In the section "The linguistic relationship of Welsh" from the book "Modern Welsh: a comprehensive grammar" by Gareth King we can find the following quote:

Celtic also shows unexplained similarities with certain languages of North Africa.

What are the (probably coincidental(?)) similarities between the Celtic group and these north Africa languages? And which specific african languages is he referring to?

2 Answers 2


The similarities usually cited between Insular Celtic and the Semitic languages and those of North Africa are the following:

  • VSO as basic word order.
  • "Conjugated" prepositions, where prepositions governing a pronominal object fuse with a clitic, rather than simply being followed by the independent form of the pronoun. E.g. Hebrew לי li "to me" instead of *ל־אני *l-ʾani.
  • "Construct" state, where genitive phrases come in the form "[regens] (article) [rectum]" (the regens is the possessed object, and the rectum is the possessor), where the presence of the definite article instead of giving the definiteness of the rectum gives the definiteness of the entire phrase. E.g. Hebrew בֵּית סֵפֶר bēt séfer "a school" (lit. house-of book" & בֵּית הַסֵּפֶר‎ ‎bēt ha-séfer "the school" (lit. "house of the-book").
    • A construct state is often described as being a case-like marking of the possessed object in a genitive phrase. By this definition the Insular Celtic languages lack such a similarity.

Unexplained is a massive overstatement. None of these are especially unusual cross-linguistically, and transition to these from more typical Indo-European norms are also well-attested globally.

Vennemann argues for a Semitic (or sometimes some other Afroasiatic) substrate in Celtic and Germanic. His work ignores the fact that these similarities are absent in the earliest stages of the Insular Celtic languages (e.g. Primitive Irish in Ogham inscriptions, and Brythonic inscriptions of the Roman era), and so any contact would need to have occurred during the historical era, and if it was sufficiently intense to cause such major structural changes and in such an era, we absolutely would see evidence of it that we do not. His ideas in this regard are pretty fringe.

It's also worth noting that conjugated prepositions do occur to a limited extent in other Indo-European languages e.g. Spanish con "with" has a full set of conjugated forms like conmigo "with-me".

  • I thought the defining feature of the construct state was that the regens (rather than the rectum) has a particular case(-like) form. The fact that a definite article on the rectum makes the whole phrase definite is exceedingly common, including in Germanic, so hardly unexpected in Celtic. Jun 23 at 15:57
  • @JanusBahsJacquet when the regens precedes the rectum such marking is much less common. In Germanic it's also more accurate to say the article precedes the noun phrase (as seen by the fact adjectives lie between the article and noun). You are right though that a construct state is usually defined in such a way, but Celtic languages don't fit such a definition, the only real one they have is the definiteness marking
    – Tristan
    Jun 24 at 8:45
  • The article also precedes the noun phrase in Celtic (visible in the few cases where adjectives precede nouns, like Irish teach an chéad fhir ‘the first man’s house’). It’s true that in some parts of Germanic the rectum’s (rectal?) article only controls the entire phrase in the opposite order (German des Mannes Haus vs das Haus des Mannes), though not everywhere (Icelandic mannsins hús vs hús mannsins – though usually húsið hans). I can’t think of many other [regens rectum] examples now, so I’ll take your word for the relative frequency. Jun 24 at 9:01
  • Oh, also: the Hebrew example actually doesn’t match Celtic languages. In an indefinite collocation akin to bēt séfer, such as Irish teach tábhairne ‘pub [lit. house of-tavern]’, making it definite would be done by adding the article to the whole phrase (an teach tábhairne). Adding it to the rectum (teach an tábhairne) would still result in a definite NP, but it’s only definite because the rectum is definite; i.e., it would mean ‘(the) house of the tavern’ rather than ‘the pub’. Jun 25 at 17:07
  • 1
    ha-bēt séfer is not valid in Hebrew. Tbh at this point the "construct state" similarity seems to be entirely bogus. The fact you can't have both parts definite is the only similarity but as Semitic has a much tighter restriction (only the rectum can be marked, and its marking reflects the semantic definiteness of the entire phrase) this seems about as useful a "similarity" as the fact that Welsh and Biblical Hebrew both have /ɬ/
    – Tristan

One feature that immediately comes to my mind is the basic word order VSO of Insular Celtic shared with Berber languages of North Africa, Standard Arabic, and Phoenician.

Unexplained is a strong word used here, at least some scholars (e.g. Vennemann) argued for a Semitic substrate to Celtic and Germanic languages.

  • 2
    Do you have any citations for a Semitic substrate to Germany and Celtic? First time I'm hearing that.
    – cmw
    Jun 22 at 15:57
  • Very quick link to Vennemann's Wikipedia entry. Vennemann wrote a lot along these lines. His views are definitely not mainstream, but he's also not a crackpot. Jun 22 at 16:10
  • I have heard of this supposed connection as well, but do not give it much credence. Another similarity is that prepositions are "conjugated" by providing them with pronoun suffixes. I think this is now just considered a normal side effect of being VSO. Jun 22 at 17:16

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