AskDefine | Define Gaulish

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  1. Of or pertaining to Gaul.

Proper noun

  1. The Celtic language that was spoken in Gaul, long extinct.

Extensive Definition

Gaulish or Gallic is the name given to the Celtic language that was spoken in Gaul before the Vulgar Latin of the late Roman Empire became dominant in Roman Gaul. According to Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars it was one of three languages in Gaul, the others being Aquitanian and Germanic. Gaulish is paraphyletically grouped with Celtiberian, Lepontic, and Galatian as Continental Celtic. The Lepontic language is sometimes considered to be a dialect of Gaulish. Gaulish is a P-Celtic language.


The Gaulish language is known from several hundred inscriptions on stone, on ceramic vessels and other artifacts, and on coins, and occasionally on metal (lead, and on one occasion zinc). They are found in the entire area of Roman Gaul, i.e., mostly in the area of the west of France, as well as parts of Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Belgium (Meid 1994).
The earliest Continental Celtic inscriptions, dating to as early as the 6th century BC, are in Lepontic (sometimes considered a dialect of Gaulish), found in Gallia Cisalpina and were written in a form of the Old Italic alphabet. Inscriptions in the Greek alphabet from the 3rd century BC have been found in the area near the mouths of the Rhône, while later inscriptions dating to Roman Gaul are mostly in the Latin alphabet.
Gregory of Tours wrote in the 6th century that some people in his area could still speak Gaulish. Some scholars believe that it had an influence on Breton.


  • vowels:
    • short: a, e, i, o u
    • long: ā, ē, ī, (ō), ū
    • diphthongs: ai, ei, oi, au, eu, ou
  • semivowels: w, y
  • occlusives:
    • voiceless: p, t, k
    • voiced: b, d, g
  • resonants
    • nasals: m, n
    • liquids r, l
  • sibilant: s
  • affricate: ts
[χ] is an allophone of /k/ before /t/.
The diphthongs all transformed over the course of the historical period. Ai and oi collapsed into long ī; eu merged with ou, both becoming long ō. Ei became long ē early on. In general, long diphthongs became short diphthongs and then collapsed into long vowels.
Other transformations include the transformation of unstressed i into e. Ln became ll, a stop + s became ss, and a nasal + velar became /ng/ + velar.
The occlusives also seem to have been both lenis, as compared to Latin which distinguished voiced occlusives with a lenis realization from voiceless occlusives with a fortis realization, hence confusions like Glanum for Clanum, vergobretos for vercobreto, Britannia for Pritannia.


The alphabet of Lugano used in Gallia Cisalpina for Lepontic:
The alphabet of Lugano does not distinguish voiced and unvoiced occlusives, i.e. 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 only in one early inscription. Θ is probably for /t/ and X for /g/ (Lejeune 1971, Solinas 1985).
The Eastern Greek alphabet used in southern Gallia Transalpina:
χ is used for [χ], 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:
G and K are sometimes used interchangeably (especially after R). Ð/ð, ds and s may represent /ts/. X, x is for [χ] or /ks/. Q is only used rarely (e.g. Sequanni, Equos) and may represent an archaism (a retained *kw). Ð and ð are used here to represent the letter Tau Gallicum (the Gaulish dental affricate), which has not yet been added to Unicode. In contrast to the glyph for Ð, the central bar extends right across the glyph and also does not protrude outside it.

Sound laws

  • Gaulish changed PIE voiceless labiovelars kw to p (hence P-Celtic), a development also observed in Brythonic (as well as Greek and some Italic languages), while the other Celtic, 'Q-Celtic', retained the labiovelar. Thus the Gaulish word for "son" was mapos (Delmarre 2003: 216-217), contrasting with Primitive Irish *maqas (attested in the genitive, maqi), which became mac in modern Irish. In modern Welsh the word map (mab) (or its contracted form ap(ab)) is used to mean "son of". Similarly one Gaulish word for "horse" was epos while Old Irish has ech; all derived from Indo-European *eqwos (Delmarre 2003: 163-164)
  • Voiced labiovelar gw became w, e. g. gwediūmi > uediiumi "I pray" (cf. Old Irish guidiu "I pray", Welsh gweddi "to pray").
  • PIE tst became /ts/, spelled ð, e.g. *nedz-tamo > neððamon (cf. Old Irish nessam "nearest", Welsh nesaf "next").
  • PIE eu became ou, and later ō, e.g. *teutā > touta > tōta "tribe" (cf. Old 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 [þr]. Finally, when a labial or velar stop came before either a /t/ or /s/ the two sounds merged into the fricative [x].


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

Noun cases

Gaulish has six or seven cases (Lambert 2003 pp.51-67). In common with Latin it has nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, and dative; where Latin has an ablative, Gaulish has an instrumental and may also have a locative. There is more evidence for common cases (nominative and accusative) and for common stems (-o- and -a- stems) than there is for cases less frequently used in inscriptions, or rarer stems such as -i-, -n- and occlusive. The following table summarizes the case endings which are most securely known. A blank means that the form is unattested.
In some cases a historical evolution is known, for example the dative singular of -a- stems is -ai in the oldest inscriptions, becoming first -e and finally -i.


Ordinal numerals from the La Graufesenque graffiti
  1. cintus, cintuxos (Welsh cynt "before, in front", Breton kent "in front", Old Irish céta, Modern Irish céad "first")
  2. allos (Welsh ail, Breton eil, OIr aile 'other', Modern Irish eile)
  3. tritios (Welsh trydydd, Breton trede, OIr treide, Modern Irish treas)
  4. petuarios (Welsh pedwerydd, Breton pevare, OIr cethramad)
  5. pinpetos (Welsh pumed, Breton pempet, OIr cóiced)
  6. suexos (maybe mistaken for suextos, Welsh chweched, Breton c'hwec'hved, OIr seissed)
  7. sextametos (Welsh seithfed, Breton seizhved, OIr sechtmad)
  8. oxtumetos (Welsh wythfed, Breton eizhved, OIr ochtmad)
  9. nametos (Welsh nawfed, Breton naved, OIr nómad)
  10. decametos, decometos (Welsh degfed, Breton degvet, OIr dechmad, Celtiberian dekametam)
The ancient Gaulish language was more similar to Latin than modern Gaelic languages are to modern Romance languages. The ordinal numerals in Latin are prímus, secundus/alter, tertius, quártus, quíntus, sextus, septimus, octávus, nónus, decimus.


Word order

The majority of Gaulish sentences are SVO (subject-verb-object). However, other surface variations are attested: verb-initial, verb-medial, and verb-final. Verb-initial sentences can nonetheless be evaluated as pro-drop or imperative. Gaulish was certainly not a verb-second language, as evidenced by:
  • ratin briuatiom | frontu tarbetisonios | ie(i)uru
  • NP.Acc.Sg. | NP.Nom.Sg. | V.3rd Sg.
    • "Frontus Tarbetisonios dedicated the board of the bridge."
Whenever a clitic pronominal object is present, it must be syntactically hosted (i.e., adjacent) to the verb, as per Vendryes' Restriction. Since Wackernagel's Law was strongly grammaticalized in Celtic, this had the effect of ensuring that the verb occupied clause-initial position. In such cases, the verb occupies absolute initial position in the clause or is preceded only by a null-position, semantically empty, sentential connective, the original purpose of which was to host the clitic phonologically.
  • sioxt-i | albanos | panna(s) | extra tuð(on) | CCC
  • V-Pro.Neut. | NP.Nom.Sg. | NP.Fem.Acc.Pl. | PP | Num.
    • "Albanos added them, vessels beyond the allotment (in the amount of) 300."
  • to-me-declai obalda natina
  • Conn.-Pro.1st.Sg.Acc.-V.3rd.Sg. | NP.Nom.Sg. | Appositive
    • Obalda, (their) dear daughter, set me up."
Vendryes' Restriction is believed to have played a large role in the development of Insular Celtic VSO word order.
Considering that Gaulish is not a verb-final language, it is not surprising to find other head-intitial features.
  • Genitives follow their head nouns
    • atom teuoxtonion
      • "The border of gods and men."
  • The unmarked position for adjectives is after their head nouns
    • toutious namausatis
      • "citizen of Nîmes"
  • Prepositional phrases are headed by the preposition
    • in alixie
      • "in Alesia"
  • Passive clauses
    • uatiounui so nemetos commu escengilu
      • "To Vatiounos this shrine (was dedicated) by Commos Escengilos


Subordinate clauses follow their head and are characterized by the presence of an uninflected particle (jo) which is attached to the initial verb of the subordinate clause.
  • gobedbi | dugijonti-jo | ucuetin | in alisija
  • NP.Dat/Inst.Pl. | V.3rd.Pl.- Pcl. | NP.Acc.Sg. | PP
    • "to the smiths who serve Ucuetis in Alisia"
This particle is used in relative clauses and to construct the equivalent of THAT-clauses
  • scrisu-mi-jo | uelor
  • V.1st.Sg.-Pro.1st Sg.-Pcl. | V.1st Sg.
    • "I wish that I spit"
This particle is found residually in the Insular Languages, thus:
  • Welsh
    • Middle Welsh yssyd, modern sydd "which is" from *esti-jo
    • vs. Welsh yd "is" from *esti
  • Irish
    • Old Irish 3rd plural relative cartae "loves" from *caront-jo


Gaulish has a number of clitic pronominals, such as the object pronominals:
  • to-so-ko-te
  • Conn. - Pro.3rd Sg.Acc - PerfVZ - V.3rd Sg
    • "he gave it"
Subject pronominals also exist: mi, tu, id, which function like the emphasizing particles known as notae augentes in the Insular Celtic languages.
  • dessu-mii-iis
  • V.1st.Sg. | Emph.-Pcl.1st Sg.Nom. | Pro.3rd Pl.Acc.
    • "I prepare them"
  • buet-id
  • V.3rd Sg.Pres.Subjunc.-Emph.Pcl.3rd Sg.Nom.Neut.
    • "it should be"
Clitic doubling is also found (along with left dislocation), where a neuter pronominal doubles an instrinsically inanimate but grammatically animate nominal, a construction which is also attested in Old Irish.


The Gaulish corpus is edited in the Recueil des Inscriptions Gauloises (R.I.G.), in four volumes:
  • Vol. 1: Inscriptions in the Greek alphabet, edited by Michel Lejeune (items G-1 –G-281)
  • Vol. 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
  • Vol. 2.2: inscriptions in the Latin alphabet on instruments (ceramic, lead, glass etc.), edited by Pierre-Yves Lambert (items l. 18 – l. 139)
  • Vol. 3: The calendars of Coligny (73 fragments) and Villards d'Heria (8 fragments), edited by Paul-Marie Duval and Georges Pinault
  • Vol. 4: inscriptions on coins, edited by Jean-Baptiste Colbert de Beaulieu and Brigitte Fischer (338 items)
The longest known Gaulish text was found in 1983 in L'Hospitalet-du-Larzac () in Aveyron. It is inscribed in Latin cursive script on two small sheets of lead. The content is a magical incantation, probably a curse (defixio), 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 Coligny near Lyon, France with a statue identified as Apollo. The Coligny Calendar is a lunisolar calendar that divides the year into two parts with the months underneath. SAMON "summer" and GIAMON "winter". The date of SAMON- xvii is identified as TRINVX[tion] SAMO[nii] SINDIV.
Another major text is the lead tablet of Chamalières (l. 100), written on lead in Latin cursive script, in twelve lines, apparently a curse or incantation addressed to the god Maponos. It was deposited in a spring, much like defixiones often are.
The graffito of La Graufesenque, Millau ( ), inscribed in Latin cursive on a ceramic plate, is our most important source for Gaulish numerals. It was probably written in a ceramic factory, referring to furnaces numbered 1 to 10.
A number of short inscriptions are found on spindle whorls. They are among the latest testimonies of Gaulish. These whorls were apparently presented to young girls by their suitors, and bear inscriptions such as moni gnatha gabi / buððutton imon (l. 119) "my girl, take my kiss" and geneta imi / daga uimpi (l. 120) '"I am a young girl, good (and) pretty".
Inscriptions found in Switzerland are rare, but a lot of modern placenames are derived from Gaulish names as they are in the rest of Gaul. There is a statue of a seated goddess with a bear, Artio, found in Muri near Berne, with a Latin inscription DEAE ARTIONI LIVINIA SABILLINA, suggesting a Gaulish Artiyon- "bear goddess". A number of coins with Gaulish inscriptions in the Greek alphabet have been found in Switzerland, e.g. RIG IV Nrs. 92 (Lingones) and 267 (Leuci). A sword dating to the La Tène period was found in Port near Bienne, its blade inscribed with KORICIOC (Korisos), probably the name of the smith. The most notable inscription found in Helvetic parts is the Berne Zinc tablet, inscribed ΔΟΒΝΟΡΗΔΟ ΓΟΒΑΝΟ ΒΡΕΝΟΔΩΡ ΝΑΝΤΑΡΩΡ, and apparently dedicated to Gobannus, the Celtic god of smithcraft. Caesar relates that census accounts written in the Greek alphabet were found among the Helvetii.



  • Delamarre, X. (2003). Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise (2nd ed.). Paris: Editions Errance. ISBN 2-87772-237-6
  • Lambert, Pierre-Yves (2003) La langue gauloise (2nd ed.) Paris: Editions Errance. ISBN 2-87772-224-4
  • Lejeune, Michel (1971). Lepontica (Monographies linguistiques, 1). Paris: Société d’edition “les Belles Lettres”
  • Meid, Wolfgang (1994) Gaulish Inscriptions. Budapest: Archaeolingua. ISBN 963-8046-06-6
  • Recueil des inscriptions gauloises (XLVe supplément à «GALLIA»), ed. Paul-Marie Duval et al. 4 vols. Paris: CNRS, 1985-2002. ISBN 2-271-05844-9
  • Russell, Paul. An Introduction to the Celtic Languages. London: Longman, 1995.
  • Solinas, Patrizia (1995). ‘Il celtico in Italia’. Studi Etruschi 60:311-408

See also

External links

Gaulish in Afrikaans: Gallies
Gaulish in Tosk Albanian: Gallische Sprache
Gaulish in Aragonese: Idioma galo
Gaulish in Welsh: Galeg
Gaulish in German: Gallische Sprache
Gaulish in Spanish: Idioma galo
Gaulish in Basque: Galiako zelta
Gaulish in Persian: زبان گالیک
Gaulish in French: Gaulois (langue)
Gaulish in Galician: Lingua gala
Gaulish in Korean: 갈리아어
Gaulish in Italian: Lingua gallica
Gaulish in Latin: Lingua Gallica
Gaulish in Lithuanian: Galų kalba
Gaulish in Dutch: Gallisch
Gaulish in Japanese: ガリア語
Gaulish in Occitan (post 1500): Gal (lenga)
Gaulish in Piemontese: Parlé dla Galia
Gaulish in Polish: Język galijski
Gaulish in Portuguese: Língua gaulesa
Gaulish in Russian: Галльский язык
Gaulish in Scots: Gauls Leid
Gaulish in Saterfriesisch: Gallisk
Gaulish in Slovenian: Galščina
Gaulish in Swedish: Galliska
Gaulish in Walloon: Gålwès
Gaulish in Chinese: 高盧語
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