Basque and Georgian

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to find non-existent links and connections with a mythical past just as it is easy to believe something because you want to believe it? This seems most evident to me when I am travelling.

In most places in Western Europe and elsewhere, links between a Celtic heritage and other cultures can be easily found. After all, Celtic tribes pretty much covered most of Europe and Asia Minor before the rise of the Romans.

Consequently, I could always find some connection to my Irish / Celtic past both real and imagined, no matter how tenuous. wherever I found myself, in a museum, a bar or faced with some artistic design.

However, recently in Georgia, I came across a common understanding in a shared belief that seemed to have no logical basis whatsoever.

Everyone I spoke with insisted that their Kartvelian language, spoken primarily in Georgia, and part of a language family indigenous to the Caucasus, is related to the Basque language spoken by a minority in the western Pyrenees, straddling the border between France and Spain on the coast of the Bay of Biscay.

People I chatted with in bars or with some inquisitive soul on a street or a park, one and all repeated the same thing.

Rome used to call their part of the world East Iberia as opposed to West Iberia, modern day Portugal and Spain and the Georgian language they speak today is also known as Iberian.IMG_1607

One excellent craft beer in a small bar in Batumi led to another and there were three or four young men, all speaking better English than my flimsy grasp of a smattering of European languages, all insisting on the similarities between their language and Basque.IMG_1605

When they discovered that I used to be a language teacher, they embarked on a list of grammatical and lexical similarities between the two languages, based on common names for landscape features such as river mouths and hilltops.

They had me there of course, because I didn’t know anything about Georgian or the Basque language except that ‘pinchos’ were the same as tapas! What I did know was that Basque is one of the living languages which did not descend from a proto-Indo-European group of families and that the Basque linguistic family tree is called an isolate, meaning it has no relation to any other known language.

Similarly on a wine ‘search and consume’ mission in Sighnaghi – one of the premium wine growing areas in Georgia, – an elderly women working in a veg plot in front of a ramshackle house beckoned me over and began to explain – in fluent but accented English – the history of the town walls around which I had been strolling.

IMG_1677Proud of her fluency, she confided in me that she had been a lecturer in languages at the University in Tbilisi.

Aha, thinks I, I’ll check what the boys in the bar had told me and no sooner had I mentioned the possibility of a Basque Georgian link, than she pounced.

Absolutely and not only that, she insisted, when she found out where I was from, the Irish had their origin in the area of the Basque refuge during the last Ice Age, at least 18,500 years ago and so must also be related to Georgians because Georgians and the Basque language of Euskera have a common origin! Just look at the etymology of words, she insisted. Then, as further proof, she cited Biblical evidence, reminding me (!) that Noah’s Ark had landed nearby and Tubal, the grandson of Noah and the fifth son of Japheth, commonly believed to be the father of Europeans, left the southern slopes of Mt. Caucasus to settle between the Pyrenees and the river Ebro, and that the Basque people are his direct descendants.

Barking mad, I thought and after handing over a few Georgian lari as a requested ‘donation’ for the town wall, I rushed off for the solace of a glass of wine.

I had no doubt that there was an ancient kingdom of Iberia – next door to the kingdom of Colchis (see my post on Medea) and I suppose there could be some typological similarities between the two languages but to suggest that Basque and Georgian were related seemed an impossibility.

The Basques are a pre-Indo-European remnant population of Europe that trace their ancestry to Mesolithic hunter-gatherer groups at the end of the last ice age about 11,000 years ago, OR they date back to later Neolithic groups who introduced agriculture, later mixing with local hunters before becoming genetically and linguistically isolated from the progress of the Indo-European languages in the rest of Europe.

More than likely there would have been a multiplicity of language families in pre-Ice Age Europe, from one of which Basque, or Euskera, originated. Whatever their origins, it is the only Pre-Indo-European language that is extant in Western Europe.

The only thing that’s clear is that it existed in that area before the arrival of the Romans with their Latin that would eventually develop into the French and Spanish Romance languages.

While not a language isolate like Basque, there are only four Kartvelian languages, Georgian, Mingrelian, Laz, and Svan, all spoken within Georgia, and all unrelated to any other language in the world.

Georgian, along with other Kartvelian languages, appeared in what was known as the Kingdom of Iberia sometime around 1000 BC. The Roman grammarian Marcus Cornelius Fronto in the 2nd century mentioned the emperor Marcus Aurelius trying to understand their “incomprehensible tongue”, unlikely if there were a connection between Georgian and a language spoken in the Roman Pyrenees territory.IMG_1746

Georgian evolved into a written language with an original and distinctive alphabet, when the royal class converted to Christianity in the mid-4th century adopting the status of Aramaic, the literary language of the new national religion and the oldest surviving literary text dates from the 5th century AD.

However, the hypothesis of a relationship, linking the Caucasian languages with other non-Indo-European of ancient times, is generally considered to lack conclusive evidence.

Musing over a very pleasing bottle of wine on the terrace of my hotel, I could sympathise with the Georgians and their determination to connect with Basque. After all, I had wandered through the museums in TbilisiIMG_1636 and Yerevan finding ‘proof’ of a Celtic past in shards of broken pottery and vague spiral like designs because that is what I wanted to find. And there I laid it to rest until I noticed label on the bottle of wine I was drinking.IMG_1685

Who are the Irish & Where did their Language come from?

In a few recent posts – Epochs & the Book of Invasions and Anthropocene – Waves and Epochs – way back in September or October I have been wittering on about past times and after months of dithering, I have decided to put it all together and explain who the irish are and where they came from! No smallorder, I admit. Here goes:

Part One

According to the 11th Century Book of Invasions, the Lebor Gabála Érenn or The Book of the Taking of Ireland, (see earlier blog entry), the Milesians, the last of the six groups of “invaders,” brought the Irish language and constituted what are now known as the Irish people (the Gaels) and arrived sometime between 1700 – 1000 BCE after extensive travelling from Scythia, Greece, Egypt and Spain. These Gaels / Gauls were Celts and preserved their culture in Ireland, untouched by the heavy hand of Rome, where Celtic traditions live on, unhampered until the advent of Christianity 1500 years later.

That’s what I learned in school, anyway and it remains good copy for tourist brochures, I suppose. So the question remains, where, then, did the people and the language come from and when?

Pre-Aryan people initially occupied Ireland, probably from circa 8000 BCE arriving via the then existing land bridges, connecting Ireland with the Isle of Man, Scotland and mainland Britain. Judging by the number of polished stone axes found throughout the island dating from this Mesolithic period c. 8800 – 4900 BCE, there was more than likely a common language among these early inhabitants. Whatever that language was, it most certainly was not Irish or anything remotely connected with it. These hunters and gatherers, the first “Irelanders” left little behind them that archaeologists could use other than a handful of small stone tools – microliths – and the recently discovered remains of two people dated from 7200 – 6500 BCE. However, both Britain and Ireland were abandoned when the glaciers expanded and northwest Europe became too cold so that populations retreated to southern France and northern Spain before moving north again as the climate warmed.

The start of the Neolithic Period, roughly 4900 – 2000 BCE, ushered in the rise of farming communities with the arrival, at different times, of different groups of people, some from the north and some from the southern Atlantic seaboard.

These indigenous, pre-Celtic people built massive stone structures sometime between 4900 – 2000 BCE. Most notable among them are New Grange or Brú na Bóinne, just north of modern day Dublin, indicative of a noticeable change in the material and spiritual culture which had gone before.

The Bronze Age, c 2000 – 500 BCE, brought, along with metallurgy, a new style of ceramics – Beaker ware – which quickly superimposed itself on the earlier Grooved ware pottery but there is no direct evidence that “Beaker people” moved from north-west Europe into Britain and then on to Ireland despite the abundant evidence for a Beaker presence in Ireland. Ideas travel, not just people. What is clear is that the Beaker people established, or maintained, a network of trade both within Ireland and between Ireland, Britain and Atlantic Europe, which, of necessity, would have involved communication and immigration in all directions.

The early Bronze Age (2000 – 1500) was also the Age of the Megaliths and examples can be found along the Atlantic seaboard where trade flourished. Ireland was a vital part of a chain of contacts extending into Europe by reason of it being a source of gold and copper, the latter abundant in Ross Island in southwest Ireland.

Between 1500 – 1200 BCE – the Middle Bronze Age – Ireland underwent extensive land clearance, along with improvements in transport with the establishment of track ways across bogs and the rise of the hill forts. Prior to this time, Irish circular dwellings had their entrance on the north side, but after 1500 BCE entrances moved to the south and the east, another possible indication of a change in customs brought about by new immigrants, but again not sufficient to warrant the introduction of an Irish language.

However by 1000 BCE, there are signs of a society splitting into tribal societies with regional centres such as Eamhain Macha and Crúachan. These hill forts usually consisted of a ditch surrounding the summit of a raised area, the up thrown soil forming an inner wall, enclosing easily defended internal areas. Some of the larger hill forts would have up to three defensive rings around the protected centre. These massive structures, the products of community labour and effort over an extended period, must have been for defence or as trade and exchange centres or ceremonial sites used for communal feasting, but whatever their purpose, they served to focus communities in the vicinity. Nearly 5000 Fulachta Fiadh, stone troughs used for a variety of purposes, including cooking, brewing and so on, are in close proximity to these centres, again indicative of a communal purpose outside of the individual home. By 800 BCE, the largest architectural structures of the entire Bronze Age had been completed.

Because hill forts required massive co-operation, society became characterised by the rise of the elites, including that of the warrior in search of fame and glory, marked by advanced weaponry and ornamentation. By the Late Bronze Age, c. 600 BCE, Ireland was changing again with substantial reforestation and a decline in agriculture with settlements reduced down to small family groups.

(To be continued)

Further reading: J.P. Mallory – The Origins of the Irish

Simon James – The Celts

Helen Litton – The Celts

Kenneth H Jackson – The Irish Language and the languages of the world