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Èrainn – The language of the Picts?

By Dermot O'Neill - - September 2020

I have taken this page from Dernot's fascinating article - Èrainn - An Afro-Asiatic Language of Ancient Ireland.

While Dermot is interested in a language of ancient Ireland, I wondered if this could also cast some light on the mystery of the language of the Picts in Scotland?

Dermot O'Neill contacted me to add that he is consulting a dictionary of Ancient Egyptian to see if he can find any Afro-Asiatic words in the Pictish Ogham inscriptions. Dermot pointed out that Bishop Cormac refers to Erainn and Pictish as two separate languages and also that Saint Colomba spoke of other languages, different from Pictish, to the north of the Pictish lands which were spoken in the Hebrides and in the Orkney and Shetland islands. Dermot says that determining the genetic affiliation of Pictish is important because it might also shed some light on the Bronze Age languages of southern Britain and France.

“Iarnbélre – The Language of the Érainn”

“It is so called because of the darkness of the language , and it's obscurity and density, so that it is difficult to explore.” Cormac, Bishop of Cashel in 905 AD writing in Sanas Cormac about the Érainn language.

Afro-Asiatic was formerly known as Hamito-Semitic. The Érainn language of Ireland is thus related to the Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Egyptian, Omotic, and Semitic languages including Amharic. Although the Érainn language of Ireland has been dead for 1100 years it’s proper classification is with the other Afro-Asiatic languages.

A great deal of confusion has surrounded the terms “Iarnbélre” and “Iarmberla” with many people under the impression that it described a type of Irish which employed unusual terms. However as Thomas O'Rahilly correctly pointed out in 1946 the original meaning of the term “Iar” or “Ier” was coterminous with the “Érainn” peoples. For example “tuath Ier” meant the territory of the Érainn” and thus Iarmberla also meant the language of the Érainn in its original context. In its final stages the Érainn language must have become heavily influenced by languages such as Goidelic, Pictish and Latin in it's syntax, grammar and vocabulary. O'Rahilly was mistaken however in supposing that Érainn was a dialect of Brittonic that preceded Goidelic into Ireland. Today we realize that Goidelic or Q-Celtic was the oldest and most archaic form of Celtic to spread into western Europe including Ireland. Gallo-Brittonic or P Celtic did not evolve until several centuries later in northern Gaul from whence it spread into Britain but not Ireland.

We can scarcely blame O'Rahilly for being confused with all the references to “Cruithnech” meaning literally Britons in early Irish literature.

In actual fact “Cruithnech” means Pictish in Old Irish and the Cruithnech or Picts who settled in Ireland during the late Bronze Age were from northern Britain they were not carriers of a Brittonic language. Rather they should be regarded as carriers of the Pictish language.

The Afro-Asiatic word for hill – tel,tul
tul,tulach Modern Irish
tul Érainn
tulio Modern Sardinian
tel Modern Hebrew
tel Modern Arabic

Thanks to the growing research into the substratum lexicon to Goidelic or Irish over the past two decades it has now at last become possible to assign the genetic affiliation of Érainn the chief Pre-Celtic language of Ireland as a mainly Afro-Asiatic language. I should add that I also strongly suspect that the Non Indo European Pictish inscriptions are written in an Afro-Asiatic language related to Érrain and that the Bronze Age languages of southern Britain were also Afro-Asiatic but of that more later.

Even more startling as our knowledge of these substratum words grows they are teaching us things which are filling in the blanks of Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age history. They may even rewrite history as we know it. Of the seventy eight words listed below thirty seven or 47% are of Afro-Asiatic etymology; eight words or 11% are of Vasconic origin, one is of Hurro-Urartian origin while thirty two words or 41% remain unclassified – for now. The high percentage of Vasconic words in the substratum of Irish calls for an explanation. The most likely explanation for the influx of Vasconic words into Ireland is that they were brought by the Paleolithic hunter gatherers who settled Ireland from the Basque lands about the year 10,500 AD after the Ice Age ended. This is more along the lines of Theo Veneman’s Vasconic Substratum Theory rather than his critics.

About the year 8000 BC as the Sahara dried up and turned from fertile grassland to desert this caused population movement out of North Africa into the western Mediterranean lands in particular, Sardinia, Corsica and Italy from where they spread to southern France bringing their Proto Berber language with them.

About the year 6000 BC Hurrian speaking farmers from Anatolia spread into the western Mediterranean. The Berber speaking inhabitants of southern France adopted the agricultural lifestyle of the immigrants from the east but retained their Afro-Asiatic language.

They began to slowly spread north and arrived in Britain and Ireland about 4500 BC bringing sheep, pigs and a knowledge of farming with them. As they mingled with the Paleolithic probably Vasconic speaking natives Their Berber language absorbed many Vasconic loanwords. More so in Ireland than Britain. Only the Modern Basque language has more Vasconic words than Irish. In addition vegisimal counting in twenties also passed from Vasconic to Érainn and later Irish. The Berber speaking immigrants brought many Afro-Asiatic syntax traits such as VSO -verb-subject-object which were later absorbed by the Irish language directly from the Afro-Asiatic Érainn language.

The first Celts to settle in Britain and Ireland were Q-Celtic speakers a much older, archaic type of Celtic than P-Celtic or Gallo-Brittonic which didn’t arrive in Britain until 300 BC perhaps brought by the Belgae and which never arrived in Ireland which remained Q-Celtic speaking.

Q-Celtic speakers arrived in southeastern Ireland in or around 500 BC as Gearóid MacEoin has suggested. In this respect Ranko Matasovic’s Gallo-Brittonic position seems to be closer to the reality of what happened. Goidelic is too different from Brittonic to have ever been part of some Insular Celtic family. Brittonic and Gaulish are far more closely linked. We know that Primitive Irish formed in south eastern Ireland because Munster Irish is the oldest dialect of Irish.

So what of Érainn and Irish? What transpired? In the period 500 BC to about 100 BC the Q-Celtic speakers of southeastern Ireland intermarried and intermingled with Érainn speakers. The result was very heavy Érainn influence on the Primitive Irish Language which was taking shape. About 40%-50% of the vocabulary of the Irish language is Non Indo European. As much as 20% or 30% of the Irish language may be Érainn.

In the first century AD the Érainn and the Chruithnech/Pictish peoples in Ulster led by Cairpre Cind Cait revolted against their Celtic lords probably in alliance with the Picts of Scotland. According to tradition the Érainn were “advised” by their three gods to rise up and slaughter their Celtic lords.Not to be outdone the Gaels or Celts sought and received Roman assistance from Hadrian in the form of Roman troops and weapons. It is not hard to imagine why the Romans did not want to see some Pictish friendly state emerging in Ireland. However the Roman hope that Ireland would turn into a friendly client state of Rome backfired badly and in less than a century the great Irish raids against Roman Britain had begun.To add insult to injury the Irish High King often used the Attecottii whom the Romans had helped to suppress – the Érainn and Chruithnech as mercenaries in his attacks on Roman Britain.

Returning to Ireland it was the famous High King Tuathal the Legitimate who crushed the revolt of the subject peoples in the first century AD, “expelling the Érainn such as would not submit to him”. He also sent some of the vanquished Chruithnech to Argyll in Scotland where they could be used as both colonists and mercenaries against the Picts. He was greeted as a liberator by the Celtic population in Ireland on his return from Roman Britain “for he freed them from slavery to the serfs and subject peoples”. He created the new royal province of Meath and the other four provinces. He did confiscate land from the Érainn and Chruithnech peoples but most were allowed to continue living in their own kingdoms or tuath. This is an important detail to bear in mind to understand why the Érainn and Pictish languages survived into the ninth century AD. In the Érainn kingdoms of west Munster Érainn remained the language of all classes from the local king right down to traders and farm labourers. Like Cornish the Érainn language was never a peasant patois. Well into the 1700s doctors and lawyers were corresponding in Cornish. Today we know that Irish monastic students were required to study not only Irish, Latin and Greek but also Érainn. When Patrick brought Christianity in the fifth century the Érainn converted just as the Gaels did. One reason we know this is that many of the early Irish monks often included Érainn words in their writings. However it was probably Christianity with its superior culture and literacy in Latin and Greek which eventually led to the demise of the Érainn language. Bishop Cormac tells us that Érainn died out in the 800s. Clearly Irish had become the language of upward social mobility. The last stronghold of the Érainn language must surely have been western Munster. Never the less it is remarkable that an essentially Neolithic language spoken in Ireland from about 4500 BC to about 850 AD was still in community use in the 700s and early 800s.

A Glossary of Substratum Words in Irish/most of these would have been Érainn, some Pictish

adaig – night , unknown origin
Old Irish áine - ring, Egyptian n - to return, Kali'na ainatano - ring, aneka - ? necklace.
aithe – revenge – unknown origin
amm – time – unknown origin
arán – bread – unknown origin
Old Irish baccán - rod, Egyptian b y - rod. ? beinn - Gaelic word for a mountain, found in England as Ben (meaning a prominent boulder), perhaps related to the Egyptian benben stone said to have once topped the pyramids.
baile – place – origin unknown
blaesc-shell-origin unknown
Irish bocht (poor), Egyptian byn - poor or unhappy. ?
Irish bréife - ring, loop or hole, connected to Egyptian rf (enclose, envelop, ? surround and move in) or wrh. (ground to build)?
brádan – salmon – origin unknown
Breifne-early Irish kingdom-Afro-Asiatic
Old Irish brinn - dream, connected to Egyptian pr - dream. buinne - stream, linked to Egyptian bnbn and Irish abhainn?
Old Irish bunsat or bunsach - stick, Egyptian nby.t - pole.
carn,cairn – heap-Vasconic
cith-shower-origin unknown
congelt-grazing-origin unknown
ciotóg-left hand-Berber
corco-seed-origin unknown
Irish cufar/cuipre - kindness, perhaps linked to Egyptian b yr - friend? ? ?
dúil-creature-origin unknown
faochán-periwinkle-origin unknown
Old Irish fáel - wolf, Armenian gayl, Egyptian w? h.r - one with a long face.
Old Irish féf - twist, Egyptian i f - twist. ?
fern - anything good, from the Ivernic or Iarnbelrae language. Egyptian fr - pretty, beautiful, fine or fair, nfr - a good or pretty thing. Perhaps also English 'fair' and the 'Faroe Islands'.
fót-sod-origin unknown
ger-sharp-origin unknown
gliomach-lobster-origin unknown
Iar-Érainn personal name-Afro-Asiatic
lacha-duck-origin unknown
lon-black bird-origin unknown
lufe-feminine-Afro-Asiatic, Proto Berber
luige-oath-origin unknown
luis-rowan tree-origin unknown
meccon-edible root-origin unknown
Iarnbelrae onn - 'stone', is connected to the pre Afro Asiatic root *and- (stone), found in some Afro Asiatic and Dravidian languages in India.
Irish River Nanny, linked to Egyptian nnw - primordial waters. Other examples of the name Nanny appear in Northeastern England.
og-virgin-origin unknown
Old Irish res - dream connected to Egyptian rsw.t - dream, English rest, Old Icelandic roest (a dangerous tidal area, or whirlpool where boats can sink).
partán-crab-probably from Chruithnech/Pictish– which may be Afro-Asiatic
partráige-people of the crab- probably from Chruithnech/Pictish – which may be Afro-Asiatic
partaing-crimson-origin unknown
pattu-hare-origin unknown
pell-horse-origin unknown
petta-lap dog-origin unknown
pit-portion of food-origin unknown
pluc-round-origin unknown
prapp-rapid-origin unknown
Rechru-Érainn personal name-Afro-Asiatic
remor-fat-origin unknown
rophais-straw mat used to wrap bodies for burial- Afro-Asiatic/Broto Berber
rosc-eye-origin unknown
ross-from r’as-head-Afro-Asiatic
scadán-herring-origin unknown
Sidh-burial mound-Vasconic
Old Irish slipre - stick, Egyptian šlh. - branch.
slife-broadening-Afro-Asiatic/Proto Berber
smacht-rule,control-origin unkown
Gaelic tapaidh - quick, related to Egyptian n htp (quick) and Armenian shtap.
Tara-Érainn goddess- Afro-Asiatic
Tlachtga-Érainn place name- Afro Asiatic
tost-silence-origin unknown
Old Irish tugae - straw, Egyptian dh.? - straw.
tuaim-mound-probably Afro-Asiatic/Proto Berber
tul,tulach-hill-probably Afro-Asiatic/Proto Berber
Old Irish umae - bronze or copper, Egyptian - - ore. Wadjet is an Egyptian otter goddess, w yt. This means 'green one' with a ?? feminine suffix. This is linked to the word for water in Indo European languages and perhaps to Egyptian wdh. - pour out. Interestingly this root exists in Gaelic too (uaine) to mean 'green', rather than water. Water can be a verb in English, implying some distant link to an older meaning to give life, to be green like a plant.

Bishop Cormac of Cashel, King of Munster; Sanas Cormac, Glossary of the Irish Language 905 AD

Morris Jones, Pre-Aryan Syntax in Insular Celtic; 1899

Ireland in Pre-Celtic Times, R.A.S. MacAllister; 1921

Thomas O’Rahilly; Early Irish History and Mythology; 1946

F.T. Wainwright, The Problem of the Picts 1955

G.B. Adams, Bulletin of the Ulster Place Name Society, 1956

Theo Veneman, Vasconic Substratum Theory, 2003

Gearóid MacEoin – University of Galway, What Language did Ireland speak before Irish? 2007

Ranko Matasovic – University of Zagreb-The Substratum in Insular Celtic; 2012

Peter Schrijver – Non-Indo European Surviving In Ireland After 500 AD; 2000

Paul Tempan, Queen’s University; “Ros,tor and tul, topographical survivors from pre-Celtic strata?2012

Robert Mailhammer-University of Western Sydney- Diversity versus Uniformity; 2009

Beyond Indo European - issue five Does the Irish language connect to other languages which are non Indo European? Written by Michael Daniel Schmidt and Carla Acebo, 2018