Prosody and the Spoken Word — Dīkantlom Garyom·kʷe Final Pt.

The conclusion of a series examining the accent of Proto-Celtic. Essential for both speaking and composing verse in the language.

This is the final part of a four-part series. It offers Tegos Skrībbātous’ suggested prosodic systems for ancient Celtic languages, based on the historical evidence and theories.

See Part 1 for an introduction to what prosody is and why it matters.

See Part 2 for an examination of the attested evidence of Celtic prosody.

See Part 3 for analysis of the evidence and theory about ancient Celtic prosody.

Note: Unless stated otherwise, all Proto-Celtic roots can be sourced in Matasović (2009).1

Finally, we have reached the end of the series. Here, we will take the research and discussion from the previous posts and use it to establish practical, evidence-based solutions to the problem of old Celtic accentuation.

I say “solutions,” plural, because as noted before, prosody can sometimes change, either through natural evolution of the language or as a result of prolonged contact with foreign speaking communities. Additionally, changes and developments may not impact all regions, or may not impact them all evenly.

It must also be noted that there is a degree of uncertainty to these historical reconstructions, and it’s possible that there may have been more complexities or variants that simply aren’t evident in the historical record. These are simply the best solutions the Tegos has thus far devised based on this study of the topic. This outcome is subject to change upon any new discoveries in the field, if needed.

Now without further ado, the following are Tegos Skrībbātous’ proposals for old Celtic accentuation:

Díkantlom Kentukéltīkom (‘First’ or ‘Proto-Celtic Accent’)

For Proto-Celtic’s earliest accent, we will assume it retained some form of the Proto-Indo-European mobile pitch. This means certain syllables are accented with a higher pitch than others, but stress is otherwise applied evenly.

The pitch can be rising, falling, or both. Which syllable the pitch is placed on is irregular and variable, so it’s necessary to compare Celtic words to cognates in Proto-Germanic, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit, to determine its type and placement. As you can see from the headline, diacritics (accent marks) are used to show which syllables have the pitch accent.

This period is *kentu- ‘first’, because it represents Celtic at its earliest phase after breaking away from the mother tongue. Since this is the earliest phase of Celtic, we will assume that it retains all of the most archaic features, including the *ϕ/f phoneme and non-initial s-clusters (e.g. *bēsman > *bēmman).

This phase of the language would be most suited towards quantitative and syllable-counting poetic styles, like those known from Ancient Greek and Sanskrit traditions. It may not have developed or widely adopted the practice of alliteration yet.

Bēmman Kitukeltīkom (‘Common Celtic Stress Accent’)

This accent is regarded as *kitu- ‘common’ (cf. W cyd)2 Celtic, because probably every daughter language had this accent type for some time, at least in their early stages (although in the Goidelic branch it has survived in varying forms to the present day). It is described as bēmman lit. ‘striking’ (cf. Ir béim), because it represents a stress accent that was applied to the beginning of each word and which replaced the PIE mobile pitch. It is postulated that this accent was acquired after contact with Vasconic (Proto-Basque) or other non-Indo-European speakers.

This fixed, initial stress can be termed towissubēmman (cf. Ir tús, W tywys ‘leading’) to contrast it with other stress accent systems that do not fall on the start of each word. While not all of its precise details are provable, we can consider the commonalities between Old Irish and Proto-Germanic initial stress.3 Following that existing schema would seem both practical and sufficient.

That is, a primary stress falls on the first syllable of all adjectives and nouns. A secondary stress falls on the first syllable of the subsequent member of a compound (e.g., *senabe /ˈˌbe.naː/).

For verbs, the first syllable of the verbal root takes the stress, but single prefixes do not (e.g. *to-reteti ‘s/he approaches’ /to.ˈre.tet.i/, cf. OIr. do·reith). However, the stress cannot fall later than the second member of the compound. So if more than one prefix is added to a verb, only the first prefix skips the stress (e.g., *(f)are-kom-wedeti ‘s/he prevents’ /ar.e.ˈ, cf. OIr. ar·coat).

Unstressed words and clitics are known as dīaltā (* + *(f)alto- ‘joint’ > OIr. dealt).

Because the Vasconic speakers are thought to have been unable to pronounce the *ϕ/f phoneme, it is lost in this phase. Furthermore, we can assume that other known Proto-Celtic sound changes occurred here, such as the assimilation of non-initial s-clusters (e.g. *bēsman > *bēmman).

Speakers may optionally choose to shorten vowels that are in unstressed positions as a stabilizing strategy and as occurred in the development of Goidelc (see Part 2 for discussion).

Under this prosodic system, we would expect poetry to commonly feature alliteration, or owxsman (cf. OIr úaimm from PIE *pewǵ-+s-mn̥ > *(f)owx-s-man4). While the quantitative and syllable-counting meters from the Kentukéltīkom period could still be used, bēmman is more naturally suited for accentual or stress-counted metrics. Inspiration for poetic methods could be drawn especially from Old Irish and Germanic sources, since they shared this type of accentuation.

Wokʷennatus (‘Penultimate Stress’)

Penultimate stress (stress that falls on the second-to-last syllable) is best attested in Brittonic, where it likely became fully established sometime after the 1st or 2nd Centuries CE. It is also ascertained in Gaulish, based on the evolution of Gaulish toponyms. Its appearance in Gaul presumably more-or-less predated Britain, but the date and origin ultimately remain unknown.5

Based on Schrijver’s research as well as the reasoning put forth in Part 3 of this series, Tegos Skrībbātous is working under the assumption that all the Celtic languages originally had towissubēmman (fixed initial stress), but that wokʷennatus (vn. of *u(f)o + *kʷenn-a- > W. gobennu, cf. OIr. díchennaid) later appeared somewhere on the continent and eventually diffused. It likely became the predominant or sole stress among Celtic speakers in Northern Italy, all throughout Gaul, eventually spreading North to all Brittonic speakers, and there is also reason to believe (as discussed in Part 2) that it had made incursions into Iberia. Only the Goidelic branch (and possibly obscure branches such as Pictish) were unaffected.

As discussed in Part 3, wokʷennatus may have evolved out of the secondary stress found in Bēmman Kitukeltīkom, or it may have grown out of penultimate long vowels attracting stress away from initial syllables. It’s also possible that Classical Latin’s movable stress (which often fell on the penult) could have had an influence.

The application of this prosodic system is very simple and regular. Stress falls on the penult (second-to-last syllable) of each word. The only exceptions would be dīaltā, same as mentioned in the previous section. Wokʷennatus is not a movable stress as seen in Classical Latin, and suffixes are included in a word’s syllable count.

Modern Welsh does have some words where the stress falls on either the final or a pre-penultimate syllable. The former situation is a remnant of a phase where apocopation made penultimate stress oxytonic (final syllable), before it shifted back to penultimate. The latter is almost exclusively foreign loanwords. Thus, neither situation points to a real exception to the wokʷennatus rule as far as our usage is concerned, although speakers may optionally stress foreign loanwords according to the prosodic rules of their origin language.

Due to the stress falling closer to the ends of the words, this could perhaps be a phase where rhyming became more significant to poetry. Inspiration for poetic forms could especially be drawn from Welsh, which shares this accent type.

And as with the towissubēmman, speakers could optionally shorten unstressed vowels and/or lengthen stressed ones to decrease tension or instability in the prosodic system.

Labrātus Trebākos (‘Metropolitan Speech’)

This prosodic system refers to the phenomenon observed by Falc’hun, where certain Gaulish and British toponyms evolved as if they had been stressed on the antepenult (third-to-last syllable). This largely developed after wokʷennatus, in major urban centers and coastal areas that would have had greater traffic and trade with foreign speakers, thus making it ‘metropolitan speech’. Its onset in Britain could have been anywhere from the 2nd to 5th Centuries CE. It possibly appeared at an earlier date in Gaul than it did in Britain.

In Part 3, I discussed how Falc’hun’s observation may have been a red herring, and could instead represent a point in time after final syllables had been lost (apocopation), and thus would still be an example of wokʷennatus. However, as that is my own speculation, we cannot dismiss the possibility that an antepenultimate stress did exist in metropolitan areas. Antepenultimate stress never survived in the Brittonic branch, as one would expect if influential and metropolitan areas, with their higher populations, did indeed feature this stress. However, we will continue to work with the assumption that it may have existed as a dialectal variant at some point.

Thus, labrātus trebākos can either be apocopated (dīkʷennatos, cf. OIr. díchennaid) speech spoken with wokʷennatū. Or, it can retain the final syllables of words while accenting words with arewokʷennatū (antepenultimate stress). The latter system would be identical to the wokʷennatus discussed above, except that the stress falls one syllable sooner.


This series, long though it may have been, is just the start of using prosody in old Celtic languages. From here, speakers should now be able to determine which prosodic system is suitable to them, and begin to make decisions of how to write poetry and song. Hopefully, this will form a foundation to help support the creation of new schools and traditions of Celtic pagan art and devotion.


  1. Matasović, R. (2009). Etymological dictionary of Proto-Celtic. Leiden: Brill. (back)
  2. Cyd. (2006). GPC Online. (back)
  3. Salmons, J. (2003). Accentual similarities between Germanic and Celtic. In Accentual change and language contact: Comparative survey and a case study of early Northern Europe (p. 160). London: Routledge. (back)
  4. Mcbain, A. (1911). ‘Fuaigh’. In An etymological dictionary of the Gaelic language (p. 182). Stirling: Eneas Mackay. (back)
  5. Schrijver, P. (1995). II The British accent. In Studies in British Celtic historical phonology (pp. 16 – 22). Amsterdam: Rodopi. (back)

Prosody and the Spoken Word — Dīkantlom Garyom·kʷe Pt. 3

Part 3 in a series examining the accent of Proto-Celtic. Essential for both speaking and composing verse in the language.

This is the third part of a four-part series. It offers an analysis of the evidence and theory about ancient Celtic prosody.

See Part 1 for an introduction to what prosody is and why it matters.

See Part 2 for an examination of the attested evidence of Celtic prosody.

See Part 4 for our suggested ancient Celtic prosodic systems, based on the historical evidence and theories.

In the previous post of this series, we reviewed the details of accentuation in modern Celtic as well as the evidence for it in ancient Celtic. To briefly recap our findings:

  1. Although there are a variety of accents in modern Celtic, most of these variations stem from changes that happened in relatively recent history.
  2. Both the Goidelic and Brittonic branches exhibited initial stress in their earliest days, suggesting that Proto-Insular-Celtic probably did too.
  3. Brittonic shifted to a penultimate stress sometime after the Roman conquest. Gaulish seems to have had a penultimate stress, based on toponymic evidence. A metropolitan antepenultimate stress might have emerged later in both Britain and Gaul, though did not apparently survive.
    • Whether one views Brittonic and Gaulish as sharing a node on the Celtic tree, or as simply sharing a Sprachbund, the two languages shared many common developments. Accents in particular are easily shared language features, so it would be reasonable to assume there might have been a common accent between the two. Since we know the better-attested Brittonic originally was initial stress, it could be that Gaulish also was prior to becoming penultimate.
  4. There is evidence that Iberian Celtic had had a stress accent that fell before the penult (either antepenultimate or initial) and that this accent was earlier and more predominate throughout Iberia than a later penultimate accent was. Similar evidence also exists for Celtic in Italy, although the penultimate stress is what appears to have been more predominant there.
  5. Alliteration is a frequent form of verbal art found in all the Celtic branches. It is especially associated with and suitable to initial stress. Although languages such as Welsh may use it in the absence of initial stress, it could still point to a previous stage of the language that did feature such an accent, which is consequential for Proto-Celtic (the earliest stage of Celtic).

So taking this evidence into account, it seems reasonable to imagine that there had been an old and widespread initial accent throughout the Celtic speaking world that only more-or-less was overtaken by penultimate stress later on, except for in the Goidelic branch which never shared that development. While there are prominent scholars who continue to dispute or debate this conclusion, there are also those who generally accept it. While it may not be settled fact, it so far seems to be the most parsimonious explanation of the collected evidence.

Or as Salmons quite fairly put it:

Since the nineteenth century, Proto-Celtic, Brittonic and Gaulish accent have proven thorny problems […] In summary then, the best indications of earliest Celtic accentuation seem to point toward initial stress, if still very inconclusively […] Gaulish evidence remains especially inconclusive, though initial stress accent cannot presently be eliminated from consideration.1

Before we simply accept the school of thought that initial stress is old and was bequeathed from Proto-Celtic, though, we should answer where Proto-Celtic’s initial stress could have come from. After all, Proto-Indo-European had a mobile, musical accent. It’s quite a change from that to a fixed, initial stress. And if some thinkers disregard the initial stress theory, what other possibilities are there? We should at least understand some alternative views.

To start with, I have presented Salmons, Stifter, and soon to be Vennemann, who all seem to accept Schrijver’s work that indicates Brittonic originally had an initial stress accent. This group generally seems to find the idea of Proto-Celtic initial stress at least plausible, if not nearly certain. So who opposes the idea?

Most researchers who don’t subscribe to this view seem to simply remain agnostic, unwilling to throw their hat in the ring. The evidence is just too murky to form an opinion at all, in their view. This is fair enough from a scholarly perspective, but it’s not useful for a practical application of the language. Some decision must be made, in practice.

I myself have found only two notable scholars who seem to counter the narrative of initial stress: de Bernardo Stempel and Koch, both of whom are giants in the field on par with Schrijver. Unfortunately, as noted in the previous installment of this series, de Bernardo Stempel’s piece that most likely elaborates on her view is no longer in print. And neither have I found a comprehensive argument on the topic put forth by Koch. In brief, Koch has opined:

(pers. comm. 25 July 2015): The clearest evidence for initial stress in Celtic is in Goidelic. Not everybody would agree with Schrijver that the whole branch went through such a stage. Isaac and I, for example, think that the PIE accent position (as in Vedic) survived for some time in Celtic. Patrizia De Bernardo also has ideas about stress position without initial stress being generalized in Celtic. It’s complicated, and of course the accent position could have changed more than once, as clearly was the case within the literate period. But initial stress generalized across Italo-Celtic would be a problem. The evidence Schrijver has for initial-stress in Gaulish and Brythonic is far less compelling and clear-cut than that for Goidelic. Even with such provisos what did happen most clearly in Goidelic may be significant in this connection, but an awareness of the less obliging Gaulish and Brythonic evidence should be acknowledged. (Vennemann 2016)

Setting aside de Bernardo Stempel’s unrevealed opinion on the matter, the competing camps may not be entirely irreconcilable, though, as will be seen below.

An alternative view (dissoi logoi)

In the absence of de Bernardo Stempel’s hypotheses, we should play a bit of dissoi logoi (counterargument) for the sake of checking potential bias or one-sidedness here. If Proto-Celtic had not had initial stress at the time that it diverged, what could it have had?

The original musical accent of PIE seems unlikely, in light of the pre-Gaulish apocope that was noted in Part 2 of this series. A stress accent could have been adopted from a non-Indo-European language, but the known non-IE languages in the region were all initial stress (as will be explained below). So perhaps the PIE accent transformed itself into a stress accent. This has happened in other daughter languages, so what did those transformations look like?

In Koine Greek, the stress accent is mobile and can more-or-less fall on the last three syllables of a word, based on syllable weight. Hindustani likewise has a moveable stress that is sensitive to syllable weight, but which is not necessarily restricted to the last three syllables. In Russian, the stress can fall on any syllable of the word. These are all plainly reflexes of the mobile PIE pitch accent. Of course, these are just a few examples, not an exhaustive account of the Indo-European family. These would lead us to anticipate a movable stress, if a stress accent did indeed develop internally to the language.

But there are examples of fixed stress elsewhere in the Indo-European family, so let’s take a look at those. For comparison, in the West Slavic family there are some examples of fixed stress, either on the initial, antepenult, or penult. The initial stress in some varieties can be explained through language contact with Germanic, but the other two positions (as in Polish penultimate stress and Macedonian antepenultimate stress) remain unexplained. Some researchers have suggested that those languages also had adopted Germanic’s initial stress but then later shifted it to their current position (similar to what Schrijver suggests Brittonic had done). Others may give internal prosodic explanations, or loss of final stress for their developments.2

So this would suggest we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of the PIE accent yielding a fixed stress accent, but it certainly seems a less likely and more poorly-supported scenario.

The West Slavic situation could actually further buttress the initial stress hypothesis if we propose that Continental dialects had first adopted initial stress from a pre-Indo-European substrate and then later undergone the same sort of shift as Brittonic and perhaps Polish and Macedonian did. But to maintain the dissoi logoi, we will work with the assumption that these fixed stresses might have ultimately developed independently out of the PIE mobile pitch accent.

So, if we assume the PIE accent developed into a non-initial Celtic stress on its own, it could have been mobile before later becoming fixed. Or, less likely, it could have fixed itself on the penult or antepenult at an early date before diverging into the daughter languages.

If we accept the first possibility, it could perhaps explain why we see varying evidence of penultimate and antepenultimate accents on the continent. We could propose that a mobile accent had eventually fixed itself, but did so differently or unevenly across different Celtic dialects.

If we assume the latter, Celtic would probably have to be idiosyncratic for producing a fixed stress out of the PIE mobile accent. We are also left with the open question of where the stress was originally fixed and why some later dialects relocated it.

Under both hypotheticals, we would have to either discard Schrijver’s work on Brittonic (which Koch sounds willing to do, although I have not seen any proper refutation made), and say that only Goidelic ever moved its stress to the initial position (probably due to substratic influence). Or, we can leave Schrijver’s work intact and assume that Proto-Insular-Celtic had shifted from an earlier stress system to fixed initial stress, but then Brittonic later shifted again, this time to the penultimate, perhaps from some kind of Gallo and/or Roman influence after the conquest of Rome.

The dissoi logoi leaves some unanswered questions and presents a more complicated problem to solve than the initial stress hypothesis does. But that being said, its greater difficulty and murkiness does not make it false, and there’s really no part of it that could be said to be disproven. While the notion that Proto-Celtic had developed a fixed penultimate or antepenultimate stress would seem dubious, the mobile stress option is quite workable, albeit that it has fewer suggestive indicators than the initial stress hypothesis seems to have.

Now that we have provided an alternative viewpoint, let us return to what a possible scenario could be under the assumption of initial stress:

Initial Stress Development

Schrijver may be the most enthusiastic proponent of the initial stress hypothesis. He also determinedly defends his theory of Proto-Italo-Celtic against a host of critics. According to his theory put forth in Celtic From the West 3 (2016), he proposes Northern Italy as the origin site of Proto-Celtic and gives an overview of how he believes Proto-Italo-Celtic had developed. According to the theory, it’s noted that there are two sound changes which could only have occurred during the presence of the Proto-Indo-European mobile pitch:3

  1. Dybo’s rule: Long vowels are shortened if they preced a resonant plus a vowel that was accented in Proto-Indo-European.
  2. Pretonic CHIC > CIC: A controversial sound change that Schrijver asserts was unique to the Italic and Celtic branches.

Immediately after the above changes, Schrijver suggests fixation of initial stress took place. He considers this change to be typologically trivial so that it could have happened spontaneously without requiring external influence. He explains his relative chronology saying, “I assume that identical innovations in Italic and Celtic occurred in the same order if there is no reason to think that they did not,” and says of initial stress: “there is no reason for thinking it was not a common innovation […] If this is an Italo-Celtic development, it postdates (1) and (2), both of which presuppose the presence of a PIE mobile accent.”

So essentially, Schrijver proposes it happened at that point because it might as well have and there’s no evidence that it did not. Not to mention Koch’s objection from earlier, though, there are other researchers who suggest reasons why the initial stress may have appeared later.

There are indeed some issues with Schrijver’s assumptions about initial stress. For one thing, if fixed initial stress were so typologically trivial and prone to develop in the Indo-European family, we would expect to see other examples of it. It occurs in some West Slavic languages, but this is explained as an adoption from Germanic. It occurred in the Germanic branch, but Schrijver himself (as well as many others) explains this as an influence from the Finno-Uralic languages4, so external to the Indo-European family. Italo-Celtic would have to be totally unique, then, for an Indo-European language developing this internally.

Salmons (2003) provides an overview of how scholars have generally agreed that there was an initial stress zone in the North and West of Europe. They have quibbled over the details of the nature of this zone and how it developed (such as whether or not these multiple instances of initial stress are related or merely coincidental), but nonetheless it is widely agreed that Germanic, Italic, and possibly Celtic all shifted to initial stress as well as the fact that a number of non-Indo-European languages with initial stress also existed in this region. Salmons also observes:

Evidence from numerous modern languages suggests that language contact, even relatively moderate contact, correlates positively with shift from movable pitch accent or tone systems toward fixed, stress systems.

He also notes that some scholars have proposed Italic initial stress was influenced by that of Etruscan, not unlike how Germanic was influenced by Finno-Uralic. So again, an external influence. This is a suitable explanation and would easily account for Celtic as well if one accepts Schrijver’s Italo-Celtic hypothesis.

But there is perhaps one more thing we should consider about Proto-Celtic’s relation to initial stress, which is that Proto-Indo-European *p was weakened at the beginning of words in Proto-Celtic to *φ/f. This seems counterintuitive if the initial syllable had been stressed, since the emphasis of that stress would seem more likely to strengthen or preserve the sound rather than weaken it. For comparison, Proto-Germanic similarly underwent a *p > *φ sound change (see Grimm’s Law), and this is known to have occurred at a time when Germanic still had the PIE musical accent.

However, *φ fortified as ‘f’ in Germanic and persisted to the present day:

PIE *ph₂tḗr > PGmc *φadēr > Eng ‘father’

Meanwhile in Proto-Celtic, word initial *φ/f was lost entirely, which is further counterintuitive to initial stress:

PIE *ph₂tḗr > PCl *φatīr > Ir athair

One would anticipate that, if anything, *φ might strengthen to **f as it did in Germanic rather than be eliminated altogether. Granted, I am not aware of any research that would prove these changes could not occur under initial stress. But given what we normally witness elsewhere, it seems that it would be a highly unusual development, especially compared to Celtic’s immediate, stress-initial neighbors. And if there are any more cogent explanations for why this took place besides, “it just did,” we should examine them.

Enter the theory of Vasconic substratic influence. Vennemann is well-known (perhaps infamous) for his theories about Vasconic (the proto-language of the Basque language family). While some of his claims are too broad and have been rightfully pilloried, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Some of his more sensible propositions include the idea that Vasconic lacked the ‘f’ sound and that it could have featured a fixed initial stress. He points out that this lack of ‘f’ exerted an influence on Latin in the past, such that we see the effects of it on certain Spanish dialects today.5 While I would not accept his notion of a “Vasconic Europe” where this language family covered wide swaths of the continent, it certainly would appear plausible that Proto-Celtic may have existed far enough West and Vasconic far enough East for there to have been contact between them. If we agree with Schrijver’s placement of the Proto-Celtic homeland in Northern Italy, it would be very simple to imagine contact between the two. And with the more extreme theory suggested by Koch that Celtic’s origins were in Iberia, it would be guaranteed that there was contact.

So it could be said, whether or not Italic and Celtic were ever unified branches, that Proto-Celtic had originally had the PIE musical accent (or at least that it lacked initial stress) at which time the word-initial *p weakened to *φ/f. Later, Proto-Celtic came into contact with Vasconic, whose speakers could not pronounce this *φ/f sound and who stressed each word at its start. In this way, Proto-Celtic simultaneously lost the *φ/f sound and fixed a stress accent to initial syllables. This is a rather elegant and parsimonious way to solve two tricky problems, and the historical circumstances could very well have existed for this to happen.

Shrijver (2016) depicts the weakening of *p > *φ/f as an identifiable moment when Celtic was driven away from Italic. It’s possible, if we dismiss his idea that they both generated fixed initial stress together, that the converse is true: Perhaps Pre-Italic speakers had adopted initial stress from Etruscan, further separating them from pre-Celtic speakers who instead remained with the PIE musical accent. The initial stress in pre-Italic could have favored the preservation of *p not long before pre-Celtic speakers began leniting it, thus representing a tell-tale moment where the two branches had begun to diverge into Italic and Celtic, respectively.

Then, of course, we could imagine at a later date that the Celtic speakers had moved North or West where they developed a relationship with Vasconic speakers, and the rest is history.

Or, as Koch quipped, “To put it in layman’s terms, Celtic is Indo-European spoken with an Iberian accent.”6

Or a ‘Vasconic’ accent, as Vennemann (2016) would have it.

So now we have outlined a logical, if necessarily speculative, explanation of how the development of initial stress in Proto-Celtic could align with the current, collected evidence. But how might the fixed penultimate or even antepenultimate stress accents have arisen within some Celtic dialects?

Penultimate and Antepenultimate Stress Developments

There are uncountable and imponderable mechanisms by which initial stress could have shifted to the second- or third-to-last syllable. But I will put forth a few propositions, if only for the sake of being able to imagine some possibilities, or to brainstorm potential avenues of study.


To begin with, we should note that “initial stress” does not mean “only the first syllable is ever stressed”. We see in Goidelic, going back to its earliest attested days, that a secondary stress falls on subsequent members of compound words. For example, seanbhean /ˈʃan.ˌvʲan/ < *senabenā /ˈˌbe.naː/. Since many Celtic words are disyllabic like both of these roots are, it is easy to see how such a system would regularly stress the penult in such compounds. Not to mention the fact that for disyllabic simplexes, the penult and initial syllable are synonymous (e.g. /ˈwi.ros/, /ˈbe.naː/). Additionally, many noun-forming suffixes are disyllabic (e.g. *-ati-, *-ikno-, *-geno-, etc.) and may have been stressed on their initial syllable as well.

So, since in a number of situations secondary stress might have fallen on the penult, perhaps this secondary stress had become generalized over time to all situations. And since the secondary and primary stresses would be indistinguishable in disyllabic simplexes, perhaps this ambiguity eroded the distinction between the two stresses. And once that had happened, it could leave open an opportunity for the secondary stress to prevail while the original, primary stress somehow fell to the wayside.

Many adjectival suffixes are likewise disyllabic, but furthermore also feature long vowels in the penultimate position (e.g. *-āko-, *-īno-, etc.). This is significant in connection to the fact that long vowels and stress often correlate:

As O’Rahilly (loc. cit.) rightly points out a language, such as Middle Irish, with a strong initial stress (not pitch) accent and long vowels in later syllables would show an inherent instability. This can be resolved in one of two ways. Either the long vowels in post-initial syllables are shortened (this is the solution in Ulster Irish, O’Rahilly, loc. cit.) or they remain long and attract the stress as in Munster Irish. Western Irish lies in between these two poles and would be, on O’Rahilly’s analysis, an unstable system as it allows long vowels in unstressed syllables.7

Thus, the possible “instability” posed by these suffixes could have drawn stress to the penultimate, which was subsequently generalized throughout the dialect.


Turning our attention now to antepenultimate stress found in metropolitan areas, Falc’hun has proposed Greek influence as the cause (see Part 2 for references and discussion). Schrijver points out that this explanation is not too convincing, because the Greek accent often would have found the penult suitable rather than necessarily falling on the antepenult. No other indications of the antepenultimate stress’ origin seem yet forthcoming.

But if we analyze the evidence critically, we may begin to question whether the antepenultimate stress perceived by Falc’hun existed at all, or if it was instead a mirage.

Consider for a moment how apocopation in Brittonic led to penultimate stress becoming oxytonic, before later shifting back to the penult. Perhaps this exact same phenomenon was happening at an earlier date in metropolitan areas than it did in marginal ones. And thus, what has been perceived as an ante-penultimate stress based off of Proto-Celtic reconstructions of toponyms, is a red herring: perhaps, in fact, the final syllables had been lost by that time, and what would have once been the antepenult was simply now the penult:

e.g. *Eburācum /eb.ˈur.aː.kum/ had already become something like **Eburāc /eb.ˈur.aːk/ and *Nemausus /ˈ had already shortened to something like **Nemaus /ˈnem.aus/

Schrijver informs that Jackson dated Brittonic apocope to the fifth or sixth centuries8, but notes that the accent had already shifted back to the penultimate by that time. Perhaps this is as far back in time as the toponyms actually take us.

As discussed in Part 2 of this series, the “antepenultimate” stress observed at an early date in Iberian and Italian inscriptions by de Bernardo Stempel could easily be interpreted as initial stress, and thus not a part of the same accentual phenomenon proposed by Falc’hun.

Now that we have grappled with competing viewpoints and established plausible historical scenarios, we can finally settle on how to accent our poetry, speech, and song, in the next and final installment of the series.

To Part 4.


  1. Salmons, J. (2003). Accentual similarities between Germanic and Celtic. In Accentual change and language contact: Comparative survey and a case study of early Northern Europe. London: Routledge. (back)
  2. Hammel, R. (2009). 7. Fester Akzent (Formen und Funktionen. In G. Ungeheuer, H. Steger, H.E. Wiegand, S. Kempgen, P. Kosta, T. Berger & K. Gutschmidt (Eds.) Die slavischen Sprachen / The Slavic languages. (pp. 76-86). Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter. (back)
  3. Schrijver, P (2016). 17. Ancillary study: Sound change, the Italo-Celtic linguistic unity, and the Italian homeland of Celtic. In J.T. Koch, B. Cunliffe, K. Cleary & C.D. Gibson (Eds.) Celtic from the West 3, Atlantic Europe in the metal ages: Questions of shared language. Oxford: Oxbow Books. (back)
  4. Schrijver, P. (2014). Language contact and the origins of the Germanic languages. New York, London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. (back)
  5. Vennemann, T. (2016). 18. Ancillary study: Celtic as Vasconized Indo-European? Three structural arguments. In J.T. Koch, B. Cunliffe, K. Cleary & C.D. Gibson (Eds.) Celtic from the West 3, Atlantic Europe in the metal ages: Questions of shared language. Oxford: Oxbow Books. (back)
  6. Koch, J.T. (2013). Out of the flow and ebb of the European Bronze Age: Heroes, Tartessos, and Celtic. In J.T. Koch, B. Cunliffe, K. Cleary & C.D. Gibson (Eds.) Celtic from the West 2: Rethinking the Bronze Age and the arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe (pp. 101-146). Oxford: Oxbow Books. (back)
  7. Hickey, R. (2014). 3. Stress in Irish. In The sound structure of modern Irish.. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. (back)
  8. Schrijver, P. (1995). II The British accent. In Studies in British Celtic historical phonology (pp. 16 – 22). Amsterdam: Rodopi. (back)

Prosody and the Spoken Word — Dīkantlom Garyom·kʷe Pt. 2

Part 2 in a series examining the accent of Proto-Celtic. Essential for both speaking and composing verse in the language.

This is the second part of a four-part series. It offers an examination of the attested evidence of Celtic prosody.

See Part 1 for an introduction to what prosody is and why it matters.

See Part 3 for analysis of the evidence and theory about ancient Celtic prosody.

See Part 4 for our suggested ancient Celtic prosodic systems, based on the historical evidence and theories.

In the last installment of this series, we covered the basics of what dīkantlom ‘prosody’ is, and explained why a language’s accent is important to speech and versification. We also touched briefly on the different accent styles that are found in Proto-Celtic’s Indo-European relatives and neighbors. Now, for this installment, we will dive deeper into examining what kind of accents existed throughout the Celtic language family to determine what kind of accent Proto-Celtic itself might have had. This way, we can make decisions for how to speak, write, and sing in this ancient tongue.

Note that pronuncation guides below are written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). In IPA ⟨ˈ⟩ before a syllable indicates primary stress and ⟨ˌ⟩ indicates secondary stress.

The Living Celtic Languages


Modern Irish (Gaeilge) and Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) predominantly feature an initial stress accent. This means that the first syllable of a word is stressed, even if the first syllable of a noun or adjective is a prefix. Irish is also known to apply stress to each root in a compound word1 (e.g., seanbhean /ˈʃanˌvʲan/), although Gaelic typically stresses only the first one.2,3

Scottish Gaelic, on the other hand, has developed a secondary accent based on pitch. This pitch accent is traditionally assumed to be borrowed from Norse influence, although some have argued that it could have developed independently as an inherent part of the prosodic structure after certain sound changes occurred.4 Gaelic sometimes also features a secondary stress in dialects where svarabhakti developed in certain words.2 However, neither of these later Gaelic developments are consequential to the history of Proto-Celtic accentuation.

Another variation in Goidelic accents occurs in both Southern Irish dialects and Manx (Gaelg). Here, syllables with long vowels may attract the stress accent away from a word’s first syllable.2,5


cailín vs. cailín

Historically, there were no long vowels that could attract stress away from the initial syllable like this, because the initial stress accent of Old Irish (Goidelc) had had the effect of shortening unstressed vowels. But later, various sound changes as well as foreign borrowings conspired to produce a number of words that have these long, non-initial vowels.5

There is some debate over whether or not this dialectal variant is a result of Norman influence or if it could have occurred independently after certain sound changes in the language. The Norman theory seems strong based on the chronology and geographical extent of this accent change both aligning with the Norman conquest.2

Returning to the predominant initial stress accent in the Goidelic branch, this has been present since Old Irish times. However compound verbs and adverbs in Old Irish received stress on the first syllable of the second element rather than necessarily stressing the prefix as would be the case for an adjective or noun.6 Example:

ad·reig /adˈrʲeɣʲ/ — ‘to rise’

This seems to remain the case for some verbs and adverbs in modern Irish and Gaelic (e.g. atá /əˈt̪ˠɑː/, an-diugh /əɲˈtʲu/), which Gaelic helpfully marks with a hyphen (not unlike the middle dot once used in Old Irish). However, there are numerous counterexamples which would suggest a predominant shift towards first syllable stress regardless of the syllable’s lexical nature (e.g. athraigh /ˈaɾˠə/ and atharraich, descendants of the aforementioned OIr. ad·reig).

Unfortunately, the initial stress accent of the modern languages is of so little interest to researchers and is so ill-documented that the Tegos has not found an accessible scholarly citation that elaborates any further on its particulars. But in any case, for our purposes we will mainly need to focus on the older situation as exemplified by Old Irish, anyways.

Old Irish evidently had initial stress in its earliest days. Syncopation of non-initial syllables as well as the shortening of long vowels in non-initial positions attest this.

Peter Schrijver also points to the the transformation of the 1st sg. impf. verb ending (also attested in Brittonic) as pointing to a very early initial stress:

Pre-Cl *-mam > PInsCl *-mm > Goid -nn

This sound change was not the regular apocope that took place at a later stage in Goidelic and Brittonic, but instead represents an early syncope where unstressed vowels were lost between identical consonants if they were preceded by an unstressed syllable. In other words, the syncope would not have occurred if there had been a penultimate stress. This is taken as demonstrating that initial stress even predates Goidelic. Thurneysen also concluded that Goidelic initial stress must be very old.7,8

The general consensus then, which most historical linguists seem to take for granted, is that Old Irish inherited its initial stress dating back to at least the earliest days of the Goidelic branch.


Welsh (Cymraeg), Breton (Brezhoneg), and Cornish (Kernowek) generally feature a penultimate (second-to-last syllable) stress accent. Welsh additionally has an oxytonic (final syllable) pitch accent. This ultimately descends from the penultimate stress that was present in Brittonic at some point after the 1st or 2nd Centuries CE.7, 9, 10

As Brittonic lost final syllables through apocope, the penultimate stress had become a word-final stress:

PBr. *kenetlon /ke.ˈne.tlon/ > LPBr. *kenedl /ke.ˈnedl/

However, over time, this final stress shifted back to the penultimate syllable, but not without leaving a tonal accent in its wake in Welsh. This back-and-forth shifting of the stress in Brittonic is why we see these layered accents in Welsh today. Technically, the role that oxytonic pitch plays in Welsh accentuation can be seen as a component of the stress accent. Since it is not independent or driven by lexical factors, Welsh is not regarded as properly having a “pitch accent” system.4

In Cornish and Breton, George Ken writes:11

We may surmise that, in common with Breton and Welsh, the normal stress in [Cornish] polysyllables was originally on the ultimate syllable, and that it changed, perhaps c. 1050, to the penultimate. It is likely that all elements of the primary stress combined on the stressed syllable, as in Breton (and English), rather than being on different syllables, as in Welsh (Humphreys 1980).

Unlike the prevailing modern Brittonic situation, the Gwenedeg dialect of Breton features word-final stress.10 It remains unclear whether this could be a conservative feature preserved from an earlier phase of the language or a latter-day change, either of which may or may not have been influenced by French.7

Another accent variant occurs in another Breton dialect, this one spoken in the hamlet of Bothoa. The Bothoa dialect features a pitch accent development parallel to that of Gaelic, which is likewise considered to be probably an internal innovation.4 So this, too, is not consequential to Proto-Celtic accentuation.

Now that the modern Brittonic situation has been explained and accounted for, we will want to examine the earliest Brittonic accentuation that’s known so we can best understand Proto-Celtic.

Peter Schrijver’s Studies in British Celtic Historical Phonology (1994) provides the best synopsis I know of in its 2nd chapter, ‘The British Accent’.

Schrijver explains that, although it remained debated for decades since, in the 19th Century philologists such as Thurneysen had already posited that Brittonic had an initial stress accent prior to its well-known penultimate one. They reasoned this on account of the fact that word-initial stops were weakened in unstressed proclitics, while fully stressed words preserved them:

P-C *teṷe > MW dy ‘your’

P-C *taratrom > MW taradr ‘auger’

Although not all linguists were convinced by this point alone, Kenneth Jackson (Language and History in Early Britain, 1953) and Schrijver (1994) have together provided at least four more persuasive indicators of initial stress, one of which has already been mentioned in the “Goidelic” section of this article above. Another one, this time postulated by Jackson, is the development of Welsh cawr ‘giant’:

PCl *kaṷaros > *kauros > W cawr

(cf. Galatian Cauaros, Gallo-Latin Cauarillus, Cauares)

Since the ‘a’ in the second syllable was syncopated, we can infer that it was unstressed. Hence, the stress would have had to fall on the initial syllable.

Without taking more space here to elaborate further on all the justifications, we can confidently say that there have now been identified many pieces of evidence which reveal that, prior to its well-known penultimate stress, Brittonic almost certainly had an initial stress phase.

Knowing what has been established for both early Goidelic and Brittonic, Schrijver concludes,

This strongly suggests that the system of initial stress that we find in Irish goes back at least to [Proto-Insular-Celtic] times.

Schrijver exhibits various early Latin loanwords borrowed in the wake of the Roman conquest, and the apocope they underwent in Brittonic, as continuing to exhibit an initial stress:

L pāpiliō > OW pebyll

The initial stress remained, “hence at least in the first or second century AD.”

Schrijver goes on to cite Jackson (1953) for establishing that the shift to penultimate stress cannot have occurred later than the early 5th Century. Any more precise of a date range, though, cannot likely be ascertained.

While Schrijver never articulates it, he leaves this reader with the impression that Brittonic’s penultimate stress could have been a result of Gaulish and/or Latin influence, possibly as a result of the Roman conquest. As will be discussed below, Gaulish appears to have had a penultimate stress of its own. Classical Latin also featured a stress accent that often fell on the penult (although unlike Brittonic, Latin’s accent could be pushed back or forth, depending on certain syllable weight considerations). Considering that Brittonic had an initial stress upon first contact with the Romans, but shifted to a penultimate stress after some centuries of intensive contact, it may be possible that the accent change was an introduced feature.

And it is well known in historical linguistics that prolonged contact with another language is liable to influence accents. As Lyle Campbell (2013) observes:

borrowed stress rules are not uncommon, such as first syllable stress of many of the languages in the Baltic linguistic area […], or the rule which places stress on the vowel before the last consonant (V → V/—C(V)#), shared by several unrelated American Indian languages of southern Mexico and Guatemala.12

In short, stress rules can easily be influenced or changed by sustained contact with neighboring languages, even unrelated ones.

So while the exact origin of penultimate stress in Brittonic remains unproven, the coincidence of the shift with the Roman conquest bears consideration.

Continental Celtic Evidence

The evidence from ancient Celtic languages known on continental Europe would be instrumental in establishing Proto-Celtic’s likely accentual situation. But of course, none of these languages survived much past the Early Middle Ages at the latest, and attestation is much more sparse than we see in the Insular branch. So extracting valuable information from Continental Celtic is a much more difficult task. But nonetheless, we have some key pieces of evidence to consider:


The best-attested and longest-lived language in Continental Celtic is Gaulish. Unfortunately, none of the attested evidence marks or describes the accent of the language. As such, we have to turn to historical linguistics to hunt for clues as to what the accentuation of Gaulish was like.

In order to understand the first piece of evidence that will be shown, we must point out that Gaulish, like Brittonic, was a “P-Celtic” language. This means that it underwent a sound change from Proto-celtic *kʷ > p. However, the suffix *-kʷe ‘and’ (cf. Latin -que) was inherited into Gaulish as -c, rather than the **-pe we would expect (and as is seen in another Continental P-Celtic language, Lepontic).13 As such, we can surmise that early or pre-Gaulish had undergone apocopation of that final vowel before the *kʷ > p change took place. But what does this apocope tell us?

Let us refer to a concise observation made by Andrew Sihler (2008):

An opinion sanctified by tradition is that stress accent CAUSES [vowel] reductions and losses; but Finnish, Hungarian, and Czech, for example … [show] that vowel weakening is not an inevitable concomitant of stress accent. The converse is probably more nearly true, namely that accent defined by pitch changes alone is not likely to result in phonetic differences between atonic and tonic vowels.14

So if I may paraphrase Sihler’s statement as a logical axiom, we can reason the following:

  1. Pitch accent alone is not likely to result in vowel reductions.
  2. Pre-Gaulish underwent a vowel reduction (apocope).
  3. Pre-Gaulish was not likely to have had a pitch accent alone.

Conclusion: Pre-Gaulish was likely to have had a stress accent.

This does not, however, reveal where in the word the stress fell, beyond the obvious observation that it was not on the ultima (final syllable). As Schrijver (1995) points out, apocope of word-final syllables occurred in both Goidelic and Brittonic at a time when they had initial and penultimate stresses, respectively, which shows that either position could lead to the same in Gaulish. But there may be other methods that could suggest the location of the stress.

One such method is toponymical analysis. Schrijver (1995) cites several researchers, including Holger Pedersen, Georges Dottin, and again Jackson for producing work on this topic as it pertains to Gaulish accent. But the most contemporary and prominent contribution to be cited is François Falc’hun’s 1981 publication, Perspectives nouvelles sur l’histoire de la langue bretonne which is unfortunately now out of print. Still, Schrijver, at least provides a brief treatment of it for us so it is not entirely inaccessible.

The essence of this toponymical theory is the fact that multiple French placenames with Gaulish etymologies in common syncopated or apocopated differently. These differences can be explained if the stress accent held a different position in each one. For example:

Gaul Nemausus /ˈ > Fr Nîmes
Gaul Nemausus /nem.ˈ > Fr Nemours

Falc’hun has ascertained that a penultimate accent is most common throughout rural or marginal areas, while an antepenultimate accent is found in larger urban centers and coastal areas that presumably had more traffic and contact from foreign speakers such as Greek. He thus proposes that the penultimate accent of Gaulish preceded the antepenultimate one, which may have been an innovation from foreign contact. Falc’hun notes also that these same patterns hold true for British cities (e.g. Br-La *Eburācum /eb.ˈur.aː.kum/ > Eng York). Falc’hun considers that the antepenultimate position for these toponyms would sometimes be possible according to Greek accent rules, but not Latin ones. From this he reasons that Greek influence is what resulted in the newer, urban accent.

Schrijver is not convinced that Greek influence would result in an antepenultimate position, noting that the penultimate stress often already agrees with Greek accentuation rules. So the exact origin or cause of the antepenultimate stress remains mysterious. But Schrijver otherwise finds Falc’hun’s theory persuasive.

While I would like to add de Bernardo Stempel’s 1995 work ‘Gaulish Accentuation: Results and Outlook’ to the discussion, it is unfortunately out of print and totally inaccessible to anyone who lacks university library access. Schrijver merely describes it as “[mentioning] a number of vowel alternations in Gaulish words, some of which might have something to do with stress.”

A final consideration for Gaulish is its many shared innovations with Brittonic. While Schrijver (1995) believes that these post-date the Roman invasions in Brittonic and are thus nothing more than a South-to-North migration of Gallo-Roman influence, he notes that John Koch is of the opinion that there is more of a Gallo-Brittonic unity. As you can see in the model below, de Bernardo Stempel likewise and more recently considers there to have been a unity beyond just post-Roman contact. This should hardly be surprising, in light of the fact that tribes such as the Atrebates held territory on both sides of the English Channel.

Celtic language tree
From Arenas-Esteban & de Bernardo Stempel (2011)

So it would be cogent to think that Brittonic and Gaulish had likewise shared accentual properties, especially since accents are known to be easily transmittable from sustained contact. Since we know that Brittonic originally had an initial accent before the Roman period, but shifted to its characteristic penultimate position perhaps one or two centuries later, Gaulish may likewise have shared this initial stress in earlier times. But, only an oxytonic stress placement can be entirely ruled out.

Other Continental Evidence

In 1995, Schrijver bluntly intoned, “Nothing is known about the stress in Celtiberian and Lepontic.” But there has been some analysis of these lesser-understood Continental languages since then.

One such notable work is Arenas-Esteban and de Bernardo Stempel’s 2011 article, ‘Celtic Dialects and Cultural Contacts in Protohistory’.15 In it, they indicate that there is some evidence for penultimate stress in Iberian Celtic, but that this accent was not generalized to the whole peninsula. Instead, they suggest that an older, antepenultimate stress had predominated. The evidence they present for this seems similar to what Schrijver says de Bernardo Stempel had provided for Gaulish back in 1995.

The two researchers note the following sound changes from Proto-Celtic to Celtiberian in certain words, such as:

  1. Merging of -e-, -o- and -u- into -a- /ə/
  2. Syncope of -i-
  3. Consonant gemination
  4. Epenthesis

Since we know that stressed vowels typically preserve their integrity, and that vowel reductions especially occur in unstressed syllables, the researchers have collected a number of words that essentially demonstrate that the stress accent must have been further back than the penultimate.

Although they describe this as an “antepenultimate accent”, it must be noted that seven of their ten examples (see table 5, p. 123) are di- and tri-syllabic words—or put another way, words where the antepenult is identical to the initial position. Furthermore, if we examine their examples that do exceed three syllables, there is no clear reason to rule out initial stress there, either:

  1. *eburˈanikom > Eburánco(n)
  2. l.u.ˈa.n.i.ko.o (gen. sg.) → Λουάγκοι (Louankoi) (nom. pl.)
  3. Κοιˈλερινοι (Koiˈlerinoi) > Coelerni

As we can see, each of these represent a vowel reduction in the penultimate and sometimes perhaps the final position, which could just as well have occurred under initial stress. It’s true that the antepenult is never reduced in these examples, but neither is the initial. So while I would not rule out the possibility of an antepenultimate stress by any means, at the end of the day this evidence could just as easily be marshaled in favor of an initial stress hypothesis.

The researchers go on to explain that both accents also appear within the Italian evidence, although there the penultimate accent predominates (in reverse of the Iberian situation). If we recall my suggestion that penultimate accent could relate to Classical Latin influence, this scenario would align perfectly. It should be noted, however, that their evidence retrieved from Italy is smaller in number and less striking in quality compared to that of Iberia. So any conclusions that may be drawn from it should be done conservatively.

Poetry is naturally one of the most illustrative media for accentuation. Had it survived intact, it would answer a great number of our questions. Some researchers have hunted for poetic texts in the Continental repertoire that could possibly provide more clues. Of course, nothing there is unambiguously labeled as ‘poetry’. But careful analysis combined with some a priori assumptions has helped to identify certain remains that may possibly be poetic.

David Stifter (2016) has summarized this field of study as it relates to accentuation:

To start with the accentual metrical approach, its fundamental weakness lies in the fact that the stress systems of Ancient Celtic languages are unknown. Only more or less sophisticated hypotheses have been proposed about their nature. In many instances where accentual metrics are involved, the implicit assumption is that the texts have to be scanned with initial dynamic stress. One argument in favour of it is the fact that alliteration, which is particularly suited for stress-initial languages, is of relatively frequent occurrence in Ancient Celtic texts. Initial stress automatically entails that the language tends towards a trochaic or dactylic rhythm in its poetry. Given also the fact that due to the Indo-European character of Ancient Celtic words in these languages tend towards a structure of two or three syllables […], a trochaic or dactylic dimetre will result most naturally for any given bimembric phrase, for instance for sequences of two elements such as noun + adjective, subject + verb or verb + object. This natural rhythm can be exploited by a poet for versification, but it can also be a coincidental feature of prose.16

So while many of these texts scan poetically if we assume an initial stress, researchers have not yet ruled out that this may be a red herring that simply owes to the typology of Indo-European languages. As Stifter mentions, though, alliteration is another piece of suggestive evidence from poetry to be considered.

To illustrate, a few selections of alliteration are provided below.

Perhaps one of the oldest Celtic texts in the world, and which exhibits verbal art that could be considered poetic, is the Lepontic inscription of Vergiate:

pelkui : pruiam : teu : kalite : iśos : kaḷite : palam

‘Deu̯ū erected the pruia for Belgos, the same erected the gravestone.’

Eska & Mercado have described how this demonstrates alliteration, ring structure, and near-rhyme.17

A Celtiberian example is the rock inscription from Peñalba de Villastar, which Stifter notes has a “remarkable number of alliterations”:

trecaiaş.toḷugueị (or: ḷugueṣ)
ogrịṣ.oị (or: oḷocas)

The Larzac tablet, Gaulish’s longest surviving text, also displays “a high incidence of alliterative pairs.” Those which Stifter considers the most striking, from the tablet’s first six lines, are:

bnanom brictom, uidluias uidlu, lidssatim liciatim, uodui uoderce

The bnanom brictom pair is especially noteworthy, as it has cognates that appear in Old Irish poetry, e.g. brichtu ban/brechtaib ban ‘magic by women’. The notion that Gaulish might have shared poetic formulae with the stress initial tradition of Irish could have huge implications, and not just for our understanding of Gaulish accent. But as this remains an isolated example from the sparse survivals of Gaulish literature, we can only take its possibilities so far.

To elaborate further on the significance of alliteration, though, Stifter helpfully explains:

Barring a typological study of the phenomenon, from a purely European point of view there is a strong correlation between stress-initial languages and systematic, not just occasional, alliteration. Even outside of the Indo-European speaking area, alliteration is linked with fixed initial stress for instance in the Finnic languages. It is suggestive, although unprovable, that the presence of alliteration constitutes an argument in favour of a stress-initial phase in Gaulish and British. Rather than thinking of it as an Indo-European inheritance, it is more likely that the systematic employment of alliteration had diffused at some unspecifiable time from an unspecifiable source across an area that had a shared prosodic feature, namely initial stress16

Of course, Stifter also notes that Welsh poetry has a well-known alliterative tradition, which would seem to be a blatant counterexample to the association of initial stress with alliteration. However, thinking back to Schrijver’s revelations about early Brittonic, Stifter duly notes, “the role that alliteration plays in Welsh poetry could be seen as an inheritance from a time when British was stress-initial”.

Proto-Celtic Historical Linguistics

Now that this collective, attested evidence has been laid out for Celtic languages from the modern day to antiquity, we will need to finally look at some theories about the development of Proto-Celtic and the Western European linguistic area more broadly to put it all in context.

To Part 3.


  1. Hickey, R. (2011). 4. The prosody of Irish: 1.2. Stress placement. In The dialects of Irish: Study of a changing landscape (pp. 304-306). Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. (back)
  2. Hickey, R. (2014). 3. Stress in Irish. In The sound structure of modern Irish.. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. (back)
  3. Macleod, M. & Watson, M. (2010). Prosodic phonology: Stress, syllable structure and pitch. In The Edinburgh companion to the Gaelic language.. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (back)
  4. Iosad, P. (2015). “Pitch accent” and prosodic structure in Scottish Gaelic. In M. Hilpert, J. Östman, C. Mertzlufft, M. Riessler & J. Duke (Eds.) New trends in Nordic and general linguistics. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. (back)
  5. Russell, P. (2016). Scottish Gaelic and Manx developments. In Introduction to the Celtic languages (p. 64). New York: Routledge. (back)
  6. Stifter, D. (2014). 3.3.10 Vowels. In Sengoidelc : Old Irish for beginners. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. (back)
  7. Schrijver, P. (1995). II The British accent. In Studies in British Celtic historical phonology (pp. 16 – 22). Amsterdam: Rodopi. (back)
  8. Russell, P. (2008). Chapter XII ‘What was best in every language’: The early history of the Irish Language. In T. W. Moody, D. Ó Cróinín, F. X. Martin, F. J. Byrne, & A. Cosgrove (Eds.) A new history of Ireland: Prehistoric and early Ireland (Vol. 1, pp. 405 – 450). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (back)
  9. Willis, D. (n.d.). Old and Middle Welsh. University of Cambridge. (back)
  10. Van der Hulst, H. (1999). Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, Breton (Celtic). In Word Prosodic Systems in the Languages of Europe (p. 445). Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. (back)
  11. George, K. (2015). Cornish. In M. Ball & N. Müller (Eds.) The Celtic Languages (p. 445). London, New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. (back)
  12. Campbell, L. (2013). 3.7.5 Borrowed Rules. In Historical linguistics: An introduction. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press. (back)
  13. Matasović, R. (2009). Etymological dictionary of Proto-Celtic. Leiden: Brill. (back)
  14. Sihler, AL. (2008). Phonology — Accent. In New comparative grammar of Greek and Latin (pp. 233 – 243). Oxford University Press. (back)
  15. Arenas-Esteban, J A & de Bernardo Stempel, P. (2011). Celtic dialects and cultural contacts in protohistory: The Italian and Iberian peninsulae. Études Celtiques, XXXVII, 119-141. (back)
  16. Stifter, D. (2016). Metrical Systems of Celtic Traditions. North-Western European Language Evolution, 69(1), 38-94. (back)
  17. Eska, J.F. & A.O. Mercado. (2005). Observations on verbal art in ancient Vergiate. Historische Sprachforschung, 118, 160–184. (back)

Prosody and the Spoken Word — Dīkantlom Garyom·kʷe Pt. 1

Part 1 in a series examining the accent of Proto-Celtic. Essential for both speaking and composing verse in the language.

This is the first part of a four-part series. It offers an introduction to what prosody is and why it matters.

See Part 2 for an examination of the attested evidence of Celtic prosody.

See Part 3 for analysis of the evidence and theory about ancient Celtic prosody.

See Part 4 for our suggested ancient Celtic prosodic systems, based on the historical evidence and theories.

In the times of our pre-literate pagan ancestors, the spoken word reigned supreme. Their rich culture and traditions were in many ways shared and perpetuated through the memorable and pleasant art forms of poetry and song. Modern pagans may likewise wish to use the ancient language of their ancestors to express themselves in verse, either for liturgy or just general creativity. But in order to do so, the poet must find the right way to string the words together — to make them shine in people’s memory, to roll off the tongue. The words must propel themselves forward with the beat of a natural — nay, an inexorable — rhythm. But this can only be done when the poet knows the nature of the words he or she speaks. The poet must know their prosody.

But what exactly is Proto-Celtic’s ‘prosody’?

Defining ‘Prosody’

While we often think of the pronunciation of words in terms of what vowel and consonant sounds they have, there is yet another layer to how words are pronounced. This layer involves such elements as the weight and length of each syllable, as well as its pitch and volume. The spoken word is really not unlike a form of music, with vital patterns of rhythm, tone, and dynamics, which can vary by language and dialect. This musical side of pronunciation has fittingly been called προσῳδία, prosōidía (root meaning ‘song’), in Greek1, from which we borrowed our English word ‘prosody’.

A main aspect of prosody is a language’s accenutation. This more specifically refers to how a language stresses or accents certain syllables in a word or phrase. Typically, accentuation is divided into two types:

Tone or pitch accent, where certain syllables may receive higher, lower, rising, or falling pitches in contrast to the other syllables. These syllables are otherwise not treated differently, so tonal or pitch accents tend to have a relatively even rhythm.

Stress accent, where certain syllables are punctuated or attacked with more force than others. This results in the “stressed” syllable being more-or-less longer than unstressed ones, and typically louder too. Stress accents create an unevenness between syllables, giving the language a distinct rhythm.

Pearl necklaces visualizing the difference between unstressed and stressed accents.

Dividing between “stress” accents and “tone” or “pitch” is somewhat misleading, however, since stress accents often also have a pitch component. In English, for example, stressed syllables are also spoken at a higher pitch than unstressed ones are.2

Additionally, languages may have multiple accents. In another example of how stress and tonal accents are not mutually exclusive, modern Welsh features both a penultimate (second-to-last syllable) stress as well as an oxytonic (last syllable) pitch accent.3

Accent Placement

Languages have certain patterns or rules for where the accent falls in a word. Some languages may have fixed accents, where the placement is generally always the same, in contrast to mobile accents where the placement can vary based on certain factors (or even seemingly randomly). Accents also may or may not be phonemic (change the meaning or function of a word). An example in English of a mobile, phonemic accentuation is:

insight (/ˈɪn.saɪt/) vs. incite (/ɪn.ˈsaɪt/)

Although the spelling and context distinguishes them too, notice how the only spoken difference is where the accent is placed.

While this alone demonstrates how accent is important in speech, let us also consider poetry for a moment. Poetry can be written in free verse, but very often poems and songs feature rhythms and patterns to the words. In pitch accent languages, these patterns may be based off of vowel length or syllable weight (morae), as seen in dactylic hexameter, the exemplary meter of Classical epic poetry:

Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
“I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy…”
— Opening line of Virgil’s Aenid

(Note that, although Latin had a stress accent, it had adopted Greek verse styles.)

In stress accent languages, stressed and unstressed syllables often form patterns like the iambic or trochaic meters that are so well-known:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
— Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, by Thomas Gray

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary
— The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe

We have some more complex examples of stress patterns from the Celtic sphere, such as the Welsh Cynghanedd (see also) or the Old Irish deibidhe as exemplified in that most famous poem, Pangur Ban:

Messe ocus Pangur Bán
cechtar nathar fria saindán
bíth a menma-sam fri seilgg
mu menma céin im saincheirdd

I and white Pangur
practise each of us his special art
his mind is set on hunting,
my mind on my special craft.

(translation by Gerard Murphy, 1956)

The pattern here is rhyming each line’s final, stressed syllable.

Examples like these show how poetry and lyrics often could not be crafted without a knowledge of where the accent falls in the language. Along with that old chestnut, “You put the emphasis on the wrong syllable!” these illustrate how crucial accentuation is to spoken language. Even a slight change can alter meaning, violate poetic rules, or just sound intolerable to native speakers.

But in a dead, unattested language such as Proto-Celtic, we have no native speakers to listen to or consult for help on how to accent the spoken word. So in order to get a better perspective of how the accent might have worked, we will need to turn to the knowledge available to us from historical linguistics.

Let’s take a look at some examples found in Proto-Celtic’s Indo-European relatives and neighbors. To start with, we’ll look at Proto-Indo-European itself:

The Proto-Indo-European accent is generally agreed to have been a mobile pitch accent. It is reconstructed based on comparative research of daughter languages that have similar accentuations, though no language has preserved Proto-Indo-European’s original accentuation in its entirety. Examples include:4

  • Hittite
  • Vedic Sanskrit
  • Ancient Greek
  • Tocharian
  • Balto-Slavic
  • Early Proto-Germanic 2,5

However, other daughter languages are known to have featured some form of stress accent, where its position could vary (sometimes based on syllable weight):

  • Classical Latin
  • Later Koine Greek
  • Hindustani
  • Russian

While others featured fixed initial (first-syllable) stress:

  • Proto-Italic and Old Latin 2,6
  • Proto-Insular-Celtic (or earlier)2,7
  • Later Proto-Germanic 2,5
  • Czech

And others a fixed stress on the penultimate or antepenultimate:

  • Later Brittonic and Gaulish 7
  • Polish
  • Macedonian

(This is an ad hoc collection of Indo-European examples, across a very wide span of time, and not at all a comprehensive overview.)

You may have noticed already that some language branches had different phases of accentual styles. Accentuation is clearly something that can be subject to change over time. Linguists have observed that accentuation can even be sensitive to neighboring influence when there is intimate or sustained contact with another language. So speakers may adopt the accent of even unrelated languages that are nearby.8 These are both key things we must consider when determining how to accent our speech in old Celtic languages.

Now that we have established some definition and context for what ‘prosody’ is and why it matters, the Tegos’ next blog posts will dive deeper into the evidence we have for Celtic accentuation and ultimately how Celtic prosody may be harnessed to craft elegant or delightful verse.

To Part 2.

Translation of ‘prosody’

Before ending this post, I would like to give an addendum explaining how I express the concept of ‘prosody’ in Proto-Celtic. Since we do not have a reconstructible term for it, I have coined one instead: Dīkantlom ‘prosody, rhythm’.

Dīkantlom is inspired by the Welsh erddigan of the same meaning (besides the additional meanings of ‘harmony, melody, song’). Before we analyze this compound word and then calque it into Proto-Celtic, a few considerations must be made:

In later Celtic periods, the formation of complex compound words tends to be more liberal and promiscuous than it was in earlier times when affixes and roots in the language usually had more syllables. So if we take a modern Welsh compound word and make a 1:1 borrowing of it with Proto-Celtic forms, the result can prove lengthy and unwieldy. Also, when multiple affixes are compounded in the daughter languages, they oftentimes seem semantically empty or redundant. So for that reason, it’s not necessarily sensible to create exact calques from modern Celtic compound words.

If we look at erddigan, first documented in the 14th Century9, it appears to be composed of:

*fare-, *di-, and the root word cân ‘song’, of unknown etymology (though I assume a borrowing of some form of the Latin cantus, ‘song’). If we replace cân with a known Proto-Celtic synonym, the result would be *(f)are-di-kantlom.

It’s actually quite a nice sounding word, in spite of its length. But let’s analyze its construction more deeply:

Welsh ar-, er- (*(f)are- ‘in front of’) has long been seen as a cognate or equivalent to either English arch- or Latin per-, intensifying prefixes.10,11 While Matasović has shown this to be a misconception,12 it may have been how the prefix was understood at the time the word erddigan was formed.

The next component,*di-, means ‘of, from’.12 It often seems to imply an end result or derivative of the root it’s attached to. Since ‘prosody’ is the musical quality of speech, it could be seen as deriving from the act of singing. Thus, attaching this prefix to a word for ‘song’ should suffice for the meaning of ‘prosody’ without the need of any additional (let alone mistaken or redundant) affixes.

So we arrive at the final, aforementioned result:



  1. Retrieved on August 16, 2019 from Wiktionary, the free dictionary. (back)
  2. Sihler, AL. (2008). New comparative grammar of Greek and Latin. Oxford University Press. (back)
  3. Willis, D. (n.d.). Old and Middle Welsh. University of Cambridge. (back)
  4. Fortson, B.W. (2010). Proto-Indo-European phonlogy: Phonological rules (3.30). In Indo-European language and culture : An introduction. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell. (back)
  5. Schrijver, P. (2013). 3.2 Consonant gradation and Verner’s Law. In Language contact and the origins of the Germanic languages. London: Routledge. (back)
  6. Vine, B. (2009). PIE mobile accent in Italic: further evidence. In Roots of Europe – language, culture, and migrations (pp. 58 – 59). University of Copenhagen. (back)
  7. Schrijver, P. (1995). II The British accent. In Studies in British Celtic historical phonology (pp. 16 – 22). Amsterdam: Rodopi. (back)
  8. Campbell, L. (2013). 3.7.5 Borrowed rules. In Historical linguistics: An introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (back)
  9. Erddigan. (1966). GPC Online. (back)
  10. Ar-. (2006). GPC Online. (back)
  11. Per-. (n.d.). Retrieved on August 16, 2019 from Wiktionary, the free dictionary. (back)
  12. Matasović, R. (2009). Etymological dictionary of Proto-Celtic. Leiden: Brill. (back)