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Before the Celts came
Coming of the Celts
The name ‘Éire’

Before the Celts came


It is difficult to show conclusively what language was spoken in Ireland before the Celts – an Indo-European people – came there around the middle of the first millenium BC. That this language was non-Indo-European is certain, but whether it is related to any language still extant today is not known for definite. One view, put forward by the German linguist Theo Vennemann following on the work of Julius Pokorny in the early twentieth century, is that a language related to present-day Basque and showing traces of Semitic (a family to which modern Arabic and Hebrew belongs) was spoken in Ireland in prehistoric times.


The arguments in favour of this are bolstered by the techniques of historical linguistics which show us how forms between two languages could possibly be related. An example would be the word is ‘water’ in Basque and ‘ice’ in modern English which used to be pronounced /i:s/ before the shift in long vowels which affected English in the later Middle English period (roughly after 1300). Is is possibly source of the first syllable in Irish uisce ‘water’. Another example would be andera ‘woman’ which might be the source for Irish ainnir ‘young woman’. The Irish word bos ‘palm of hand’ might be related to the Basque word for ‘five’.



The coming of the Celts

In approximately the 6th century BC the Celts probably began a period of expansion. They moved in different directions. There are references to them in western and central Turkey, in the historical province of Galatia, best known for St.Paul’s epistle to the church there, and of course the Celts were in Italy and sacked Rome in 390 BC. Another thrust of the Celts was to the west and north. One section moved into the Iberian peninsula and is responsible for Celtiberian, recorded in a number of inscriptions. The group which moved north, north-west occupied the centre and north of France – historically Gaul – and then crossed the English channel to Britain.


The language of the Celts who moved to Britain and Ireland is know as Insular Celtic. It falls into two groups, P-Celtic or Brythonic and Q-Celtic or Goedelic. The latter branch is confined to Ireland, the Isle of Man (now extinct) and Scotland where Irish immigrants moved in the early centuries AD bringing their language with them. Breton is a form of Brythonic which arose due to emigration to Brittany by speakers of Celtic in the south-west of Britain as a consequence of the Germanic invasions which set in in earnest as of the mid-fifth century AD (there may well have been survivals of Gaulish in Brittany as well, a view supported by Breton scholars like Léon Fleuriot).


The standard reference for early Celtic is Pedersen’s three-volume work in German. There is a abridged translation by Henry Lewis which offers access to the main results of Pedersen’s research to an non-German speaking audience. For full bibliographical details, see next section of this page. Information on Old and Middle Irish, with references, can be found in the relevant sections of the Discover Irish website.

The name ‘Éire’

Ptolemy mentions the Iverni (from a pre-Ptolemic Ierne) as one of the tribes of Ireland. Their name has survived as Érainn which can be traced back to a form of *Everni, a tribe supposed to be located in the region of Co. Cork (O’Rahilly 1946a: 9; 1946b: 7ff.).

Ériu is the name for Ireland (also the term for an earth goddess) which later became Éire. Now according to O’Rahilly these terms are related and both go back to the names of goddess *Everna, *Everiu (it is not unusual for the name of a goddess to be used for a region or for the name of a tribe to be derived from a goddess’s name).

These names, going on the evidence of Indo-European cognates, would appear to have meant something like ‘she who travels regularly, she who moves in a customary course’ (O’Rahilly 1946b: 26), i.e. the goddess was a sun-goddess.

An entirely different interpretation is offered in Vennemann (1998). He sees the word as of Semitic origin and meaning ‘Island of Copper’, something which he links to the common interpretation of Britannia as ‘Island of Tin’ and which would stress the significance of the British Isles during the Bronze Age. Copper was mined and processed along the south coast of Ireland as was tin on the south-west coast of Britain.

The English word Ireland is derived from Éire + land, much as is Scotland from Scotii + land.


Andersen, Henning (ed.) 2003. Language Contacts in Prehistory. Studies in Stratigraphy. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Bammesberger, Alfred and Theo Vennemann (eds) 2003. Languages in Prehistoric Europe. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Bammesberger, Alfred and Alfred Wollmann (eds) 1990 Britain 400 - 600: Language and History. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Buck, Carl Darling 1988 [1949] A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Elston, C. S. 1934. The earliest relations between Celts and Germans. London: Methuen.

Gillies, William (ed.) 1994. Language and history in early Britain. New edition of Kenneth Jackson (1953) Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Isaac, Graham 2008. ‘Celtic and Afro-Asiatic’, in Tristram (ed.), pp. 25-80.

Jackson, Kenneth H. 1952. ‘“Common Gaelic” The evolution of the Goedelic languages’, Transactions of the Philological Society 71-97.

Kortlandt, Federik 2007. Italo-Celtic Origins and Prehistoric Development of the Irish Language. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Lewis, Henry and Holger Pedersen 1937. A concise comparative Celtic grammar. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.

MacEoin, Gearóid 2008. ‘What language was spoken in Ireland before Irish’, in Tristram (ed.), pp. 113-25.

Mallory, J. P. and D. Q. Adams 2006. The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford: University Press.

O’Rahilly, Thomas Francis 1946a. Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

O’Rahilly, Thomas Francis 1946b. ‘On the origin of the names Érainn and Ériu’. Ériu 14: 7-28.

Pedersen, Holger 1909-13. Vergleichende Grammatik der keltischen Sprachen. [A comparative grammar of the Celtic languages] Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Pokorny, Julius 1949. ‘Zum nicht-indogermanischen Substrat im Inselkeltischen’, Die Sprache 1, 235-45.

Pokorny, Julius 1927-30. ‘Das nicht-indogermanische Substrat im Irischen’, Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 16: 95-144, 231-66, 363-94; 17: 373-88; 18: 233-48.

Schmidt, Karl-Horst 1986. ‘The Celtic languages in their European context’, in: Evans, D. Ellis (ed.) 1986. Proceedings of the 7th International Congress of Celtic Studies. Oxford: University Press, pp. 199-221.

Schrijver, Peter 2000. ‘Non-Indo-European surviving in Ireland in the first millennium AD’, in: Eriu 51: 195-99.

Schrijver, Peter 2005. ‘More on Non-Indo-European surviving in Ireland in the first millennium AD’, in: Eriu 55: 137-45.

Sims-Williams, Patrick 1998. ‘The Celtic languages’, in: Ramat , Anna-Giacolone and Paolo Ramat (eds) The Indo-European Languages. (London: Routledge), pp. 345-79.

Tovar, Antonio 1961. The ancient languages of Spain and Portugal. New York: Vanni.

Tristram, Hildegard L. C. (ed.) 2008. The Celtic Languages in Contact. Papers from the Workshop within the Framework of the XIII International Congress of Celtic Studies, Bonn, 26-27 July 2007. Potsdam: University Press.

Vennemann, Theo 1994. ‘Linguistic reconstruction in the context of European prehistory’, Transactions of the Philological Society. 92:2 215-284.

Vennemann, Theo 1998. ‘Zur Etymologie von Éire, dem Namen Irlands’, Sprachwissenschaft 23, 461-9. Reprinted in Theo Vennemann 2003. Europa Vasconica – Europa Semitica. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Wagner, Heinrich 1959. Das Verbum in der Sprachen der britischen Inseln. [The verb in the languages of the British Isles] Tübingen: Niemeyer.