Paleo-European languages

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Paleo-European (or Old European) is a designation for the (mostly unknown) languages that were spoken in Europe prior to the spread of the Indo-European family which dominates the continent today. In this sense, Basque and the Caucasian languages are Paleo-European languages (however, the languages spoken today are certainly not identical with the languages that were spoken before the spread of Indo-European - they certainly changed a lot over time).

Traces of lost Paleo-European languages

The prehistoric Paleo-European languages are not attested in writing (but see Old European script for a set of undeciphered signs that were used in the Vinča culture, which may or may not have been a writing system, but are at any rate undeciphered). The only access to them we have are place names and especially river names that are found all over central and western Europe, and possibly loanwords in the Indo-European languages now spoken there.

Theories about Paleo-European languages

There are many theories about these languages. The German linguist Theo Vennemann assumes that most languages of Neolithic Europe were related to Basque, and claims to have found evidence for this in the Old European hydronymy. Most of his colleagues, however, remain unconvinced. Jörg Rhiemeier speculates that some of them - those reflected in the Old European hydronymy - belonged to a language family ("Aquan") related to the Indo-European languages.

Languages and migration patterns

Before the Neolithic, Europe probably was linguistically very diverse, especially in the Mediterranean, as there had been time for a high diversity to build up, and forced that could have established large families probably were absent. Nobody knows for sure, however. The linguist Don Ringe assumes a high degree of diversity. Pre-colonial North America may be a useful standard of comparison. North America has about 50 indigenous language families and isolates; Europe is about half the size and may thus have had about 20 to 25 stocks. However, there is no solid evidence for this, and diversity may have been lower, with only one stock in each of the three great Mediterranean peninsulas and two to four stocks north of the Alps. Certainly, diversity was low in the British Isles and Scandinavia, which had been only recently been settled by humans after the ice sheet had receded.

The spread of agriculture in the Neolithic probably was mostly demic, i.e. by the migration of farming population, especially in Central Europe, but partly culturally, i.e. by local hunter-gatherer populations adopting farming. This would have been accompanied by the spread of large language families, one in the Mediterranean, one north of the Alps, possibly related to each other, though some older language families would have survived. The result would have been a landscape characterized by a complex patchwork of large and small language families.


If anything can be said about the lost Paleo-European languages on the basis of what we find in the attested ones - Basque, the Caucasian languages and Etruscan -, we can say that the Paleo-European languages were synthetic languages with rich inflectional morphology and diverse morphosyntactic alignments (Basque and most Caucasian languages are ergative, Georgian split between accusative and active/stative, Etruscan is accusative). The Caucasian languages have very rich phoneme inventories and seem to always have had, but Basque and Etruscan have more moderate phoneme inventories, perhaps reflecting an old east-west cline.

Attested Paleo-European languages


Extinct but fairly richly attested

  • Etruscan - possibly not native to Italy but immigrated from the Aegean region in the Late Bronze Age; many open questions

Fragmentarily attested

  • Aquitanian, a close relative of Basque
  • Iberian does not show clear affinity to Basque; language is not understood yet
  • Tartessian - probably not a Celtic language; language is not understood yet
  • Raetic and Lemnian, apparently related to Etruscan
  • Vinča language; script - if it is a script at all - undeciphered
  • Minoan; scripts (two different but related ones) only partially deciphered
  • Eteocretan may be a descendant of Minoan, but this is uncertain; language is not understood yet
  • Cypro-Minoan; script is not yet deciphered
  • Eteocypriot may be a descendant of Cypro-Minoan; language is not understood yet

Hypothetical Paleo-European languages

  • Aquan languages, posited based on loanwords in western Indo-European languages and the Old European hydronymy; according to Jörg Rhiemeier, spoken widely across western Europe and related to (or an early diverging branch of) Indo-European
  • Danubian languages of the Lower Danube and Central Europe (Linearbandkeramik) Neolithic
  • Atlantic languages; according to Theo Vennemann, related to Semitic and spoken in the British Isles
  • Paleo-Atlantic languages - name coined by Jörg Rhiemeier for a hypothetical family of the western refuge area in Paleolithic Europe during the last glacial maximum; may be the same entity as Vennemann's Vasconic
  • Paleo-Pontic languages - name coined by Jörg Rhiemeier for a hypothetical family of the eastern refuge area in Paleolithic Europe during the last glacial maximum
  • Vasco-Caucasian languages; hypothetical family including Basque, Northwest Caucasian, Northeast Caucasian and various extinct languages of Europe; according to Octavià Alexandre, widely spoken in Europe and responsible for substratum loanwords in Indo-European languages; not to be confused with Vasconic
  • Vasconic languages, hypothetical relatives of Basque; according to Theo Vennemann, spoken widely across western Europe; not to be confused with Vasco-Caucasian

See also Paleo-European history overview.

Paleo-European conlangs

Naturally, this lost world has inspired some conlangers to come up with fictional re-creations of these languages. There are several conlangs which represent Paleo-European languages. Some of these are:

See also League of Lost Languages.