In Gaulish and the Brythonic languages, a new *PIE|"p" sound has arisen as a reflex of the Proto-Indo-European *PIE|"kʷ" phoneme. Consequently one finds Gaulish "petuar [ios] ", Welsh "pedwar" "four", compared to Old Irish *"cethair" and Latin "quattuor". In so far as this new /p/ fills the space in the phoneme inventory which was lost by the disappearance of the equivalent stop in PIE, we may think of this as a chain shift.

The terms P-Celtic and Q-Celtic are useful when we wish to group the Celtic languages according to the way they handle this one phoneme. However a simple division into P- and Q-Celtic may be untenable, as it does not do justice to the evidence of the ancient Continental Celtic languages. The large number of unusual shared innovations among the Insular Celtic languages are often also presented as evidence against a P-Celtic "vs" Q-Celtic division, but they may instead reflect a common substratum influence from the pre-Celtic languages of Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and Wales, [] , in which case they would be irrelevant to Celtic language classification.

Q-Celtic languages may also have /p/ in loan words, though in some early borrowings from Welsh into Irish /k/ was used by sound substitution, as in Gaelic "Cothrige", an early form of "Padraig". Gaelic "póg" "kiss" was a later borrowing (from the second word of the Latin phrase "osculum pacis" "kiss of peace") at a stage where "p" was borrowed directly as "p", without substituting "c".


The Proto-Celtic vowel system is highly comparable to that reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European by Antoine Meillet. Dissimilarities include the incidence of Celtic *"ī" for Proto-Indo-European *"ē" (e.g., Gaulish "rix" and Irish "rí", "king"; compare Latin "rēx") and *"ā" in place of *"ō".

"dūnom" ‘stronghold’ (neuter)

*"u"-stem nouns

E.g. *"matus" ‘he-bear’ (masculine)

E.g. *"rīganīs" ‘queen’ (feminine)

E.g. *"druwits" ‘druid’ (masculine)

=Nasal stems=

Generally, nasal stems end in *-"on"-, this becomes *-"ū" in the nominative singular: *"abon-"- "river" > *"abū."

E.g. *"abū" ‘river’ (feminine)

*"r"-stem nouns

*"r"-stems are rare and principally confined to names of relatives. Typically they end in *-"ter"-, which becomes *-"tīr" in the nominative and *-"tr"- in all other cases aside from the accusative: *"φater"- ‘father’ > *"φatīr", *"φatros".

E.g. *"φatīr" ‘father’ (masculine)

In Scottish Gaelic this distinction is still found in certain verb-forms:

In Middle Welsh, the distinction is seen most clearly in proverbs following the formula "X happens, Y does not happen" (Evans 1964: 119):
*Pereid y rycheu, ny phara a'e goreu "The furrows last, he who made them lasts not"
*Trenghit golut, ny threingk molut "Wealth perishes, fame perishes not"
*Tyuit maban, ny thyf y gadachan "An infant grows, his swaddling-clothes grow not"
*Chwaryit mab noeth, ny chware mab newynawc "A naked boy plays, a hungry boy plays not"

The older analysis of the distinction, as reported by Thurneysen (1946, 360 ff.), held that the absolute endings derive from Proto-Indo-European "primary endings" (used in present and future tenses) while the conjunct endings derive from the "secondary endings" (used in past tenses). Thus Old Irish absolute "beirid" "s/he carries" was thought to be from *PIE|"bʰereti" (compare Sanskrit "bharati" "s/he carries"), while conjunct "beir" was thought to be from *PIE|"bʰeret" (compare Sanskrit "a-bharat" "s/he was carrying").

Today, however, most Celticists agree that Cowgill (1975), following an idea present already in Pedersen (1913, 340 ff.), found the correct solution to the origin of the absolute/conjunct distinction: an enclitic particle, reconstructed as *PIE|"es" after consonants and *PIE|"s" after vowels, came in second position in the sentence. If the first word in the sentence was another particle, *PIE|"(e)s" came after that and thus before the verb, but if the verb was the first word in the sentence, *PIE|"(e)s" was cliticized to it. Under this theory, then, Old Irish absolute "beirid" comes from Proto-Celtic *PIE|"bereti-s", while conjunct "ní beir" comes from *PIE|"nī-s bereti".

The identity of the *PIE|"(e)s" particle remains uncertain. Cowgill suggests it might be a semantically degraded form of *PIE|"esti" "is", while Schrijver (1994) has argued it is derived from the particle *PIE|"eti" "and then", which is attested in Gaulish.

Continental Celtic languages cannot be shown to have any absolute/conjunct distinction. However, they seem to show only SVO and SOV word orders, as in other Indo-European languages. The absolute/conjunct distinction may thus be an artifact of the VSO word order that arose in Insular Celtic.


The date when Proto-Celtic became a separate language is controversial. In the past an association with particular archaeological cultures had been assumed, then the method of glottochronology was used. Both are not satisfactory for many reasons. In the last decade or so a number of groups have addressed this question using modern computational methods, with differing results. Gray and Atkinson estimated a date of 6100 BP (4100 BCE) while Forster and Toth suggest a date of 8100 BP (6100 BCE), but such early dates are not generally accepted. Both these dates are subject to considerable estimating uncertainty, perhaps +/-1500 years. In the Paleolithic Continuity Theory Celtic is proposed to have emerged from the Iberian refuge after the Last Glacial Maximum, but this theory is not generally accepted.

Proto-Celtic may have been spoken to as late as 800 BCE, see Celtic languages.

ee also

*Halstatt culture
*La Tène culture


*cite book| last=Cowgill| first=Warren| authorlink=Warren Cowgill| year=1975| chapter=The origins of the Insular Celtic conjunct and absolute verbal endings| title=Flexion und Wortbildung: Akten der V. Fachtagung der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft, Regensburg, 9.–14. September 1973| editor=H. Rix, ed.| pages=40–70| location=Wiesbaden| publisher=Reichert
*cite book | author=Evans, D. Simon | title=A Grammar of Middle Welsh | location=Dublin | publisher=Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies | year=1964 | id=
* Forster, Peter and Toth, Alfred. "Towards a phylogenetic chronology of ancient Gaulish, Celtic and Indo-European" PNAS Vol 100/15, July 22, 2003.
* Gray, Russell and Atkinson, Quintin. "Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin" Nature Vol 426, 27 Nov 2003.
*Lane, George S. "The Germano-Celtic Vocabulary", Language (1933), 244-264.
*cite book | author=McCone, Kim | title=Towards a Relative Chronology of Ancient and Medieval Celtic Sound Change | location=Maynooth | publisher=Department of Old and Middle Irish, St. Patrick's College | year=1996 | id=ISBN 0-901519-40-5
*cite book | author=Pedersen, Holger | title=Vergleichende Grammatik der keltischen Sprachen | others=2. Band, Bedeutungslehre (Wortlehre)| location=Göttingen | publisher=Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht | year=1913 | id=ISBN 3-525-26119-5
*cite journal | author=Schrijver, Peter | title=The Celtic adverbs for 'against' and 'with' and the early apocope of *"-i" | journal=Ériu | year=1994 | volume=45 | pages=151–89
*cite book | author=Schrijver, Peter| title=Studies in British Celtic Historical Phonology | location=Amsterdam | publisher=Rodopi | year=1995 | id=ISBN 90-5183-820-4
*cite book | author=Thurneysen, Rudolf | title=A Grammar of Old Irish | others=Tr. D. A. Binchy and Osborn Bergin | location=Dublin | publisher=Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies | year=1946 | id=

External links

A reference for Proto-Celtic vocabulary is provided by the University of Wales at the following sites:
* [ Proto-Celtic English dictionary]
* [ English Proto-Celtic dictionary] Alternatively, the Leiden University provides a Proto-Celtic dictionary:
* [ Database query to An etymological lexicon of Proto-Celtic]

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