What’s in a name? An introduction to Tegos Skrībbātous

An introduction to the Tegos Skrībbātous blog.

Hello and welcome. This blog has been incubating for at least a year now, but after much thinking and nit-picking and procrastinating it is finally receiving its first post. There were several items that I spent a lot of time agonizing over, but probably none more than the blog’s name.

A name may seem a simple thing. Nearly everyone and everything has one, after all. Yet much is embedded in what may otherwise seem so simple: One’s origin, appearance, aspiration, culture, history—the list goes on. It is with this in mind that a name should be chosen carefully and with purpose. In the case of naming this website, I hope to convey the following:

That this is a Celtic pagan site which produces and hosts an array of research and writing for the cultivation and preservation of Celtic pagan spirituality and heritage.

In order to convey this, I’ve decided to look to the closest example of such a thing that I know of—the scriptoria of Medieval Ireland and Scotland.

Celtic paganism has many diverse sources, but the most vivid, detailed, and extensive source is no doubt the insular literature produced by monks in these scriptoria. The meticulously written, copied, and illuminated manuscripts they produced convey without question the richest and most extensive insight into Celtic divinities and lore available to us. While these texts are not without their flaws (e.g. Christianist interpolations), and their authors not without some ignorance or ambivalence (at best) towards the great and ancient spirituality that had originally birthed their content, I must nonetheless look to them with admiration. Admiration, and above all gratefulness, at how anything at all has been preserved through the ages thanks to these monks’ laborious efforts. For with the coming of Christianity, such treasures could have much more easily been destroyed entirely ages ago: perished on the lips of the last man or woman who could remember and recite these oral traditions of old.

But for as much literature as these monks have so consequentially bequeathed us, there is many times more literature that must yet be written, compiled, and shared if Celtic paganism is to be grown into a living spirituality once again. And so it is that I’m determined to serve myself as these monks once did and found a new “scriptorium”; to gather as much knowledge here as possible that may otherwise yet lie undiscovered and forgotten by the public and the average pagan worshipper. For while we have scraps and fragments of what once existed, even these are in many ways strewn about; hidden away in obscure or paywalled texts; and otherwise inaccessible to the masses to whom we want to make these noble traditions accessible.

So that explains the purpose of this blog. Now what is the name?

In Old Irish, the term for a scriptorium was tech screptra—literally, “house of [the act of] writing”. This alone could thus seem a suitable name for the site. But it is an Irish phrase from a rather late time period by pagan standards. I intend for this site to represent and serve not only the Celtic paganism of Ireland or the Gaels, but as many Celtic groups as possible, and utilizing source material dating back to ancient times. It should not be mistaken that information about one Celtic cultural group is not needed or useful to another. Comparative work is essential to the revival and reconstruction of paganism. A broad survey of all Celtic knowledge is needed. Nor do I wish to further fragment or isolate the few Celtic pagans that are out there. As such, my intent is to translate this Old Irish term into the common (or proto-) Celtic language, which should suitably represent and address all of these considerations.

Proto-Celtic is, of course, a dead language. One that died without ever having been entered into the written record. As such, translation into it is a highly theoretical exercise based off of the available reconstruction provided to us by the field of linguistics. Words that survived with more frequency and attestation in the Celtic language family are easier and more confident for us to reconstruct. Fortunately, the word for “house” (Old Irish tech) is one such example. We can rather confidently say that the Proto-Celtic ancestor of this word, when rendered in the singular nominative case would be:

*tegos

The next word we seek to translate, screptra, alas, is not so simple. As you may recall just a moment ago, I noted that Proto-Celtic died before its speakers had, to our knowledge, ever written a word. So how exactly can we translate the word “writing” into such a language? There are several possible solutions:

1. Repurpose a pre-existing word in the language that has a similar or related meaning
2. Borrow loanwords from other languages
3. Form a calque inspired by how the word is expressed in another language

Interestingly, when Goidelic speakers were introduced to the art of writing, they too ran into this conundrum. The Irish term screptra is in fact a loanword from Latin scrīptūra [1]. As such, I could likewise try to borrow the word from Latin. But the Proto-Celtic speakers had never adopted the art of writing from Romans; and when Celts did first begin to adopt writing, they did not adopt it exclusively from Romans [2]. Furthermore, I would prefer for the revival of Celtic language and culture to not be Romanized any more than necessary. So we must take a deeper look. Italic speakers, after all, were also illiterate at one time. The word scrīptūra, too, had to come from somewhere. A dive into the history of writing itself is called for.

To begin, the word scrīptūra is formed from Latin scrībō (“I write”) [3], which itself is cognate to the Greek σκάριφος (skáriphos, ‘writing’). This is pertinent as it is commonly believed that Latin speakers acquired writing from a Greek colony on the Italian peninsula known as Cumae [4]. The Greek word, in turn, ultimately descends from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *(s)kreybʰ- (“to scratch, tear”) [5].

The Greeks themselves had adopted writing from the Phoenecians [6]. The Phoenecian word for writing is compared to the word found in Hebrew and Arabic [7], both of which are also Semitic languages. Hebrew in particular is part of the same Canaanite family of languages as Phoenecian was, so if we examine the Hebrew word כתב we find:

The original teaching of the word is to engrave, to stab. This word has parallel names in the Semitic languages.

“To engrave, stab” is nearly semantically identical to the Greek word’s etymological root as mentioned above.

Deeper analysis of the Semitic or Phoenician words lies beyond my scope and ability at this time. But since the Phoenecian alphabet is a continuation of Proto-Sinaitic script (the world’s oldest known alphabet [8]), I will consider it to be the conclusion of this historical inquiry, although interested readers can continue to trace it back to Egyptian hieroglyphics if they wish.

The ultimate point of this is that the originators of the most consequential writing system to Europe solved the problem at hand with the first solution I listed—expanding or appropriating an existing word (‘scraping’ or ‘stabbing’, essentially) to describe writing. And whether it be by coincidence or calque, the Greeks did the same by reappropriating one of their own words with a virtually identical semantic meaning. This common solution that was used by the originators of writing should be perfectly suitable for a revived Proto-Celtic as well. And as it happens, not only does Proto-Celtic have a hypothetical lexical item with identical semantic meaning to Greek σκάριφος, it is even a cognate to that word:

*skrībb-ā-

Ranko Matasović writes in his Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic that this verb stem is hypothesized from the Middle Irish word scripaid, meaning ‘scratches’ [9]. He goes on to explain that there is a probable relation between this word and the Latin scrībo, but the phonology of the word seems to rule out that it would have been a Latin borrowing as the word screptra was. Whatever the history of the word scripaid may be, it plausibly has a Proto-Celtic antecedent which is ultimately derived from the same PIE root as the Greek word with equivalent semantic meaning. As such, this is the candidate I have chosen to form a #3 solution where I calque the Greek word for ‘writing’. The above lexical item that we receive from Matasović is merely the verb stem, however. We will need to find a way to make a nominal form out of it.

Proto-Celtic currently lacks the primers and grammars that living languages enjoy, so determining exactly how to do this is ultimately a research experiment. We know that in the Celtic language family, which does not have infinitives, this would require transforming the verb into a verbal noun. Out of the known PIE descendants, this language feature is unique to Celtic; although, according to Randall Gordon [10], Proto-Indo-European itself possessed only verbal nouns (implying that all other IE languages independently developed infinitives). After analyzing the over two dozen verbal-noun suffixes of Old Irish, Gordon points out that most of them are “deverbative abstract suffixes of obvious Proto-Indo-European provenance.” The morphology of verbal nouns in Old Irish is not entirely regular or uniform. It is not “directly governed by the shape of the verb, yet neither is it wholly independent of it,” we are told [10]. Nonetheless, there are some generalizations and patterns that Gordon has appeared to identify and five basic categories of verbal noun formation in Old Irish.

Out of the five, the most readily applicable category appears to be “Type 2. Deverbative Formations,” where the verbal noun is derived from a verbal stem. Gordon elaborates that this is how the verbal nouns of weak verbs (those that have a vowel -ā or -ī attached to a consonant-ending stem) are formed. Instructively, we are told that “the overwhelming majority of the Type 2 verbal nouns in Old Irish were created by the addition of the masculine suffix *-tu-“. Although there is not enough evidence to determine how productive this suffix may have been in Continental Celtic, Gordon does cite a Gaulish attestation (MOLATUS) and notes that the suffix is very productive in Irish from before the earliest Old Irish writings, making up perhaps 2/3 of verbal nouns formed from weak verbs. The other suffixes Gordon describes for this type seem to apply to weak ī-verbs and thus don’t require any further consideration in this case.

So after having surmised all of this information, we can posit the following verbal noun stem:

*skrībbātu-

Now that we have the two Proto-Celtic nouns required to form this phrase, we have to consider syntax. How do we put the words together to form a coherent phrase that means what we want to express?

Inflectional languages tend to have relatively free syntax, but there is some indication of certain word order rules within Gaulish, for example, so I did not want to form a phrase ad hoc. I consulted with the venerable Segomâros, who suggested forming a compound word out of the two nouns. This is certainly a well-established practice in the formation of Gaulish personal names, for example, and has the added benefit of brevity in what can otherwise feel like a long-winded type of language. Segomâros, the pioneer that he is, actually informed me that he had already created a compound with Gaulish descendents of these two words, Crîbbâtegos, to mean “office” (if memory of our conversation serves me right).

I have reflected on this and decided that 1) The calque I’m creating is meant to be referential or evocative of the Goidelic concept of tech screptra found in Medieval Ireland and Scotland, and 2) the compound word suggested by Segomâros could very well register in common Gaulish parlance with the meaning of “office” in a modern sense, which is not what I want the name of this blog to mean. As such, while I think Segomâros’ suggestion is philologically sound, I am instead opting to mimic the syntax found in the Old Irish phrase.

To do this, *tego- must be rendered as nominative singular while being followed by *skrībbātu- rendered in the genitive singular. Based on David Stifter and Alan Ward’s documentation of Proto-Celtic declension [11][12], I arrive at the following:

*tegos *skrībbātous

For the linguist enthusiasts among us, I hope this translation adventure was enriching. For the less linguistically enthusiastic, I hope I haven’t scared you off already. My future plans for blog posts will cover topics ranging from archaeology to folklore to theology (and, of course, more linguistics), among others.

References

  1. eDil s.v. scriptuir (back)
  2. Stifter, David. IV Gaulish in “Old Celtic Languages”. 2012. (back)
  3. Lewis, C.T & Short, C. “A Latin Dictionary”. (1879). (back)
  4. Kent, R.G. “Language & Philology”. (1923). (back)
  5. en.wiktionary.org. Retrieved on 10 March 2019. (Cites Beekes, R.S.P. “Etymological Dictionary of Greek”, p. 1344. (2010). (back)
  6. Markoe, G. “Phoenicians”. (2000). (back)
  7. Online Phoenician Dictionary. Retrieved from Wayback Machine 06 February 2016 capture. (back)
  8. Healey, J.F. “The Early Alphabet”. Chapter 2: First Attempts at Alphabetic Writing. (1990). (back)
  9. Matasović, R. “Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic” p 344. (2009). (back)
  10. Gordon, R.C. “Derivational Morphology of the Early Irish Verbal Noun”. (back)
  11. Stifter, D. “Sengoidelc : Old Irish for beginners”. (2014). (back)
  12. Ward, A. “A Checklist of Proto-Celtic Lexical Items” p 5. (1996). (back)

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