of
Indo-European Culture.  Mallory wholeheartedly endorses the view that
Proto-Celtic existed, and that it can hardly be dated earlier than about
1200 BC, given the great similarities among the earliest known Celtic

Any comments?  Anybody think this 'crystallization *in situ*' account of
Celtic origins is linguistically plausible?  I'm just flabbergasted.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at

Tel: (01273)-678693 (from UK); +44-1273-678693 (from abroad)
Fax: (01273)-671320 (from UK); +44-1273-671320 (from abroad)

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