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The Goidelic substrate hypothesis refers to the hypothesized language or languages spoken in Ireland before the arrival of the Goidelic languages.


Hypothesis of non-Indo-European languages

Ireland was settled, like the rest of Europe, after the retreat of the ice-caps c.9,000BCE. Indo-European languages are usually thought to have been a much later importation. The language of the inhabitants would have formed a "substrate" to the Celtic tongues of the newcomers, and would have remained in some of the words, placenames, personal names and grammatical constructs of the new Insular-Celtic language.

Techniques of research

No inscriptions in the postulated substrate language have been discovered. The chief technique used is to compile a list of words in the Irish language which do not seem to have an Indo-European cognate, on the assumption that these are probably derived from the substrate. This method of research is still at an early stage. It is particularly difficult because there are no inscriptions in the Irish language itself before about 400CE, nearly a millennium after the arrival of Celtic languages. This period is enough to allow many developments within Irish which would obscure the origins of words. Attempts have been made to find Irish substrate cognates in other non-Indo-European nearby languages such as Aquitanian, Iberian, and Basque, without success so far. However as the Irish substrate may have split from these language locations up to eight thousand years before the earliest writing in Western Europe, it is not surprising such cognates are difficult to find or recognise.

Suggested non-Indo-European words in Irish

Gearóid Mac Eoin[1] proposes the following words as deriving from the substrate- Bréife(ring or loop), Cufar, Cuifre/Cuipre(kindness), Fafall/Fubhal, Lufe(feminine), Slife, Strophais(straw); and the following placenames- Bréifne, Crufait, Dún Gaifi, Faffand, Grafand, Grafrenn, Life/Mag Liphi, Máfat.

Peter Schrijver[2] submits the following words as deriving from the substrate- partán ‘crab’, Partraige (ethnonym), (partaing > Lat. parthicus), pattu ‘hare’, petta ‘hare’, pell ‘horse’, pít ‘portion of food’, pluc `(round) mass’, prapp ‘rapid’, gliomach ‘lobster’, faochán ‘periwinkle’, ciotóg ‘left hand’, bradán ‘salmon’, scadán ‘herring’. In a further work[3] he refutes some criticisms by Graham Isaac.

Ranko Matasović[4] points out that there are words of possibly or probably non-Indo-European origin in other Celtic languages as well; therefore, the substrate may not have been in contact with Primitive Irish but rather with Proto-Celtic. Examples of words found in more than one branch of Celtic but with no obvious cognates outside Celtic include:

  • Middle Irish ainder 'young woman', Middle Welsh anneir 'heifer', perhaps Gaulish anderon (possibly connected with Basque andere 'lady, woman')
  • Old Irish benn 'peak', Middle Welsh bann 'peak', Gaulish bennicus (name element)
  • Old Irish berr 'short', Middle Welsh byrr 'short', Gaulish Birrus (name)
  • Old Irish bran 'raven', Middle Welsh bran 'raven', Gaulish Brano- (name element)
  • Middle Irish brocc 'badger', Middle Welsh broch 'badger', Gaulish Broco- (name element)
  • Old Irish carpat '(war) chariot', Gaulish carpento-, Carbanto-
  • Old Irish 'salmon', Middle Welsh ehawc 'salmon', Gaulish *esoks (borrowed into Latin as esox)
  • Old Irish cuit 'piece', Middle Welsh peth 'thing', Gaulish *pettia (borrowed into Latin as petia and French as pièce)
  • Old Irish molt 'wether', Middle Welsh mollt 'ram, wether', Gaulish Moltus (name) and *multon- (borrowed into French as mouton)




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