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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
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The Celtic Origin Revised: the Atlantic View and the Nordwestblock Blues

April 19, 2010 12 comments

Important shifts in the concept of Celtic origin are taking place. A new book edited by Profs. Cunliffe and Koch is due out in June and announced by Oxbow Books thus:

The Celtic from the West proposal was first presented in Barry Cunliffe’s Facing the Ocean (2001) and has subsequently found resonance amongst geneticists. It provoked controversy on the part of some linguists, though is significantly in accord with John Koch’s findings in Tartessian (2009). The present collection is intended to pursue the question further in order to determine whether this earlier and more westerly starting point might now be developed as a more robust foundation for Celtic studies.

This new approach turns the focus away from a Central European origin of Celts and instead advocate an Atlantic gravity. Also the time-line of Celtic spread is due for a thorough revision, now it becomes increasingly secure to consider the Celtic world to be firmly rooted in the Copper Age (Maritime Bell Beaker) and a result of shared development that culminated in the Late Bronze Age:

“Barry Cunliffe, 2001, 261-310, has proposed the origins of the Celtic languages should be sought in the maritime networks of the Atlantic Zone, which reached their peak of intensity in the Late Bronze Age and then fell off sharply at the Bronze-Iron Transition (IXth-VIIth centuries BC).” (Koch, 2009)

Also Koch (2009), when he identifies the Tartessian language of southern Spain as Celtic, agrees that the Celtic identity was already forged in the Atlantic Late Bronze Age, 13th-8th century BC.

That general conclusion could carry important implications for historians and archaeologists. It reinforces something we have known for some time, namely that the Celtic languages in the Iberian Peninsula—possibly unlike those of Gaul and Britain—cannot be explained as the result of the spread of the La Tène and Hallstatt archaeological cultures of the central European Iron Age. To find Celtic extensively used so far to the south-west at such an early date must also call into question the relevance of Hallstatt’s Late Bronze Age forerunner, the Urnfield cultures, in the Celticization of the Peninsula. (Koch, 2009)

Middle Bronze Age massgrave in Wassenaar. The crimes were most likely committed by Hilversum Culture neighbors, that make a fit for the people that introduced Atlantic (Celtic?) influences in the north.

Or earlier? There is no agreement yet about the Celtic identity of Tartassian, but an Indo-European language closely affiliated to Italic and Celtic would probably do just as fine in the recognition of an important Copper Age spread of Indo-European emanating from the Atlantic shores. Western continuity all the way back to Maritime Bell Beaker, that established the main fluvial routes in western Europe, suggests scholars are now returning to the idea first proposed in the 1970s that the Celts arrived in the British Isles with Bell Beaker. This steering away from a Celtic origin in Hallstatt and La Tene, even Urnfield, requires a reevaluation of the Celtic nature of the people involved within these cultural horizons. Adherence to the view that Celtic indeed spread along the Atlantic coast would explain the new scrutiny for a Celtic presence in the Low countries. From this viewpoint it would be strange indeed if Celts didn’t arrive at the coastal plains of this region, since the North Sea was certainly within Celtic reach.

The linguistic situation in the Low Countries in Roman and pre-Roman times is still far from clear. Obviously, a kind of P-Celtic not unlike Brythonic was held in high esteem, at least among the local elites, and it is likely the Romans sought to tune their local policy accordingly. Local rites and mythology correlate well with the Celtic world, and Ingvaeonic language features of Germanic languages along the North Sea suggest a Celtic substrate. However, accepted Celtic toponyms are rare and often associated with Roman military strongholds. Koch is among those that criticize the scientific climate in the Low Countries against clear cut answers on Celtic evidence:

This tendency can be illustrated by the practice of place-name studies in the Netherlands, where names are categorized as either Germanic, Roman, or pre-Roman. However, this last category is rarely specified. (Koch, CCHE, p1192)

However, his criticism is impeded by his own observation that since WW II the same restraints apply for Germanic evidence. He praises Toorians for being one of the few that “dares to say so” (ie. that Celts were omnipresent), but insinuates a lack of linguistic and Celtologic equipment among those that indeed perceived a pre-Germanic substratum and coined the name “Belgic” rather than to consider it Celtic. However, he did not question their equipment for making a link to Germanic, eg. concerning their observation of glottal stops and Latin transcription issues that may have distorted our interpretation. The political assessment of Koch to address a purported local lack of commitment to the Celtic versus Germanic controversy is probably how ‘outsiders’ see it: impatient to look into an archeological mirror, they conceive petty Low Countries historical matters as interfering with their demand for the kind of answers that would allow Low Countries to fit in smoothly on their own map. Still, place-name evidence remains controversial and contested in the Low Countries, and evidence that was never filed as Germanic does not imply Celtic by any means. Even Celticist Koch has to content himself with the current status quo: “the conclusion must be that in the Roman period Celtic and Germanic existed side by side“.

The differences between the two linguistic groups, Celtic and Germanic, are significant and difficult to reconcile within one small geographical context, and still the linguistic record in the Low Countries seems to point in both directions. We should be wary against impatient solutions that try to bypass this bipolar situation.

Finds traditionally considered “from the east” and labelled “Celtic” start in the Netherlands at about 825 BC. Now the Atlantic proposal rather predicates Celtic diffusion between the 13th-8th centuries BC we can’t even be sure those eastern influences represent ethnical Celts at all. If we follow the logic of Cunliffe and Koch, implying an early Northsea diffusion of the Celtic element, these allegedly Celtic finds could even involve any other foreign element, whose ethnic and historic imprint so far couldn’t be conceived.

The Middle Bronze Age Hilversum Culture is the only potential Atlantic intrusion that, in the vein of Cunliffe, could vie as "Celtic".

Cunliffe-style Celtic North Sea diffusion could have been as old as the Hilversum Culture. Indeed, this culture achieved a deep penetration and makes a much better case for a Celtic buildup in the Low Countries.

Halfway through the Early Bronze Age the practice of cremation and the burial of the remains in Hilversum urns under barrows surrounded by ditches and banks was introduced in the southern part of the Netherlands (especially North Brabant). This clearly indicates close connections with the urn burial traditions of south England (esp. the Wessex biconical urns). The development is now generally interpreted as an evolution, based on regular and intensive contacts, continuing those of Beaker times, and no longer as an indication of the arrival of British immigrants. (L.P. Louwe Kooijmans, 1993)

The culture achieved a strong foothold in the west (Holland, Utrecht) and the south (Brabant and connected Belgian territories), but never succeeded to replace a native element that (also) inherited from the Barbed Wire horizon in the north and, especially, northeast.

This northern Dutch group represents the westernmost manifestation of a tradition that was common all over the North German Plain and the southern part of Scandinavia.
In the late part of the Early Bronze Age and the Middle Bronze Age there was therefore a marked difference in burial practices between the northern and southern parts of the Netherlands.(L.P. Louwe Kooijmans, 1993)

Possibly Hilversum Culture was a culmination of Atlantic interchange dating back to 3rd millennium Maritime Beaker times, but the first attestation of this culture north across the Rhine estuary was a mass grave in Wassenaar, near The Hague. Twelve individuals were slayed and hastily buried, including young children and women.

The use of particular burial rules and the personal attention paid to the dead suggest that they were buried by captive or escaped kinsmen.
[…]
Very important and most interesting is the aforementioned small flint arrowhead that was found between the ribs of No 10. Its position suggested that it had been shot into the body.
[…]
The arrowhead did not resemble any of the fairly large number of arrowheads found in Bell Beaker graves in the Netherlands (Lanting/Van der Waals 1976). Barbed Wire Beaker graves have yielded hardly any grave goods and no arrowheads whatsoever (Lanting 1973) However, a fairly characteristic, rather sophisticated type of arrowhead with recurved barbs has been found in domestic assemblages. Close parallels have been found in an early Hilversum Culture pit fill at Vogelenzang near Haarlem […], which are to be dated around 3400 BP
[…]
This evidence soundly dates the grave to c. 3400 BP, 1700 cal. BC, around the transition from the Early to the Middle Bronze Age.(L.P. Louwe Kooijmans, 1993)

Far from being evidence of Atlantic “convergence”, this rather attests post-Beaker divergence. Only the Hilversum culture attests a certain degree of Atlantic convergence. Instead, apparent northern expansion happened at the onset of the Middle Bronze Age and may have been less peaceful than expected, and also less enduring in most places.

The evidence of the Wassenaar grave fits in with Bronze Age burial traditions as far as the extended postures and the custom of inhumation are concerned, although the two were not to become common until a few centuries later.

This pattern of returning native features also emerges in other northern sites:

The practice of cremation was introduced in the northern part of the Netherlands (Drenthe) at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age. It remained the common form of burial throughout the first half of that period (MBA-A) and was replaced by inhumation of fully stretched corpses (preserved äs silhouettes) in proper coffins in the second half of the Middle Bronze Age (MBA-B)

Despite the differences both cultural complexes north and south also influenced each other:

There were, however, also similarities between the two areas: in both areas barrows were erected on heavily podzolized soils using sods cut from those soils, in both areas these barrows were surrounded by circles of postholes during the Middle Bronze Age and were used for later secondary burials […] Moreover, stretched inhumation was occasionally practiced in the south while cremation started to be introduced in the north.

I wonder what Cunliffe and Koch already figured out about the natives of the North Sea region, since genetic evidence suggests a complicated history. Elsewhere along the Atlantic belt, a Celtic identity in the Late Bronze Age correlates well with a genetic signature still dominated by Y-chromosomes marked by mutation R1b-P312, but this approach fails in the Low Countries. For sure not even the Hilversum Culture could replace all Middle Bronze Age native communities, being part of the contemporary Elp Culture that kept its most important stronghold just to the northeast. I count on Cunliffe to have noticed this problem of Middle Bronze Age continuity in the (Ingvaeonic) northwest of continental Europe that remained virtually unaffected by Atlantic expansions in the Late Bronze Age. If Hilversum Culture was too early for a Celtic identity then how much of its geographic reach could emerge as Celtic in historic times?
However, if Celtic expansion to the Low Countries should be traced back to Atlantic influences in the Bronze Age, then the issue of local cohabitation should be addressed as well. The Celtic blueprint conceived in coastal languages of later periods (Frisian!) might have provided a complicated mixture to start with, part of which probably only nominally Celtic.

Genetic evidence points at an abundance of YDNA R1b-P312 markers for the Celtic/Atlantic hemisphere, though unfortunately this didn’t get the picture straight north of the Rhine. Different degrees of marker differentiation into subclades might point at special circumstances in the Netherlands. At first sight ‘Celtic’ intrusions from the Isles would suggest a profusion of typical British YDNA markers like R1b-L21, but so far such results are far from convincing. The region is littered with R1b-U106 instead, a marker that typically runs high among Germanic Anglosaxons and low among Celts. This R1b-U106 marker clearly diverged from the combined Atlantic “Celtic” association under investigation, that heavily leans on the very prolific R1b-P312 sisterclade as a genetic marker. The vast majority of current YDNA results in the Low Countries simply doesn’t reveal the derived Celtic affiliation we are looking for. At most the ancestral association between P312 and U106 would rather indicate a separate native or ‘Belgae’ element having an ancestral relation with Celts. We can’t rule out that some P-Celtic strongholds survived up to Roman times, eg. at the coastal regions in the west. If so, where did the genetic evidence go?

Recent YDNA investigation in Belgium and the southern Netherlands revealed much more of the Celt’s potential P312 marker. Unlike the British situation, where P312’s L21-subclade dominates, this P312 population opposite the Channel doesn’t feature a predominantly single subclade grouping: up to date only the U152 mutation of the P312 subclade has a clear reading, moreover frequently associated with an additional L2 mutation, that narrows the scope of origin even more and apparently to the Upper Rhine rather than ‘Atlantic’ Britain. Not unlike U106, U152 could thus be excluded as ‘the universal Atlantic marker’ that accompanied the Celts at their purported arrival in the coastal marches.

One possible explanation for the ‘undifferentiated’ (or untested) P312 portion left may be that Celts already arrived in the neighborhood long before the differentiation of P312 in the main current subclades even occurred. Assumed that local domination of each known subclade of P312 essentially reflects younger events, than the initial spread of (undifferentiated) P312* and its current distribution simply shouldn’t reflect the emerging ‘Celtic’ subdivisions. The early age of the Hilversum Culture is in agreement with this results, but there is more in it than a possible (much) earlier onset of Celtic influence. Beware, there still may be some undiscovered mutations that reveal even more substructure downstream P312, even in the Low Countries. But how could P312 differentiate into predominantly L21 subclades on the Isles, and apparently into other prevalent subclades (or low diversity features such as Iberia) almost anywhere else in Western and Central Europe, but not in the Netherlands? And what does it mean, if this observation would indeed be correct?

Recent YDNA results in the Low Countries reveal substantial portions of potentially Celtic/Atlantic "undifferentiated" P312, but native U106 took the lead. 56% of all R1b in both West- and East-Flanders (WVL / OVL) is U106, compared to 44% in Brabant, and 36% in Limburg. P312* (in blue) shows an opposite gradient: 43% in Limburg, 35% in Brabant, 31% in East-Flanders and 26% in West-Flanders.

The predominant survival of highly diverse P312 may simply indicate the lack of successful young subclades. Was their development of subclades effectively suppressed by other, non-celtic elements that took the lead? Departing from the abundant availability of currently undetermined P312, the purportedly Celtic element that entered the Low Countries can’t be denied to have been numerous, but apparently their domination was short-lived. The subsequent leading groups inherited from another, probably more local element characterized by the R1b-U106 sister mutation of R1b-P312.

Schrijver made a case for Celtic substrate influences, ultimately linked to the Neolithic advance. Especially the Celts of NW Europe were affected, and they in turn passed some of their linguistic features over to the Ingvaeonic hemisphere, that includes the West-Germanic coastal regions of the Northsea: West Flanders, Holland, Frisia, England, and to a lesser extend also more inland continental regions. Exaggerated Ingvaeonic use of verbs like to come, to become and to do all seem to compensate for ancestral Celtic restrictions. Still, linguists such as Gysselink and Van Durme identified ancestral linguistic features in the Low Countries that are impossible to derive from Celtic, hence dubbed ‘Nordwestblock’ or ‘Belgic’. For instance, the Celto-Italian languages miss the glottal stop, probably an important PIE feature, and their IE vocabulary is remarkable distinct. Nordwestblock linguistic features, on the other hand, definitely included the glottal stop, like Germanic. This adds up to the scenario that Celts were immigrants that remained in close contact to surviving native elements. How did this mixture look like, and how “Celtic” their identity could remain?

Caesar was the first to tell us more about the Belgae, a brave powerful confederation of tribes in the north of Gallia, that was clearly distinct from neighboring tribes. The precise ethnic identity of the Belgae, as well as their language, is still a mystery. Caesar suggested their tribal affiliations were predominantly Germanic, at least historically:

[…] that the greater part of the Belgae were sprung, from the Germans, and that having crossed the Rhine at an early period, they had settled there, on account of the fertility of the country, and had driven out the Gauls who inhabited those regions; and that they were the only people who, in the memory of our fathers, when all Gaul was overrun, had prevented the Teutones and the Cimbri from entering their territories (Ceasar, D.B.G., 2.4.2)

Still, a lot of reasons were perceived to link Belgae to the Celts, not least of all because the Romans assigned their territory to Gaul. Their status of “having crossed the Rhine at an early stage” thus was readily argued to be part of a premeditated design to claim their “Gaulish” lands. However, bolstered by the Celtic names that prevailed among the Belgae, archeologists could readily reconcile this trans-Rhine origin according to Caesar with a Celtic identity anyway, because this happened to coincide perfectly with their ideas of an alleged Central European Hallstatt/La Tene origin. Caesar should thus be all wrong, instead the Belgae were proposed to be Celtic refugees being pushed over the Rhine by increasing Germanic pressures and expansion, rather than being of Germanic stock themselves. Indeed, unlike the Germanic people described by Tacitus, the Belgae were participants of the La Tène culture and their personal and tribal names were often Celtic. Caesar already distinguished the “Germani cisrhenani” among them: Germanic tribes that according to Caesar crossed the Rhine much earlier. Note that about 150 years later the surviving representatives of Ceasars “Germani cisrhenani” were not mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus anymore. Instead this writer claims the Tungri were among the first Germani to cross the Rhine. For really being the first the Tungri should have been the contemporaries of the Eburones, what would be irreconcilable to Caesar’s account – unless Tacitus employed a very different definition of the Germanic identity than Ceasar. Modern interpretation holds them to have crossed the rivers later, to occupy the abandoned wastelands of the Eburones (Germani cisrhenani), once these people were claimed exterminated by Caesar – again contradicted by his own account:

The name Germany, on the other hand, they say is modern and newly introduced, from the fact that the tribes which first crossed the Rhine and drove out the Gauls, and are now called Tungrians, were then called Germans.

Caesar didn’t mention the Tungrians at all, but Tacitus didn’t mention the Germani cisrhenani mentioned by Ceasar. This potential anachronism may be solved by recognizing Tacitus’ contemporary ideas about the Germanic ethnicity as very different from ours. The rebel Eburones may have been only culturally exterminated, to the effect that their impoverished descendents continued their survival at the same deplorable cultural level as elsewhere in the war-ridden Roman borderlands, thus now legitimally referred at by Tacitus as ‘Germanic.’

It has all appearance the “Germani” received their Latin name for being the brothers (~ L. germanus) of people that dwelled on the conquered hither, or Roman side of the Rhine. This sets them apart as the brothers of the Belgic “intruders”, thus being next of kin to the perceived “aliens” in Gaulish territory that the Caesar claimed for the Romans in his war against the Celtic “foe”. What was the truth behind the Roman assertion that Belgae were not indigenous? Unlike the Aquitani, that harbored another non-Celtic population, the Belgae were not subordinate in any way to the fiefs of Celtica. Neither they were directly involved in the historic Gallic sack of Rome at 390 BC and thus didn’t make a credible natural enemy of Rome. Wouldn’t Caesars claims on territories so far to the north be legally void if the Belgae were held native to this part of Gaul? And if they were native, what gave the Romans the credence that possibly they weren’t? Maybe the Belgic expansive past had something to do with it, like with the Sequani, or with the Suessiones from the neighbourhood of Soissons, possibly an even more important Belgic tribe:

That the Suessiones […] possessed a very extensive and fertile country; that among them, even in our own memory, Divitiacus, the most powerful man of all Gaul, had been king; who had held the government of a great part of these regions, as well as of Britain (Ceasar, D.B.G., 2.4)

Remarkable that Caesar could relate the veracity of this history to his people’s “own memory”. This doesn’t exactly imply an exception, and utter ignorance of all other previous whereabouts of the Belgae. The Roman picture of Celts being the original inhabitants thus deserves closer scrutiny. From Cunliffe and Koch we already know that the Celts may have spread along the Atlantic coasts. Their foothold in the northern region does not exclude a mixed population and a strong native element. Indeed, the Belgae, non-Celtic element could have originated in the neighbourhood, beyond the memory of anybody. We should assess their cultural, linguistic and ethnic position to make a comparison with the only other potential natives of the wider region we know of: the Germanic tribes.

Caesar was inclined to assign the Belgae a Germanic origin or identity, but apparently Tacitus narrowed down the criteria substantially. Even though he idealizes the physique “purity” of those he considered truly Germanic, he focused on cultural arguments to set the Germanic world apart, albeit ignoring linguistic evidence. Obviously, in their Celtic association the Belgae didn’t meet his “ideal” of cultural backwardness, at least in his time, long before the ultimate Roman withdrawal that preluded the abysmal cultural decline known as the Migration Period. Belgae claims to any Germanic identity were reduced to an ideal: “The Treverians and Nervians aspire passionately to the reputation of being descended from the Germans“.

The modern Germanic denomination is defined by language and can’t be equated to the Roman definition. Due to the Celtic influence and their cultural achievements it may have been impossible for them to appreciate the ethnic ties between Belgae and Germanic. Until today Tacitus’ approach is influential and archeologists still tend to distinguish ethnicity by a purported ability to tell a metal coin apart from a cow. But all the contrary, the traditional denomination of the Germani may involve just a subset of a single people on both sides of the Rhine.

While Ceasar reckons the Belgae essentially as Germani that adapted to the Gallic way of life, Tacitus obviously disagreed when he wrote in Germania:

“The Germans themselves I should regard as aboriginal, and not mixed at all with other races through immigration or intercourse.”

“For my own part, I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germany are free from all taint of intermarriages with foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves.”

Tacitus’ picture of the Germani clearly owes much to the tradition of ‘hard primitivism’ (Rives). His Germania was a political document to contrast Roman decadence with the values of the “noble savage”. The purported “purity” of race and behaviour, however, was contradicted by their strife and tribal heterogeneity. Archeology doesn’t confirm Tacitus’ presentation of a homogeneous Germanic people, nor does YDNA markers reveal genetic unity: YDNA haplogroup R1b-U106, once considered a “Germanic marker”, turned out to be dominant only in some regions of NW Europe (Low Countries, NW France, England): the subclade runs low in Scandinavia, and only measure intermediate frequencies in Germany. At low frequencies U106 could be considered widespread and applicable to almost all Germanic speaking areas, but the highest frequency zone almost exclusively fits the historic Belgae whereabouts, almost as if especially there to defy the would-be Germanic homogeneity that is commonly upheld.

Closer scrutiny reveals even Tacitus being ambiguous on the fabled Germanic homogeneous unity. The following line, when he expressed his serious concerns about the Germanic power, says it all:
“May the Gods continue and perpetuate amongst these nations, if not any love for us, yet by all means this – their animosity and hatred towards each other: since whilst the destiny of the Empire thus urges it, fortune cannot more signally befriend us, than in sowing strife amongst our foes.”

The processes towards heterogeneity are likely to have affected both Celts and the native element. Ingvaeonic features may point at a gradual language shift from Celtic to Frisian, but from a Nordwestblock perspective there might have been an intermediate stage. It could be argued that Frisian didn’t draw directly from a Celtic substratum, but instead from a heavily Celtified native element that inherited from a linguistic group more closely related to Germanic. Nordwestblock languages are described to feature an abundance of suffices already lost in Germanic, that instead follow the Celtic use of compound words. Phonetic conservatism and features like “nn” gemination, a typical doubling of consonants in toponyms often identified as ‘Nordwestblock,’ are proposed to point at tendencies that refer to a linguistic situation dating before the Celtification of Belgium and Northern Gaul. To a lesser extend West and Central Gaul may be included, even up to the Garonne. More striking are similarities in Germanic, where gemination accompanied the weakening of the glottal.

Glottalization is found in five out of the ten surviving branches of Indo-European, viz. Indic, Iranian, Armenian, Baltic, and Germanic. (Kortlandt, 1993)

This feature tends to correlate the Nordwestblock substratum geographically to the group of languages in the North European Plain rather than the Atlantic, thus to the archeological horizon that also includes the northern Dutch group, referred to by Louwe Kooijmans.

The emerging Atlantic view and the potential exclusion of the Celtic origin from the North European Plain is screaming for a new assessment that relates Celtic and Germanic from the perspective of a western contact zone. The Germanic vocabulary might owe more from the west than previously conceived. Visualized by some examples, the Cornish/Welsh word lann or llan occurs frequently in place-names. Originally meaning “land”, it gradually came to mean “churchyard” and then “church” and “parish”. But how strong this original meaning ‘land’ can be confirmed to be embedded in the Celtic language? It could have been a Belgic loan, closely related or equal to Germanic “land”. In the Atlantic view the reverse might be true.

The Dutch river mouth mentioned by Pliny the Elder was called Helinium in accusitivus, what would probably indicate a Latin river name Helinius, consistent with the Latin ending -us that generally applies to rivers. Normally, -ius instead of simply -us would imply a derivation of a region called Helinus. In Frisia numerous toponyms feature the hel element, what Clerinx translates into “low lands, marsh” and subsequently connects to Brythonic “marsh” or “estuary”. Other Celtic etymologies have been proposed, like “salt” – probably inspired by now obsolete ideas that involve a Hallstatt origin of Celtic. The Friso-Brythonic etymology does a much better job in addressing reminiscent Celtic features in Frisian, or the Ingvaeonic hemisphere as a whole. The implication would be that the -lin suffix might as well have been Germanic, distorted by Latin transcription issues. This intertwining of ancestral Celtic heritage and west Germanic loans and culture could be extended to the puzzling etymology of local goddess Nehalennia (also transcribed as Neihalennia), that now from a mixed local heritage easily translates to water-ghost (nikker ~IE *neig, to wash) of a region called Halennia – not unlike the latinized form Helinus deduced above. Since the description of the region delimited by Pliny between Helinium ac Flevum neatly corresponds to the historic region of Holland, I wonder if this is mere coincidence or that Holland indeed represent the ultimate indication of a lost Celtic heritage. This mixture could be symptomatic for the almost intangible potpourri that is might be implicated by the Nordwestblock or “Belgae” denomination. This may have been nothing but emerging West Germanic from a shared heritage.

Worse, it might be impossible at all to draw the line between the northern proto-languages of Germanic and Nordwestblock. The Proto-Germanic period is where Grimm’s Law took effect and evolved into Germanic , having time-range 700-100 B.C. generally considered to be the best shot in the dark. The length of this period resembles the High German consonant shift, globally dated 3rd to 5th until 9th century AD, thus having taken 400-600 years to complete. This very recent 100 BC date boundary for Germanic is remarkable and may reveals a huge insecurity about the Germanic origin and expansion. Much more recent split dates between groups make the assumptions involved in the Germanic genesis even more tenuous. IMO, if that 100 BC date boundary is based on the first indications of post proto-Germanic Germanic, then those first Germanic attestations may as well represent the first onset for the spread of this sound shift. Germanic sciences are traditionally hampered by an overkill of migrational mischief, and most of the ideas are 18th-20th century debris. Taken the fragmentary information of frontier tribes in consideration, the Proto-Germanic period could as well have lasted between 100BC – 500AD, or 300 BC-100 AD, and thus in an alternative grouping equally well have included conservative Nordwestblock/Belgae dialects, depending on the degree of Celtic integration already achieved in (pre-)Roman times.

If we take Cunliffe and Koch seriously, the Celtic influence along the North Sea was a lot older than conventional wisdom that stems from migrational La Tène or Hallstatt theories and the Roman interpretation: Late Bronze Age at least, in a Bronze Age Atlantic context. In the Low Countries such an unequivocal Atlantic period is very likely to be of an even older date. Some Celts might have lingered in the swamps for a longer period, but increasing continental contacts from the North German Plain and returning native styles seriously challenge the survival of an unequivocal Celtic ethnicity up to Roman times. The change from Celtic to Germanic, and especially the Ingvaeonic part, could have been much more gradual. A Celtic world strongly suggests the feasibility of an adjacent non-Celtic world, and the Low Countries is where both worlds met. It would be silly to suggest a unified Celtic world that existed since Bronze Age, but deny any consistency of a non-Celtic world in the North German Plains that was attested largely contemporaneous. A shared development at the contact zone for over at least 1000 years opens up the possibility of thorough Celtic influences on Germanic vocabularity and linguistic features in the north that ultimately were be no means confined to the Ingvaeonic hemisphere.


Referenced:

  • B. Cunliffe – Iron Age communities in Britain: an account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC until the Roman Conquest, 2005, link
  • J.T. Koch – A Case for Tartessian as a Celtic Language, 2009, link
  • J.T. Koch – Celtic culture: a historical encyclopedia, Volumes 1-5, 2006, link
  • P. Schrijver – Keltisch en de buren: 9000 jaar taalcontact,2007, link or try translate
  • H.Clerinx – Kelten en de Lage Landen, 2005 ISBN: 90-5826-324, p.78, 82
  • S. James – Exploring the World of the Celts, 1993, ISBN-13:978-0-500-27998-4, p.103,141,146
  • L P Louwe Kooijmans – An Early/Middle Bronze Age multiple burial at Wassenaar, the Netherlands, 1993, link
  • J.E. Bogaers – Over de naam van de godin Nehalennia, 1972, link
  • F. Kortlandt – General Linguistics and Indo-European Reconstruction,1993, link
  • Julius Caesar – The Gallic Wars (D.B.G.), link
  • Tacitus Germania – Translated with Introduction and Commentary by J.B. Rives, 1999, link. Try online translation here.
  • DNA-project oud hertogdom Brabant, 2009, link
  • Larmuseau et al. – Micro-geographic distribution of Y-chromosomal variation in the central-western European region Brabant, 2010

Further reading:

  • Celtic from the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archaeology, Genetics, Language and Literature, edited by Barry Cunliffe and John T. Koch (June 2010), announced
  • M. Counihan – An Etruscan Solution to a Celtic Problem, 2009, link

Gens Anglorum and the myth of Angeln

December 30, 2009 3 comments

During the reign of King Ælla of Deira (559/560-588 AD), the future pope Gregory the Great visited a slave market and met two boys for sale: “their bodies white, their countenances beautiful, and their hair very fine.” About 150 years later the Venerable Bede (672/673–735) tells the story in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum: Gregory the Great (Pope 590-604) created a naming precedence in the christian world that resulted in the prevalence of “Angles” in the clerical nomenclature for addressing the blessed and soon to be converted pagans of Britain. Ever since, according to modern historical insights, the “gens Anglorum” evolved into a unified English nation rather than the representation of a single Germanic tribe.

“Having viewed them, [Gregory] asked, as is said, from what country or nation they were brought? and was told, from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants were of such personal appearance. He again inquired whether those islanders were Christians, or still involved in the errors of paganism? and was informed that they were pagans. […]He therefore again asked, what was the name of that nation? and was answered, that they were called Angles. “Right,” said he, “for they have an angelic face, and it becomes such to be coheirs with the angels in heaven. What is the name,” proceeded he, “of the province from which they are brought?” It was replied, that the natives of that province were called Deiri. “Truly are they De iri,” said he, “withdrawn from wrath, and called to the mercy of Christ. How is the king of that province called?” They told him his name was Ælla; and he, alluding to the name, said, “Hallelujah, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts.”

However, a supratribal Anglian identity, a “gens Anglorum” that comprises all invading tribes, is an anachronism at the time of Bede. The all inclusive term “Anglo-Saxon” seems to appear in surviving native sources only from the late ninth century on. Anglian and Saxon cultures remained relatively distinct until at least the tenth century. Harris states that “any inquiry into Anglo-Saxon ethnogenesis must still confront the ethnic implications of Bede’s passage which relates the division of Germanic tribes in Britain into Angles, Saxons and Jutes.” According to him the composition of the gens Anglorum should be evaluated in the light of Bede’s “rhetorical strategy” to extend to his audience “a sense of identity” that could be in agreement to Gregory the Great’s nomenclature.

Bede’s purported aim was to spread the Christian faith, and consequently the tribal division in his writings is considered meaningful only within a theological and teleological context. Harris: “Bede’s evidence is best approached not in terms of how it reflects either the actual facts or common opinion, but in how it actively contributes to mythographic or ideological formations.”

The vast majority of Bede’s sentences are not about the Angles as a specific tribe, but as a nation (gens) that “shares constituative ethnic or socially binding characteristics connoted in the name ‘Angle’.” Evidence suggests that Bede was implying “the ultimate uncertainty of his sources” on this ethnical preposition. Describing the pagan advent Bede tells us that either the Angles or the Saxons were invited by a king, “Tunc Anglorum sive Saxonum gens.” The self-inflicted confusion now even seems to extend to the Germanic homelands, where every sense of community is now in doubt and also dismissed by historians as an anachronism.

This “ultimate uncertainty” is remarkable, since the Roman sources are quite favorable to a full identification of continental Angli with the Angrivari, the Saxon core population. Why Bede didn’t exploit this to give the concept of a united “gens Anglorum” more credibility? In his Geography, Ptolomy collected tribal information from primary sources that apparently used different naming traditions, where Angli and Angrivari were synonyms.

Ptolemy’s Geographia, version 1:
Of the people of the interior and those who live inland the most important are the Suevi Angili, who are to the east of the Langobardi extending towards the north and up to the central part of the Albis [~Elbe] river

Ex gentibus introrsum et in media terra habitantibus maximae sunt gentes Suevorum Angilorum, qui ad orientem sunt a Langobardis septentriones versus extenti usque ad mediam Albis fluvii partem

Ptolemy’s Geographia, version 2:
Minores vero etiam interiacent gentes et quidem inter Cauchos minores et Suevos Bructeri maiores, infra quos Chaemae; inter Cauchos maiores et Suevos Angrivarii, deinde Laccobardi, infra quos Dulgubnii; inter Saxones et Suevos Teutonoari atque Viruni; inter Pharodinos et Suevos Teutones atque Avarni.

The identity of Angili as Angrivari and of Laccobardi as Longobardi is hard to miss. Likewise, comparing the location of tribes according to Ptolemy with similar information supplied by Tacitus, we could propose the Chaemae to be identical to the Chamavi and hence identify the Lesser Chauci with the Chasuarians that purportedly dwelled along the Hase river in Germany, what would be a reasonable location.

Tacitus’ Germania:
“The Angrivarians and Chamavians are enclosed behind, by the Dulgibinians and Chasuarians”

More importantly, Tacitus considers the Angli to be among the mighty tribes that surrounds the Longobards and that are all defended by rivers or forests:

“What on the contrary ennobles the Langobards is the smallness of their number, for that they, who are surrounded with very many and very powerful nations, derive their security from no obsequiousness or plying; but from the dint of battle and adventurous deeds. There follow in order the Reudignians, and Aviones, and Angles, and Varinians, and Eudoses, and Suardones and Nuithones; all defended by rivers or forests.”

Bede shared Tacitus’ view on the Angles as a powerful nation: “Those who came over were of the three most powerful nations of Germany ­ Saxons, Angles, and Jutes.” A doubtful claim for the Angles, that remain virtually invisible in Roman sources – unless they could be identified as the Saxon Angrivari. However, the location of a Saxon Anglia between rivers or mountains doesn’t correspond to the shores implied by Bede’s “the country which is called Anglia […] between the provinces of the Jutes and the Saxons“. In other words, Bede’s information about the Anglian homelands doesn’t appear to derive from Roman sources nor does his knowledge confirm a Saxon tradition that unequivocally counted the Angles as an important Saxon grouping. That the pagan king of Deira is a namesake of the first king of the South Saxons Ælle is now reduced to mere coincidence. Thus while Angles once may have been a ruling race among Saxons, Bede passed their name to the potential christian “gens Anglorum” of Britain instead, in such a way that the Anglian denomination and rule became all but specifically linked to Saxons.

Bede’s “ultimate uncertainty” taken to the ultimate consequence should even make us wonder why the people he indicated as “Anglian” were so different and spoke a language that was not identical to the Saxonica lingua. He is careful to make the distinction when he defines “From the Angles […] are descended the East Angles, the Midland Angles, Mercians, all the race of the Northumbrians, that is, of those nations that dwell on the north side of the river Humber, and the other nations of the English.” Not his clerical ideology but his contemporary observations were at odds with the sources that defined the Angles rather as an important Saxon grouping. Archeology confirms different burial customs between Angles (inhumantion) and Saxons (cremation). For sure such a different ethnicity deserved a homeland of its own, that was clearly separated from the Old Saxony territories.

Angeln, situated north of the Danevirke.

The contemporary logic is all too obvious, though the sources are at odds with Bede’s preposition and this must have caused uncertainty. Suddenly the continental orgin of Angles becomes obscure. Harris: “Whereas the tribes of the Jutes and the Saxons (and the Picts and the British Irish, for that matter) are divided between those Jutes and Saxons who make their homes in Britain and those who make their homes elsewhere, Bede notes that Angulus “ab eo tempore usque hodie manere desertus” (“from that time and to this day remains deserted”) and that the Angles are whole, united, and integral.”

Probably Bede referred to the same stretch of land mentioned in Alfred the Great’s 9th century addition to Orosius’ Historiae on Ottar’s voyage:

“And from Sciringesheal, he said that he sailed in five days to the trading-town which they call Hedeby; this stands between the Wends and the Saxons and the Angles, and belongs to the Danes. When he sailed there from Sciringesheal, then Denmark was to the port and open sea to the starboard for three days; and then for two days before he came to Hedeby there lay to his starboard, Jutland, and Zealand and many islands. The Angles dwelt in those lands before they came here to this country. And for those two days there lay to his port those islands which belong to Denmark.”

This region has been identified as Angeln, north of the defensive wall called “Danevirke” in the neighbourhood of Hedeby. According to carbon-14 dating Danish ramparts were build here as early as 650 AD, on the isthmus between the Treene and the Schlei. Thus Angeln was contested borderland between Saxony and Danmark, and as such indeed very likely to be deserted at the time of Bede. Actually, the name “Angeln” may very well reflect the Saxon history of this land before it fell into the possession of the Danes.

The Saxon hegemony in the north finally ended in the Saxon Wars (772 – 804), when Charlemagne subdued them. Most likely this event accelerated a period of dwindling influence in the north, marked by the advance of Danes in the north and Slavic people in the east. The relation of the Saxons with the Danes was ambiguous, though it is likely there were periods of strife and commercial relations that finally resulted in a fixation of the Danish expansion to Schleswig, the subsequent Saxon retreat from Angeln, and the onset of the Daneworks. The Danes could have named their piece of conquered land Angeln for the same reason why Saxon regions in the Netherlands are still littered by placenames like “Engeland“.

The people that Bede indicated as “Anglian” were different from the Saxons of his time. Hines: “In Bede, Saxons usually turn up for military victories, whereas the Angles are often mentioned in matters of religion. The Saxons rather than the Angles are connected with the migrations to Britain.” All the contrary according to Procopius, that didn’t register Saxons at all and “mentions that the king of the Franks had recently sent an embassy to Justinian bringing a few Angles that had emigrated to the Frankish kingdom ‘to estabilish his claim that this island was ruled by him’” (Hines, 1997). Their language was definitely unlike the “lingua Brittaniae” Bede mentions, and to a lesser extend distinct from the language of the Saxons as well. These differences for sure supplied another reason underpinning Bede’s “ultimate uncertainty” that prevented his full understanding or acceptance of the sources. His identification of Saxons as a kind of Angles remained tentative in his first book. Bede, of course, wouldn’t admit the status of “ruling race” to be exclusive for the heathen Saxons through their possible identity with Angles, although taking the sources literally it would have been easy to do so. His agreement on a lost Anglian homeland, exempt from Saxon rule, rather appears to be a concession to the contemporary status quo and “truths” than driven by his religious desire to design a worthy mythology for all. Apparently the Anglian denomination was already “usurped” by the “gens Anglorum” before Bede made his religious efforts. This “gens Anglorum” did not identify themselves with the Saxon invaders at all and their collective memory of a homeland oversea did not agree with the Saxons, that through Alfred even did some efforts of their own to locate the Anglian homeland.

In the Celtic world the Anglo-Saxons usually figure as Saxones or Saeson. Only the Book of Ulster knew Offa, king of Mercia, as “a good king of the Angles”, what could have referred to the treatment of his subjects. However, the Book referred to Bede’s “Anglian” north as Northern Saxonland (“918. The men of Scotland, moreover, moved against them and they met on the bank of the Tyne in northern Saxonland.”). The title Rex Anglorum is used by the East Anglian kings of Rædwald, Aethelstan and Eadmund in their coinage. The East Anglian rulers are normally styled rulers of the East Angle people (Angli Orientales), not of East Anglia (Anglia Orientalis). According to Ranulf, about 800 the West Saxon King Egbert commanded that all the men of the land be called “English”. King Alfred, a West Saxon, issued coins using the title “Rex Anglorum”, king of the English.

To our best knowledge a person’s ethnicity was defined according to his or her birthplace and city of residence, and so are the English. No other examples exist in history of an ethnicity that actually changed its historical name because of the conversion to christianity, neither there is a clear indication they actually did: Procopius already proclaimed in the 6th century – ie. before Gregory! – that Britain was divided between Angili, Phrissones and Britons. The alternative explanation but religion is that “gens Anglorum” was already employed to refer to the pre-invasion population, though they can’t be the Britons. The only ethnicity we know of that abundantly populated the British province in Roman times were the Belgae. If so, their claims for being “Anglians” were semi-native and not derived from or competitive to the invaders, but merely coincided with the Saxon polyethnic constitution.

Several etymologies for the Angles coexist, as well as for the Saxon Angri. Their apparent similarity could easily be understood as coincidental, even in the case of a similar etymological origin. How likely it would be that such etymological similarity wouldn’t necessarily reflect any ethnic unity? According to Julius Pokorny the stem Angri- in Angrivarii and Angl– in Anglii all come from the same root meaning “bend“. However, a geographic explanation that e.g. refers to the Northsea coast bending north at Holstein would be exclusively valid for the Angrivarii, but rendered useless for “gens Anglorum” that are now proposed to be native to Britain. Would there be another possible etymology that may involve a deeper relationship or reminiscent constitution that equally survived on both sides of the Northsea in the institution of a ruling race by the name Angli/Angri?

Maybe the origin of Gens Anglorum is more native to England than any Angrivarii-related immigrants from the continent would ever be. This would lead us to Celts or Belgae. Since Celts can be safely excluded from a significant role in Anglo-Saxon history, we could take a closer look at the Belgae. These people remain largely unknown, except for the fact that their people were either Celtic or Germanic, and that their immigration to England in Roman times has been convincingly attested by archeology. But what British Belgae could have in common with the Saxons that they were acquainted with an honorific title like Angle, synonymous to Angri? The answer may be very simple once the Germanic identity of Belgae is accepted. Like other Germanic people around the Northsea they are likely to have shared the Inguaeonic religion that was current before the Migration Period. Ing- toponyms are quite numerous in Belgic territory. Then Angri as well as Angli are more likely to be both reminiscent of the ancient Ingwaz cult. As a matter of common pre-Migration Period origin, the ruling races of Anglians and Angrivari alike once just happened to represent the god Ingwaz in his earthly realm.

Referenced:

  • Bede, Social Practice, and the Problem with Foreigners – Stephen J. Harris, Essays in Medieval Studies 13 (1998), 97-107, link
  • Bede – Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (HE), link
  • The making of English national identity – Krishan Kumar, 2003, link
  • Tacitus – Germania, link
  • Ptolemy – Geographia, Book II Chapter 1o, link
  • Sharon Turner – The history of the Anglo-Saxons (on Alfred’s additions in his translation of Osorius), link
  • The Voyage of Ottar, link
  • John Hines – The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective, 1997, link

Who were the Mercians?

December 9, 2009 8 comments

As we all know, dialects descending from Mercian eventually succeeded in driving all other Anglosaxon dialects in virtual extinction: including West Saxon, our most copious source of Old English writing, that must have been the southern neighbour of Mercian at the time of king Penda of Mercia. The dialects developed into Middle English and modern English. Kitson (1997):

Accidents of subsequent history […] caused the dialect of an area of the south-east midlands which for a while was in the Danelaw to become the most direct ancestor of modern standerd English. But these were not the areas of prime literary and cultural importance in either Old English or early Middle English. […] The most important for literature, and most standardized, of early Middle English dialects was the so called AB Language […], certainly of somewhere in north Herefordshire.

Important texts for the reconstruction of the evolution of Middle English out of Old English are the Ormulum, the Ancrene Wisse and the Katherine Group and Ayenbite of Inwyt. The language of the Ormulum (12th century) is an East Midlands dialect; the dialect of Ancrene Wisse and the Katherine Group is referred to as AB language: The term coined in 1929 by J.R.R. Tolkien who noted that the dialect of both manuscripts is highly standardized, pointing to “a ‘standard’ language based on one in use in the West Midlands in the 13th century.”; Ayenbite of Inwyt was written over a century later in a Kentish dialect (1340).
Chancery Standard, used from the late 14th century onward for administrative purposes, was largely based on the London and East Midland dialects, for those areas were the political and demographic centres of gravity.

These Mercian dialects happened to represent the Ingveonic developments on both sides of the Northsea, more than any other Anglosaxon dialect we know. Part of this shared development is documented in Anglo-Frisian runes. Looijenga:

“The early English and Frisian runic traditions used a fuþork of 26 letters, i.e. the common Germanic fuþark extended with two additional runes: [4] and [25]. The new graphemes were obviously needed to represent phonemes developed from the allophones of long and short as the results of Ingveonic soundchanges”

For all we know the changes were analogous in Anglosaxon and Frisian and a unique testimony of shared developments. The divide only started in Period II: “From the 7th century onwards, runic writing in England underwent a separate development”.
Hence, the end of the Anglo-Frisian tradition and the start of a distinct Anglo-saxon runic tradition are dated at about 700 AD.

D. Minkova (2003) admits the abundant use of alliteration in the Anglo-Saxon records is hardly illuminating for the proposed phenemic splits often hypothetized to explain certain “Frisian” linguistic features that only emerge in Middle English. In particular, this involved the transition of Old English ‘k’ into ‘ch’ /t$/. An example is the etymological changes of the word ‘church’, being ‘chirche’ in Middle English while still ‘cirice’in Old English. The Frisian equivalent is ‘tjerke’.

In the philological literature […] positing an early phonemicization of [k’] to /t$/ has seemed an analytical imperative because the need to keep the cinn ‘chin’ set of words distinct from the set of words containing secondarily palatized [k’-], as in cynn ‘kin’ […] The logic is that the phonemicization of [k’-] to /t$/ has to precede I-Umlaut, otherwise cinn and cynn would have fallen together.

[…] indiscriminate alliteration on ‘c-‘, irrespective of the etymology and quality of the following vowel, occurs throughout the entire Old English period, with examples from the earliest texts to [..] The Death of Edward (1065).

The assumption that alliteration in the Anglo-Saxon records is illuminating entails that the split of early Old English /k/ into [k] and [t$] did not occur until the end of the tenth century, or even somewhat later. Within English historical phonology, this is a bold hypothesis, adjusting the record by at least one, and as much as four, centuries, depending on which scholar’s work one believes in.

The development of /t$/ in Middle English is thus a well-understood typological process which various linguistic models can accomodate well. The phonetic and structural naturalness of the change of [k] to [t$], however, is independent of its dating.

Even if the development can be seen as contributing to the stability of the Middle English consonant system, for Old English this argument can be abandoned.

Minkova summarized the conflict between the evidence in Old English verse and the accepted linguistic reconstruction thus:

Early OE Late OE
Alliteration: ‘c-‘ and ‘c-‘ ‘c-‘ and ‘c-‘
Reconstruction: [k] and [k’] /k/ and /t$/

Obviously, nothing changed in the use of Old English alliteration that could backup the accepted linguistic reconstruction of k-affrication. To solve this problem of a credible transition between Old English and Middle English, Minkova proposes the following:

[…] [k’] should be split into two subtypes, [kj] and [k’]. Here is my proposal […]
Hogg (1979) was the first to point out that the chronological ordering of palatalization/affrication of [k’] to [t$] prior to I-Umlaut is not at all straightforward, nor, as I will show below, is it necessary.

500-700 AD: split between [kj] and [k]
700-800 AD: I-Mutation [k] => [k’] and [k]
1000 AD – ME: [kj] => [t$].

Thus, Minkova proposes a phenemic split in Old Englsh that can’t be traced in Old English literature ‘for a reason’, but whose effects would only become current in the first attestations of Midland dialects, commonly attribued a huge influence on the development of Middle English and Modern English. How we can make sure this proposal really applies to the attested body of Wessex Old English literature? The split can’t be attested directly in Old English and moreover has to deal with a “conumdrum” of discrepancies, that one way or the other point to hybridization: of related languages like Norse – or of closely related dialects within the Anglosaxon hemisphere. Minkova was obliged to stress the importance of crossovers in the phenemic transition:

[…] crossovers which must be due to unrecoverable paradigmatic and external factors […] these are the leaky edges of a generally tight filter of constraints […] Some such pairs are care-chary, cold-chill, kettle-chettel (dial.), kirk-church, and, word-medially, the histories of milk – milch, muckle (dial.) – much, seek – beseech, -wick – -wich.

Minkova’s assessment of hypothetized intermediate stages in the process towards k-affrication is interesting

It is well established that the progressive coronalization of the velars and their affrication is a lenition process, and that lenition is positionally determined. The ninth-century data are therefore interpretable straightforwardly as the first step in the process which results in across-the-board phonemic contrast between the voiceless velars and the palatals in the eleventh century.
[…]
In comparison, the development of affricates in root-initial positions was slowed down due to the strength of the onset: identity is preserved longest in that position, especially if the onset belongs to a stressed syllable. It is this fundamental destribution privilege which allows all root-initial voiceless velars to continue to be identified as belonging to the same linguistic entity until much later

His assessment is backed up by amazingly few examples:

The earliest scribal evidence of affrication in Old English comes from spellings, as in ‘to fetch'< *fetjan
[…]
Hogg (1992) assumes that such spellings, common in late West Saxon, attest to affricated pronunciation, at least for the sequence dental stop + /j/, "by at the latest the beginning of the ninth century."
[note 81: …] but he cites no evidence supporting the assumption.

Unfortunately, this “feccan” example is hampered by the observation that “to fetch” finds cognates in O.Fris. fatia “to grasp, seize, contain,” Dutch vatten, German fassen, that firmly contradict any specific Old English soundchange.

Minkova’s hypothetic phenemic split, however, happened to concur with Looijenga’s Period I of runic inscriptions (until 700 AD) that attest shared developments of an Anglo-Frisian nature.
Indeed, such a shared development would hardly make sense after 715 AD, when Frisian hegemony was already destroyed by the Franks, and Frisian traders for sure didn’t play a major role in the Midlands. Reminiscent contact was bound to vanish altogether with the Vikings, well before the very first attestations of k-affrication in English literature. Additional induction towards this change at any later date is out of the question, and also Post-Conquest loans and formations […] do not go through the same process.

The question arises if earlier ‘Frisian’ northsea penetrations into Mercia thus wouldn’t supply a better explanation. This would have been contemporary to the Anglo-Frisian runic tradition along the English east coast and may have been still traceable in the Mercian history about the time of king Penda and his father Pybba.

Mercia has a remarkable history. It is considered Anglian and Northumbria claimed it as a province, though Penda and his successors spend their lives fighting wars with all of their neighbours. Mercia is thought to derive from an Old English equivalent of “Mark”, probably referring to the borderland between Anglia and Saxon territory, though the Mercians hardly see this as an implicit obligation to represent Northumbrian power and its expansion to the south: Mercia presents itself as more than a breakaway Anglian kingdom, with Penda it adopts an ambitious policy to subdue Britain and fights Northumbians as well as East Anglians and as a declared heathen probably was also dedicated to deal with the last vestiges of Frankish influence. Mercia was without doubt the most powerful kingdom during much of its existence, and still always remained an outsider: none of their powerful kings were ever recognized as Bretwalda.

So how could this political situation exist? Probably we need an assessment of who the Mercians really were. However, this question can’t be resolved without an assessment of the Anglosaxon identity.
According to Harris Bede’s Gens Anglorum is “not about the Angles, but about a tribe who shares constituative ethnic or socially binding characteristics connoted in the name “Angle.

In asking about the actual composition of Bede’s gens Anglorum, we ought to consider Wolfram’s caution, which comes in the shape of a definition too broad to be of any practical use. In his History of the Goths, he notes, “A gens is . . . a fraction of a tribe as much as a confederation of several ethnic units.” Considering, then, that Bede’s gens Anglorum might not actually refer to an ethnically homogenous group, we may conclude that ethnic or tribal identity, rather than being a material or physical quality, belongs instead to the realm of received or proffered myths and names.
Thus, it appears the name “Anglian” already achieved a political connotation at the time of Bede, that included the whole island as a nation rather than being a tribal entity. This whole circumstance puts the powerful Mercian outsider in a whole different context.

Harris: Wormald claims that the term gens Anglorum is an ecclesiastical designation, ultimately borrowed from Gregory the Great’s letters to Augustine: What this meant was that, from Theodore’s arrival at the latest, all Anglo-Saxons were exposed to a view of themselves as a single people before God a people who, though they lived in “Britannia” or “Saxonia” and though they called themselves Saxons as well as Angles, were known in Heaven as the “gens Anglorum.”

Whereas the tribes of the Jutes and the Saxons (and the Picts and the British Irish, for that matter) are divided between those Jutes and Saxons who make their homes in Britain and those who make their homes elsewhere, Bede notes that the Angles are whole, united, and integral.

The interpretation of Harris is that all invading tribes thus must have been “Angles” according to Bede. However, the opposite may be true as well: that none of the invading tribes were necessarily considered a constituent part of “gens Anglorum”, since Bede considered this an ecclesiastical designation. The heathen Mercian least of all.

The position of Mercians as heathen antagonists was confirmed by the presumably 7th century hoard found in Staffordshire, captured from their opponents. Religious strife was already attested at this early period by the inscription that was translated thus: “Rise up O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face.” The question of who is who within the early Anglosaxon world, and what differences between germanic culture and the Roman heritage really entail, seems to be more complicated than thought.

Thus being distinct from other Anglosaxons, who were the Mercians?

Few if any archeological remains are available to give clarity on their precise ethnic affiliations. Nearby Birmingham seems to be founded by “Beorsma’s people”, that probably belonged to the same group. Beorsma, it is funny that anybody in the Netherlands would associate such a name directly to typical Frisian surnames: Boersma, Bouma, Beetsma to name just a few. Would it be fruitful to link Mercia to the Anglo-Frisian North-Sea runic tradition, and investigate the feasability of Frisians sailing up the Trent to become the forebears of Mercians?

It is noteworthy that, despite the formulaic claim to descent from Woden, some suggest that none of the names of Penda, his father Pybba and his son Peada have very convincing Anglo-Saxon etymologies.

Is there any relation to the Frisian-Frankish tradition to employ simplified nicknames? Pibe is a Frisian name and strongly reminds to Pipin, the name of several important Frankish dukes including the father of Charlemagne (also derived from a nickname). I wonder if employing such kind of nicknames (compare also nicknames like Pacho in Spanish ~Francisco) could be classified as English at all.

In the northeast the midland dialects follow the dividing line of unexploited wetlands in the Humber valley. The dialects of Kesteven and Holland belong to the Midland dialect group whereas north Lincolnshire belongs to the North England group. Even though from there the road to Mercia followed the only route through dry land, wetlands were exploited in the Midlands. Like southern Lincolnshire and East Anglia, the Midlands has brooks and worths and probably terp-like structures along the rivers as well. How likely it would be that Tamworth just refers to the Old English meaning of “enclosure” when it was build along the river Tame that is susceptible to spectacular flooding at the village of Hopwas between Tamworth and Lichfield during periods of heavy autumnal rain? Etymologically, the worth enclosure derives from woven wood. According to De Vries, Old English “wer” was also dam in a river made of woven branches reinforced with earth. Compare the “wet” connotation in Old Norse “ver”, a place for fishing along the coast. The name Tamworth thus is consistent to the view that people talking a dialect similar to Frisian found their way from the wetlands of Holland (England) and the surroundings of Loveden Hill to the early centers of power in Mercia.

The Humber estuary and Trent river happen to be close to the source of the earliest runes that attest Friso-Anglian soundshift in a new rune (‘ac“). Looijenga: “In England the oldest attestation of ac may be Loveden Hill hlaw, 5th or 6th c.”. They come from a pot that is linked directly to the continent, though some features also point to affinities with Kent and a “Jutish connection”.

Would there have been a “Frisian” route to Mercian Tamworth/Birmingham that passed through Loveden Hill? This location is at Hough-on-the-Hill (north of Grantham), within 2 kilometers of Frieston. Between Grantham and Tamworth, where the core of the Tomsaetan settled and once capital of Mercia, you’ll find Frisby-on-the-Wreake just before Leicester, that by the way is just west of another Frisby. It may be true that the Frisians left few topononyms, though here the concentration is remarkable high. On the other hand, Hough-on-the-Hill and nearby Hougham may suggest the involvement of their Chauci neighbours as well. The first terps already turn up in Holland e.g. in Pinchbeck, about 20 miles away from Loveden Hill, or even closer in Gosberton and Quadring.

Also genetically a strong Frisian connection to the Mercian Midlands could possibly make more sense:

[…] Y chromosome haplotypes in a sample of 313 males from seven towns located along an east-west transect from East Anglia to North Wales. The Central English towns were genetically very similar, whereas the two North Welsh towns differed significantly both from each other and from the Central English towns. When we compared our data with an additional 177 samples collected in Friesland and Norway, we found that the Central English and Frisian samples were statistically indistinguishable. (Weale et al, 2002)

More recently, a new subclade of R1b-U106 was found defined by mutation L257, whose members – five presumably geographic clusters have so far been identified – have the tendency to pop up in regions that may tell a specific Frisian story. Without being deluded by the scanty evidence, paper trails show that L257 most probably was already firmly rooted in Scotland (1000 AD), the Netherlands (1500) and Switzerland (1400). It is too early to decide this mutation may be typical as well to regions without some sort of Frisian tradition.

One possibility is the Scottish cluster of L257 is reminiscent of the Roman-Frisian presence along the Hadrian Wall, as archeologically attested by Housesteads Ware finds. This pottery has a strong relationship to contemporary pottery found in the northern part of the Netherlands. Jobey (1979) published about its relationship to “Frisian pottery” in Frisia, Groningen and Zuid Holland. New finds in Noord Holland can be added: Schagen, Uitgeest, Assendelver Polders, possibly the island of Texel. It has been dated between the first and fourth century AD, sometimes identified by the name Tritsum pottery that is a subdivision of what in Dutch is known as “Streepband-aardewerk” (something like “stripe strip pottery”), that by this name has been found all over along the Dutch coastal areas. The “oldest” Swiss/Dutch cluster of L257 (defined by U106*-like DYS464X=cccg) was found in the neighborhood of Aargau, northern Swiss. A peculiar Swiss tradition has it that Swiss was populated in the Migration Period by a considerable contigent of Frisians:

[…] in a chronicle written by one John Pfintiner of Uri, about 1414. In the Waldstetten the ethnographical legend of that chronicle
(which has perished) found, of course, ready credence and great favour. It was soon improved by Johann Friind, State Secretary of Schwyz, who composed an enlarged and embellished version of it. This official annalist gave most liberal details of the emigration of the Waldstetten people from Sweden and Frisia, and derives the name of Swiz, subsequently changed into Schwyz, from one of their leaders called Swyterus. (Buchheim 1871, p.xlvii)

A third cluster is also present in the Netherlands (where we could expect a presumably Frisian SNP), while the fourth has an undefined distribution in England. The fifth cluster, however, is specifically linked to one surname, Waters, that originates in Shropshire, Mercian territory.

Any Frisian legacy in Mercia may be against the “gut feelings” of those searching for the same trivial ethnical “family-traits” that may be so much easier to discern in other apparent Frisian relatives: just think about the unfamous Dutch/Swiss/Scottish “thriftiness”, Calvinism or other typical attitudes of the kind. However, in Mercia the hypothetized impact of this ethnic component, at the onset and in the aftermatch of the Migration Period, would appear rather attenuated. Notwithstanding the genetic results of Weale et al. (2002), Celtic influence on English was recently found to be greater than previously thought:

Although Laker’s investigation did reveal that Celtic influence on English was stronger than expected, such influence was not found in all regions of Britain. Very little influence was identified in dialects of southern England, namely in those varieties that were most influential to the formation of southern standard English pronunciations. By far most Celtic influence was identified in traditional northern English dialects (Universiteit Leiden News, 2010)

Major groupings in between include East Anglian English and Midlands English. The genetic cline east-to-west may be indicative of another Celtic substrate maximum in the western Midlands in particular, potentially able to supercede the importance of reminiscent continental influences.

Referenced:

  • Dennis Freeborn – From Old English to Standard English: a course book in language variation, 1998, link
  • Donka Minkova – Alliteration and sound change in early English, 2003, link
  • Steven Bassett – Anglo-Saxon Birmingham, 2000, link
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. (1929), “Ancrene Wisse and Hali Meiðhad”, Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association 14: 104–126
  • Robert van de Noort – Where are Yorkshire’s ‘Terps’? Wetland exploitation in the early medieval period, 2000, University of Exeter, link
  • J.H. Looijenga – Runes around the North Sea and on the Continent AD 150-700; Texts & Contents, 1997, University of Groningen, link
  • Stephen J. Harris – Bede, Social Practice, and the Problem with Foreigners, Essays in Medieval Studies 13 (1998), 97-107, link
  • Peter R. Kitson – When did Middle English begin? Later than you think! – Studies in Middle English linguistics/edited by Jacek Fisiak (1997), link
  • Michael E. Weale et al. – Y Chromosome Evidence for Anglo-Saxon Mass Migration, 2002, link
  • L257, A North Sea Tribe – Y-DNA Profiles
  • C.A Buchheim – German Classics: Lessing, Goethe, Schiller. Volume II – Wilhelm Tell, a Drama by Schiller, 1871, link
  • Stephen Laker – British Celtic influence on English phonology, 2010, link