Pre-Insular Celtic

What was the language of the British Isles before the Celts arrived? To be sure, there was no conquest or massacre of the first peoples. Indeed, all of the aboriginals of the British Isles live on in the living Britons. Recent genetic research has confirmed that modern Islanders have an average of 80% indigenous and 20% non-indigenous blood (indigenous meaning the ancient paleolithic men and women of the Isles). This corresponds to archaeological data that does not point to a conquest but rather a small migration of Celts into the Islands.

Linguistic research paints a picture of an Ireland long inhabited by the first men and women. The Celtic immigration was comprised of a small nation of peoples that were in the minority in Ireland who dominated society through superior technologies. The ancestors of Irish and Welsh were able to spread and later overtake the indigenous language(s) through its position as a prestige language. 

Aife (poss. Aífe) Toponym. Name of a battlefield in Leinster, Mag Aífe (Atkinson 1887); place in Munster, gaithe and Bae Aife (Todd 1867; Green 1955).

adarc “horn” Old Irish. See entry adar in Pre- and Proto-Basque for speculations.

bréife (Bréifne) (n.) “ring,” “loop” (Meyer 1912). Mac Eoin 2012.

Bréifne (Breithne, Breibne) Common toponym. Mac Eoin 2012.

cadwo “fox” Welsh. Etymologically obscure. Mastovic 2013.

cerdinen “rowan tree” Welsh. Mastovic 2013.

chwilen “beetle,” “chafer” Welsh. Mastovic 2013.

Crufait Toponym. Land between the river Delvin and the Boyne (Hogan 1910). Mac Eoin 2007.

cufar (n.) “pes.” Mac Eoin (2012) notes that its only use occurs in the notoriously distorted Duil Laithne,which raises doubt that the word ever truly existed.

cuifre (cuipre) (n.) “indulgence?” See Mac Eoin 2007.

dega “beetle,” “chafer” Old Irish. Mastovic.

Dún Gaifi Toponym. Unidentified place mentioned in to have been one of Donovan’s houses at his

fort in Bruree (Todd 1867). Mac Eoin 2007.

fafall (fabhal) (p. n.) “filth.” Name of one of the trees

Faffand Toponym. Unidentified place in Uí Fhailghe (dative Faffaind ?). From Mac Eoin 2007.

Grafand Toponym. Royal site near Cahir, County Tipperary (Dillon 1962). From Mac Eoin 2007.

Grafrenn Toponym. Place on route from Tara to Naas, north of the river Ríge and Dunboyne (O'Brien 1983). Mac Eoin 2007.

gordd “beetle,” “chafer” Welsh. Mastovic 2013.

hwyad “duck” Welsh. Mastovic.

lacha “duck” Old Irish. Mastovic.

lon “blackbird” Old Irish. Matasovic.

Life (Mag Liphi) Toponym. The plain of the River Ruirthech, Liffey. Attested from the seventh century Life of St. Patrick by Tirechan as “in campo Liphi” and “ad campum Lifi” (Bieler 1979). Mac Eoin 2007.

luis (n.) “rowan tree” Old Irish. Matasovic.

lufe (n.) “banda” (Stokes 1900). Mac Eoin, 2012.

Máfat (Madat, Mad, Ammat, Iarmafat) Toponym. One of three probably fictitious river-names on Conaire Mór’s journey to the hostel of Da Derga in Togail Bruidne Da Derga. Mac Eoin 2007.

ness (n.) “weasel” Old Irish. Mastovic 2013.

partán (n.) “crab” Modern Irish. Matasovic 2013.

sinnach (n.) “fox” Old Irish word that remain etymologically obscure and unrelated to its Welsh synonym cadwo, even though both words date to a Pre-Insular Celtic culture. Mastovic 2013.

slife (n.) “broadening,” used as an ancient curse 'may drunkenness be widespread on the day of your despoliation' (Gwynn 1940). Mac Eoin 2007.

strophais (n.) “straw tied around a corpse while taken to a graveyard (Meyer 1891).” Mac Eoin 2007.


Atkinson, R. Book of Ballymote: A Collection of Pieces (Prose and Verse) in the Irish Language. Royal Irish Academy. Dublin. 1887.

Bieler, L. The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. 1979.

Dillon, M. Lebor na Cert, The Book of Rights. Printed in The Irish Texts Society. Vol. 46. 1962.

Gearóid Mac Eoin. “What Language was Spoken in Ireland Before Irish?” Paper from Workshop, XIII International Congress of Celtic Studies. Ed. by Tristam Hildegard. July 2007. 

Greene, D. Fingal Rónáin and other stories. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Dublin. 1955.

Gwynn, E. J. “An Old-Irish Tract on the Priveleges and Responsibilities of Poets.” Ériu. 13, 1. 1940.

Matasovic, Ranko. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Cetlic. Brill Etymological Dictionaries. Brill Online. 2013.

Meyer, K. “Loanwords in early Irish”. Revue Celtique. 12. 1891.

Meyer, K. Sanas Chormaic, A Old-Irish Glossary compiled by Cormac mac Cuilennáin. 1912.

O'Brien, M. et al. The Book of Leinster. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Dublin. 1954-1983.

Stokes, W. O'Davoren's Glossary. Halle. 1900.

Todd, J. H. Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh: The war of the Gaedhil with the Gaill. Longmans. London. 1867.