Goidelic substrate hypothesis

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

Hypothesis of non-Indo-European languages

Ireland was settled, like the rest of northern Europe, after the retreat of the ice sheets c. 8,000 BC. Indo-European languages are usually thought to have been a much later arrival.

Scholars have suggested that:

  • an older language or languages could have been replaced by the Insular Celtic languages and;
  • words and grammatical constructs from the original language, or languages, may nevertheless persist as a substrate in the Celtic languages, especially in placenames and personal names.[1]

Suggested non-Indo-European words in Irish

Gearóid Mac Eoin proposes the following words as deriving from the substrate: bréife 'ring, 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.[2]

Peter Schrijver submits the following words as deriving from the substrate: partán 'crab', Partraige (ethnonym), (note that partaing "crimson (Parthian) red" is a loanword from Lat. parthicus), pattu 'hare', petta 'pet, lap-dog', pell 'horse', pít 'portion of food', pluc '(round) mass', prapp 'rapid', gliomach 'lobster', faochán 'periwinkle', ciotóg 'left hand', bradán 'salmon', scadán 'herring'.[3] In a further study he gives counter-arguments against some criticisms by Graham Isaac.[4][5]

Ranko Matasović 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.[6] 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 berr 'short', Middle Welsh byrr 'short', Gaulish Birrus (name); possibly related to the birrus, a short cloak or hood
  • Old Irish bran 'raven', Middle Welsh bran 'raven', Gaulish Brano-, sometimes translated as 'crow' (name element, such as Bran Ardchenn, Bran Becc mac Murchado, and Bran the Blessed)
  • Middle Irish brocc 'badger', Middle Welsh broch 'badger', Gaulish Broco- (name element) (borrowed into English as brock)
  • Old Irish carpat '(war) chariot', Gaulish carpento-, Carbanto-
  • Old Irish 'salmon', Middle Welsh ehawc 'salmon', Gaulish *esoks (borrowed into Latin as esox); has been compared with Basque izokin[7]
  • 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 and English as mutton)

See also


  1. Stephen Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British (pinpoint or page cite needed) (2009).
  2. Tristram, Hildegard L.C., ed. (26–27 July 2007). "The Celtic Languages in Contact" (PDF). Potsdam University Press. Retrieved 10 December 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Schrijver, Peter (2000). "Non-Indo-European Surviving in Ireland in the First Millennium AD". Ériu. 51: 195–199.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Schrijver, Peter (2005). "More on Non-Indo-European Surviving in Ireland in the First Millennium AD". Ériu. 55. Retrieved 10 December 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Words and Proper Names". Bill.celt.dias.ie. Retrieved 2012-02-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Matasović, Ranko (2009). Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic. Leiden: Brill. p. 441. ISBN 978-90-04-17336-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Trask, R. Larry (2008), Wheeler, Max W., ed., Etymological Dictionary of Basque (PDF), Falmer, UK: University of Sussex, p. 236, archived from the original (PDF) on 7 June 2011, retrieved 17 September 2013<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>