14: Iarnnbērlæ – a pre-Celtic language in Ireland?
Written Linden Alexander Pentecost, written in January 2023
This is an article about the potential pre-Celtic language Iarnnbērlæ, mentioned in the Sanas Chormaic, a an early Irish glossary ascribed to Cormac mac Cuilennáin. It discusses the background of the name, other possible Pre-Celtic suriving languages in Ireland and Britain, the two Iarnnbērlæ words recorded and their possible link to Afro-Asiatic etymologies (and possibly to Mayan), followed by a section with three important points questioning the validity of the Indo-European hypothesis. This section contains 1628 words.
Many of the topics at hand have been described by myself personally, and by others in different ways, but in this article I would like to focus specifically on Iarnnbērlæ and generally the origins of Indo-European in Ireland.
The name Iarnnbērlæ has been assumed in the past to be associated with the Ivernii, an indigenous tribe of Munster in Ireland, mentioned on Ptolemy’s ancient map of Ireland. I cannot find any exact references to where this link to the Ivernii has been assumed, this is mentioned on the wikipedia page for Ivernic, but, I think personally that we should be cautious to attach Iarnnbērlæ to the Ivernii specifically, and the notion of Ivernic being a specific language is I think disputeable. Thus I will use the term Iarnnbērlæ to refer to the language mentioned in Sanas Chormaic language. The name Iarnnbērlæ may mean ‘iron tongue’, although again this is not proveable. The second element, bērlæ originally meant ‘speech’ or ‘language’, but in Modern Irish this has become Béarla where it refers specifically to English.
Authors such as Theo Vennemann, and several other authors in previous decades, have talked about a possible relationship between Celtic languages and Afro-Asiatic languages. This has been discussed in detail by myself and others, although my own conclusions are not as clear cut as saying “an Afro-Asiatic language was spoken in Ireland”. I think it more likely that the original languages of Ireland and Britain were connected to Afro-Asiatic in some way, but were not within the Afro-Asiatic language family as we know it today.
Note that I also think that the cants such as Beurla Reagaird in Scotland, and Béarlagair na Saor in Ireland, also have their roots in pre-Indo-European language, and possibly represent the non-Indo-Europeanised parts of Goidelic in some way. The Shelta language is I think another language with a pre-Indo-European origin. I have also discussed elsewhere how there may have been certain refuge areas as pre-Indo-European languages, such as the isles of Rùm and Eigg of the Small Isles of Scotland, and the islands of St Kilda, all of which seem to have been Christianised later on. Note also the legends of giants from the small isles. Further information discussing these two aspects to the topic can be seen in the articles below, posted on omniglot:
https://omniglot.com/language/articles/ardnamurchan.htm – this article on language on ancient Ardnamurchan and Rùm contains information about the small isles
https://omniglot.com/language/articles/ancientlanguage.htm – there is a continuation to some of these topics in this article, and information about cants
https://omniglot.com/language/articles/stkildagaelic.htm – this article contains information about St Kilda Gaelic and comments about the ancient cultures that may have been on this coastline and at Cladh Hallan on South Uist.
The two surviving Iarnnbērlæ words
In Sanas Chormaic, only two words are given as coming from this Iarnnbērlæ language. They are:
fern – ’anything good’
ond – ‘stone’
Whilst it is surely likely that somebody somewhere has made Indo-European etymological suggestions for these words, I can also potentially connect them to Afro-Asiatic.
fern – I think there is a possible argument for connecting this word to Proto-Afro-Asiatic *fir- 'be good' (1), Berber: *fVrVr- 'be good' (1), Egyptian nfr – good (1), beautiful, for example. I think the Afro-Asiatic cognates are more convincing than any Indo-European etymology, including the word ‘fair’ in English, Old English fæger – pretty or fair. I feel that the Afro-Asiatic meanings of ‘good’ are far more likely to help explain the Iarnnbērlæ word. The -n in the word fern may be a derivational suffix, if fer meant ‘good’ or ‘be good’, it may explain why fern means ‘anything good’.
ond – I think there is also a possible argument for connecting this to a Proto-Afro-Asiatic root, namely Proto-Afro-Asiatic *ʔa(n)d- 'rock' (1), including Basketo Omotic ǝnda – mountain (1). I have also wondered whether this word ond could be connected to Proto-Afro-Asiatic *dayn- 'stone' (1), Bokos West-Chadic ʔa-ndêŋ (1) for example. I have encountered a few other possible cognates to this word, the other one I want to mention here is Yucatec Mayan tuun, which means ‘stone’. Mayan languages, like Afro-Asiatic, Celtic, Salishan and Polynesian languages sometimes have a verb-subject-object order. This in itself could be explained as coincidental, but I would argue that there are other similarities too, for example Q'eqchi' Mayan palaw – lake, sea, compare Proto-Afro-Asiatic *bVl(Vl)- flow, overflow (1), Goidelic poll – mud, pool, area that floods, English ‘pool’, Norwegian poll (a saltwater lake) in place-names.
Some points and questions about the origin of Indo-European in Ireland
In this article I have only really touched upon this vast topic, and have tried to present Iarnnbērlæ as a specific example of a possible indigenous pre-Celtic language. There are I think great problems with our understanding of how Celtic languages evolved, which I will demonstrate with the following questions.
1. Ogham and Primitive Irish. We generally assume that Irish comes from the language attested in Ogham, known as Primitive Irish. But what if the Indo-European noun stems visible in this language were actually inserted onto roots in the indigenous language, in a certain ritual context? If this were true, and if the older form of the word did not have noun-stems, it might mean that modern Irish did not come from Primitive Irish, it might instead mean that the Celticness and Indo-Europeanness of Irish was at least to some degree down to artificial choices about how to represent the indigenous languages, and how to present them. Could what we know as Indo-European be, at least partially, due to artificial choices about how languages were written and organised, thereby obscuring their real origins?
2. The theory of Indo-European languages arriving from the east, is commonly presented with this idea that these ‘Indo-Europeans’ brought the Haplogroup R1b with them. This Haplogroup does indeed appear to become suddenly very common after the Neolithic. But there are some big problems with this theory, in my opinion. Firstly, our knowledge of Neolithic genetics is completely biased to those Neolithic sites that we can identify, for example, passage graves, stone circles et cetera. But for all we know, these sites may have been culturally specific. These sites can also preserve bone better. So, we have very little idea about the Neolithic peoples who could have lived outside of the known sites! It is also possible for example that R1b individuals could have already been in Ireland, but are not archaeologically attested due to sea level rise, peat development, and a lack of preserved material culture. I believe that after these climatic changes through the Bronze Age, the R1b haplogroup may have become more obvious, due to cultural diffusion, and due to that people may have been moving around more because of environmental changes. Furthermore, the reason we may find r1b suddenly attested at certain sites, says nothing about where these people came from. It simply says that they began to use these sites around that time. Did they really ‘invade’, or did their culture simply merge more with the Neolithic passage tomb builders’ culture, resulting in this genetic change?
3. Thirdly, trying to connect languages and genetics is not by any means an exact science. We can’t accurately use genetics to try and prove where languages come from, and it does surprise me, the high degree to which R1b is used as ‘evidence’ for the arrival of Indo-European. We also find R1b in West Africa for example, which clearly has nothing to do with Europeans or Indo-European languages. So it does kind of shock me that we tend to present Indo-European languages as this, almost colonial idea of ‘a people came from the east and simply replaced the other indigenous people in Ireland and Britain’. For me, the Irish language is so deeply, and spiritually connected to the landscape around it, to the people and culture, that to explain Irish as originating from ‘Celtic invaders’ feels rather untrue and unfair. I personally feel that the Irish language is far too integrated into the landscape and mythology for it to just be a few thousand years old. At least parts of the Irish language, are I think far, far older.
I hope that this article was interesting and inspires some others to do their own research and share their conclusions in the future. I wish everyone a healthy and good 2023, tá Éire i mo chroí go brách.
Further note: I have recently become aware that the Sanas Chormaic contains a fair number of words which are difficult etymologically, which again I think may demonstrate how the original languages may have been far less Indo-European than our modern explanations and versions of these languages might present. We don’t actually know to what extent ‘Indo-European’ has to do with choices about which vocabulary and grammar to employ in writing, we don’t know to what extent other aspects of language have been left out of history books.
(1): Afro-Asiatic vocabulary by Alexander Militarev, and Olga Stolbova, vocabulary items from starlingdb.org. Olga Stolbova has done a lot of work on Chadic languages, also the Chadic Lexical Database project.
Please note that this article is a summary with new information, based upon work on this language which I have already done, much of this subject and related topics can be found in my other ebooks.