16: an introduction to Gaulish and Lepontic
Written by Linden Alexander Pentecost, originally in 2019-2020. Uploaded to this site on 20th April 2023. Some of my thoughts about what the Gaulish language was have changed since writing this. This section includes: background of Gaulish, Gaulish varieties, a sentence in reconstructed Gaulish and various other P-Celtic languages, Lepontic, with ideas of Lepontic possibly being partially pre-Indo-European but with an Indo-European formulaic structure expressed in its written form (not in these exact words). This section contains: 749 words.
Gaulish was the main Celtic language of continental Europe, outside of Iberia. The main Gaulish area, was a dialect called Transalpine Gaulish, spoken in what has mainly become France and Brittany. The Alpine groups of the La Tène culture played a significant influence, but Gaulish was also orientated West. Despite the Gauls not being the same people as the indigenous coastal Atlantic peoples, a fair amount of the Atlantic art styles were found within Gaulish culture, and Gaulish extended towards the Atlantic, where we had the Proto-Brittonic language. Which, might again have been just the exact same thing as Gaulish. The differentiation is really in how they have been created and revived. This Western Gaulish, or Brittonic, was linked to the modern Brythonic Celtic languages which were introduced to the Atlantic Trade Network.
Transalpine Gaulish stood then, at the center of the P-Celtic world. Gaulish grammar was very similar to that of Noric and Galatian. Luckily, we know more about the Transalpine Gaulish language than we do about ‘Noric’ or ‘Galatian’. There are a large number of place and personal names recorded by the Romans, there are also a large number of loans in French from Gaulish, some of which have made their way into English. We see a situation where southern England and France seem to go from Gaulish – Latin – French, again indicating that there was little difference between Gaulish and Brittonic.
But the Brittonic languages in the sense of those alive today, are very different from Gaulish. This may have happened quite early, with different registers of the language the further west one went. The modern Brythonic languages are often verb initial, they place the verb before the subject of a sentence. Gaulish on the other hand was mainly a SVO language, like English, French, Swedish, Slavic and Finnic languages.
Gaulish lacked the phonological developments that happened in ‘coastal’ or modern Brythonic, so the Gaulish language looks basically nothing like any of the modern Brythonic languages. We could look at the differences in the sample sentence below. Note that the Gaulish, High Register Western Brittonic, and Old Cornish/SW Brittonic sentences are also reconstructed based on what can be understood of these languages. My knowledge of how to reconstruct these languages has been greatly helped by others' work on reconstructed Gaulish and Brittonic. These examples are my own reconstructions and are naturally not perfect.
êmi wiros mâros in dûnei imon – Gaulish
êimi wirë mârë in min dün/dün – High Register Western Brittonic
êmi uir bras in min dūn – Old Cornish/SW Brittonic
wyf gwr mawr yn fy ninas i – Middle Welsh
yr ydwyf i gŵr mawr yn fy ninas i – Modern Literary Welsh
"I am in my fort/city" - English
This is the only language so far which probably isn’t just Gaulish. Lepontic was spoken around Lugano in Switzerland and around the lakes of Northern Italy. Lepontic was similar to Gaulish, and it shared its territory with the Alpine Gaulish language spoken by the Helvetii. Some consider Lepontic to be a dialect of Gaulish, or a slightly earlier language.
My view is that Lepontic was an earlier ‘layer’ of Celtic, a language that can be classified as Celtic through its use of Celtic and PIE declinations and formulaic language, but the vocabulary of this language seems quite distanced from Gaulish. Some elements of this language may be classed as pre-Celtic or pre-IE, like in the neighbouring Rhaetic language, where ‘Celtic’ traits appear in formulaic language, but where the language itself is largely unknown.
Lepontic may also have been an early form of Cisalpine Gaulish, the Gaulish spoken on the Italian side of the Alps and which the Romans often came into contact with. There are still many Gaulish elements in Roman place-names across Italy and in modern Italian dialects.
The Lugano script was used to write Lepontic, although again there is no consensus on whether or not all of these inscriptions are in the same language, or if they are just formulaic use.