Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Origin and Persistence of Germanic versus "Celtic" Languages in Central and Northern Europe

Context: Myth of Scandinavian Origin of Germanic Languages and Culture

Note:  This document may be updated at any time when important new findings are published

There is no such thing as people or languages spreading from Sweden or Denmark south - that's all old myths that have long been debunked.  Quite the opposite:  Iceland and Scandinavia are linguistic and cultural diasporas - regions settled by people speaking  an early (proto)-Germanic at the fringe, and therefore a language (and culture) not nearly changing as much as in the core region, but certainly living in one very close Sprachbund.  During historic times, Scandinavian languages have received multiple "updates" from the south (Germanization of Swedish), and there is no reason to believe it was any different before, especially given the huge difference in population density and total population size.

The same is true for East Germanic:  it maintained the oldest IE structures because of its incredible isolation in the same region that by far was the last to be Christianized and that today harbors one of the oldest IE languages for the same reason (Lithuanian).

Since the beginning of the bronze age through the iron age, documented cultural influence is always from the south (the region just north of the Alps, exchanging cultural ideas with the Mediterranean region and Asia) to the north - never the other way around.  Just from that, and from the predominantly south-north trade routes (rivers), it is clear that much of what is today Germany and its vicinity must have spoken a proto-Germanic and later Germanic language, all along.

The following highlights some (mostly archeaological) findings through the past three or four decades or so, and includes some of my peronal views on this matter.

- During the bronze age and early Hallstatt, there is continuity and extensive trade between the South and the North - something actually highly required for the production of bronze.

- This stops abruptly during late Hallstatt, i.e., when a common Celtic culture can start to be identified in the south.

- From then on, the north between roughly the lower Rhine to the Oder river begins to isolate itself, stagnates culturally and economically, and trade diminishes vastly.

- The entire region remains poor, with little social stratification, and with emphasis on local subsidence and no important cultural/trade regional centers.

- The southernmost extent is the Elbe-Saale region of central Germany that shows an enormous regional continuity since even before the beginning of the Bronze age:  there is zero evidence of any influence from the far north, or anywhere.  The cultural continuity and relatively higher population density and high total population of this region (some of the most productive soils) make it extremely unlikely that it suddenly adopted a new language between ~1,000 and 800BC, and certainly never after this.

- Here, when I say "North", I essentially mean the above regions from east-central Germany (just north of the Erzgebirge & Bohemia - the present-day border to the Czech country) and the northern part of the Mittelgebirge northward.

- The Erzgebirge is a natural boundary not only because of its height, but also because it is one of the coldest regions in central Europe - unsuitable for agriculture (3 to 5 °C average temperature, today; more than 60% of days see frost during the year).  It would much later stop Slavic expansion right there.  Also, Bohemia itself saw any significant Celtic cultural influence and city-building only during the late La Tene expansion.

- While there are regional differences (Atlantic Coast, Harpstedt, Nienburg, and Jastorf) - most of them relating to building styles - there are sufficient essential commonalities so that it is reasonable to assume this region spoke a common language; toponymy in conjunction with local continuity makes a reasonably clear case that this was proto-Germanic to Germanic throughout the bronze and iron ages.

- We know much less about the languages spoken in the south.  There are Celtic names along the upper Rhine river, but east of that and north of the Alps evidence dwindles, and it becomes hard to distinguish the few names found from the common progenitor of Germanic, Celtic, and Italic.  Any Celtic toponymy that appears genuine shows a strong (decreasing) gradient along the lower and middle Rhine and Danube rivers, where La Tene - influenced cities (oppidae) sprung up.  This shows the signature of an external, powerful trading and ruling class - not that of (agricultural) mass migrations.  As such, those regions likely and largely did not speak a Celtic language - neither before nor after Celtic (cultural) expansion.  Conversely, some of the earliest cultural "Celtic" objects are found in the Hesse region ( ~ 500BC) -  documenting early on a complete disconnect between language, culture, and military/political/trading dominance.

- It is unreasonable to assume that the entire region from eastern France to Hungary spoke a single language; existing and persistent sub-cultures and strong regional cultural differences from before the early bronze age and throughout Celtic cultural times indicate to me perhaps three essential language groups:  the extreme SW (later: La Tene region) tending towards a proto-Celtic; the central south: a late IE with strong affinity to the proto-Germanic central and northern Germany; and the extreme southeast: affinity to proto-Italic from early on.

- During La Tene, the Celtic culture becomes aggressively expansive in the south, and at the same time, trade with the North resurfaces.  Yet, there is very little documented Celtic language influence in the newly extended regions except in regions that later can be identified as speaking Celtic:  parts of Iberia, France, and the Isles.  Note that the original dialects spoken in NW Italy (Gallia cisalpina) and Switzerland cannot clearly be identified as Celtic, and highly localized toponymy and city building indicates a trade/ruling class influence along the upper and middle Rhine and the Danube - not a flux of a large number of people.  That is, the much larger number of people in the agricultural "hinterland" would likely retain their original language.  And, the gradient is clearly away from central-east France, not towards it.

- With the extended trade, from ~300BC, the north now adopts Celtic objects and artistic influence, and blossoms artistically, but the majority of objects are locally made and show clear local continuity, so that traded Celtic objects can be clearly distinguished from (the now much richer) locally-produced objects.  "Fortifications" (but in reality, multi-functional "Burgen") are built long before Celtic oppidae appear anywhere remotely near and are evidently of local origin - but are often destroyed later, concomitant with very late La Tene expansion, perhaps indicating the attempt of eradicating a combined structural (local power) and belief system, but with unsuccessful hegemony. 

- Iron is both produced locally in the north and, to a larger extent, imported from the south.  Local production of iron is notoriously difficult to time - but is documented from the Berlin area from ~400BC, i.e.,  outside of any (cultural) Celtic context.  The (culturally) Celtic oppidae likely profited from the trade of iron and cultural objects against agricultural products.  However, just a couple of centuries later, iron could be produced almost anywhere, easily, locally - and, incidentally, the Celtic culture saw its demise at the same time.