Gaulish language: Wikis


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Spoken in Gaul
Language extinction After the sixth century AD
Language family Indo-European
Writing system Old Italic alphabet, Greek alphabet, Latin alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2 cel
ISO 639-3 variously:
xtg – Transalpine Gaulish
xcg – Cisalpine Gaulish
xlp – Lepontic
xga – Galatian

The Gaulish (also Gallic) language is the Celtic language that was spoken in Gaul (Cisalpine and Transalpine), Switzerland, eastern Belgium, Luxembourg and western Germany before being supplanted by Vulgar Latin, Dutch and German from around the 4th century A.D onwards. Gaulish is paraphyletically grouped with Celtiberian, Lepontic, and Galatian as Continental Celtic. The Lepontic language is sometimes considered to be a dialect of Gaulish. Gaulish is a P-Celtic language, though some inscriptions (e.g. the Coligny Calendar) show Q-Celtic characteristics. It has a very close relationship to Insular Celtic (Goidelic and Brythonic), and many forms are identical in the two.

The Gaulish language is known from several hundred inscriptions on stone, on ceramic vessels and other artifacts, and on coins, and occasionally on metal (lead, and on one occasion zinc).[citation needed] Epigraphical remains have been uncovered across all of what used to be Roman Gaul, which covered the west of modern France, as well as parts of Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Belgium.[1]



The earliest Continental Celtic inscriptions, dating to as early as the sixth century BC, are in Lepontic, found in Cisalpine Gaul and were written in a form of the Old Italic alphabet. Inscriptions in the Greek alphabet from the third century BC have been found in the area near the mouths of the Rhône, while later inscriptions dating to Roman Gaul are mostly in the Latin alphabet.

According to his treatise On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, Saint Irenaeus of Lyon still needed to preach in Gaulish in his diocese during the last quarter of the second century AD.[2] Saint Jerome (ca. 340-425) remarks in a commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians that the Treveri spoke almost the same language as the Galatians. Gregory of Tours wrote in the sixth century AD that a sanctuary in the Auverne was "called Vasso Galate in the Gallic tongue", which has been taken to mean that Gaulish was still spoken in the region in his time.[3] However, his remark primarily refers to the linguistic origin of the place name, not necessarily to the survival of the language.


  • vowels:
    • short: a, e, i, o u
    • long: ā, ē, ī, (ō), ū
    • diphthongs: ai, ei, oi, au, eu, ou
  • semivowels: w, y
  • occlusives:
    • voiceless: p, t, k
    • voiced: b, d, g
  • resonants
    • nasals: m, n
    • liquids r, l
  • sibilant: s
  • affricate: ts

[χ] is an allophone of /k/ before /t/.

The diphthongs all transformed over the course of the historical period. Ai and oi collapsed into long ī; eu merged with ou, both becoming long ō. Ei became long ē early, probably prior to the attestation of Gaulish. In general, long diphthongs became short diphthongs and then collapsed into long vowels. Long vowels shortened before nasals in Auslaut.

Other transformations include the transformation of unstressed i into e. Ln became ll, a stop + s became ss, and a nasal + velar became /ng/ + velar.

The occlusives also seem to have been both lenis, unlike Latin, which distinguished voiced occlusives with a lenis realization from voiceless occlusives with a fortis realization, hence confusions like Glanum for Clanum, vergobretos for vercobreto, Britannia for Pritannia[4].



RIG G-172 inscription ϹΕΓΟΜΑΡΟϹ ΟΥΙΛΛΟΝΕΟϹ ΤΟΟΥΤΙΟΥϹ ΝΑΜΑΥϹΑΤΙϹ ΕΙωΡΟΥ ΒΗΛΗ ϹΑΜΙ ϹΟϹΙΝ ΝΕΜΗΤΟΝ "Segomaros, son of Uillo, toutious (tribe leader) of Namausos, dedicated this sanctuary to Belesama"

The alphabet of Lugano used in Cisalpine Gaul for Lepontic:


The alphabet of Lugano does not distinguish voiced and unvoiced occlusives, i.e. P represents /b/ or /p/, T is for /d/ or /t/, K for /g/ or /k/. Z is probably for /ts/. U /u/ and V /w/ are distinguished only in one early inscription. Θ is probably for /t/ and X for /g/ (Lejeune 1971, Solinas 1985).

The Eastern Greek alphabet used in southern Gallia Transalpina:


χ is used for [χ], θ for /ts/, ου for /u/, /ū/, /w/, η and ω for both long and short /e/, /ē/ and /o/, /ō/, while ι is for short /i/ and ει for /ī/. Note that the Sigma in the Eastern Greek alphabet looks like a C (lunate sigma). All Greek letters were used except phi and psi.

Latin alphabet (monumental and cursive) in use in Roman Gaul:


G and K are sometimes used interchangeably (especially after R). Ð/ð, ds and s may represent /ts/. X, x is for [χ] or /ks/. Q is only used rarely (e.g. Sequanni, Equos) and may represent an archaism (a retained *kw) or a local Q-dialect. Ð and ð are used here to represent the letter tau gallicum (the Gaulish dental affricate), which has not yet been added to Unicode. In contrast to the glyph for Ð, the central bar extends right across the glyph and also does not protrude outside it.

Sound laws

  • Gaulish changed PIE voiceless labiovelars kw to p (hence P-Celtic), a development also observed in Brythonic (as well as Greek and some Italic languages), while the other Celtic, 'Q-Celtic', retained the labiovelar. Thus the Gaulish word for "son" was mapos[5], contrasting with Primitive Irish *maqqas (attested in the genitive, maqqi), which became mac (genitive mic) in modern Irish. In modern Welsh the word map (mab) (or its contracted form ap(ab)) is found in surnames. Similarly one Gaulish word for "horse" was epos (in Southern Gaulish [Q-Celtic] eqos) while Old Irish has ech, Modern Gaelic (Irish and Scottish) each, Manx egh; all derived from Indo-European *eḱu̯os[6].
  • Voiced labiovelar gw became w, e. g. gwediūmi > uediiumi "I pray" (cf. Irish guidhim, Welsh gweddi "to pray").
  • PIE tst became /ts/, spelled ð, e.g. *nedz-tamo > neððamon (cf. Irish nesamh "nearest", Welsh nesaf "next").
  • PIE eu became ou, and later ō, e.g. *teutā > touta > tōta "tribe" (cf. Irish tuath, Welsh tud "people").
  • Additionally, intervocalic /st/ became the affricate [ts] (alveolar stop + voiceless alveolar stop) and intervocalic /sr/ became [ðr] and /str/ became [þr]. Finally, when a labial or velar stop came before either a /t/ or /s/ the two sounds merged into the fricative [x].


There was some areal (or genetic, see Italo-Celtic) similarity to Latin grammar, and the French historian A. Lot argued that this helped the rapid adoption of vulgar Latin in Roman Gaul.

Noun cases

Gaulish had six or seven cases[7]. As in Latin, Gaulish had nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, and dative cases; however, where Latin had an ablative, Gaulish had an instrumental and may also have had a locative case. Greater epigraphical evidence attests common cases (nominative and accusative) and common stems (-o- and -a- stems) than for cases less frequently used in inscriptions, or rarer -i-, -n- and -r- stems. The following table summarizes the best attested case endings. A blank means that the form is unattested.

Case ā-stem o-stem i-stem u-stem r-stem
Nominative tōtā mapos vātis dorus brātīr
Vocative tōta mape vāti doru
Accusative tōtan, tōten > tōtim mapon vātin *dorun brāterem
Genitive tōtas mapī vātes dorous brāteros
Dative tōtai > tōtī mapūi > mapū vāte dorou brāteri
Instrumental tōtia mapu
Locative mape
Case ā-stem o-stem i-stem u-stem r-stem
Nominative tōtas mapoi > mapī vātes doroues brāteres
Vocative mapūs
Accusative tōtās mapūs vātīs doruās brāteras
Genitive tōtanom mapon vātion doruon brāteron
Dative tōtabo mapobo *vātibo doruebo brāterebo
Instrumental mapobi brāterebi

In some cases a historical evolution is attested, for example the dative singular of a-stems is -āi in the oldest inscriptions, becoming first *-ăi and finally (as in Irish a-stem nouns with attenuated (slender)consonants: nom. lámh "hand, arm" (cf. Gaul. lāmā) and dat. láimh (< *lāmi; cf. Gaul. lāmāi > *lāmăi > lāmī). Further, the plural instrumental had begun to encroach on the dative plural (dative atrebo and matrebo vs. instrumental gobedbi and suiorebe), and in the modern Insular languages the instrumental form is known to have fully replaced the dative.

For o-stems, Gaulish also innovated the pronominal ending for the nominative plural -oi and genitive singular -ī in place of expected -ōs and -os still present in Celtiberian (-, -o). In a-stems, inherited genitive singular -as is attested but was subsequently replaced by -ias as in Insular Celtic. The expected genitive plural -a-om appears innovated as -anom (vs. Celtiberian -aum).


Verbs show a number of innovations as well. The Indo-European s-aorist has evolved into the Gaulish t-preterit which was formed by merging an old 3rd personal singular imperfect ending -t- to a 3rd personal singular perfect ending -u or -e and subsequent affixation to all forms of the t-preterit tense. Similarly, the s-preterit is formed from the extension of -ss (originally from the 3rd person singular) and the affixation of -it to the 3rd person singular (to distinguish it as such). Third personal plurals are also marked by the addition of -s in the preterit system.


Ordinal numerals from the La Graufesenque graffiti

  1. cintus, cintuxos (Welsh cynt "before", cyntaf "first", Breton kent "in front", Old Irish céta, Irish céad "first")
  2. allos (W ail, Br eil, OIr aile "other", Ir eile)
  3. tritios (W trydydd, Br trede, OIr treide, Ir treas)
  4. petuarios (W pedwerydd, Br pevare, OIr cethramad)
  5. pinpetos (W pumed, Br pempet, OIr cóiced)
  6. suexos (maybe mistaken for suextos; W chweched, Br c'hwec'hved, OIr seissed)
  7. sextametos (W saithfed, Br seizhved, OIr sechtmad)
  8. oxtumetos (W wythfed, Br eizhved, OIr ochtmad)
  9. nametos (W nawfed, Br naved, OIr nómad)
  10. decametos, decometos (W degfed, Br degvet, OIr dechmad, Celtiberian dekametam)

Other Gaulish numerals attested in Latin inscriptions include *petrudecametos "fourteenth" (rendered as petrudecameto, with Latinized dative-ablative singular ending) and *triconts "thirty" (rendered as tricontis, with a Latinized ablative plural ending; compare Old Irish tricha). A Latinized phrase for a "ten-night festival of (Apollo) Grannus", decamnoctiacis Granni, is mentioned in a Latin inscription from Limoges. A similar formation is to be found in the Gaulish-language Calendar of Coligny, where mention is made of a trinox[...] Samoni "three-night (festival?) of (the month of) Samonios".

As is to be expected, the ancient Gaulish language was more similar to Latin than modern Celtic languages are to modern Romance languages. The ordinal numerals in Latin are prīmus / prior, secundus / alter(the first form when more than two objects are counted, the second form only when two, note also that alius, like alter means "the other", the former used when more than two and the latter when only two), tertius, quārtus, quīntus, sextus, septimus, octāvus, nōnus, and decimus.


Word order

The majority of Gaulish sentences are SVO (subject-verb-object) as in:

  • martialis dannotali | ieuru | ucuete | sosin celicnon
  • Subject | Verb | Indirect Object | Direct Object
    • "Martialis, son of Dannotalos, dedicated this edifice to Ucuetis"

However, other surface variations are attested: verb-initial (VSO), verb-medial (SVO/OVS), and verb-final (SOV). Occasional verb-final sentences are a holdover from an earlier stage in the language, very much like the more archaic Celtiberian language. Verb-initial sentences can nonetheless be evaluated as pro-drop, imperative, overtly discursively marked (emphasis, contrast, etc.), or hosting a clitic pronoun or connective particle. Gaulish was certainly not a verb-second language, as evidenced by:

  • ratin briuatiom | frontu tarbetisonios | ie(i)uru
  • NP.Acc.Sg. | NP.Nom.Sg. | V.3rd Sg.
    • "Frontus Tarbetisonios dedicated the board of the bridge."

Whenever a clitic pronominal object is present, it must be syntactically hosted (i.e., adjacent) to the verb, as per Vendryes' Restriction. Since Wackernagel's Rule was strongly grammaticalized in Celtic, this had the effect of ensuring that the verb occupied clause-initial position. In such cases, the verb occupies absolute initial position in the clause or is preceded only by a null-position, semantically empty, sentential connective, the original purpose of which was to host the clitic phonologically.

  • sioxt-i | albanos | panna(s) | extra tuð(on) | CCC
  • V-Pro.Neut. | NP.Nom.Sg. | NP.Fem.Acc.Pl. | PP | Num.
    • "Albanos added them, vessels beyond the allotment (in the amount of) 300."
  • to-me-declai obalda natina
  • Conn.-Pro.1st.Sg.Acc.-V.3rd.Sg. | NP.Nom.Sg. | Appositive
    • Obalda, (their) dear daughter, set me up."

Vendryes' Restriction is believed to have played a large role in the development of Insular Celtic VSO word order.

Considering that Gaulish is not a verb-final language, it is not surprising to find other head-intitial features.

  • Genitives follow their head nouns
    • atom teuoxtonion
      • "The border of gods and men."
  • The unmarked position for adjectives is after their head nouns
    • toutious namausatis
      • "citizen of Nîmes"
  • Prepositional phrases are headed by the preposition
    • in alixie
      • "in Alesia"
  • Passive clauses
    • uatiounui so nemetos commu escengilu
      • "To Vatiounos this shrine (was dedicated) by Commos Escengilos


Subordinate clauses follow their head and are characterized by the presence of an uninflected clitic relativizing/subordinating particle (jo) which is attached to the initial verb of the subordinate clause.

  • gobedbi | dugijonti-jo | ucuetin | in alisija
  • NP.Dat/Inst.Pl. | V.3rd.Pl.- Pcl. | NP.Acc.Sg. | PP
    • "to the smiths who serve Ucuetis in Alisia"

This particle is used in relative clauses and to construct the equivalent of THAT-clauses

  • scrisu-mi-jo | uelor
  • V.1st.Sg.-Pro.1st Sg.-Pcl. | V.1st Sg.
    • "I wish that I spit"

This relativizing/subordinating particle is found residually in the Insular Languages and appears as an independent inflected relative pronoun in Celtiberian, thus:

  • Welsh
    • Middle Welsh yssyd, modern sydd "which is" from *esti-jo
    • vs. Welsh ys "is" from *esti
  • Irish
    • Old Irish 3rd plural relative cartae "loves" from *caront-jo
  • Celtiberian
    • masc. nom. sing. ioś, masc. dat. sing. iomui, fem. acc. pl. iaś


Gaulish has a number of clitic pronominals, such as the object pronominals:

  • to-so-ko-te
  • Conn. - Pro.3rd Sg.Acc - PerfVZ - V.3rd Sg
    • "he gave it"

Subject pronominals also exist: mi, tu, id, which function like the emphasizing particles known as notae augentes in the Insular Celtic languages.

  • dessu-mii-iis
  • V.1st.Sg. | Emph.-Pcl.1st Sg.Nom. | Pro.3rd Pl.Acc.
    • "I prepare them"
  • buet-id
  • V.3rd Sg.Pres.Subjunc.-Emph.Pcl.3rd Sg.Nom.Neut.
    • "it should be"

Clitic doubling is also found (along with left dislocation), where a neuter pronominal doubles an instrinsically inanimate but grammatically animate nominal, a construction which is also attested in Old Irishlilii .


Lead curse tablets from L'Hospitalet-du-Larzac, Musée de Millau. The inscription on the left hand tablet starts: In-sinde se—: bnanom bricto n,—eainom anuana sanander na:—brictom uidlaias uidli[..] tigontias so. Herein: a magical incantation of women, their special magical infernal names, the magical incantation of a seeress who fashions this prophecy.[8]

The Gaulish corpus is edited in the Recueil des Inscriptions Gauloises (R.I.G.), in four volumes:

  • Vol. 1: Inscriptions in the Greek alphabet, edited by Michel Lejeune (items G-1 –G-281)
  • Vol. 2.1: Inscriptions in the Etruscan alphabet (Lepontic, items E-1 – E-6), and inscriptions in the Latin alphabet in stone (items l. 1 – l. 16), edited by Michel Lejeune
  • Vol. 2.2: inscriptions in the Latin alphabet on instruments (ceramic, lead, glass etc.), edited by Pierre-Yves Lambert (items l. 18 – l. 139)
  • Vol. 3: The calendars of Coligny (73 fragments) and Villards d'Heria (8 fragments), edited by Paul-Marie Duval and Georges Pinault
  • Vol. 4: inscriptions on coins, edited by Jean-Baptiste Colbert de Beaulieu and Brigitte Fischer (338 items)

The longest known Gaulish text was found in 1983 in L'Hospitalet-du-Larzac (43°58′N 3°12′E / 43.967°N 3.2°E / 43.967; 3.2) in Aveyron. It is inscribed in Latin cursive script on both sides of two small sheets of lead. Probably curse tablets (defixio), they contain magical incantations regarding one Severa Tertionicna and a group of women (often thought to be a rival group of witches), but the exact meaning of the text remains unclear.[9][10]

The Coligny calendar was found in Coligny near Lyon, France with a statue identified as Apollo. The Coligny Calendar is a lunisolar calendar that divides the year into two parts with the months underneath. SAMON "summer" and GIAMON "winter". The date of SAMON- xvii is identified as TRINVX[tion] SAMO[nii] SINDIV.

Another major text is the lead tablet of Chamalières (l. 100), written on lead in Latin cursive script, in twelve lines, apparently a curse or incantation addressed to the god Maponos. It was deposited in a spring, much like defixiones often are.

The graffito of La Graufesenque, Millau,[11] 44°05′36″N 3°05′33″E / 44.09333°N 3.0925°E / 44.09333; 3.0925 inscribed in Latin cursive on a ceramic plate, is our most important source for Gaulish numerals. It was probably written in a ceramic factory, referring to furnaces numbered 1 to 10.

A number of short inscriptions are found on spindle whorls and are among the most recent finds in the Gaulish language. Spindle whorls were apparently given to young girls by their suitors and bear such inscriptions as:

  • moni gnatha gabi / buððutton imon (l. 119) "my girl, take my kiss"
  • geneta imi / daga uimpi (l. 120) '"I am a young girl, good (and) pretty".

Inscriptions found in Switzerland are rare, but many modern Swiss placenames are derived from Gaulish names as they are in the rest of Gaul. There is a statue of a seated goddess with a bear, Artio, found in Muri near Berne, with a Latin inscription DEAE ARTIONI LIVINIA SABILLINA, suggesting a Gaulish Artiū "Bear (goddess)". A number of coins with Gaulish inscriptions in the Greek alphabet have been found in Switzerland, e.g. RIG IV Nrs. 92 (Lingones) and 267 (Leuci). A sword dating to the La Tène period was found in Port near Bienne, its blade inscribed with KORICIOC (Korisos), probably the name of the smith. The most notable inscription found in Helvetic parts is the Berne Zinc tablet, inscribed ΔΟΒΝΟΡΗΔΟ ΓΟΒΑΝΟ ΒΡΕΝΟΔΩΡ ΝΑΝΤΑΡΩΡ, and apparently dedicated to Gobannus, the Celtic god of smithcraft. Caesar relates that census accounts written in the Greek alphabet were found among the Helvetii.


  1. ^ Meid 1994
  2. ^ Adv. haer., book I, praef. 3; book III, 4,1.
  3. ^ hist. Franc., book I, 32.
  4. ^ Paul Russell, An Introduction to the Celtic Languages, (London: Longman, 1995), 206-7.
  5. ^ Delmarre 2003: 216-217
  6. ^ Delmarre 2003: 163-164
  7. ^ Lambert 2003 pp.51–67
  8. ^ Koch 2005, p. 1106
  9. ^ Lejeune, Michel; Fleuriot, L.; Lambert, P. Y.; Marichal; Vernhet, A. (1985), Le plomb magique du Larzac et les sorcières gauloises, CNRS, ISBN 2-222-03667-4 
  10. ^ Inscriptions and French translations on the lead tablets from Larzac
  11. ^

See also


  • Ball, Martin; Fife, James (1993), The Celtic Languages, Routledge, pp. 26–63, ISBN 0415010357 
  • Delamarre, Xavier. Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise, 2nd ed. Paris: Editions Errance, 2003.
  • Eska, Joseph F. and D. Ellis Evans. "Continental Celtic", The Celtic Languages, ed. Martin J. Ball. London: Routledge, 1993.
  • Koch, John T. (2005), Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, ISBN 1851094407 . Also available as an e-book, ISBN 1-85109-445-8.
  • Lambert, Pierre-Yves. La langue gauloise, 2nd ed. Paris: Editions Errance, 2003.
  • Lejeune, Michel. Lepontica (Monographies linguistiques, 1). Paris: Société d’edition "les Belles Lettres", 1971.
  • Meid, Wolfgang (1994), Gaulish Inscriptions, Archaeolingua 
  • Recueil des inscriptions gauloises (XLVe supplément à «GALLIA»). ed. Paul-Marie Duval et al. 4 vols. Paris: CNRS, 1985-2002. ISBN 2-271-05844-9
  • Russell, Paul. An Introduction to the Celtic Languages. London: Longman, 1995.
  • Savignac, Jean-Paul. Dictionnaire français-gaulois. Paris: Éditions de la Différence, 2004.
  • Savignac, Jean-Paul. Les Gaulois, leurs écrits retrouvés : « Merde à César ». Paris: Éditions de la Différence, 1994.
  • Solinas, Patrizia (1995). ‘Il celtico in Italia’. Studi Etruschi 60:311-408
  • Woodward, Roger G., ed. "Celtic Languages". Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

External links


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