Iris na Gaeilge     November 2003   uimh 5

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WHERE DID THE IRISH LANGUAGE COME FROM?

by Sally Richardson

The assumption persists that the Irish language was brought to Ireland by invading Celts. Invasion myths play a large part in many ethnic and national origin-myths, but these should always be examined in the light of archaeological, linguistic and genetic evidence.


It is commonly believed that the ancient Celts migrated from their homeland in central Europe, bringing with them their language and the La Tene style of Celtic art, and culminating in invasions of Britain and Ireland.This theory is now discredited. Instead, the archaeologist Colin Renfrew suggests, the Celtic languages ( part of the Indo- European family ) actually developed in situ in the lands where they are subsequently known to have been spoken. Proto-Indo-European spread from its original base in Anatolia ( now Turkey ) across Europe and parts of Asia. Its first speakers were early farmers. The increased food supply the development of farming brought with it led to a rapid expansion of the population, which moved outwards to neighbouring lands, mixing with the hunter-gatherers who already occupied them, and eventually reaching Britain and Ireland.

This theory gives a much-altered time-scale. The first farmers arrived in Ireland in around 4500 BC . If they brought with them a form of early Indo- European, then this gives us a much earlier date for the arrival of what was to become the Irish language.

This theory is backed up by recent genetic studies which show that the Irish population is descended mainly from Ireland's pre-Neolithic Inhabitant, especially in the south and the west of the country. Conversely, the genetic material of the early farmers is still found in its greatest concentration in Turkey, becoming progressively diluted along the routes through which farming spread across Europe.

There was no Celtic empire, or unified Celtic culture, that spread across central and western Europe in prehistoric times. There was no great Celtic migration into Britain or Ireland and no invasion. This does not mean that there was no migration at all ----there was certainly movement of individuals and families. There was also communication between groups of people, exchanging ideas, artefacts, raw materials, art styles and technology.

In fact very few artefacts of the La Tene style have been found in Ireland (almost none in the south of the country) and those that have are of a distinctly Irish pattern. Ireland's great tradition of Celtic art, including book design and calligraphy, is actually of much later date.

It is generally accepted that the Q-Celtic languages, of which Irish is one, are the earlier form, and that the P-Celtic languages (which includes Welsh, Cornish and Breton) are a later development, Renfrew endorses this, suggesting that the P-Celtic languages developed as a result of a network of close contact and communication between speakers of Celtic languages in Britain, Gaul and parts of central Europe. Those more remote areas, such as Ireland (and Spain, whose own early languages appear to have included Q-Celtic ones) had less contact with mainstream central Europe and retained the older form.

These theories are still regarded as controversial, although many experts in the fields of archaeology, linguistics and pre-history have accepted them. They certainly overturn many commonly held pre- conceptions. But re-appraising our ideas of who we are and where we come from doesn't have to undermine our identity; on the contrary, it can strengthen it.

Sources And Further Reading.
Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins ( see chapter 9 ) . Colin Renfrew ( 1987, Pimlico edition 1998 ).
The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?. Simon James ( British Museum Press 1999 ).
Y-chromosome variation and Irish origins. ( Nature, vol 404, 23 March 2000 ).
Pagan Celtic Ireland: The Enigma of the Irish Iron Age. ( Thames & Hudson 1994 ).
The Language Instinct -- Steven Pinker (1994, Penguin edition 1995).


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