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The derivation of Hibernia

By Jacques Pauwels
What is the derivation of the Roman name for Ireland - Hibernia? According to Jacques Pauwels it comes from an ancient Afro-Asiatic word iber meaning a land surrounded by water.

Jacques goes on - " Anybody interested in this topic may want to take a look at my book, 'Beneath the Dust of Time: A History of the Names of Peoples and Places', London and Colombo, 2009, which is available on my Academia site. I agree with the theory that the pre-Indo-European “substrate languages” of pre- and proto-historical Europe were related to the language family that is now called Afro-Asiatic. I am a historian, not a linguist, but my book is based on the research done by a formidable Italian palaeolinguist, Giovanni Semerano. Here are two excerpts relevant for this discussion.

p. 27:
The homeland of the Berbers, North Africa, was and is a gigantic land, surrounded by the waters of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. In their Usko-Mediterranean language [i.e. pre-Indo-European language, belonging to the Afro-Asiatic family of languages], the Palaeo-Berbers had a specific term for ‘sea’, ilel, while ‘land’ was called iber. Iber contains the same root as the Sumerian bireti, the Akkadian ep[e]ru, and the Phoenician afar.

The meaning of words based on this root is always the same: ‘earth’, ‘land’, and more specifically ‘land in contrast to water’, ‘land surrounded by water’, therefore occasionally also ‘island’, though more typically ‘mainland’ in contrast to the sea and its islands. When using the term iber, the Palaeo-Berbers appear to have had in mind their own land, i.e. the homeland of their people, but also ‘earth’ or ‘land’ in contrast to water, ‘mainland’.

Not surprisingly, they also used that word to refer to the great European peninsula that stretched to the north of their own North African homeland, which they named Iberia. In fact, many thousands of years BCE, Iberia was settled by Berbers or other Saharans related to the Berbers; the present-day Spaniards and Portuguese are the descendants of these “Iberians” of Antiquity, as genetic tests demonstrate.

(In this sense too, the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa form one single world, a “bicontinent”, as Fernand Braudel has emphasized in his masterful study of the Mediterranean. [Footnote 29: Braudel (1990.1: 137). See also Blake & Knapp (2005: 5):

“The cultural differences that separate Europe and Africa in the present day are projected back onto the past with little justification”.] Like North Africa, Iberia too was a vast land surrounded by the waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean; it therefore amply merited the name Iberia in the sense of ‘land in contrast to water’, ‘mainland’. In addition, Iberia was also a ‘mainland’ in contrast to the islands scattered in the surrounding seas, for example the Canary Islands and the Balearic Archipelago, which were likewise settled by Palaeo-Berbers.

Interestingly, in Antiquity there were other “lands in contrast to water” that were called Iberia, as we shall see later. [Footnote 30: More will be said about the root iber and its significance of ‘land in contrast to/near water’ in chapter 5, in the section dealing with “primeval hydronyms”.]

p. 125:
The British Isles, too, were conquered by the Romans, except some isolated parts of it that were left in peace, for whatever reason, by Caesar, Augustus, and the like.

A notable example is Ireland. That island had a Celtic name, Iveriu, or Iberiu, of which “Erin” is a cognate we are familiar with. An Old English version of Erin was Yra, but Yra was really an ethnonym, meaning ‘Irish’. As a corresponding toponym, the English introduced Yraland (or Iraland), and thus were born the modern English Ireland and its international cognates. In Antiquity, then, the term Ireland did not yet exist, but Iveriu (or Iberiu) and Erin did. The Greeks adopted the latter as Ierne.

To the Romans, on the other hand, Iveriu/Iberiu conjured up the Latin hibernum, ‘winter’, and so they baptized Ireland Hibernia, or sometimes Invernia, meaning ‘winterland’. This name belied the fact that Ireland’s climate happens to be rather mild. Moreover, the Romans knew lands that were far more “wintery”, for example Scandinavia, and it was the aforementioned term Thule that in Roman minds evoked the true ‘winterland’. Hibernia may have sounded like Iveriu, but it was obviously an absurd name for an island that was far from ‘wintery’. But what was the real meaning of Iveriu? ‘Land of the warriors’, say some, fertile country’, say others; still others think that the answer to the riddle is ‘western land’.

Such theories are far from convincing. In contrast, there is no denying the striking similarity of Iveriu/Iberiu and Iberia, and it is instructive that in Latin one not only used Hibernia, but also Hiberio and Iberio. The latter names do not evoke winter but, like Iveriu, appears to reflect the same Usko-Mediterranean [ = pre-IE] root as Iberia, referring to ‘land’, more specifically, ‘land surrounded by water’.[note 81:

In this respect there is an interesting remark in Deroy & Mulon (1992: 73): “In the beginning of the Roman Empire, the beta of the Greek alphabet was already pronounced like a ‘v,’ as it would be in Byzantine and in modern Greek.”] The Iberian Peninsula is a land surrounded by water, and so is Ireland. The suggestion that Ireland may have an Usko-Mediterranean name is not that outlandish when one considers that intensive relations had already existed between the Iberian Peninsula on the one side, and the world of the Celts in Gaul and on the British Isles on the other, since the Bronze Age.[ Note 82: See the study by Ruiz-Gálvez Priego, La Europa Atlántica en la Edad del Bronce.]

These relations consisted not only of seaborne trade – for example the famous tin trade – but also of migrations from south to north. The so-called Celtic language and culture of the British Isles and of much of the Western European mainland possibly emerged as the result of the arrival of Usko-Mediterranean people from the south. [Note 83: Semerano (1984: 359) notes in this respect that “the most ancient population of Ireland is supposed to be of Iberian origin”; see also his remark on pp 377-78 about the inhabitants of Ireland in the Neolithic being “di razza ‘iberica’ e ‘mediterranea’, bruna di carnagione e di capelli, di statura piuttosto bassa”.]

The culture we refer to as “Celtic” may well have been a kind of fusion between the cultures and languages of, on the one hand, Usko-Mediterranean people [i.e. migrants from the Sahara] who had already moved there from the south many thousands of years earlier and, on the other hand, Indo-Europeans who joined them some time during the course of the second millennium BCE.

With respect to the Iberia of Antiquity, or at least to the peninsula’s northern reaches, conventional historiography often cites the “Celtiberians”. Of this kind of Iberians it is assumed – without any substantial evidence – that they were Celts or that they were strongly influenced by Celtic neighbors to the north. It would be more useful to postulate the opposite and to look among the Celts for indications of Iberian migrations and influences; perhaps we will then have to reverse our terminology and speak of “Ibero-Celts”! In any event, the toponym Iveriu appears to reflect an Usko-Mediterranean origin on the part of the so-called Celtic culture or, at the very least, a potent Usko-Mediterranean linguistic influence on the Celtic world.