Blogspot: Cruthin, Fir Bolg, and Gael


Celtic Languages: Minding your Ps and Qs

The term “Celtic” is primarily a linguistic one, referring to a group of related languages, detailed discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article. The P-Celtic/Q-Celtic hypothesis is a categorization for the Celtic languages, linking Gaulish with Brythonic as P-Celtic; and Goidelic/Gaelic with (the now extinct) Celtiberian as Q-Celtic. The difference between the P and Q languages is the treatment of Proto-Celtic *kw, which became *p in the P-Celtic languages but stayed as *k in Goidelic. For example the word for head is pen in Brythonic languages but ceann in Goidelic; the word for son is mab (earlier map) in Brythonic but mac in Goidelic/Gaelic – maqq on the Primitive Irish Ogham inscriptions. 
This is important in the context of Irish history because Ptolemy’s Map shows an Ireland with P-Celtic names, including the P-Celtic speaking Manapi, whereas Ireland subsequently became a land of Q-Celtic Gaelic speakers. This implies some subsequent event that catalysed the change from one language to the other. Typically such an event involves the arrival of some group with sufficient power or influence to force or persuade the previous inhabitants to learn to speak the new language. For example if a new group, inferior in numbers, but powerful enough to become rulers, conducts business in their new language, it would probably be a good idea for the majority population to learn that language if they want to have any influence with their new masters.
Ireland rapidly switched from being a land of Gaelic Q-Celtic speakers to a land of English speakers because of English military and political domination between the 16th and 20th Centuries. Similarly, it seems likely that sometime after the era depicted in Ptolemy’s Map, a powerful group of Q-Celtic speakers arrived in Ireland and gradually established military and political dominance that eventually resulted in the adoption of their older, archaic, language, where the switch from Q (*K) to P had never taken place.
Thus the Pretani who lived in Ireland came to be called Qreteni, subsequently modified to Cruithin, which is how they are recorded in history, because Q-Celtic had become the dominant language by the time history began to be written down, and the “P” was switched to a “Q” (sounding like a hard “C”).
Similarly the Manapii became known as Fir Managh (and part of the Fir Bolg) because of another important difference between Q-Celtic and P-Celtic – the continued use of “f” in the archaic Q-Celtic, instead of the “g” used in the later P-Celtic tongues. Thus, in Q-Celtic, the words for “man” and “white” are “fir” and “fionn”, respectively, whereas the P-Celtic equivalents are “gwr” and “gwyn”. So the P-Celtic speaking Belgae were recorded historically as Fir Bolg, and the Manapii as the Fir Managh. It seems likely that they would have been called Gwr Bolg, and Gwr Managh, or some similar derivative, in P-Celtic speaking times.
It is also worth noting that despite being related, “Q” and “P” -Celtic were very different languages, and essentially unintelligible to speakers of the other form. There are historical examples where Gaelic Q-Celtic speakers required translators to speak to P-Celtic speakers in Ireland and in Scotland.
This also reinforces a very important difference between language and ethnicity. As noted above “Celtic” primarily describes a group of languages NOT a group of people. One may describe the Cruthin as Gaelic-speakers in the 8th Century, but they were no more ethnically-Gaelic than the Irish who now speak English as their first language, are ethnically English. Language, like Religion and Politics, is a matter of choice, although sometimes that choice is enforced.
This leaves two important questions unanswered! “Who were the Gaels, and where did they come from”? We know that P-Celtic was spoken throughout the British Isles and also in Gaul (Continental Celtic). Where was Q-Celtic still spoken? Perhaps Q-Celtic was still spoken in several locations, but we know with some certainty of one such – in the Northern part of Spain shown shaded in blue below – the region where “Celtiberian” was spoken.

Author: Luís Fraga da Silva, Associação Campo Arqueológico de Tavira, Tavira, Portugal,
Celtiberian was a (now extinct) language that showed the characteristic sound changes that define Celtic languages, and enough records of the language remain to show that it can be considered a Q-Celtic language related to Goidelic/Gaelic.  The origin legends of the Gaels in Ireland written down in the fictitious Lebor Gabála Érenn, (histories of the invasions of Ireland) say that they came from Spain and were led by Mil Espanae – the Spanish Soldier. This has led some to believe that the legendary invasion of Ireland by the Milesians, preserved in the fictitious Lebor Gabála Érenn, had some basis in fact, although most of that work is pure fiction.
At any rate, let us take the theory that the Q-Celtic-speaking Gaels arrived in Ireland direct from Northern Spain, and introduced their language to the Island. The next question is when?————————————————————————————————————————–
(Some additional notes on Celtic and Indo-European languages follow ….)

Brythonic is P-Celtic, but as an Insular Celtic language (i.e. from the British Isles) more closely related to the Q-Celtic Goidelic than to P-Celtic Gaulish,[3] it follows that the P/Q division is paraphyletic: the change from to p occurred in Brythonic and Gaulish at a time when they were already separate languages, rather than constituting a division that marked a separate branch in the “family tree” of the Celtic languages.

A change from (q) to p also occurred in some Proto-Indo European  (PIE) languages (see below) e.g. in Italic and Ancient Greek dialects: compare Oscan pis, pid (“who, what?”) with Latin quis, quid; or Gaulish epos (“horse”) and Attic Greek ἵππος hippos with Latin equus and Mycenaean Greek i-qo.

Celtiberian and Gaulish are usually grouped together as the Continental Celtic languages, but this grouping too is paraphyletic: no evidence suggests the two shared any common innovation separately from Insular Celtic.


Celtic languages are distinguished from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) languages based on a  number of criteria including

  • loss of voiced aspiration e.g. *bʰr̥ǵʰ- meaning ‘high’ in PIE, compared to *brig- in the Celtiberian and Gaulish placename element -brigā.
  • loss of  *p, as in Latin pro- and Sanskrit pra- compared to ro-in Celtiberian, Old Irish and Old Breton.
  • Change from *ō (and *oH and *eh) in PIE to *ū in final syllables and *ā in non-final syllables, in Celtic (e.g. IE *dh3-tōd to Celtiberian TaTuz meaning “he must give”.
  • Change from *ē (and *eh) to Celtic *ī, e.g. from *h3rēg-s meaning “king, ruler” in PIE to  -reiKis (Celtiberian), -rix (Gaulish) RiX (British), ri meaning “king” (Old Irish, Old Welsh, Old Breton)
  • Change from *HR̥C in PIE to Celtic aRC (where H stands for a laryngeal, stands for a syllabic resonant, and C for a consonant), e.g. Latin argentum, Sanskrit rajata. vs Celtiberian arKa(n)to-, Lepontic arkato-, Old Irish argat, Old Welsh argant meaning “silver, money”.

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