What was/were the language(s) spoken in Europe before the Roman Empire?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by science man, Sep 20, 2010.

  1. I'm talking of Ancient Greece when Ancient Greek was spoken in Greece.
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  3. IamJoseph Banned Banned

    Many languages were spoken. This can be seen by some 25 states in Europe all speaking a different language today, despite each state being a stone's throw away from the other - its as if none crossed the footpath to the next village for 1000's of years. I wonder how this impacts on the origins of languages: did each write their own, or did all started to talk in new languages, or did they all decide at different times?
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  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The answer to this question depends on how far back you want to go into prehistory.

    Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, lived in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years before our species, Homo sapiens, arrived approximately 35,000 years ago after their long, circuitous migration from our original home in Africa. Neanderthals were very much like us; if you caught a casual glimpse of one walking through a department store you might not think he looked much more unusual than someone on vacation from a distant country. They were so closely related that, according to the most recent genetic evidence, the two species intermarried and modern Europeans still have some of their DNA.

    We don't know if Neanderthals could talk. It was long believed that their brains did not have a speech center, and in her "Earth's Children" series of novels (starting with Clan of the Cave Bear) Jean Auel's Neanderthals communicate in sign language. But recent research suggests that their brains were more like ours than we thought. They might very well have had the technology of language, but we'll probably never know for sure and we'll even more probably never know what their languages were like if they had any.

    The first "modern humans" (Homo sapiens) to walk into Europe were the Cro-Magnon; we named them after the region in France where we first found some of their cave paintings and burial sites. We have no idea what they called themselves, but in the Stone Age it was quite common for each tribe to simply call themselves “people” or “the people.” (That’s what the Proto-Germanic word thiuda means, which evolved into Deutsch.) The only sources of information we have about the prehistory of Europe, in the eons before writing was invented, are archeological sites and DNA, so we really don’t know much about what happened between the arrival of the Cro-Magnons and the arrival of the Indo-European tribes thirty thousand years later. What little evidence we have fuels considerable speculation that the Cro-Magnon survived as a community and are now the people we call the Basques, who live in the region of the Pyrenees on both sides of the French-Spanish border. This would make Basque, which has no known relationship to any other language living or dead, the language (or one of the languages) that was spoken in Europe before the Indo-European migration.

    Another pre-Indo-European tribe (or tribes) left archeological evidence on the British Isles around ten thousand years ago—I’m not checking my dates scrupulously but I’m talking about the warming from the last Ice Age when the glaciers began to melt and made the islands habitable, but sea level was low enough that it was still possible to walk across a very narrow and shallow English Channel, or sail across with Stone Age-technology boats. The oldest house found there is about that old, and we’re all familiar with Stonehenge, which is considerably younger but was still built long before the arrival of the Celtic tribes whose descendants live there now. They didn’t leave much in the way of archeological records so we don’t know much about them, including their language(s). I suppose they were Cro-Magnons, but I’m basing my supposition completely on the fact that I have never seen scholarship attesting that any humans migrated to Europe after the Cro-Magnons but before the Indo-Europeans.

    The Indo-Europeans finally began migrating into Europe and southern Asia from the Pontic Steppe (the region on the boundary between Europe and Asia, north of the Caspian Sea) about 6,000 years ago. The first tribe to reach central and western Europe was NOT the Romans or the Greeks, but the Celts. The Neolithic Revolution (the Paradigm Shift from nomadic hunting and gathering to permanent agricultural settlements) had already happened in Mesopotamia, North Africa, India and China, and the Indo-Europeans brought the twin technologies of farming and animal husbandry with them. With this advantage they easily took charge and indeed they ruled sub-Scandinavian Europe for centuries, overwhelming, marginalizing and absorbing the original population.

    We don’t know much about the early Celtic languages because they weren’t written down. The only surviving Celtic languages are Welsh, Cornish, Manx, Breton and Irish and Scottish Gaelic. These are all “Insular Celtic” languages, having developed in the British Isles; there was an entire huge subgroup of “Continental Celtic” languages that are lost. In their twilight the Romans taught the Celts to write, so we have a few tantalizing inscriptions from which we’ve been able to verify the family relationship and even work out a few phonetic changes, but we’ll never really know what the speech of Europe sounded like--or what it was called--before the Phoenicians taught the Greeks to write and the Greeks taught the Romans.

    There was one civilization in Europe before the Greeks and Romans, namely the Etruscans, who lived in northeastern Italy and were assimilated by the Romans. They had a written language, but we haven’t been able to decipher the few bits of it that are left. Their pottery and other archeological evidence does not look out of place in comparison to the other European cultural artifacts of the time, so it’s tempting to assume that they were a Celtic tribe. But if they were, you’d think we’d have had a little more luck figuring out their language by now! For now the Etruscans remain one of the many tantalizing mysteries about prehistoric Europe that keep us awake at night.

    So to sum up:
    • Starting approximately half a million years ago, Neanderthals lived in Europe. We don’t know if they had a spoken language--or any language--and if they did we know absolutely nothing about it.
    • About 35,000 years ago the first Homo sapiens arrived, the Cro-Magnon. It’s important to make it clear that we don’t really know whether they had a language either, since the earliest language we have evidence for, the Asian ancestor of Yeniseian and Navajo, is only about 15,000 years old. If the Cro-Magnon did have a language, the only hypothetical information we have about it is that it may be the ancestral language of the Basques.
    • In any case, the Basques definitely did live in Europe before the Indo-Europeans arrived, so theirs is the oldest European language that we can name, describe, and learn to speak, even though it's surely much different from its ancestral form just as all languages are. We cannot find any relationship between it and other living or dead languages.
    • The Celts were the first Indo-European tribe to migrate into Europe, between five and six thousand years ago. We can reconstruct much of their Proto-Celtic language, working forward from Proto-Indo-European and backward from Gaelic, Welsh and a few fragmentary inscriptions left on the continent. This and Basque (and Proto-Germanic, see below) are the first and only pre-Roman/Greek languages that we can describe in any detail.
    • Etruscan civilization was thriving in Europe when the Greeks and Romans arrived. We have written evidence of their language but we can’t decipher it. Maybe it’s a Celtic tongue, or maybe it’s a surprise waiting to be figured out.
    • The Germanic tribes (which I haven’t yet mentioned) arrived in Europe a little earlier than the Greeks and Romans. They took the long way, up through Scandinavia and then down into Europe via Denmark. They had already displaced many of the Celtic tribes in Greco-Roman times; Old Norse, Gothic, Frankish, Saxon and other ancient Germanic languages were widely spoken throughout central and northern Europe. The Romans, consummate record-keepers, wrote about them and even translated the Bible into a few of them.
    • Greek civilization was founded early in the first millennium BCE, and the Romans took over a few hundred years later.
    You asked a complicated question, so you got a complicated answer.

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  7. wow thanks for your answer I really admired it. I was actually just talking about the time period of Ancient Greece. In that time period where were the Romans before they took over southern Italy? Were they in northern Italy and if so, what did they speak?
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 21, 2010
  8. In relation to how far back Fraggle Rocker went I found this which goes back even further than he went because it talks about how language developed and has ten theories on it because it says that the true answer is unknown. I think it should be sticked to this sub-forum. lol
  9. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The origin of the Romans is actually a little murky. Tracing the migrations of closely related tribes in the early Stone Age is really difficult. Not only did they not leave any written records because their languages were not written, but since they were often nomads they didn't leave a lot of artifacts of any sort to show us where they were at any point in time.

    Latin has so many characteristics in common with Proto-Celtic that some linguists wonder whether it's really a Celtic language, and if the Romans might have been a tribe of Celts who wandered off in an odd direction and lost touch with the rest of the clan.

    The Romans' own story of their origin is complete mythology and contains no useful information that even hints at how they got there and where they came from. They claim that Rome was founded in 753BCE by the twins Romulus and Remus, who were descended from the Trojan prince Aeneas, and whose mother was raped by the God Mars, making them half-divine. They were orphaned early in life and suckled by a female wolf, an image that is still a major motif in the city's art.
    Northern Italy was the domain of the Etruscans.
    The Western Branch of the Indo-European family consists of the Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic and Italic groups. The ancestors of the Ancient Romans (about whom we know virtually nothing) spoke a Proto-Italic language. Obviously we have no records of it, but we know that it had the basic phonetic, grammatical and vocabulary changes that distinguished it from Proto-Germanic, Proto-Celtic and Proto-Hellenic. There were other Italic tribes speaking other Proto-Italic languages, such as the Sicilians. Modern Sicilian is still spoken so we have enough data to imagine what the earlier forms of the languages were like. Not too different from Latin; if you're fluent in Latin you would probably not have too much trouble understanding them.
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2010
  10. this answers my question thanks FR

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