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Old Germanic in La Tène, Another Perspective On Germanic Ethnogenesis and Runes

May 15, 2011 2 comments

If mysteries indeed exist by the virtue of mystification, then the runes may be one of the best examples. The theory of an origin based on the Greek or North Italic/Etruscan alphabets has merits, though – even when we choose to ignore the individual differences of each known alphabet – appears to be asynchronous with the most likely time of borrowing in the 1st century AD.
The debate on the origin of the runic script is still ongoing, possibly burdened by an ill-fated obsession for a “recent” (ie. Roman period) origin. Looijenga (1997): “No exactly fitting, all-covering matrix alphabet has been found yet”, and she admits the archaic Italic alphabets gradually fell into disuse during the last century BC or first century AD, when the official Roman alphabet became the standard. Early direct contacts of Germanic people in regions where those archaic Italic alphabets were still in use are considered unlikely, but “It may be, that Germanic soldiers learned an archaic specimen and introduced this to their homelands” (Looijenga 1997). Her theory boils down to a succession of events that includes the first century AD settlement of veterans from the Roman army in the region near Cologne, and a subsequent intermingling of Italic and local Germanic (“Ubii”) elements in their common cult of “matres and matronae”. Without questioning the origin of those otherwise unlikely similarities, it was suggested that Northern Italian immigrants hooked on to the Rhineland cults and supplied their lot of typical inscriptions as a first onset to the runic script. However, those “several letters, known from North Italic archaic alphabets” that were reported by Quak, 1996, as still in use in the Rhine area in the first century AD, may be better explained as archaic features – if the runic character of the earliest inscriptions wouldn’t be disputed at all: possible divergent evolution is already an issue in the interpretation of even the earliest (potential) runes.
Obviously, the main obstacle in finding an answer lies in the purported young age of the Germanic people and their origin somewhere far up north. However, if it could be shown that Germanic people actively participated in the historic and protohistoric events normally associated to the otherwise “Celtic” La Tène period, this restriction could be dealt with.

The La Tène culture developed in the "warrior fringe" northwest of Hallstatt.


Archeological evidence points at the destruction of Hallstatt chiefdoms by the growing power of their proto-La Tène northern neighbours of the Marne and Moselle “warrior fringe”. Much of this area emerged as “Belgic” in Roman times, without much of a clue whether or not this area was Celtic or Germanic. According to the Romans it was both. Modern investigation revealed a surprising lack of Celtic evidence in the Belgic heartlands, but of course this doesn’t mean automatically that “thus” the Belgic people – assumed this was indeed a valid ethnicity at all – must have been “Germanic”. Nordwestblock theorists made a case for a third option, neither Celtic nor Germanic, or maybe rather a language somewhere in between PIE and Germanic. Some traces of a language that didn’t evolve some of the most outstanding Germanic soundshifts may have been preserved in West Germanic irregularities with words like “path” next to “foot”, “key” (Dutch: kaag) next to “hedge” (Dutch: haag). This could tentatively suggest a process of gradual incorporation of pre-Germanic elements into the Germanic world, having a much longer history than generally considered. The convergence implied could have been completed already long before the Migration Period and stabilized even before the Roman conquest of Gaul, or may have remained an ongoing process well into the Migration Period.

Left: the older futhark. Right, top: Negau helmet; inscription; inscription according to Must; Below: impression of ancient greek alphabet variation


A key piece of evidence to the linguistic situation in Europe during La Tène is the possible Germanic inscription on the Negau B Helmet found in 1811 near Negova, Slovenia. A proper dating of the site is not possible anymore, but on stilistic grounds the helmet is clearly associated to Etruscan manufacture and hence can be dated between 450 – 350 BC. However, the inscription is commonly dated in the 3rd/2nd century BC. Interpretations vary, not in the least because of the ambiguous transcription of the letters. Most attempts didn’t even bother to decipher all of the signs, pursuing just whatever that could be presented as “Germanic” or “non-Germanic”, depending on the pretext – typically leaving the last three letters without transcription at all. Must proposed an alternative non-Germanic construct based on Raetic and Etruscan elements, leaving the ultimate part of the inscription as wildcards – what at least could be considered an improvement above blunt ignoring. A more recent transcription that covered all of the legible signs yielded an intriguing mixture of an almost Frankish epithet within an Italic message: HARIGASTIZ FEFAKIT (Made by Harigast). For the sake of clarity my focus will be restricted to this most complete transcription.
The interpretation depends on the willingness to accept an older, more diverse Germanic ethnicity than currently implied. The lack of linguistic evidence in general tends to foment a “null hypothesis” that all linguistic differences between Germanic subgroups must date as late as the very first unambiguous attestations, ie. only about 200 AD. There exists a certain reluctancy to think beyond the Migration Period, when Germanic tribes entered the full light of history in their onslaught to destroy the Roman empire. This reluctancy comes close to outright rejection regarding the etymology and cosmology of the “Harigastiz” inscription, whose acceptance would virtually contradict all pleads for a more recent monolithic Germanic ethnicity. The inscription just fails to make an equally good fit to all Germanic subdivisions. All the contrary, the problematic nature of some highly regionalized features implied by the text could explain the inclination among experts to be wary against an early dating, or a Germanic interpretation at all, that could possibly suggest an undue ancestral linguistic status. The division between West-, North- and East Germanic wasn’t even hypothetized for this date, and still the “-gast” element of the inscription, “ghost”, is the usual West Germanic word for “supernatural being,” etymologically connected to the idea of “to wound, tear, pull to pieces.” Even more remarkable is the close resemblance to the typical “continental” or even “Frankish” use of this name element (ghost, spirit, stranger) in the Merovingan period. This observations are in sheer contradiction to the monolithic Germanic ethnicity that is commonly assumed before the Migration Period. Not even a younger date, eg. up to just “pre-Roman”, would wash away all perceived regional anachronisms implied by the usual monolithic concepts about the Germanic world. On the other hand, very few written sources exist to make a sound evaluation to start with, bishop Ulfilas’s 4th century translation of the Bible into the Gothic language being a good exception – save for the fact that the scarcity of written sources makes it impossible to relate this text to any hypothetical single ancestral language of the Germanic branch. In view of new insights (explained later in this post) that involve rate of change, or the effects of regional convergence, it may be a wrong assumption altogether to think of a single Germanic parent language in any period of time.
De Vries identified the prefix “Hari-” as another epithet of Odin in his bellic incarnation. Another appealing “Frankish” association could be a tentative survival in German “Herr” or Dutch “Heer” (Lord), generally considered equally problematic and anachronistic in a pan-Germanic sense. Still De Vries already dared to link this epithet to a Germanic warrior tribe or sect in Central Europe mentioned by Plinius and especially Tacitus:
The Harii, besides being superior in strength to the tribes just enumerated, savage as they are, make the most of their natural ferocity by the help of art and opportunity. Their shields are black, their bodies dyed. They choose dark nights for battle, and, by the dread and gloomy aspect of their death-like host, strike terror into the foe, who can never confront their strange and almost infernal appearance. For in all battles it is the eye which is first vanquished.

Also the einherjar, the heroes that have died in battle and are brought to Valhalla by valkyries, are considered etymologically connected due to the -herjan element. Simek (2007): “one tends to interpret these obviously living armies of the dead as religiously motivated bands of warriors, who led to the formation of the concept of the einherjar as well as the Wild Hunt […]”. According to Lindow (2001) “many scholars think there may be a basis for the myth in an ancient Odin cult, which would be centered on young warriors who entered into an ecstatic relationship with Odin.” A Latin inscription found in Cologne dedicated to the goddess Hariasa, dated 186 AD, is held to be connected to an otherwise obscure Norse valkyre Herja, and thus ultimately directly to the Germanic version of the myth of the Wild Hunt, headed by Odin in his personification of the God of War. In the vein of Pliny’s division of the Germanic people the Harii would belong to the geographical extend of the “Elbe” or Central Germanic Hermiones, most commonly considered a religious denomination associated to Irmin or (Old Norse) Jormun, meaning “mighty, great” and mentioned several times in the Poetic Edda as another epithet of Odin. Old Germanic names like Harold and Walter may be rooted in the same tradition. In the Migration Period the Heruli seem to have inherited the cultic association of the Harii in Central Europe, rather emerging as a wolf cult – if any. This ethnicity could be etymologically related to the former as a dimunitive or frequentative, the -el suffix being productive about the time the Heruli appeared on the scene when Greek and Roman sources first mention them about 250 AD. Common West Germanic words like kruimel (Dutch), krümel, krumel (German) and English crumble remain as a testimony to the minimum age of this linguistic feature. However, no “Heruli” are mentioned in Anglo-Saxon, Frankish or Norse chronicles, so it is assumed they were known in the north and west by another name. According to Mees (2003) “Heruli” could be considered an ablaut variant of an ancient equivalent to “earl”, being rooted in the Anglo-Saxon eorlas (“brave man, warrior, leader, chief”) and Old Saxon erlos (“men”) and whose singular (erilaz) frequently occurs in the earliest Northern inscriptions. In later Old English “eorl” evolved into “nobleman,” the equivalent of the Old Norse cognate “jarl”. “Heruli”, like “eorlas”, thus may have been simply a title of honor, but its apparent connotation to the Migration period word “erilaz” on various Elder Futhark inscriptions, often interpreted as “magician” or “rune master”, may reveal a much deeper sense of relationship of the contemporary upper class to the god Odin – including his association with the art of writing as was already implied by the Harigast inscription.
The religious context of the runic script may be an important clue for understanding the origin of writing runes in the Germanic world. Runes were indeed especially tied to the Odin cult:

On the way back through the desolate heath, Odin came upon a leafless tree. Suddenly, his coat was caught in the branches of the tree. Odin hung between heaven and earth. In vain, he tried to free himself. Odin struggled with himself for the ultimate wisdom. Nine nights he hung on the windswept tree. His inner being gradually grew clearer and more luminous. Now he finally found the symbols of life’s noblest values. He bent down deeply from the tree. Groaning with extreme exertion, he took up the signs and cut them into the trunk with his sword (Rúnatal or Óðins Rune Song in the Poetic Edda in the Icelandic Konungsbók)

The earliest runes resemble scrambled messages similar to those attested in Graeco-Roman curse tablets, essentially private in the act of devine communication and hardly fit for developing a public tradition of writing in the runic script. Accordingly, the 4th century Gothic Alphabet created by Ulfilas (or Wulfila) for the purpose of translating the Christian Bible, is thought to have been intended to avoid the use of the older runic alphabet, as it was heavily connected with heathen beliefs and customs. Ulfilas didn’t avoid runic names for his letters, though, and while most of the letters were taken over directly from the Greek alphabet, a few were derived from runic letters to express some unique phonological features of Gothic. Possibly it was just the cryptic nature of the runic tradition that inhibited a mundane use. This detail may be important to discover the timespan and ultimate whereabouts of the runic script and its predecessors.
The first Germanic tribes entered the full light of history in their conflict with the Romans during the Cimbrian War (113-101 BC). The supposed Northsea origin of the participating tribes (Cimbri, Teutons, Ambrones) was a recurrent argument in favour of the original confinement of Germanic people in the northernmost parts of Europe, far away from the purported North Italian source of the runes. Still, it remains difficult to distinguish some of the traces left in the mythology that surrounds the La Tène expansions of protohistory, from a linguistic source akin to Germanic, and rule out Germanic participation in alliance with their Celtic neighbours. Belovesus, the legendary king associated with the earliest Gallic expansions into Italy, was an exponent of the Biturges, well south of the Belgic origin of La Tène between Marne and Moselle (and south of the Belgic Belovaci). His tribe was closely associated with the Druid center in the territory of the Carnute, a Celtic tribe that also travelled with him. His cousin Segovesos took a more northern route along the Alps. A mythological reference of two different ethnic components? The prefix Bel- is widespread in Celtic, but Sego- is ambiguous: this same IE forms have only been encountered in Germanic and Celtic vocabularies. Indeed, northern contigents of La Tène crossed Slovenia when they continued to the Balcans. The name of one of their leaders appears an indication that Belgae were still involved in La Tène expansions as late as 279, when a Bolgius led the invasion in Macedon and Illyria. It is tempting to imagine the different impact of northern and central Italic alphabets on the parties involved, except for the inconvenient circumstance that the Negau B helmet – like the obviously Celtic inscriptions of the Negau A helmet – attest a predominantly central Italic “Etruscan” influence. Strikingly, the development of some letters used at Negau B already diverged where runes rather tend to represent more archaic versions of the alphabet. However, what matters most in this scenario is that La Tène representatives already appear receptive to the use alphabetic scripts. This makes the transmission of writing, from any source that La Tène came in contact with (including North Italic and later Koine Greek), feasible from 400 BC onwards. This Negau helmet decorated with a purported religious “Germanic” inscription, apparently mixed with Italic and associated with finds having Celtic inscriptions, already appears indicative of a melting pot all by itself rather than the result of successive occupation.
The supposedly Germanic inscriptions of the Negau helmet were considered La Tène evidence of Germanic expansions before, especially since the helmet alone was dated to the 5th-4th century. Why presume (too) old fashioned helmets to the authors of the inscriptions? A quantum leap of some interpretors to the 2nd century for dating the actual inscription appears most of all a courtesy to Roman references pointing at a Germanic-Cimbrian presence in Noricum at 113 BC. Even benign dating of the inscription in the 3rd century would have required the helmet to be at least one century old at the moment when it inspired an occasional priest of an ambulant Germanic warrior tribe (!) to carve the text. The priest, according to this interpretation, would have been obliged to continue an older tradition of carving similar inscriptions in another language, and for this purpose he had to find an obsolete helmet without a scratch. How likely this would be?
Slovenia was the stage of La Tène expansions as late as 250 BC. Note the Gallic invasions in the Balcans were dated slightly earlier in 279 BC, while La Tène Celts already crossed the Alps about 400 BC to enter Italy. Names like Brennus are trivial indications that both invasions were indeed carried out by the same people, most probably still at the same stage of development. A later date of La Tène in Slovenia than elsewhere suggests a nucleus of local culture that survived the first onslaughts of the Celts in the Alpine region, that nevertheless must have come in close contact with Gallic culture almost inmediately after the supply of Etruscan helmets was interrupted. Possibly this implies favorable conditions for the survival of North Italic scripts. In this sense, an attractive possibility is that La Tène innovations arrived in Slovenia only after a detour in the south.
There are several North Italic scripts, and by location the North Etruscan script could be considered one of them. Other North Italic scripts are the alphabets of Lugano, the Rhaetic alphabets of Sanzeno, Sondrio (including Camunic) and Magrè, and the Venetic alphabet.
Looijenga rather forgets about Negau at all and comes to a completely different route of North Italian scripts into the Germanic hemisphere:

An archaic North Italic alphabet may have been the precursor of the runes. Borrowing this alphabet may have taken place in North Italy or Raetia, where e.g. the Chauci, Batavi and other Germani served as Cohortes Germanorum in Germanicus’ army in 15, 16 and 69 AD. But, theoretically, Germanic mercenaries may have learned to write anywhere during their tour of duty.
Veterans from the Roman army, for the greater part originating from the mountanous parts of Piemonte and Lombardy (e.g. North Italy) settled in the region near Cologne in the first century AD. Soon they became integrated in the local population. Ubian and Italic elements were intermingled in the common cult of matres and matronae (Derks 1996:104).The indigenous matres cult of the Rhineland knew no votive inscriptions; this custom of writing dedications was introduced by soldiers of Italic and Germanic origin (Derks 1996:75). Here we may find a clue as to how an archaic North Italic alphabet came to the Rhineland. In the first century AD, several letters, known from North Italic archaic alphabets, are still in use in the Rhine area. (Looijenga, 1997)

Strange enough Looijenga can’t decide between a single archaic precursor, or a North Italic mixture that all came together in the Roman army. Here ends all logic, since the Roman veterans in the Rhine area comprised many more nations that could have contributed to the development of a new script. It doesn’t make sense this privilege to contribute was selectively restricted to North Italian veterans, all provenient of such a wide variety of North Italian cultural areas – not even when this selectivity was dictated by the shared cult of matres and matronae. The other way round, why Germanic cohorts would shop around in northern Italy and make a mix rather than retrieving their inspiration from a single source? Needles to comment that Northern Italy wasn’t the only region within the Roman Empire where people had already developed their own peculiar version of the alphabet: where the skilled input of Egyptians, Etruscans or Paleohispanics go, to name just a few?
The presence of an Etruscan Chi (Psi-sign Ψ, derived from a Western Greek/Euboean script, pronounced /Kh/ or /g/) and, strikingly, the very rare Eastern Greek Xi (///) in the Negau B inscription make it very unlikely that Negau B is a “recent” precursor of the runic script. The latter may insinuate direct contacts with Koine Greek at the time of inscription, where the runic script employed the sign *gebo, rather a derivation of pre-Koine “Eastern” Greek “Chi” (Chi-sign X, pronounced /g/).
The origin of the runic *gebo is a problem all by itself. The shape resembles the Latin X, but phonetically the letter suggests another origin. The Latin X has a southern Etruscan precursor of an ultimate Western Greek origin, originally pronounced “Ks”. However, already in early Etruscan this was a sibilant and finally it disappeared altogether in this language, thus implying the intermediate Etruscan role in the development of the Latin X (and indeed of Latin in general, together with other Italic equivalents) must have been ancient and short-lived indeed. Equivalent X-shapes in Rhaetic most likely developed from Northern Etruscan T, pronounced /t/, though opinions may be divided here. Only the Messapic alphabet, much to the south, is agreed upon to have been derived differently and features the non-western Greek X pronounced /Kh/ up to the first century BC. This implies the enigmatic situation that any other forerunner of runic “Chi” (X, /g/) or *gebo than Attic Greek could be problematic. Moreover, even a Greek derivation would be problematic if it happened later than 300 BC, when the original pronunciation /Kh/, necessary to yield the runic sound /g/ of *gebo, disappeared altogether in Greek Koine. Even 3rd century La Tène expeditions as far as Greece are anachronistic for such an early stage of borrowing. The Negau B Ksi (///) might have been the hypothetic consequence of late Classical Eastern Greek or Koine contact during La Tène, but not the runic X. The Western Greek/Euboian Chi (X as /Ks/) disappeared from the Etruscan alphabet, but was continued in Latin as X, while the Western Greek/Euboian Psi (Ψ as /Kh/) never made it to the Latin alphabet. Why should a purported Germanic forerunner of the runic script have incorporated a new /k/ sound that derives from Greek Ksi (///), but keep the Psi-sign Ψ for sound /g/ of Etruscan/Euboean derivation where the runic script would rather plead for a simultaneous acceptance of a new proto-runic Chi (X /g/) from the same source?
Of the runic script, the Euboean/Etruscan(/Rhaetic) trident Psi-Ψ /Kh/ apparently developed further to /-z/ *algiz that has the same shape – a development that for sure postdates Negau B. Looijenga’s assertion this already happened in (Neo-)Etruscan is by no means widely acknowledged. A position dependent softening of Ψ towards /z/ may eventually have made the new loan X /Kh~g/ necessary, but the purported Rhaetic or other North Italic ancestral alphabets don’t give a clear insight for such a process. Anyway, the disappearance of X in early Etruscan and its re-appearance in the runic script with a different sound value and without clear North Italic logic to back this up is striking enough.
The runic re-introduction of the sign X *gebo is even less natural than it may appear. Apart from the above mentioned aspirates, where we might add an otherwise irrelevant Western Greek variety of Ksi that was shaped like the standerd Greek Phi, the Etruscan alphabet already offered three other ‘K’ sounds. Latin accepted those sounds as “C” (like “G” derived from greek Gamma), K (derived from Kappa, very rare in Latin) and Q (derived from Phoenician Koppa, only present in the earliest Greek alphabets). Of this originally Phoenician collection the runic script only could have hooked on to the Latin C, that – like R – indeed appears to be a Latin derivation. Looijenga’s assertion that also the 3rd century Latin derivation G of this C is “clearly the base” of rune *jera /j/, requires some imagination, but it would boost her claim that Latin indeed had a huge influence on the development of the runic script. The proposed subsequent development of *eiwaz as a bindrune melting this transformed Latin letter G (*jera /j/) and I (*isaz /i/) into half a swastika is ingenuous, but raises additional questions about what must have guided so much creativity in such a short time.
Her proposal that *gebo /G/ derives from Latin X /Ks/ seems predominantly guided by a lack of alternative viable scenarios rather than scribe imagination or options. The proposed development of P (*perþ- /p/) out of B (*berkanan /b/) by means of what even she calls “quite a creative variation”, appears inconceivable for ancient runographers who “knew how to spell” and still didn’t know about the considerable variety of existing P-shapes readily available in all the alphabets they allegedly came in contact with. Looijenga’s creative solution to this problem merely indicates how she rejects out of hand any formative stage of the runic script that involved the earliest versions of North Italic scripts, or contact with Greece as a source of inspiration.
Actually, the runic P is most similar to the late Classical Greek or Koine “square” version of Pi, that only about 400 BC was on it’s way te become more popular: Camunic was the only North Italic script whose P resembled this Greek version (coincidence? Shared origin?), but it barely survived until Roman times. Another example where the runic script may be more similar to late Classical Greek or Koine is *tiwaz /T/ that is like a “curved” Tau whereas the Italic versions are either angular or in the shape of a cross.
We may conclude that in the North Italic hemisphere Negau B could emerge as a close relative of the runic script’s forerunner, on the condition that forthcoming influences from late Classical Greek or Koine related to La Tène expeditions deep into Greece are taken into consideration, as well as subsequent Latin modifications at an early stage (eg. the C, the R, possibly the G), thus leaving lots of time for an independent development that allowed the runic script to diverge so much from any other European alphabet-based script we know of. A Germanic presence in Central Europe during La Tène would explain the Germanic runic script well enough, except for the mysterious reappearance of X /g/ in the runic sign *gebo.

Modern proto-writing, resembling runes on the walls of farms and churches in Westhoek, French Flanders.


None of the Greek aspirates Phi, Chi and Psi derive from the Phoenician alphabet, and their origin is disputed. Actually, this non-Phoenician background of some European signs may be a feature they have in common with many runes. Like the runic signs *gebo /g/ and *ingwaz /ng/, that are also reported as traditional decorations on the facade of buildings and houses, from French Flanders (eg. Westhoek) to Frisia. The decorations are part of a tradition of symbolism that is regionally deep ingrained. Not all of these symbols are runes, *oþala- /o/ and *dagaz /d/ being the only other ones used in this context. Remarkably, much of the area south of the Rhine was never associated with the tradition of writing runes, not unlike the Saxon areas in Britain (contrary to the Anglo-Frisian territories!). However, especially the tradition of the “Sun cross”, discerned as decoration of Frisian farmhouses, may be indicated as extremely long. Eventually the Sun cross stems from the early Neolithic, and appears in such diverse areas as Scotland, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, the Iranian plateau, and the Indus River valley. This strongly reminds to ancient symbol systems that cannot be classified as writing proper, but still have many characteristics strikingly similar to writing. Another ancient example of Neolithic proto-writing is the swastika (derived from Sanskrit su-, meaning “good”). These systems may be described as proto-writing. Typically, ideographic and/or early mnemonic symbols were used to convey information and yet were probably devoid of direct linguistic content.
Some expressions of proto-writing made its way to modern symbology. In astrology the Sun cross sign still represents Earth, but the most common interpretation conforms to a “solar” connotation, having the four quadrants within representing the four seasonal cycles of the year. In the Cretan Linear A script the symbol first appeared as a syllabic sign, having phonetic value /Ka/. As such it was copied straight into the Mycenean Linear B script (ideogram B243). Once the symbol left behind the stage of proto-writing, it apparently received an additional “spoked wheel” connotation, as the symbol reappears in the same script as an element of various chariot-related ideograms. The line between proto-writing and linguistic symbol is often hard to draw, like when the spoked wheel symbol reappears again as a solar motif in Celtic mythology, presumably associated with Taranis, god of thunder. The spoked wheel also found multiple ways into the mentioned facade decorations. In upright “+” position on the facades of farms this sign indicates animal husbandry, while the sun cross in an inclinated “X” position came to indicate agriculturists. This latter tradition purportedly found an equivalent in the sign *gebo /g/ of the Elder Futhorc, the oldest runic alphabet: ie. the version representing the seasons. The spoked-wheel version may have found another runic equivalent in the Younger Futhorc as *hagal, a few centuries later when it replaces an older rather “alphabetic” H-shape of the same runic value – if it can’t be recognized as well in some peculiar Anglo-Frisian runes that won’t be discussed here, or in the revolutionary development of the /j/ sound (*jera) from an “artistic” approximation of the Latin G to a “spoked” star shape (according to Looijenga).

In the middleages almost all coins depicted a cross on one side. This penny of King Offa dates from c. 787 to 792 AD


Thus, next to the alphabetic tradition that ultimately originated in the Phoenician alphabet, proto-writing now emerges as a relevant candidate-source of inspiration to the runic writing system. This development may have been complicated by its intricate nature as a means to communicate with the supernatural.

Obviously a distinction was made between the mnemonical use of runenames, being a tool that enabled carvers to determine which sound a runic symbol had, and the meaning and use of symbolic runes, used as pars pro toto for some special purpose (Looijenga 1997, p.105)

In the hypothetical evolution of proto-writing towards the rune *gebo we can’t neglect intermediate stages to account for the symbolic decomposition of the Sun cross into “sun” and “cross”. One context where both symbols come together, or get separated, is “money”. Let’s investigate the feasibility of this scenario before recursing to the huge implications this would have for the location of the runic origin.
In the middleages almost all coins depicted a cross on one side, or when it didn’t the “cross” side was represented by the image of a king. The other side was “pila”, what still survives in english as “pile” (of money?), “wealth reckoned in terms of money”. Hence also expressions like croix ou pile (french); Kopf oder Schrift (german); cross or pile, heads or tails (english); kruis of munt (dutch). “Heads or tails” is a game with money, at which it is put to chance whether a coin shall fall with that side up which bears the cross, or the other called pile. The french expression “n’avoir ni croix ni pile”, “having cross nor pile” means to be broke.
In playing cards, Chinese decks used coins and different piles of coins as suits. When playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century the suits were very similar to those still used in traditional Italian, Spanish and Portuguese decks, that feature Swords, Staves, Cups and Coins. The shape of suit “diamonds” developed smoothly from the round “coin” shape, and the runic sign *ingwaz makes a perfect match with the diamond. Could this transformation have happened before?
Even nowadays the diamond shape is appreciated for its capacity to envelope other symbols, just like the Sun cross consists of the cross enveloped by a container symbol:

The red cross and the red crescent have been at the service of humanity for more than a century – affording protection to those affected by conflict and to those assisting them. In December 2005, an additional emblem – the red crystal – was created alongside the red cross and the red crescent. (International Commitee of the Red Cross, 2007)
–o–
Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 […], 2006:
Article 2 – Distinctive emblems
1. This Protocol recognizes an additional distinctive emblem […]
2. This additional distinctive emblem, composed of a red frame in the shape of a
square on edge on a white ground, shall […]
Article 3 – Indicative use of the third Protocol emblem
1. [Those] which decide to use the third Protocol emblem may […] choose to incorporate within it […]:
a) a distinctive emblem recognized by the Geneva Conventions or a
combination of these emblems; or
b) another emblem […]

One peculiar detail about the *ingwaz rune was, naturally, its associated to the god Ingwaz, whose cult (according to Pliny the Elder, IV-28) was primarily located along the “Ingvaeonic” Northsea coast, still littered by eng- toponyms as far south as the Saxon Shore. His name was attested in several Germanic tribes, in mythical Germanic ancestors and also survived in larger regions like “England” and “Angria”. A connotation of the god Ingwaz (or Ingve in Norse cosmology) with wealth and money is hardly far fetched:

Frey took the kingdom after Njord, and was called drot by the Swedes, and they paid taxes to him.
[…]
Frey was called by another name, Yngve; and this name Yngve was considered long after in his race as a name of honour, so that his descendants have since been called Ynglinger. Frey fell into a sickness; […] his men […] raised a great mound, in which they placed a door with three holes in it. Now when Frey died they bore him secretly into the mound, but told the Swedes he was alive; and they kept watch over him for three years. They brought all the taxes into the mound, and through the one hole they put in the gold, through the other the silver, and through the third the copper money that was paid. Peace and good seasons continued. (Ynglinga saga)

Still, the very name of this rune is enigmatic since the cult of Ingwaz was already in decline long before the Migration Period. Indeed, the rune was already pretty rare among the earliest runes and was utterly absent in the Younger Futharc. In it’s original square form it was only found in two futhark inscriptions, suggested to be made for the sole purpose of practice or instruction in Scandinavian carvings of the elder futhark: the Vadstena bracteate and the Kylver stone, a Swedish runestone which dates from about 400 AD. How come that *ingwaz was teached but never applied? According to Looijenga its presence is uncertain the Opedal inscription, the only other possible source, but: “In semantically intelligible texts, it always appears with a headstaff, representing a bindrune.
The name of Ingwaz hardly survived in Germanic cosmology, but may have found an unexpected equivalent in Irish lore, where the cult of namesake Oengus is known in more detail: Oengus Mac IND Óc, a god excelling in youth and beauty (Koch 2006, p553). The possibility of early contact between Celtic and Old Germanic cultures emerges.

[Oengus] was born as a result of a liaison between Bóand and Dagda that occurred when Dagda sent Nechtan away. To hide their infidelity, they asked Elcmar – possibly an alter ego for Nechtan and for Nuadu Argatlám (Nuadu of the solver hand), both of whom may reflect aspects of the god Nodons – to become Oengus’s foster-father. (Koch 2006, p218)

Nodons was a god of healing, though his association with seafaring suggests a different origin, maybe not unlike the Germanic Njord, father of Freyr/Ingwaz; but so does the loss of his arm, that like the Germanic god Tyr may even suggest a more bellic “Mars” origin. This association could be expanded with the notion that the Celtic god of healing Lanus – commonly considered equivalent to Belenos, was venerated in Trier as “god of war” Lenus Mars (Derks, 2009). This rather unexpected qualities of Mars, himself being part of the Roman Archaic Triad along with Jupiter and Quirinus, have the potency to shed light on ancient religious traditions and practices, and possibly make the link between widely different kinds of devine qualities, behaviour and personifications in all related Indo European religions of Celts, Germans, Romans and even Greeks through the use of Gaulish belenuntia, Spanish beleno, the hallucinogenic henbane, whose stems and leaves are covered in fine white hear and whose Latin name is Apollinaris (Koch 2006, p.195).
It is widely accepted that most mythological parallels in the cultures of ancient European people are ultimately due to a common origin, whether Indo-European and linguistic or otherwise. Association of the Oengus cult with the Welsh Mabon / Gallic Apollo Maponos (< mapos ~ young boy) also implies an etymological/genetic link with the Batavian cult of their Hercules Magusanus ("The young-old one"), part of which name appears to be closer to Old-Germanic (< Germanic *magadi- young person) than to truly continental P-Celtic. Others (Toorians, Schrijver – Koch p.1194) would rather call Magusanus a Germanized version of a Celtic tradition. This association also implies a possible genetic link between Maponos and Apollo. Now Apollo was the Greek god of healing "par excellence", at least before this devine task passed over to his son Asclepius. Indeed Apollo remained depicted as a handsome beardless young man, like Maponos, but this didn't apply to what is arguably the most well-known Celtic god of healing "par excellence", that is Belenos. While clearly depicted as a solar god, like Apollo, his image was invariably an old man having a beard. Moreover, rather in agreement with the ambiguous character of Magusanus, Oengus wasn't even specialized in healing:

Oengus has less power than savage medicinemen or gods in myths, who bring the the dead back to life, or than Demeter, who gave life to Dionysos after he was dismembered by the Titans. But the story is an almost unparalleled example of a god’s love for a mortal. (MacCulloch, p67)

Perhaps it would not be too far fetched to see this as quite a different parallel to Apollo as “the god of Good”, maybe even love. A quality that in Germanic cosmology is only paralleled by Baldr, whose dead caused much grief. In Norse mythology his own brother Höðr shot the mistletoe missile which was to slay the otherwise invulnerable Baldr, only because he was misled by the evil Loki that knew his only weakness.
Notwithstanding some pan-Celtic parallels, there is something about the story of Oengus that raises the suspiction of being a later addition to the Celtic cosmology. Not only that he was raised by foster-parents, but he also arrived late when Dagda had already shared out his land among his children: there was nothing left for Oengus until he could recover everything by trickery. However, the example of Apollo shows that a cult can be very old and still foreign to the native cosmology. This would be true as much for the Germanic cosmology that involves Freyr/Ingwaz, and if Baldr belongs to this same category it would be because notwithstanding his popularity he failed to gain the power he might have been entitled to. Apollo, Oengus, Freyr, Baldr: they all remained the young promise they ever were.
The La Tène horizon was previously interpreted as almost exclusively “Celtic”, but the evidence of a smooth exchange of cultural elements demands a re-assessment of the Germanic identity. Part of this exchange may have been ancestral: Magusanus indeed seems to unite the young and the old, the son and the father. The reference of this Germanic cult to Hercules, not Mars, was unique in Roman times, and this hardly derives from a Baldr/Oengus Apollo. This association finds a parallel in Oengus’ devine father Dagda.

The Dagda has two fabulous material attributes, a cauldron of plenty, and a club that can kill the living and raise the dead. The latter has led the comparisons of the Dagda with Heracles and the Gaulish figure Sucellos. The club is so huge that it has to be dragged on wheels. (Koch 2006, p.554)

It becomes untenable to maintain that Germanic beliefs are irreconcilable to Celtic culture and that “true” Germanic territories “thus” should have remained isolated from La Tène influences. All the contrary, most likely such influence was much more important to the Germanic ethnogenesis than traditionally thought. Moreover, even Tacitus already mentioned Germanic tribes in Central Europea that roamed beyond agreed “Celticized” Chatti-like tribes in Central Germany: the Hari and Naharvali being the most peculiar groupings. None of these tribes are easily derived from fresh northern arrivals and in view of their habitat and peculiarities the mutual cultural contact zone is likely to have been much bigger.
We don’t get a straight Classical account on Celtic influences on the Germanic ethnicity, but at least Ceasar was already aware of the profound influences that Germanic tribes had in northern Gallia. Nevertheless, his geographic distinction between Celts and Germani was still a mystery to Strabo:

[…] the Germans, who, though they vary slightly from the Celtic stock in that they are wilder, taller, and have yellower hair, are in all other respects similar, for in build, habits, and modes of life they are such as I have said the Celti are. And I also think that it was for this reason that the Romans assigned to them the name “Germani,” as though they wished to indicate thereby that they were “genuine” Galatae […] (Strabo, 7.1.2)

Romans knew how to speak their own language, and “germanus” is a Latin word that means “brother”. Romance languages like Spanish still preserve this word (hermano). The Germanic people explicitly received their name to indicate their relationship with their neighbours on the western side of the Rhine, though by doing so Ceasar managed to set them apart from the Gallic lands he managed to conquered. Later, Tacitus expanded on this and set out to exaggerate their “wilder” qualities to accomodate his ideological motive to pinpoint a selective group of people with the noble qualities the Romans could learn from:

The tribes of the interior use the simpler and more ancient practice of the barter of commodities.
[…]
The border population, however, value gold and silver for their commercial utility, and are familiar with, and show preference for, some of our coins. (Tacitus)

This account of Tacitus evolved into the modern myth that all Germanic ancestors of modern Germanic people ancestors could be easily distinguished from their “Celtic” neighbours by their relative lack of culture, while this was only partially true.

Left: early Germanic coins spread from Chatti territory to the west. Right: the coins are usually typified by a triskelion at one side.


Archeological evidence shows NO monolithic Germanic world existed in Roman times. Part of it was heavily influenced by La Tène (including the use of coins) and another part was not. There was no such thing as a clear cultural division between Celtic and Germanic culture, what became especially clear regarding the Germanic and Belgic coins that start to circulate in the Low Countries about the end of the 2nd century BC. Coins in the shape of buttons rather than being flat(“Regenbogenschüsselchen”) apparently started to circulate in Chatti territory (German Hessen). The coins missed inscriptions, but were typically decorated by simple abstract symbols not unlike those of proto-writing. These included triskelions, still popular in Merovingian times, ie. possibly solar triangles that may be a variation of the older tetraskelion or swastia; and eg. circles on the flip side. It took one century to evolve from golden coins (type Mardorf) to copper coins (type Bochum). Virtually at the time of Ceasar’s conquest of Gallia the gravity of this coins shifted to the lower Rhine area, especially Batavian territory. However, another “hoard” was found in Echt – stylistic somewhere between “Mardorf” and “Bochem”, and establishes another link to Fraire in Belgae territory. Due to the mayhem about halfway the first century the burial of hoards and the attestation of coins of this age may be less than coincidental. However, the Hessen precedence of this tradition suggests the kind of acquaintance with cultural commodities like coins among early Germanic people that would render more fashionable concepts about backward Germanic tribes, exclusively “northern”, an obsolete generalization. Older coins of this tradition (300 BC) have been found in Bayern.
Even the nature of the Migration Period would have to be reconsidered now this expansion is attested also in association with archeological features already ingrained in the Germanic tribes of the contact zone, or emanated from Belgae territories in northern France, like the Grubenhaus:
The widespread distribution of sunken-featured buildings suggests varied and wide-ranging affinities and origins [like] in northern France, where they may derive from an indigenous, late Antique tradition, rather than representing an ‘intrusive’ Germanic element. Yet, although sunken-floored structures are known from the La Tene period in France, they did not appear in significant numbers until the Migration Period. The debate concerning their ethnic affinities is far from decided, although socio-economic developments seem more likely than Germanic expansionism to explain their appearance in northwest Gaul (H. Hamerow, 2002)

When in 1996 a gilt-silver scabbard mount with a runic inscription was found in Bergakker near Tiel in the Betuwe, well inside supposedly Romanized territory, the apparent knowledge of runic writing in this area came quite as a surprise.

At the same site a Roman altarstone was found […] The stone, from the second half of the second or first half of the third century AD, was dedicated to the indigenous (Batavian) goddess Hurstrga. The toponym ‘Bergakker’ suggests that the site is higher than its surroundings. […] The site may have functioned as a ritual centre during the Roman period. A parallel can be found at the temple site Empel (province Noord Brabant), which was dedicated to the Batavian god Hercules Magusanus.
[…]
The interesting thing of Empel was the occurrence of oaks, whereas elsewhere the area was dominated by a vegetation of willow. Together with the runic scabbard mount, a great number of metal objects were found, among which were many coins, fibulae, all sorts of bronze fragments and two objects that may be characteristic for cult-places, namely a small silver votive plate showing three matrones and a silver box for a stamp. (Looijenga, 1997)

The temple at Empel was in use since about 100 BC, when the difference between the strongly related Batavi and Eburones was still difficult to draw. Bergakker was dated 400 AD, when the Batavians were most probably already absorbed by early Frankish (or Salian) tribes. Never before runologists had considered the existence of a Frankish (Merovingan) runic tradition, though evidence from Charnay, Arlon, Amay, Chéhéry and maybe Kent indicated otherwise. Looijenga: “The Frankish king Chilperic (584) proposed the addition of four letters to the Roman alphabet, thus showing his knowledge of runes, since one of the four new letters, described: uui, was shaped after the runic w.” Gregory of Tours despised Chilperic, while his contemporary Venantius Fortunatus (6th century) defined the runic tradition as “foreign”: unfortunately both represented just the Gallo-Roman element of the Frankish empire.
The Merovingians, however, do not seem to have not developed an indigenous runic tradition, after they settled in former Gallia […] The real powers of those days apparently did not use runes, but the Roman script. (Looijenga)
We still don’t know how or from where the runic tradition arrived in the Germanic world, but the early association to West Germanic, a tradition of coins, triskelions that are another development of the Sun cross and also an otherwise rich tradition of proto-writing, paves the way for a rejection of Looijenga’s stance that runes are due to Roman period parallels between the cults of the matronae in North Italy and the cult of the matres in the Rhineland. Actually, local triple goddesses like Nehalennia represent a very old local tradition that could do very well without an external source of inspiration. Rather, a La Tène setting of the earliest contacts in the wider neigbourhood of Northern Italy could point to exactly the reverse: a thorough early influence of Celto-Germanic influences in Northern Italy tentatively related to an introduction of certain Old Germanic people into the runic art, much earlier than ever imagined.

This Mercury of Soissons represents the old Celto-Germanic tradition of an overall triune god, representing the unity of almost all masculine divine powers. This religious design must have facilitated the intense cultural interaction reflected in Celtic and Germanic cosmology.


Odin, being the Germanic prime god and the Mercury of Interpretatio Romano, was more than the god of poetry and runes. De Vries’ interpretation of Harigast implied the function of “war god” incorporated even in his oldest, pre-Migration Period being. Thus his multifunctional nature also implied the remarkable absence of a clear and separate equivalent of the Indo European god of war in Norse mythology, equivalent to eg. the Roman Mars or the Greek Ares. Correspondingly, Tyr or Tuwaz, that per Interpretatio Romano would be the true Germanic counterpart, actually makes a poor god of war and modern consensus regards Tuwaz rather as reminiscent of an older, higher god – ie. no god of war. The incorporation of a bellic function by the leading god Odin may be rooted in a much older tradition, the triune god – that unfortunately still failed to find it’s way into general assessments involving IE mythology. Snorri’s Gylfaginning reveals Odin as such: [Odin] called himself various other names on his visit to King Geirrod: “I call myself […] Third, […] High, [… and] Just-as-high”.
Parallels between Odin and Celtic Lugus have often been pointed out: both are intellectual gods, commanding magic and poetry. Both have ravens and a spear as their attributes. Like Odin, it is possible that Lugus was a triune god, comprising Esus, Toutatis and Taranis, the three chief deities mentioned by Lucan. The “threefold death” in Celtic human sacrifice may reflect the triplicity of this god. Likewise, Julius Caesar (de bello Gallico, 6.17.1) mentions Mercury as the chief god of Celtic religion, and indeed a stone carving of a three-faced god from Soissons was supplemented by the emblems ram and cock, considered the sacred attributes of Mercury. Again, a likely context of this apparent mutual diffusion of elements of Celtic ritual and Germanic culture is that of an early Celto-Germanic contact zone.
As shared La Tène migrations don’t necessarily imply regrouping of people and cultures in the source regions, the hypothetized early contact zone must have had its gravity in the expansion regions, that were predominantly located in central Europe. “Belgae” expansions of an Old Germanic nature could thus supply a potential answer to both the attestation of Frankish-like inscriptions in a 3rd century BC helmet in Slovenia, and strong indications into the direction of a special role for early Frankish-like tribes arriving in a new Celto-Germanic contact zone: also regarding the runic script whose development thus isn’t incompatible with much longer ‘Germanic’ history at all.

Indo-European languages have a long history in the neighborhood. At this stage it is important to be aware that at least the Celtic branch in the area, according to Cunliffe and Koch, was a product of Atlantic processes in the Later Bronze Age, ie. well after the Bell Beaker period that is commonly associated with early Indo-European presence. This as a caution against equating Bell Beaker to proto Celto-Italic and excluding more Germanic-like branches. Eg. according to toponym investigation, especially in Northern France, the glottal stop, an archaic IE feature, seems to have had a much wider distribution than warranted by the spread of IE languages actually associated with the glottal stop, that exclude the Celtic, Italic and Greek branches but include Germanic (Kortlandt, 1989).
As far can be deduced by this evidence, Northern France was rather inhabited originally by people whose language was reminiscent of Old Germanic than Celtic. However, since both Northern France and the Low Countries definitely belong to ancient Beaker territory, Roman accounts of Celtic presence in the north of Gallia, and possibly beyond, would find a logical explanation in an expansion of the Celtic influence towards the north that happened only after the Beaker period. This would be in agreement with Koch and Cunliffe, that date the origin of Celtic only in the Later Bronze Age. They make a case for maritime trade and contact of communities along the Atlantic facade to have culminated into a shared Celtic development, while the underpinning Bell Beaker period can’t be attributed anything else than an (important) contribution to a “Centum” dialectal continuum in western Europe, lasting well into the Bronze Age. For that matter, linguists identified an ancient Celtic north-south cline or continuum that apparently also extended to the Italic branch in the southeast, thus being older than the very division between Celtic and Italic. Eg. Portuguese Celtic features characteristics that apparently relate to Italic languages, while Peter Schrijver attributes the Celtic dialects north of the Alps to substratum rather than any other North European influence. In a Bronze Age proto Celto-Italic stage those mentioned Atlantic contacts could have made the difference in forging northern and southern dialects of the continuum together into one separate “Celtic” branch, diverging from “Italic”. Correspondingly, more to the north something similar could have happened within a “Northern Bronze Age” group of Germanic-like languages that not necessarily already featured all the known Germanic shifts.
The Celtic branch should not be considered the hierarchic offspring of a single standard language, once spoken by some kind of “true” original Celts. In general, the very concept of a single parent language for each Indo European branch is ever more controversial. Not even Latin (nor hypothetical “Vulgar Latin”) makes a perfect ancestor to the Romance languages, that rather originated from shared developments over at least half a millenium that predominantly postdate the Roman Era and even included Germanic influences. Contrary to what hypothetical assumptions into this direction may imply, there was NO single vulgar latin parent language within the Roman Empire. Vulgar latin is nothing more than a collection of texts that don’t follow the strict rules of classical latin. The relation of this collection with romance is still utterly incomplete, inconsistent and hypothetical. Its lack of unity starts in the Classical age, when the difference between literary usage and everyday speech in Rome was merely stylistic, not based on any difference between linguistic systems. Also much later, there is no indication that Latin had split up in two different languages, a spoken proto-romance vernacular next to a written language. Moreover, Vulgar Latin doesn’t even reveal a systematic tendency towards Romance, however deformed it may have been. There is nothing “Romance” about The Satyricon of Petronius, the only “vulgar latin” title of the only author mentioned by contemporaries to have used this kind of “incorrect Latin”. By then there was no trace of the Romance use of definite and indefinite articles. Without written evidence it is already hard to make the difference eg. with the Latin demonstrative, but this Romance feature certainly didn’t happen up to the very last century of the Roman Empire. Not even in case of doubt the position of the article/demonstrative was clear, so in Rumania the development could still be influenced by the Slavic substratum to put the article after the noun – thus suggesting a strong non-Roman convergence even here.
To expand on this example: neither the fate of the neuter follows a strict pattern in Romance that could be derived from a Vulgar Latin parent: neuter forms remain in a few of the Romance Languages, such as Italian (seen in the singular and plural of parts of the body, such as il braccio “the arm”, but le braccia “the arms”, taking the feminine plural definite article, but, at the same time, resembling a feminine singular noun). This is most apparent, in fact, in Romanian, where nouns classified as “neuter” resemble certain classes of masculine nouns in the singular and feminine in the plural. In French, the neuter forms were assigned to the feminine and masculine categories on quite different criteria. Even the case system can’t have been lost in the hypothetical Romance parent language since the plural of Romance north and west of the La Spezia-Rimini Line developed from the accusative case, while in romance south and east of the Line plural developed from the nominative case.
A less antagonized case than Romance against the dogma of a hypothetized single parent language was supplied by Garrett, in his rejection of the existence of proto-Greek as a parent language of Greek.

It is […] well established that there are linguistic changes found in all first millennium Greek dialects, including Arcado Cyprian, that are not found in Mycenaean. Before the decipherment of Linear B such changes were assumed to be Proto Greek, but now it is clear that they reflect areal diffusion across the Greek speaking area.
[…]if we allow that at least a few post-Proto-Greek changes must already have affected Mycenaean before its attestation (it is after all a Greek dialect), detailed analysis reduces the dossier of demonstrable and uniquely Proto Greek innovations in phonology and inflectional morphology to nearly zero.
[…] it hardly makes sense to reconstruct Proto Greek as such: a coherent IE dialect, spoken by some IE speech community, ancestral to all the later Greek dialects. It is just as likely that Greek was formed by the coalescence of dialects that originally formed part of a continuum with other NIE (Nuclear Indo European, R.) dialects, including some that went on to participate in the formation of other IE branches. With this in mind it is possible to see external links for some Greek dialect patterns. For example, the first-person plural endings -mes and -men are distributed such that -mes occurs in West Greek, across the Adriatic from Italic (with s in Latin -mus), while -men occurs elsewhere, across the Aegean from Anatolian (with n in Hittite -wen).
[…]
I suggested that Greek may be typical of IE subgroups, and that the reason we see the pattern clearly in Greek is that we have Mycenaean. For no other IE branch do we have comparable data — an Italic dialect of 1000 JK, or an Indo Iranian variety documented early in the second millennium. But the coherence of other IE branches can be doubted too. The question of Italic unity has been debated by linguists for at least 75 years. Even for Indo Iranian […]
I conclude section 2 by noting a pattern in need of an explanation […] Speaking in the broadest terms, early IE language spread was thus a two phase process […] in the second phase, late in the second millennium in some cases, changes that gave dialect areas their characteristic phonology and morphology swept across those areas. (Garrett, 2006)

Likewise, Koch does not suggest anything close to a specific “proto-Celtic” parent language, nor a limited point of origin for the Celtic branch. Instead, he holds the Celts to be the ultimate products of processes along the Atlantic coasts.
In this same vein, the Great Barbarian Conspiracy of 367, or the expulsion of Rome from Britain in a coordinated effort from Scottis in Ireland, Picts and Caledonians in Scotland next to Angles and Jutes, is exactly the kind of contact that would be key to a shared “Gaelic” development from Old Irish to Middle Irish, however radical the changes:

I have presented a relative chronology of 22 stages for the phonological developments which characterize the formation of Old Irish (1979). All of these developments are posterior to the Ogam inscriptions, which lack the characteristic features of the Old Irish language. If we use the term “Primitive Irish” for the period before the apocope (my stage 15) and the term “Archaic Irish” for the period between the apocope and the syncope (my stage 19), we may wonder about the applicability of the term “Irish” to the Ogam inscriptions; it may be more appropriate to speak of the variety of Insular Celtic spoken by the ancestors of the Irish. In any case, no reconstruction of Proto-Irish on the basis of Old Irish and later materials comes close to anything resembling the language of the Ogam inscriptions (Kortlandt, 1989)

Kortlandt interprets this rapid evolution as evidence for a younger age of Indo European. It is a pity it did not occur to him to relate this also to a much slower geographic evolution within the branches already in place.
Another example, albeit of another linguistic branch, would be the Frisian trade contacts that kept the Frisian hemisphere knit together with the Anglosaxons, what without doubt was key to a shared Anglo-Frisian linguistic development.
This shared development over this larger (already IE-ed and interrelated) area towards Celtic is “convergence”, made possible by a combination of shared origin and intensive contacts – that may or may not be largely confined to the Atlantic rim. This latter part is less clear at the moment, especially for what happened at the eastern “Hallstatt” borders. Similar processes towards convergence may have caused different linguistic configurations in the North sea region, or even within the La Tene “warrior fringe” between Marne and Moselle that is commonly regarded a key element to the historic La Tene identity. Such impulses deriving from the Celtic fringes thus also demand a new assessment.
How come it took so long for linguists to recognize this simple mechanism of convergence, still so important for understanding the origin of linguistic branches? Only nowadays the acceptance of the universal linguistic models of Chomsky and Greenbergis is in decline. This year investigators from Auckland and Nijmegen may have sealed their demise definitively with results that show languages evolve in their own idiosyncratic ways, and don’t have “simply” a natural tendency to “look the same”. There is no reason to suppose that grammatical structure and rules are governed by universal cognitive factors or “hardwired” by innate linguistic capacities. Instead of the cognitive explanations and universals supplied by Chomsky’s and Greenberg’s theories, cultural evolution is at play.

The central goal of linguistics is to describe the diversity of human languages and explain the constraints on that diversity. Generative linguists following Chomsky have claimed that linguistic diversity must be constrained by innate parameters that are set as a child learns a language […]contrary to the generative account of parameter setting, we show that the evolution of only a few word-order features of languages are strongly correlated[…]
cultural evolution is the primary factor that determines linguistic structure, with the current state of a linguistic system shaping and constraining future states (M. Dunn et al., 2011)

Actually, Chomsky underestimated the processes of convergence since true “linguistic evolution” is incompatible with the rather creationist-like view of guided internal causes towards change. Parallel evolution never occurs because of internal processes, only as a response to external impulses. Other stale “collectivity theories”, like those that deny convergence in mythology and symbolism, may be equally flawed.
Now what about Old Germanic? Convergence makes the hypothetized Nordwestblock language feasible as a kind of Old Germanic that didn’t participate yet in some “key” Germanic sound shifts – even though the onset of each may have been elsewhere, not unlike the High German consonant shift possibly in another Celto-Germanic contact zone. Common conservative features like the glottal stop tend to set assessments of “Belgic” and “proto-Germanic” apart from “Celtic”, and the mechanism of linguistic convergence virtually dissipates the need for a compulsory set of shared “Germanic” features for Belgae with their eastern brothers (L. germanum). Some common features may have been the result of more recent convergence, and regional features may be retentions of regional variability of a wider “Old Germanic” branch. Even English retains sufficient traces of a Nordwestblock vocabulary, whether of not partially “in situ” as a development among Belgae immigrants, to suggest at least West Germanic has a much longer history than the limited concept of a Migration Period ethnogenesis ever intended to permit.


Referenced:

  • Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Stephen C. Levinson & Russell D. Gray – Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals, 2011, link, naturenews
  • Kurt Braunmüller et al. – Convergence and divergence in language contact situations, 2009, link
  • Andrew Garrett – Convergence in the formation of Indo-European subgroups: Phylogeny and chronology, in Phylogenetic methods and the prehistory of languages, ed. by Peter Forster and Colin Renfrew, 2006, pp. 139-151, link
  • J.H. Looijenga – Runes around the North Sea and on the Continent AD 150-700; Texts & Contents, 1997, link, or get version 2003
  • J.T. Koch – Celtic culture: a historical encyclopedia, Volumes 1-5, 2006, link
  • Kortlandt – The Spread of the Indo-Europeans, 1989, link
  • Gustav Must – The Problem of the Inscription on Helmet B of Negau, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology Vol. 62, 1957, link
  • Frans Plank – From Early Germanic Towards Early English, Evidence for very early Germanic, link
  • Helena Hamerow – Early Medieval Settlements: The Archeaology of Rural Communities in North-West Europe, 400–900, 2002, link
  • Strabo, Geographica 7.1.2., try here
  • Julius Caesar – The Gallic Wars (D.B.G.), link
  • Tacitus – Germania, Translated with Introduction and Commentary by J.B. Rives, 1999, link
  • Gaius Petronius – The Satyricon, link
  • Pliny the Elder – The Natural History, Germania: Book IV-28, John Bostock and H. T. Riley (1855), link
  • Snorri Sturluson, Ynglinga saga, ~1225, link
  • John Lindow – Norse mythology: a guide to the Gods, heroes, rituals, and beliefs, 2001. ISBN 0-19-515382-0
  • Rudolf Simek – Dictionary of Northern Mythology, 2007. ISBN 0-85991-513-1, link
  • Ross G. H. Shott – The Dark Arts of Immortality, 2004, link
  • Bernard Mees – “Runic erilaR.” NOWELE: North-Western European Language Evolution 42 (March 2003), 41–68.
  • John Arnott MacCulloch – Celtic Mythology (1918)), ISBN 0-486-43656-X, 2004
  • Simon James – Exploring The World Of The Celts, 1993, ISBN-13 978-0-500-27998-4
  • Ton Derks – Van toga tot terracotta: het veelkleurige palet van volwassenwordingsrituelen in het Romeinse Rijk, 2009, link