Kalpana Kalpana (Editor)

Gaulish language

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Region  Gaul
Ethnicity  Gauls
Gaulish language

Era  6th century BC to 6th century AD
Language family  Indo-European Celtic Gaulish
Writing system  Old Italic, Greek, Latin
ISO 639-3  Variously: xtg – Transalpine Gaulish xga – Galatian xcg – ?Cisalpine Gaulish xlp – ?Lepontic

Gaulish is an ancient Celtic language that was spoken in parts of Europe as late as the Roman Empire. In the narrow sense, Gaulish was the language spoken by the Celtic inhabitants of Gaul (modern France and Belgium). In a wider sense, it also comprises varieties of Celtic that were spoken across much of central Europe ("Noric"), parts of the Balkans, and Asia Minor ("Galatian"), which are thought to have been closely related. The more divergent Lepontic of Northern Italy has also sometimes been subsumed under Gaulish.


Together with Lepontic and the Celtiberian language spoken in the Iberian Peninsula, Gaulish forms the geographic group of Continental Celtic languages. The precise linguistic relationships among them, as well as between them and the modern Insular Celtic languages, are uncertain and a matter of ongoing debate because of their sparse attestation.

Gaulish is found in about 800, often fragmentary, inscriptions including calendars, pottery accounts, funeral monuments, short dedications to gods, coin inscriptions, statements of ownership, and other texts, possibly curse tablets. Gaulish texts were first written in the Greek alphabet in southern France and in a variety of the Old Italic script in northern Italy. After the Roman conquest of those regions, writing shifted to the use of the Latin alphabet.

Gaulish was supplanted by Vulgar Latin and various Germanic languages from around the 5th century AD onwards.


It is estimated that during the Bronze Age, Proto-Celtic started fragmenting into distinct languages, including Celtiberian and Gaulish. As a result of the expansion of Celtic tribes during the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, closely related varieties of Celtic came to be spoken in a vast arc extending from present-day Britain and France through the Alpine region and Pannonia in central Europe, and into parts of the Balkans and Anatolia. Their precise linguistic relationships are uncertain because of the fragmentary nature of the evidence.

The Gaulish varieties of central and eastern Europe and of Anatolia (known as Noric and Galatian, respectively) are barely attested, but from what little is known of them it appears that they were still quite similar to those of Gaul and can be considered dialects of a single language. Among those regions where substantial inscriptional evidence exists, three varieties are usually distinguished.

  • Lepontic language, attested from a small area on the southern slopes of the Alps, around the present-day Swiss town of Lugano, is the oldest Celtic language to have been written, with inscriptions in a variant of the Old Italic script appearing around c.600 BC. It has been described either as an "early dialect of an outlying form of Gaulish", or else as a separate Continental Celtic language.
  • Attestations of Gaulish proper in present-day France are known as "Transalpine Gaulish". Its written record begins in the 3rd century BC with inscriptions in the Greek alphabet, found mainly in the Rhône area of southern France (where Greek cultural influence was present via the colony of Massilia, founded c. 600 BC). After the Roman conquest of Gaul (58-50 BC), the writing of Gaulish shifted to the Latin alphabet.
  • Finally, there are a small number of inscriptions from the second and first centuries BC in Cisalpine Gaul (modern northern Italy), which share the same archaic alphabet as the Lepontic inscriptions but are found outside the Lepontic area proper. As they were written after the time of the Gaulish conquest of Cisalpine Gaul, they are usually identified as "Cisalpine Gaulish". They share some linguistic features both with Lepontic and with Transalpine Gaulish; for instance, both Lepontic and Cisalpine Gaulish simplify the consonant clusters -nd- and -χs- to -nn- and -ss- respectively, while both Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaulish replace inherited word-final -m with -n. Scholars have debated to what extent the distinctive features of Lepontic reflect merely its earlier origin or a genuine genealogical split, and to what extent Cisalpine Gaulish should be seen as a continuation of Lepontic or an independent offshoot of mainstream Transalpine Gaulish.
  • The relationship between Gaulish and the other Celtic languages is also subject to debate. Most scholars today agree that Celtiberian was the first to branch off from the remaining Celtic languages. Gaulish, situated in the centre of the Celtic language area, shares with the neighbouring Brittonic languages of Great Britain, the change of the Indo-European labialized voiceless velar stop /kʷ/ > /p/, whereas both Celtiberian in the south and Goidelic in Ireland retain /kʷ/. Taking this as the primary genealogical isogloss, some scholars see the Celtic languages to be divided into a "q-Celtic" and a "p-Celtic" group, in which the p-Celtic languages Gaulish and Brittonic form a common "Gallo-Brittonic" branch. Other scholars place more emphasis on shared innovations between Brittonic and Goidelic, and group these together as an Insular Celtic branch. Sims-Williams (2007) discusses a composite model, in which the Continental and Insular varieties are seen as part of a dialect continuum, with genealogical splits and areal innovations intersecting.

    Summary of sources

    According to the Recueil des Inscriptions Gauloises, more than 760 Gaulish inscriptions have been found throughout present-day France, with the notable exception of Aquitaine, and in northern Italy. Inscriptions include short dedications, funerary monuments, proprietary statements, and expressions of human sentiments, but the Gauls also left some longer documents of a legal or magical-religious nature, the three longest being the Larzac tablet, the Chamalières tablet and the Lezoux dish. The most famous Gaulish record is the Coligny calendar, a fragmented bronze tablet dating from the 2nd century AD and providing the names of Celtic months over a five-year span; it is a lunisolar calendar attempting to synchronize the solar year and the lunar month by inserting a thirteenth month every two and a half years.

    Many inscriptions consist of only a few words (often names) in rote phrases, and many are fragmentary. They provide some evidence for morphology and better evidence for personal and mythological names. Occasionally, marked surface clausal configurations provide some evidence of a more formal, or poetic, register. It is clear from the subject matter of the records that the language was in use at all levels of society.

    Other sources also contribute to knowledge of Gaulish: Greek and Latin authors mention Gaulish words, personal and tribal names, and toponyms. A short Gaulish-Latin vocabulary (about 20 entries headed De nominib[us] Gallicis) called "Endlicher's Glossary", is preserved in a 9th century manuscript (Öst. Nationalbibliothek, MS 89 fol. 189v).

    Furthermore, the French language offers some Gaulish loanwords. Today, French contains approximately 150 to 180 words known to be of Gaulish origin, most of which concern pastoral or daily activity. If dialectal and derived words are included, the total is approximately 400 words, the largest stock of Celtic words in any Romance language.


    Gaulish inscriptions are edited in the Recueil des Inscriptions Gauloises (R.I.G.), in four volumes:

  • Volume 1: Inscriptions in the Greek alphabet, edited by Michel Lejeune (items G-1 –G-281)
  • Volume 2.1: Inscriptions in the Etruscan alphabet (Lepontic, items E-1 – E-6), and inscriptions in the Latin alphabet in stone (items l. 1 – l. 16), edited by Michel Lejeune
  • Volume 2.2: inscriptions in the Latin alphabet on instruments (ceramic, lead, glass etc.), edited by Pierre-Yves Lambert (items l. 18 – l. 139)
  • Volume 3: The Coligny calendar (73 fragments) and that of Villards-d'Héria (8 fragments), edited by Paul-Marie Duval and Georges Pinault
  • Volume 4: inscriptions on Celtic coinage, edited by Jean-Baptiste Colbert de Beaulieu and Brigitte Fischer (338 items)
  • The longest known Gaulish text is the Larzac tablet, found in 1983 in l'Hospitalet-du-Larzac, France. It is inscribed in Roman cursive on both sides of two small sheets of lead. Probably a curse tablet (defixio), it clearly mentions relationships between female names, for example aia duxtir adiegias [...] adiega matir aiias (Aia, daughter of Adiega... Adiega, mother of Aia) and seems to contain incantations regarding one Severa Tertionicna and a group of women (often thought to be a rival group of witches), but the exact meaning of the text remains unclear.

    The Coligny calendar was found in 1897 in Coligny, France, with a statue identified as Mars. The calendar contains Gaulish words but Roman numerals, permitting translations such as lat evidently meaning days, and mid month. Months of 30 days were marked matus, "lucky", months of 29 days anmatus, "unlucky", based on comparison with Middle Welsh mad and anfad, but the meaning could here also be merely descriptive, "complete" and "incomplete".

    The pottery at La Graufesenque is our most important source for Gaulish numerals. Potters shared furnaces and kept tallies inscribed in Latin cursive on ceramic plates, referring to kiln loads numbered 1 to 10:

  • 1st cintus, cintuxos (Welsh cynt "before", cyntaf "first", Breton kent "in front" kentañ "first", Cornish kynsa "first", Old Irish céta, Irish céad "first")
  • 2nd allos, alos (W ail, Br eil, OIr aile "other", Ir eile)
  • 3rd tri[tios] (W trydydd, Br trede, OIr treide)
  • 4th petuar[ios] (W pedwerydd, Br pevare)
  • 5th pinpetos (W pumed, Br pempet, OIr cóiced)
  • 6th suexos (possibly mistaken for suextos, but see Rezé inscription below; W chweched, Br c'hwec'hved, OIr seissed)
  • 7th sextametos (W seithfed, Br seizhved, OIr sechtmad)
  • 8th oxtumeto[s] (W wythfed, Br eizhved, OIr ochtmad)
  • 9th namet[os] (W nawfed, Br naved, OIr nómad)
  • 10th decametos, decometos (CIb dekametam, W degfed, Br degvet, OIr dechmad)
  • The lead inscription from Rezé (dated to the 2nd century, at the mouth of the Loire, 450 kilometres (280 mi) northwest of La Graufesenque) is evidently an account or a calculation and contains quite different ordinals:

  • 3rd trilu
  • 4th paetrute
  • 5th pixte
  • 6th suexxe, etc.
  • Other Gaulish numerals attested in Latin inscriptions include *petrudecametos "fourteenth" (rendered as petrudecameto, with Latinized dative-ablative singular ending) and *triconts "thirty" (rendered as tricontis, with a Latinized ablative plural ending; compare Irish tríocha). A Latinized phrase for a "ten-night festival of (Apollo) Grannus", decamnoctiacis Granni, is mentioned in a Latin inscription from Limoges. A similar formation is to be found in the Coligny calendar, in which mention is made of a trinox[...] Samoni "three-night (festival?) of (the month of) Samonios". As is to be expected, the ancient Gaulish language was more similar to Latin than modern Celtic languages are to modern Romance languages. The ordinal numerals in Latin are prīmus/prior, secundus/alter (the first form when more than two objects are counted, the second form only when two, note also that alius, like alter means "the other", the former used when more than two and the latter when only two), tertius, quārtus, quīntus, sextus, septimus, octāvus, nōnus, and decimus.

    A number of short inscriptions are found on spindle whorls and are among the most recent finds in the Gaulish language. Spindle whorls were apparently given to girls by their suitors and bear such inscriptions as:

  • moni gnatha gabi / buððutton imon (RIG l. 119) "my girl, take my penis(?)"
  • geneta imi / daga uimpi (RIG l. 120) '"I am a young girl, good (and) pretty".
  • Inscriptions found in Switzerland are rare. The most notable inscription found in Helvetic parts is the Bern zinc tablet, inscribed ΔΟΒΝΟΡΗΔΟ ΓΟΒΑΝΟ ΒΡΕΝΟΔΩΡ ΝΑΝΤΑΡΩΡ (Dobnorēdo gobano brenodōr nantarōr) and apparently dedicated to Gobannus, the Celtic god of metalwork. Furthermore, there is a statue of a seated goddess with a bear, Artio, found in Muri bei Bern, with a Latin inscription DEAE ARTIONI LIVINIA SABILLINA, suggesting a Gaulish Artiū "Bear (goddess)".

    Some coins with Gaulish inscriptions in the Greek alphabet have also been found in Switzerland, e.g. RIG IV Nos. 92 (Lingones) and 267 (Leuci). A sword, dating to the La Tène period, was found in Port, near Biel/Bienne, with its blade inscribed with KORICIOC (Korisos), probably the name of the smith.


  • vowels:
  • short: a, e, i, o u
  • long: ā, ē, ī, (ō), ū
  • diphthongs: ai, ei, oi, au, eu, ou
    1. [x] is an allophone of /k/ before /t/.
  • occlusives:
  • voiceless: p, t, k
  • voiced: b, d, g
  • resonants
  • nasals: m, n
  • liquids r, l
  • sibilant: s
  • affricate: ts
  • semi-vowels: w, y
  • The diphthongs all transformed over the historical period. Ai and oi changed into long ī and eu merged with ou, both becoming long ō. Ei became long ē. In general, long diphthongs became short diphthongs and then long vowels. Long vowels shortened before nasals in coda.

    Other transformations include unstressed i became e, ln became ll, a stop + s became ss, and a nasal + velar became /ŋ/ + velar.

    The occlusives also seem to have been both lenis, unlike Latin, which distinguished voiced occlusives with a lenis realization from voiceless occlusives with a fortis realization, which causec confusions like Glanum for Clanum, vergobretos for vercobreto, Britannia for Pritannia.


    The alphabet of Lugano used in Cisalpine Gaul for Lepontic:


    The alphabet of Lugano does not distinguish voicing in stops: P represents /b/ or /p/, T is for /d/ or /t/, K for /g/ or /k/. Z is probably for /ts/. U /u/ and V /w/ are distinguished in only one early inscription. Θ is probably for /t/ and X for /g/ (Lejeune 1971, Solinas 1985).

    The Eastern Greek alphabet used in southern Gallia Narbonensis:

    αβγδεζηθικλμνξοπρστυχω ΑΒΓΔΕΖΗΘΙΚΛΜΝΞΟΠΡΣΤΥΧΩ

    Χ is used for [x], θ for /ts/, ου for /u/, /ū/, /w/, η and ω for both long and short /e/, /ē/ and /o/, /ō/ while ι is for short /i/ and ει for /ī/. Note that the sigma, in the Eastern Greek alphabet, looks like a C (lunate sigma). All Greek letters were used except phi and psi.

    Latin alphabet (monumental and cursive) in use in Roman Gaul:

    ABCDÐEFGHIKLMNOPQRSTUVXZ abcdðefghiklmnopqrstuvxz

    G and K are sometimes used interchangeably (especially after R). Ð/ð, ds and s may represent /ts/ and/or /dz/. X, x is for [x] or /ks/. Q is only used rarely (Sequanni, Equos) and may represent an archaism (a retained *kw) or, as in Latin, an alternate spelling of -cu- (for original /kuu/, /kou/, or /kom-u/). Ð and ð are used to represent the letter (tau gallicum, the Gaulish dental affricate).

    Sound laws

  • Gaulish changed the PIE voiceless labiovelar to p, a development also observed in the Brittonic languages (as well as Greek and some Italic languages like the Osco-Umbrian languages), while other Celtic languages retained the labiovelar. Thus, the Gaulish word for "son" was mapos, contrasting with Primitive Irish *maq(q)os (attested genitive case maq(q)i), which became mac (gen. mic) in modern Irish. In modern Welsh the word map, mab (or its contracted form ap, ab) is found in surnames. Similarly one Gaulish word for "horse" was epos (in Old Breton eb and modern Breton keneb "pregnant mare") while Old Irish has ech, the modern Irish language and Scottish Gaelic each, and Manx egh, all derived from proto-Indo-European *h₁eḱwos. The retention or innovation of this sound does not necessarily signify a close genetic relationship between the languages; Goidelic and Brittonic are, for example, both Insular Celtic languages and quite closely related.
  • The Proto-Celtic voiced labiovelar *gʷ (From PIE *gʷʰ) became w: *gʷediūmiuediiumi "I pray" (but Old Irish guidim, Welsh gweddi "to pray").
  • PIE ds, dz became /tˢ/, spelled đ: *neds-samoneđđamon (cf. Irish nesamh "nearest", Welsh nesaf "next").
  • PIE eu became ou, and later ō: *teutātoutatōta "tribe" (cf. Irish tuath, Welsh tud "people").
  • Additionally, intervocalic /st/ became the affricate [tˢ] (alveolar stop + voiceless alveolar stop) and intervocalic /sr/ became [ðr] and /str/ became [θr]. Finally, when a labial or velar stop came before /t/ or /s/, the two sounds merged into the fricative [χ].
  • Morphology

    There was some areal (or genetic, see Italo-Celtic) similarity to Latin grammar, and the French historian Ferdinand Lot argued that it helped the rapid adoption of Vulgar Latin in Roman Gaul.

    Noun cases

    Gaulish had six or seven cases. Like Latin, Gaulish had nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, and dative cases; however, while Latin had an ablative, Gaulish had an instrumental and may have had also a locative case. Greater epigraphical evidence attests common cases (nominative and accusative) and common stems (-o- and -a- stems) than for cases less frequently used in inscriptions or rarer -i-, -n- and -r- stems. The following table summarises the reconstructed endings.

    In some cases, a historical evolution is attested; for example, the dative singular of a-stems is -āi in the oldest inscriptions, becoming first *-ăi and finally as in Irish a-stem nouns with attenuated (slender) consonants: nom. lámh "hand, arm" (cf. Gaul. lāmā) and dat. láimh (< *lāmi; cf. Gaul. lāmāi > *lāmăi > lāmī). Further, the plural instrumental had begun to encroach on the dative plural (dative atrebo and matrebo vs. instrumental gobedbi and suiorebe), and in the modern Insular languages, the instrumental form is known to have completely replaced the dative.

    For o-stems, Gaulish also innovated the pronominal ending for the nominative plural -oi and genitive singular -ī in place of expected -ōs and -os still present in Celtiberian (-, -o). In a-stems, the inherited genitive singular -as is attested but was subsequently replaced by -ias as in Insular Celtic. The expected genitive plural -a-om appears innovated as -anom (vs. Celtiberian -aum).


    Gaulish verbs have present and future tenses; indicative, subjunctive, and imperative moods; and active and passive voices. Verbs show a number of innovations as well. The Indo-European s-aorist evolved into the Gaulish t-preterit, formed by merging an old 3rd personal singular imperfect ending -t- to a 3rd personal singular perfect ending -u or -e and subsequent affixation to all forms of the t-preterit tense. Similarly, the s-preterit is formed from the extension of -ss (originally from the third person singular) and the affixation of -it to the third person singular (to distinguish it as such). Third-person plurals are also marked by the addition of -s in the preterit system.

    Word order

    Most Gaulish sentences seem to consist of a subject–verb–object word order:

    Some, however, have patterns such as verb–subject–object (as in living Insular Celtic languages) or with the verb last. The latter can be seen as a survival from an earlier stage in the language, very much like the more archaic Celtiberian language.

    Sentences with the verb first can be interpreted, however, as indicating a special purpose, such as an imperative, emphasis, contrast, and so on. Also, the verb may contain or be next to an enclitic pronoun or with "and" or "but", etc. According to J. F. Eska, Gaulish was certainly not a verb-second language, as the following shows:

    Whenever there is a pronoun object element, it is next to the verb, as per Vendryes' Restriction. The general Celtic grammar shows Wackernagel's Rule, so putting the verb at the beginning of the clause or sentence. As in Old Irish and traditional literary Welsh, the verb can be preceded by a particle with no real meaning by itself but originally used to make the utterance easier.

    According to Eska's model, Vendryes' Restriction is believed to have played a large role in the development of Insular Celtic verb-subject-object word order. Other authorities such as John T. Koch, dispute that interpretation.

    Considering that Gaulish is not a verb-final language, it is not surprising to find other "head-initial" features:

  • Genitives follow their head nouns:
  • The unmarked position for adjectives is after their head nouns:
  • Prepositional phrases have the preposition, naturally, first:
  • Passive clauses:
  • Subordination

    Subordinate clauses follow the main clause and have an uninflected element (jo) to show the subordinate clause. This is attached to the first verb of the subordinate clause.

    Jo is also used in relative clauses and to construct the equivalent of THAT-clauses

    This element is found residually in the Insular Celtic languages and appears as an independent inflected relative pronoun in Celtiberian, thus:

  • Welsh
  • modern sydd "which is" ← Middle Welsh yssyd ← *esti-jo
  • vs. Welsh ys "is" ← *esti
  • Irish
  • Old Irish relative cartae "they love" ← *caront-jo
  • Celtiberian
  • masc. nom. sing. ioś, masc. dat. sing. iomui, fem. acc. plural iaś
  • Clitics

    Gaulish had object pronouns that infixed inside a word:

    Disjunctive pronouns also occur as clitics: mi, tu, id. They act like the emphasizing particles known as notae augentes in the Insular Celtic languages.

    Clitic doubling is also found (along with left dislocation), when a noun antecedent referring to an inanimate object is nonetheless grammatically animate. (There is a similar construction in Old Irish.)

    In an interview, folk metal band Eluveitie said that some of their songs are written in a reconstructed form of Gaulish. The band asks scientists for help in writing songs in the language. The name of the band comes from graffiti on a vessel from Mantua (c. 300 BC). The inscription in Etruscan letters reads eluveitie, which has been interpreted as the Etruscan form of the Celtic (h)elvetios ("the Helvetian"), presumably referring to a man of Helvetian descent living in Mantua.


    Gaulish language Wikipedia