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TITLE: Prehistory, Linguistics and Galicia: Ancient Connections between Galicia and Ireland
DATE PUBLISHED: 25/09/2014


Usually, verbal paradigms change very Little over the years. In this paper, Séamas Ó Direáin analyzes the functional division of the verb "to be" into the verbs ser and estar. He then compares the Old Irish paradigm to its equivalent in the Romance Languages in the Iberian Peninsula, in Galician in particular.

Prehistory, Linguistics and Galicia: Ancient Connections between Galicia and Ireland


In the year 56 BC, during the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar destroyed a large fleet of enormous ships. They were vessels of the Veneti, a coastal Celtic people who controlled the entire coast of Brittany around their capital, a town which is known today as Vannes.1

The construction and the rigging of the ships were impressive. The bottoms were flatter than those of the Roman ships, but the prows and the sterns were higher, as a defense against high waves. The hulls were constructed entirely of oak, with a framework of beams a foot thick, fastened with nails of iron as thick as a person's thumb. The anchors were fastened with chains of iron, and instead of linen sails, the ships had sails of rawhide and thin skins of leather to weather the storms of the Atlantic. For this reason, according to Caesar, they could endure squalls more easily and navigate in shallow waters without worry of running aground. Even if they did run aground, the rocks or reefs would do no damage, and they could simply await the next high tide.

Julius Caesar and Roman ship


But where would be the normal destination of those enormous ships of Vannes? Caesar says that their normal destination was Britain. But surely one does not need such large, strong ships simply to cross the English Channel!

Caesar says nothing more about other possible routes of navigation of the Veneti, but the discipline of archeology has offered a great deal of data regarding the maritime commerce of that era, as well as data concerning the commerce of centuries and even millennia before Caesar's time. Today the archaeologists know a great deal about the items traded between communities and about their networks of distribution. In other words, thousands of years later, we have a map of trade routes as extensive as it is complete. But this was an Atlantic commerce about which the Greeks and the Romans -- and perhaps even the Phoenicians -- knew very little.

The reason for that, according to the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe, is that very probably that trade was in the hands of Celts, just as it was in the time of Julius Caesar. But who is Barry Cunliffe?2

Professor Barry Cunliffe is one of the international scholars who form a group which analyses in detail the revolutionary thesis known as "Celtic from the West"3. According to this thesis, a large part of the Celts in northwest Europe arrived, with their languages and their cultures, via maritime routes leading directly from the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula to the British Isles and to the western coast of France -- not via an overland route from Central Europe. The evidence is overwhelming, and it is based on archaeology, genetics and linguistics.

Professor Barry Cunliffe’s theory


The Gaelic peoples of Ireland and Scotland have maintained since the earliest times that they originated in northwest Spain -- more concretely, that they left from A Coruña (A Cruña) on the northwest coast of Galicia. The 17th century Irish scholar Geoffrey Keating knew the city as An Chruinne, "the circle",4 owing to the circular shape of its bay.

The Gaelic peoples have no other tradition. Of course, that tradition is mixed with stories of gods and mythological themes, as is to be expected in the most ancient traditions. And in more recent centuries, the world -- especially the English when they were conquering Ireland -- ridiculed such childish fables or fantasies of monks influenced by their counterparts in Spain.

But the scholars involved in "Celtic from the West" are not laughing. Evidence which confirms the ancient Gaelic tradition is appearing in odd places. In this article, we will summarize the facts as these scholars and investigators reconstruct them by means of archaeology, genetics and linguistics.5

During the Neolithic Period, groups of farmers spread across the European continent, advancing slowly toward the west coast, mixing with a dense population of fishing and hunting peoples. There was also maritime contact between peoples, since a network of megalithic cultures existed along the coast and on the islands of Western Europe, from Malta to Scandinavia. It is a matter for debate whether the farmers spoke an Indo-European language or not.

The Bronze Age began with very intense activity – by sea from the eastern Mediterranean came explorers in search of metals -- especially copper and tin. They reached the Atlantic, and then, very quickly, they arrived in Ireland, where they found a good deal of copper, and with the help of their neighbors in Cornwall, they mixed the copper with tin to produce bronze of high quality. This was a task to which the Irish smelters dedicated themselves for five centuries -- the first half of the Bronze Age.


Agricultural work


Metal work


The Irish were at the forefront of the technological revolution of that age -- with their bronze and their gold -- exporting their products along the Atlantic coast as far south as Galicia. We have the proof in the form of the archaeological remains associated with the group Vilavella-Atios. This was a network of communities which traded among themselves for more than a thousand years -- during nearly all of the Bronze Age. The regions represented by the Vilavella-Atios network include Ireland, the extreme south of Britain, Brittany (Armorica) and Galicia.6

Vilavella-Atios archaeological group


This commerce continued spreading for the whole length of the Bronze Age, until the products eventually reached the coasts of Scandinavia, where local inhabitants made hundreds of rock engravings showing the ships which normally visited their shores. Those who sailed those seas in those days were not Vikings, since the Vikings did not adopt the sail for their ships until the 8th century after Christ, and until then they did not ordinarily venture far from their shores.

Who, then, were those who used to visit the coasts of Scandinavia in that era? According to the Scandinavian traditions, there was a god called Njörd, who controlled the wind, the sea and fire. He protected sailors and fishermen, and granted prosperity to his devotees.7

Note especially the following details: his people were the Vanir ("those of Van") and their place of origin was Vanaheim ("the home of the Vanir"). Is it possible that this reflects a memory that the Scandinavians had of the Celts of Vannes, trading along the coasts of Scandinavia during the Bronze Age and in later epochs?

Moving on, what can we say of the Celts and of their distribution in Western Europe? We know quite well where they were located when the Romans conquered the west of Europe. They occupied an arc which stretches from southwest Spain to northern France, including Great Britain and Ireland, but excluding the eastern part of Spain (populated by the Iberians), northeastern Spain (populated by their relatives, the Basques) and southwest France (inhabited by the Aquitani, other relatives of the Basques).

Distribution of the Celts in Western Europe


There were penetrations by Celtic tribes or peoples across the south of France, on the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula, but those Celts remained separated from the Celt-Iberians of central Spain and from the west coast of the peninsula by that enormous block of non-Indo-European people. That is an important fact to consider.

According to the most recent data from archaeology, genetics and linguistics, that demographic and cultural situation represents the situation not only at the time of the Roman conquest, but also during the entire Iron Age at least. In other words, there is no evidence of demographic movements of Celtic peoples from southern Germany crossing the Pyrenees and entering the peninsula to become the Celtic population of Spain. The Celts had already been in Spain since the Bronze Age.

The inscriptions of Tartessos (Huelva), deciphered recently by the linguist John Koch,8 were decisive for the revision of the theories which were current until then. The inscriptions demonstrate that the Celts were already well-established in the extreme southwest of the peninsula in the 8th century before Christ, at the time when the technology of ironworking had just been established in southern Germany and Austria, and there is no evidence which would suggest any invasion from the north afterwards. And this causes us to ask: if the Celts were already in the southwest of the peninsula at the end of the Bronze Age, when did they arrive? -- and  from where did they arrive?

At this point, let's examine the Celts and their languages more closely. First, via linguistics, we can distinguish two main branches of Celts: those who speak Brittonic languages (P-Celts) and those who speak Goidelic languages (Q-Celts). The classification of these two groups is based on the difference in the pronunciation of a key sound. For example, to say the word "head", the P-Celts would say pen, but the Q-Celts would say cenn (nowadays, ceann). The populations who speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland are Q-Celts, but the populations who speak Welsh and Breton are P-Celts.

The Q-Celts speak more archaic languages than the P-Celts, who speak more innovating languages. The Celts of Great Britain and of France (Gaul) were P-Celts, but those of Ireland (and later, Scotland) were Q-Celts. We should say that the languages of the P-Celts are very different from those of the Q-Celts. Therefore, we can say that they have been separated for thousands of years -- perhaps since the arrival of the Indo-Europeans in Western Europe. For example, to say the equivalent of the Spanish phrase "¿Cómo estás?", in the Gaelic dialect of the south of Ireland, one would say Conas atá tú?, but in Welsh one would say Sut ydych chi? It might be possible for a Spanish-speaker to decipher the phrase in Irish Gaelic, but he/she would fail completely to decipher the Welsh phrase.

Until recently, scholars considered that, owing to their traits, the ancient Celtic languages of western Spain and of Portugal were Q-Celtic languages, but there were problems. In the first place, the inscriptions could not be deciphered very easily, and secondly the scholars were undecided as to whether to put the languages of the west of the peninsula together with the languages of Ireland and Scotland, to form a common group, or to leave them separated as related languages which simply conserved ancient traits in common, without representing an authentic linguistic community.

Furthermore, the languages of the two Celtic groups were related to the Indo-European languages of Italy, with whom they had formed a linguistic community in the epochs before that speech community split into populations speaking Celtic languages and populations speaking Italic languages. For that reason, it is difficult at times to know if a word in a Celtic language has been borrowed from Latin or it is part of the inherited vocabulary of the ancestral Celto-Italic language.

According to the theory "Celtic from the West", leaving aside the P-Celts of Great Britain, France, southern Germany and Austria, the ancestors of the Q-Celts arrived by sea from the eastern Mediterranean -- from a region close to the Balkans and to the Greek islands -- with an archaic Indo-European language. They settled in the southwest of Spain and in Portugal, avoiding the Iberian regions of the east of the peninsula, and later, the Q-Celtic language developed along the west coast of the peninsula.9

"Celtic from the West" theory


The Q-Celts continued moving northward, arriving by sea in Ireland, where they settled. As we have seen, this could have happened at the beginning of the Bronze Age, but it is possible that there were several successive invasions during the more than a thousand years of duration of the Bronze Age, when there was so much trade between the populations of the Vilavella-Atios group.

The Irish tradition supports all this -- including the arrival by sea from the eastern Mediterranean. And since we are speaking of the invasion of the Gaelic conquistadores from Galicia, the tradition relates that the population of Ireland already spoke the same Gaelic language as the Galician conquistadores -- due to earlier contacts of the Irish with Spain. Therefore Breoghan never discovered anything from his tower in A Coruña!

There is another interesting fact -- the specialist in genetics, Stephen Oppenheimer, maintains that if one sums up the years of all the reigns of the first Irish kings according to the chronology of the traditional lists of kings, we can calculate that the reigns began around 2,000 years before Christ -- just at the beginning of the Bronze Age, when the technological revolution began in Ireland.10

Let's move on to linguistics, because linguistics still has a good deal to tell us. I'm a linguist -- a sociolinguist -- and I am very interested in living languages. But living languages and their dialects also reveal a great deal about the past. Just as our bodies carry DNA, which helps us to reconstruct prehistory, so do languages, but the DNA in living languages is the product of linguistic evolution rather than biological evolution. Let's look at some examples.

In Spanish, one says "¡Siéntese!" ("Sit down!"), but then one also says "¡No se siente!" ("Don't sit down!"). Why does the reflexive particle -se-suddenly jump to the spot between the negative particle and the verb in the negative phrase?

We find the explanation in Lithuanian, the most archaic of all the living Indo-European languages. Any particle (such as the negative particle ne-) placed before the verb automatically attracts the reflexive particle -si-, so that it jumps from its spot at the rear of the verb to the spot between the other particle and the verb itself. To say "¡Siéntese!" in Lithuanian, one says "Sėskites!" (= "Sėskite-si") and to say "¡No se siente!", one says "Nesisėskite!" (= "Ne-si-sėskite!"). Thus, these two living languages, separated by hundreds of kilometers for thousands of years, share a grammatical rule inherited from their proto-Indo-European ancestral language.




Sėskites!" (= "Sėskite-si")

No sesiente!"

"Nesisėskite!" (= "Ne-si-sėskite!")


Here's another example. We know that the English language has changed a great deal since the times of the Anglo-Saxons, but it still conserves the verbal form "am" in the phrase "I am a European". This form has been passed straight down to us from Proto-Indo-European. Note the Old Irish form am, the Albanian form jam, and the form em in Armenian.11






Soy un europeo

am a European




For this reason, living languages are precious jewels, but they conserve their linguistic treasures in the oddest spots. One has to look for them carefully and identify them with patience. 

One more example! We have spoken of the languages of the great peoples of Europe during the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Let's select a single word in order to distinguish the different language communities from one another. If we begin with the Spanish word toro ("bull"), we will see the relationship between the different language communities easily.

The word "toro" comes from the Latin word "taurus", but this word was inherited in turn from the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary, because in Lithuanian we find the word "tauras", denoting the aurochs, the ancestor of the domestic bull.

Let's begin in the West. To express the word "toro", the Gaels say "tarbh", and the Welsh say "tarw". Despite the fact that their phonetic shapes are similar to the Latin word "taurus", these are native words, not borrowed words from Latin. In contrast, the English say "bull" or "steer", and the Germans use nearly the same forms -- "bulle" and "stier". Even the Lithuanians have borrowed the word "bulius" from the Germans to denote the domestic bull.12















Even so, it is easy to see the linguistic situation in the North of Europe at a glance. The Celts distinguish themselves easily from the Germanic groups to the East, and the Lithuanians reveal the relations which they have had with the Germanic groups to the West for thousands of years.

In this case, for our own purposes, the important thing to note is that the Celts are the only northern group which exhibits Mediterranean traits. Remember that the Romans never conquered Ireland. With the arrival of Christianity, the Irish borrowed certain words from Latin which were associated with ecclesiastical life. But the Celts never needed to borrow words to denote cattle! To sum up, the Celts are a linguistic extension of the Mediterranean world in the North of Europe.

But let's leave the names of things to one side in order to focus on the verbs -- especially on verbal paradigms -- which are very revealing.

For some time now, certain scholars have remarked that the Irish verbal paradigms resemble closely the verbal paradigms in Spanish. This is "very interesting" in their opinion, but they say nothing more, because they believe that there is no explanation for this phenomenon, and that therefore it must be a chance occurrence. Let's look into that.

There are certain linguists who study the evolution of verbal paradigms over hundreds -- even thousands -- of years, especially among the Indo-European languages. They have observed that such evolution is normally very regular -- that the paradigms normally evolve very slowly, much as species in nature do over long periods of time. Of course, there can be very abrupt changes in social history which can cause the birth of Creole languages in as little as a single generation, but at the same time there are communities of people in isolated areas who live far more tranquil lives, and their languages may continue over time within great changes.

The Icelandic language, for example, continues to be spoken almost as it was in the era of the Vikings -- with the addition of new words for modern concepts such as airplanes, telephones, etc., of course!  

The Lithuanian language is even more spectacular. It is a "linguistic dinosaur"13 which has existed without great changes for four or five thousand years. To speak Lithuanian is almost like speaking living Proto-Indo-European. For this reason I speak so much of Lithuanian.

To sum up, verbal paradigms do not change very rapidly, and they do not change without a cause. They are very stable.

And for this reason, I find it very interesting that the form of the verbal paradigm in Spanish -- or in Galician -- resembles so closely the form of the verbal paradigm in Irish Gaelic -- especially since written history records no close contact between these two populations. There has to be a logical explanation -- other than pure chance.

Let's look first at the paradigm of the verb venir ("to come") in Spanish. We will focus our attention on the following tenses: the present, the preterite (simple past), the imperfect (habitual past), the future and the conditional. We will leave aside the subjunctive mood (present and past) and the imperative mood. Furthermore, we will examine only the forms for the third person singular, in order to focus entirely on the form of the verb in each tense.



vendrá     ("he/she will come")

vendría   ("he/she would come")

viene       ("he/she comes")


vino         ("he/she came")     

venía       ("he/she used to come")

The verb "venir" is irregular, but it exhibits the internal organization of the paradigms of other verbs, both regular and irregular. If we begin with the present tense, we see that the form "viene" has a minor irregularity; the vowel of the root should be e, and not ie. If that were so, the roots of the forms of the present and of the imperfect tenses would be identical, as they are in many other verbs. But that does not concern us here.

What is more important is the form of the preterite (simple past) tense, because besides the change of the vowel (from e to i), the final vowel bears no accent, which is very important for distinguishing the persons and tenses of the paradigms. For example, note the difference between hablo ("I speak") and habló ("he/she speaks"). For that reason, this lack of the accent on the inflectional suffix in a preterite verb form is an important irregularity. But, as we shall see, preterite tense forms normally exhibit irregularities in all languages.

What is very interesting is the manner of forming the conditional form vendría. The stem of the future form (vendr-) is joined to the inflectional suffix -ía of the imperfect (habitual past) to produce the conditional form vendr-ía. (It is unimportant here that the future stem has been borrowed from the infinitive form venir.) This is reasonable, since the conditional tense typically represents a future event envisaged in the context of the past. For example, "Dijo el mes pasado que vendría ayer" ("He said last month that he would come yesterday").

Now let's examine the paradigm of the verb "to come" in Irish Gaelic. We will see the identical organization of the verbal paradigm, although the content of the paradigm is different.


Tar ("Come!")

tiocfaidh  ("he/she will come")

thiocfadh         ("he/she would come")

tagann     ("he/she comes")


tháinig     ("he/she came")

thagadh          ("he/she used to come")


As we see, the tenses are identical in both languages, and the internal relations of the pairs of forms within the verbal paradigm are identical as well.

In this paradigm, the preterite form tháinig is very irregular. The present and imperfect (habitual past) tenses share the same root (tag-), although the root of the imperfect form exhibits the lenition of the initial consonant which distinguishes all the past tense forms. The future tense is distinguished by its unusual stem (tiocf-), which includes the morpheme which marks the future tense, -f-. In forming the conditional tense, the future stem retains the morpheme -f-, but undergoes the lenition of the initial consonant when the future stem is combined with the suffix -adh of the imperfect tense, as we would expect.

In order to clarify further how this method of constructing conditional tense forms works, let's use the Irish Gaelic verb scríobh ("Write!") as an example. (It's a verb which was borrowed from Latin.)


Scríobh (Write!)

scríobhfaidh  ("he/she will write")

scríobhfadh  ("he/she would write")

scríobhann   ("he/she writes")


scríobh         ("he/she wrote")          

scríobhadh    ("he/she used to write ")  

If we concentrate on the formation of the conditional tense form, we will see that with the imperfect suffix –adh and the future stem scríobhf- we form the conditional tense form scríobhfadh. We can represent that as a formula:


(scríobhadh /skr'i:vax/ + scríobhfaidh /skr'i:fa/ = scríobhfadh /skr'i:fax/)


All of the regular verbs of Irish Gaelic exhibit that model of a verbal paradigm, with all its internal relations between forms. And as we know, the regular verbs of Spanish exhibit the same kind of paradigm, with the same relations between forms, especially the formation of the conditional tense with elements borrowed from the future and imperfect tense forms.

We see an identical system in Romance languages outside of the Iberian Peninsula -- in French and Italian, for example. But only in the Romance languages of the Celto-Italic area. In Rumanian, this system does not exist. Nor does it exist in the Germanic languages -- in English or German, for example. And surprisingly, it appears not to exist in the P-Celtic languages either -- in Welsh or in Breton.

In fact, however, it does exist in Welsh, but it is hidden by many later developments. We see it in the variant conditional form of the verb "to be" byddwn i. Thus, using the suffix -wn i of the imperfect form roeddwn i ("I used to be...") and the stem bydd- of the future form bydda i ("I will be..."), we get byddwn i ("I would be...").14

The earlier existence of such a way of forming the conditional tense forms in P-Celtic languages in Britain and Gaul would help explain the later formation of the conditional verb forms in Gallo-Romance languages. But the many later developments in P-Celtic languages, especially the proliferation of progressive verbal constructions in the tense system, have greatly obscured this pattern.15

Among the languages of northern Europe, the verbal paradigm as we find it in Ibero-Romance exists only in Irish Gaelic. A paradigm with a similar array of tenses exists in Lithuanian, and this allows us to surmise the possible antiquity of the paradigm, but in Lithuanian one does not find the same clear relations between pairs of forms in the paradigm, especially the creation of the conditional forms with elements from future and imperfect forms.

Let us turn now to another phenomenon of the Romance languages of the Iberian Peninsula -- the division of the verb "to be" into two verbs, "ser" and "estar". These two verbs play very different grammatical roles. Briefly, the verb "ser" is employed to express permanence, while the verb "estar" is employed to express temporary conditions, location, etc.

The verb "estar" was inherited form Proto-Indo-European, but in that language its meaning was apparently that of a normal verb, expressing only the concept of "remaining", as we see in the English cognate form "stay". The use of the verb "estar" as part of the verb "ser" appears to be an innovation in the Ibero-Romance languages, since it is not found in the Gallo-Romance languages or in any other group of Indo-European languages.16 Except in Irish Gaelic, where we see almost exactly the same system functioning along parallel lines.

Let's examine Spanish and Irish Gaelic:




Es hombre   ("He is a man")

Is fear é

Es joven      ("He is a young man")

Is fear óg é



Está en la casa   ("He is in the house")

Tá sé sa teach

Está cansado   ("He is tired")

Tá sé tuirseach

Está hablando ("He is speaking")

Tá sé ag caint

We see the same use of the verbs in both languages -- with the use of "ser" and "estar" in Spanish matching the use of the Irish equivalents "is" and "tá". It is only in the last example that there is a slight difference. Spanish uses the gerund to describe the action in progress, while Irish uses the verbal noun caint.

In Proto-Indo-European both verbal nouns and gerunds existed, and later, in the daughter languages, infinitive forms emerged from the verbal nouns. In Irish Gaelic, the gerunds no longer exist, and Irish never developed infinitive forms. Instead, the verbal noun preceded by the preposition ag (= "at"), is used to form progressive constructions. Such a construction means literally "to be at the point of doing something".

It is possible that that Irish construction might have had such a meaning at some time in the past, but today it means only "to be doing something". For that reason, in Irish one says "Tá sé ag caint" to express the meaning "he is speaking", but in order to say "he is about to speak", one says "Tá sé chun caint" or "Tá sé le caint", employing other prepositions.

As for Galician, it uses a construction nearly identical to that of the Irish construction in order to express "he is speaking": (es)tá a falar. Of course, in Galician the verbal noun is not used, since in the Romance languages the infinitive has been substituted for the verbal noun of Proto-Indo-European.

Even Icelandic, the language of the Vikings, has a similar construction, but it uses the normal verb "to be", the equivalent of the verb "ser".

Returning to Galician, it is worthwhile to look more closely at the verb forms for "estar" in Galician. If we compare them to the forms of its counterpart in Old Irish,17 the form of the language that was spoken shortly after the introduction of Christianity, we will receive a pleasant shock.

Let's put the present-tense forms of the verb "estar" in Old Irish and in Galician side by side, including the reduced forms of Galician.18 Note that Old Irish also had reduced forms ("conjunct forms"), which were employed whenever a prefixed particle, such as the negative particle, appeared before the verb. For example, ní-n-tá (= literally, "It doesn't exist for us", i.e., "We don't have it").

Remember that the Galician verb “estar” also appears in all the old dictionaries of Galician in its reduced form “tar”, and that the latter form is the normal variant used by speakers of Galician.

Let's begin with the complete forms:














ataaid (etc.)





And then we see the reduced forms:





-táu ~ -tó









-taaid (etc.)




It is clear that the Old Irish forms are nearly identical to the Galician forms. Note also the negative form mentioned above.

The forms of this paradigm have changed a lot in modern Gaelic dialects, and now, besides what remain of the inflected forms, there are many analytical forms. That is to say, in place of using conjugated verb forms, it is now normal to use invariable forms of verbs with different pronouns, as in English.

For example, one can say tá mé ("I am..."), tá tú ("you are..."), etc., so that the form of the verb does not change in the different persons of the paradigm, just as one says "I speak, you speak, we speak, they speak" in English, without changing the form of the verb.   

Though these pronouns, mé and tú, appear quite similar to their counterparts in English ("me", "thou", etc.), their pronunciation is almost identical to that of the pronouns "me" and "tu" in Spanish or in Galician. These pronouns prove nothing by themselves, but their pronunciation does emphasize the connection with the Iberian Peninsula -- like the phrase we saw earlier, Conas atá tú? ("¿Cómo estás?") ("Como tás?") (“Como tás [tú]?” in the Galician of Lugo).

We will return promptly to the verb in Galician and in Irish, but it is worthwhile now to summarize the arguments concerning the functional division of the verb "ser" into two verbs, “ser” and "estar", and to try to explain the origin of the phenomenon. It seems to me that the most solid argument is to maintain that this innovation occurred in very remote times among the Celts of the Iberian Peninsula -- very probably among the Celtic population of Galicia, which was trading during the entire Bronze Age with the Celtic regions of the North.

Functional division of the verbs ser and estar


When the Celts of Galicia left to conquer Ireland, they brought this innovation with them to Ireland. When the Romans entered the Iberian Peninsula much later, the innovation, still current in the local Celtic languages, was conserved in the Vulgar Latin of the Peninsula as a substratum. The Iberian population in eastern Spain, together with their Basque relatives in the Pyrenees, functioned as a constant barrier which blocked the spread of the innovation to the P-Celts in the East and in the North.

The Italians adopted only very timidly this use of the verb "estar" -- probably due to the influence of the Spanish language when Spain governed certain regions of Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Welsh never accepted this innovation from the Irish Gaels. In Welsh the progressive construction is used extensively, but only the equivalent of the verb "ser" is used with the verbal noun. The Irish remain alone in the North in their use of their equivalent of the verb "estar".

But there is more: in modern Irish Gaelic dialects, the construction of verb phrases and the use of the verb to respond to questions resemble closely certain usages of Galician.

For example, the order of the components of the verbal phrase in Irish is VSO (verb-subject-object) and this order is obligatory. The same is true of Welsh, but not of Breton, which has the order SVO (subject-verb-object). Therefore, it appears that the Welsh borrowed the order VSO from the Irish.





Here, in the Iberian Peninsula, one notices this word order especially in the use of the enclitic pronouns in Galician. If we first compare the phrase "I bought them books" in Irish Gaelic, Galician and Spanish, the three languages do not appear to have much in common.



Cheannaigh mé leabhair dóibh


Comprei-lles libros


Les compré libros

But if we use only the object pronouns -- both direct and indirect, we see that the order of the pronouns in Irish coincides exactly with the order of the pronouns in Galician, while the order of the words in the Spanish phrase is quite different, though the order of the pronouns remains the same. 



Cheannaigh mé dóibh iad




Se los compré


The form dóibh in Irish ("for them") is a contracted form, like the pronouns of Galician, but Irish contracts the preposition and the indirect object pronoun, not the two object pronouns (direct and indirect), which is what Galician does.

For example, to say "Give it to me!", in Spanish one says "¡Dámelo!", with no contracted forms. In Galician, however, one says "Dámo!" (= "Da-m-o!"), with the same pronouns, me and lo, contracted or fused together. In Irish, though, one says "Tabhair dom é!" ("Tabhair do-m é!"), with the same reduced indirect object pronoun m, but in Irish it is contracted with the preposition do, rather than with the direct object pronoun é.

As for the use of the verb to respond to yes/no questions, let us imagine that someone has asked "Who went to the ocean?". To answer, one might say in Irish:

Irish Gaelic

Chuaigh Seán (chun na mara)”    ("Seán went [to the ocean]")


Foi Xan (ó mar)”

We see that in both Irish and Galician, the verb precedes the subject noun phrase.

On the other hand, if some asks whether Seán went to the ocean or not, the Irish speaker answers "Chuaigh!" (if he went) or "Ní dheachaigh!" (if he didn't go). The Galician responds in the same way: "Foi!" or "Non foi!". In Irish, the simple words "yes" or "no" do not exist. One must respond with the appropriate form of the verb. As far as I know, this way of responding does not exist in the other languages of Europe.

Returning to the Irish phrase “Conas atá tú?” ("How are you?") and its equivalent “Como tás (tú)?” in the Galician of Lugo, we see that in Galician there is the possibility of using the independent pronouns in addition to the inflected forms of the verb. In fact, the use of the additional pronoun is very characteristic of spoken Galician, but it is not permitted in Irish.

As we have seen, the Gaelic dialects are passing slowly from the use of the inflected (or conjugated) forms of the verb ("synthetic forms") to the use of an invariable verb form with an independent pronoun as the subject ("analytic forms"). Therefore, besides these common constructions with invariable verb forms, there still exist isolated parallel constructions with inflected (or conjugated) verb forms.

The use of these inflected verb forms depends on the dialect or on the individual, but with such conjugated verb forms, independent pronouns cannot be used as subjects. In other words, in Irish one may not produce constructions such as the Galician phrase "¿Cómo estás tú?"

As for the phonetic forms of individual verbs in Irish and in Galician, there are verbs in both languages which resemble each other closely, but it is difficult to say if such resemblances are fortuitous or not. For example, when expressing the future, in Spanish and in Galician, one says "dirá", and in Irish one says "déarfaidh". Again, one says "dice" ("he/she says") in Spanish and “di” in Galician, and in Irish one says "deir". Furthermore, in Galician, the archaic form of the infinitive "dicir" ("to say") is “dir”. Do the components "déar-" y "deir" of Irish have anything to do with the component "dir-" of the word "dirá" and with the old infinitive form "dir" in Galician? Who knows? But it's well worth exploring.19




déar- / deir

dir- (dirá / diría)

dir  (dir-)

We have spoken a lot about the morphology of the verb, but we have said little about the vocabulary. It is here where the remains of forgotten languages can lie unobserved. In any language one encounters words which come from other regions or other times. Words can liberate themselves of grammatical constrictions and cross linguistic frontiers without passports. And many times they remain hidden in the modern language -- especially in place-names and in words used to designate the tools and customs of rural life.

In Galician, there are hundreds of words which are "of obscure or unknown origin", or which are attributed to Latin in a very dubious way. It is there where we can discover more connections with Irish.

My favorite word is the Galician word "croa". It means "a place for pasturing cattle in the mountains"20 We have the same word in Irish: "cró", which denotes a circular enclosure for keeping cattle. Both forms of the word refer to the rural life of the Celts, centered on cattle, here in Galicia and in Ireland -- the way of life of two populations separated from one another for some 3,000 - 4,000 years, since the time of the Vilavella-Atios trade network, but in constant contact since then.

Cró – Croa


We started our voyage in the Breton port of Vannes, next to the enormous fleet of the Veneti -- the "invincible armada" of which nothing remains, but of which we have a valuable description by the man who destroyed that fleet -- Julius Caesar. A predecessor of that fleet made the voyages that the Celtic merchants of the Vilavella-Atios network undertook on the Celtic Sea between Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany and Galician from the Bronze Age onward.

There is so much to discover of that world of the Celtic navigators! But "quien no se arriesga, no pasa la mar" ("He who risks nothing, never crosses the ocean"). And for that reason we are all on board the vessel of Proyecto Gaelaico.



1 Cf. Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico, Book III.
2 Cf. Cunliffe (2001), especially pp. 296-297.
3 Cf. Cunliffe and Koch (2012); Koch and Cunliffe (2013).
4 Cf. Geoffrey Keating, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, Vol. I, Chapter XVIII.
5 This summary is based principally on Cunliffe (2012) and on Koch (2013).
6 Cf. Koch (2013), especially the map on p. 119.
7 According to the traditional account of the Scandinavian mythological tradition given by the medieval Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson. Cf. Sturluson (1964).
8 Cf. Koch (2012).
9  Cf. the very detailed description in Koch (2013) and the description of the genetic connections between Wales and Albania in Oppenheimer (2012).
10 Cf. Oppenheimer (2007), pp. 100-106, but especially p. 102.
11 Cf. Beekes (1995), p. 144.
12 The Proto-Indo-European vocabulary can be explored in Buck (1949).
13 Cf. the comment of Professor William R. Schmalstieg in the introduction to Zinkevičius (1996).
14 Cf. Gramadeg Cymraeg Cyfoes: Contemporary Welsh Grammar (1976), pp. 32-35.
15 Cf. Watkins (1969), p. 109, and his reference to "...the nearly complete abolition of complex primary verb morphology in the Brittonic languages, by the time of our earliest extended records...".
16 Cf. Green (1990a) and (1990b), pp. 251-252.
17 Cf. Thurneysen (1993), p. 477.
18 Cf. the entry tar in Acevedo y Fernández (1932).
19 As for the archaic forms of verbs still current in the 20th century, cf. Acevedo y Fernández (1932).
20 Cf. Sarmiento (1746-1770).



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- Alberro, Manuel y Jordán Cólera, Carlos (2008).Os Celtas da Península Ibérica. Noia, A Coruña: Editorial Toxosoutos, Serie Keltia.
- Baldi, Philip (1990). Indo-European Languages. (In Comrie, 1990, pp. 31-67)
- Beekes, Robert S.P. (1995). Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.
- Buck, Carl Darling (1949). A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages. London: University of Chicago Press, Ltd.
- Caesar, Julius. De Bello Gallico.
- Comrie, Bernard (1990). The World's Major Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Cunliffe, Barry (2001). Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and its Peoples, 8000 BC-AD 1500. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Cunliffe, Barry (2012). Celticization from the West: The Contribution of Archaeology. (In Cunliffe and Koch, 2012, pp. 13-38)
- Cunliffe, Barry and John Koch (eds.) (2012). Celtic from the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archaeology, Genetics, Language and Literature. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
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- Koch, John T. (2013). Out of the Ebb and Flow of the European Bronze Age: Heroes, Tartessos and Celtic. (In Koch and Cunliffe, 2013, pp. 101-146.)
- Koch, John T., and Barry Cunliffe (eds.)(2013). Celtic from the West 2: Rethinking the Bronze Age and the Arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe.
- Oxford and Oakville: Oxbow Books.
- Mallory, J.P. (1989). In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth. London: Thames and Hudson.
- Oppenheimer, Stephen (2007). The Origins of the British. London: Robinson.
- Oppenheimer, Stephen (2012). A Reanalysis of Multiple Prehistoric Immigrations to Britain and Ireland Aimed at Identifying the Celtic Contributions.
- (In Cunliffe and Koch, 2012, pp. 121-150.)
- Sarmiento, Martín (1746-1770) (ed. de J.L. Pensado Tomé, 1970). Colección de voces y frases de la lengua gallega. Salamanca: U. de Salamanca.
- Sturluson, Snorri (trans. by Jean I. Young) (1964).The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from Norse Mythology. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- Thurneysen, Rudolf (revised and enlarged, trans. by D.A. Binchy and Osborn Bergin) (1993). A Grammar of Old Irish. Dublin: School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.
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- Zinkevičius, Zigmas (1996). The History of the Lithuanian Language. Vilnius: Mokslo ir enciklopedijų leidykla.

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