September 6, 2013

More Basque linguistics: the meaning of "Varduli"... and other ancient tribes

A quick linguistic note I just feel I need to write. 

If you make a search on the etymology of Varduli (one of the historical Basque tribes of the early Roman era), we find that it is almost invariably attributed to the alleged Celtic root *bhar- meaning border, frontier. This is the same logic used with the better known tribe of the Vascones, which gave their name to Basques in general later on in Indoeuropean languages. 

Ancient tribes of the Greater Basque Country (blue Celts, red pre-IE)

One of the problems here is that Latin letter v was not originally /v/, much less /b/ but originally just /u/, i.e. the same sound as English w when used as semi-consonant. In fact the letter u did not exist in Classic Latin, just v (i.e. IVLIVS: Julius). Both letters j and u evolved only at a later stage. However both cases are documented with other phonetics: Varduli in Greek are said Bardoúloi, Bardiétes (where the B, beta, should sound like English v). In the case of the Vascones there is a coinage with the word Barscunes, which should sound /b/ and is the main link to the alleged Celtic root *bhar-.

Often the country of the Varduli is assimilated to Gipuzkoa but the actual Varduli did not just occupy most (not all) of that modern province but their domain extended much further south into lands now belonging to the provinces of Navarre and Araba until the Ebro river. Their capital was in fact the town that Romans named Ara Coeli, later Araceli and that Basques know by the compound name of Uharte-Arakil (Sakana valley, Navarre), where Arakil is obviously Ara Coeli but Uharte is a Basque word that means island or more precisely between waters (ur-arte). Therefore Uharte is the genuine Basque name.

My understanding is therefore that Varduli means nothing else than Uharte-Uli (shortened to Uhartuli), i.e. the city of Uharte. Uli, ili, uri, iri: city in Basque and Iberian, as well as many other Mediterranean languages (cf. Ilion, *Irisalem, *Iriko, etc.), being a clear wanderwört of prehistoric origins. Today it's said mostly "hiri" but toponimy includes all variants: Uribe, Basauri, Ulia, Irun, Iruinea, Pompaelo (= Pompaeius-Ilu), etc.

Therefore the rewriting of this ethnonym with Greek beta (/v/) seems a misunderstanding by those cartographers who used it. 

Harder is to be certain about other ethnonyms but if I'm correct about the true meaning of Varduli, it may mean that other tribal names reported by Greco-Roman erudites could also mean locations, such as towns, without further ado, mistaken by collective denominations. I know that it was usual to add the suffix -ani or similar to these cases (example: Basti → Bastetani) but probably the ancient cartographers did not have enough knowledge in all cases, especially if their sources were second or third hand. 

A notorious case is in my opinion the name of the Astures, which could well mean, if Basque (or otherwise Vasconic), Aitz-Uri, i.e. the city (uri) of the rock or mountain (aitz). We know that the capital of the Astures (Asturica Augusta for the Romans, Astorga by the modern name) existed since at least the Atlantic Bronze Age, so it is not like nearby Legio Augusta (León) a Roman foundation by any means. So it seems, on first sight, plausible that the ancient Astures were also named by their capital city: Aitzuri, now Astorga. 

However on second thought, it happens that Astorga is located on flatlands, but, as you can see in this picture, right under an often snowed mountain. Aitzuri can also mean (and would be the natural translation in modern Basque) white peak. I leave this open therefore because it could mean either. 

Another ethnonym of ancient North Iberia that seems very Vasconic is Artabri (sing. Artabrus), who lived in what is now Northern Galicia, next to the Astures. A plausible Basque etymology can well be Arte-Buru, i.e. the head of the holm oak (Q. ilex). The holm oak grows well by the coast, precisely where the ancient Artabri lived, being like other oaks often considered special and a sacred meeting place. The second compound buru (head) may mean either a promontory or hill, if geographic, or maybe chieftain, leader. 

This would lead us to the similarly-sounding name Cantabrus/-i. If -brus is indeed buru (head), what is canta-? Possibly gain, gane (height, peak) maybe in the form ganeta (zone of peaks, the peaks), very common in Basque toponymy. If so, it could well be ganeta-buru: the head of the peak-zone, what makes good sense, especially if we reckon that the Cantabri were a confederation of many smaller tribes (→ approximate map, notice that the eastern border has been displaced surely for modern political reasons).

I don't wish to finish without mentioning the Ausci. Sometimes this Aquitanian tribe, the larger one among northern Basques, is said to be at the origin of the Basque endonym euskaldun, which derivates from euskera (Basque language), having the pseudo-mysterious root eusk-. The apparent similitude between Ausci (/awski/) and eusk- (/ewsk-/) has led some to propose an etymological relationship. 

However I tend to think that euskera derives, like all other words beginning with eusk- from the verb eutsi (hold, persist, resist), where -ts- transforms regularly into -sk-. Hence euskarri (pillar, lit. holding stone), euskailu (bowl, lit. holding gadget), etc. Euskera would therefore be the persistent (eutsi) mode, lifestyle or language (-era), in contrast with erdera (applied to all non-Basque languages but primarily Indoeuropean ones) which should mean the dividing (erditu) mode, lifestyle or language.

It is difficult to find a meaning for the ethnonym Ausci but it does not seem to make sense from the verb eutsi, as there is no suffix attached. The singular form was Auscus, what makes me think of the Navarrese village of Aezkoa (where -a is nominative article and -ko must mean of a place). Aez- here could well be aitz (rock, peak) again (of the rock therefore, no wonder considering its location) or alternatively could well be a shortening of ametz (a type of oak, Q. pyrenaica). But while these etymologies seem to fit well for Aezkoa, they are more difficult to relate to the Ausci, who lived in the northeastern flatlands near the Garona (Garonne). 

A bit far fetched but a possible etymology could be ahozko, meaning oral: aho = mouth, -zko= made of. Ahozko is a real word, not something I just made up. However "the orals" is not something that sounds correct so maybe for them it could mean something else, like those who speak or whatever.

If so I wonder if my previous best guess about the origin of the word euskera was wrong after all, could it be just ahozkera, i.e. the oral (or spoken) mode or language. Could it be that the divide meaning of erdera refers to being partly written, as happened with Latin?

Enough for this quickie linguistic note. Thanks for reading and feel free to add comments, especially if you're open-minded.


  1. I doubt ancient Cantabrians spoke a Pre-Indo-European language : at least Cantabrian elite only showed Indo-European surnames by the times the Romans reached the land.

    The book "Onomástica de Cantabria" by Jesús Maroñas García takes an inventory of personal names in ancient Cantabria (thus including parts of las Merindades, Palencia, ... but you know that better than I do).

    Anthroponyms all exhibit an Indo-European flavour (no repulsion for muta cum liquida). I'll copy you the list when I have time.

    Theonyms are also quite Indo-European in appearance though undeciphered : Cabuniaegino, Candamo, Epane, Erudino, ...

    Placenames also look Indo-European : Deva, Vadinia, Vindio,... Only Amaia is dubious (modern-day Peña Amaya).

    Genetic studies show that the impact of Indo-Europeans in Cantabria was moderate but relevant nevertheless (5% of Caucasian admixture in Dienekes' Globe4 results : compare with 0.80% for Basque people). Enough to change languages, at least for the elite.

    Maybe that in those times the mixing between Indo-Europeans and aboriginal farmers was not perfect and that some valleys had retained peculiarities.

    Let's notice that most ancient inscriptions in ancient Cantabria were excavated in modern-day Palencia : we lack data for more remote areas such as Valle de Pas.

    1. I have no serious reason other than these kind of Spanish studies, which are always very biased, to think that Celtic culture arrived to Cantabria. The Romans never described the Cantabri as Celtic and the archaeological cultures associated to Celts (Cogotas II or the "cultura Castreña" basically) did not reach those areas. When you look at toponymy, the Asturian-Cantabrian area is notorious for its lack of Celtic toponymy, see for example this map: (which I made based on a 1988 university book).

      Modernly, the former Cantabrian country is not lacking on suspect Vasconic toponymy in any case: very common are names in -oño, -oña (obviously Basque "oin": foot, meaning a hill or mountain as in Begoña, Toloño, Ogoño, Garoña...), in -aya, -ayo ("aia": rock). Also singular names like Santander (sant-andere: sant + "lady", IMO), Barreda, Zurita , Aés, Iruz, Bárcena, Selaya , Ubiarco, Garabandal, Andinas, Arriondas, etc. Add the names in -eda(s) (from -eta, example Muriedas, similar to Murrieta) and in -ega (from -aga, example Noriega).

      The analysis based on a few cherry-picked toponyms like Deva is clearly biased. Is there even any "Deva" in all the clearly attested Celtic lands anywhere? I mean, really... it's just a speculation! Just because Deva means goddess in Sanskrit, it does not mean Celts ever used that word much less named rivers with it. I'm not saying it can't be Celtic just that it is not demonstrated but as far as I can see mere romantic speculation. Celtic for "god" is not "dev" but "dia" or "duw", similar but differently sounding words in fact, much like Latin deus, Greek theos, etc. You can't make up "Deva" as Celtic just from a Sanskrit (Indo-Aryan) coincidence.

      It just irks me this kind of stuff because I know they have the mediatic power of simplicity and conformity but it's not as simple, really.

      "Genetic studies show that the impact of Indo-Europeans in Cantabria was moderate but relevant nevertheless (5% of Caucasian admixture in Dienekes' Globe4 results : compare with 0.80% for Basque people)"...

      It may be Medieval from the Gothic-Asturian period. Notice that lots of refugees were established over there from regions further South. And later there was also clear tension between independent Vasconia and the incipient Astur-Leonese realm.

      Or whatever else, I do not take such analysis easily as "proof" of anything, sincerely. If you get your "zombies" wrong, you get your results all messed up. It's just suggestive not proof.

      Also I do not think that the "Caucasus" component, even if real, has anything to do with IEs. IEs did not come from the Caucasus but from Central Europe and before that from Eastern Europe, a region that consistently looks different from the Caucasus. The Caucasus component probably just means Anatolian (and not steppary) affinity of some sort.

      "Let's notice that most ancient inscriptions in ancient Cantabria were excavated in modern-day Palencia : we lack data for more remote areas such as Valle de Pas".

      Valle del Pas was not part of Ancient Cantabria but of Autrigonia.

    2. Also some battles of the Cantabrian Wars were fought (and apparently won) in Araba, even at the very Western Carisitian borders, not far from where Veleia would later stand:

      There's no clear distinction in proto-history between Cantabri and Basques like the Vascones or the tribes between them or very particularly the Aquitani. Cantabri are said to have fought in the Aquitanian war, because they were "relatives".

  2. As for the Ausci, they did not live in the northeastern flatlands near the Garonne valley : they actually inhabited one of the hilliest parts of modern-day Gascony (more or less the modern-day département of Gers dubbed the French Tuscany).

    The Garonne valley in itself was controlled by Celtic-speaking tribes probably linked to Celtic tribes from the right bank of the river such as the Nitiobriges. A town like Condom originates from Celtic *condatomagos i.e. "the market at the confluence".

    But even tribes said to be Aquitanian by ancient sources such as the Sotiates (localized around Sos in modern-day Lot-et-Garonne : notice the similarity with Sos del Rey Católico and Castejón de Sos both in Aragon) had leaders with Celtic surnames : Adietanus (see Adiatorix, Adiatumari, Adiatunnus which are all Celtic first names, based on *adiant(u) "ambition" ; in Welsh addiant "desire").

    But in Sos, two votive altars were found showing two first names of ordinary people : they were named Adehio and Harbelesteg.

    Harbelesteg clearly is Basque : probably harr- "stone" + belex "black" + -teg (an early form for locative -tegi) i.e. "where black stone is found" which means the man had the name of his house as a first name which is coherent with ancient Basque society.

    1. I did not realize that the area of Auch was so rugged (had to look at a map). It's not the mountains but it does seem pretty much hilly indeed.

      "The Garonne valley in itself was controlled by Celtic-speaking tribes"...

      Possibly but the evidence of the late conquest is in its many Vasconic toponyms, from Tolosa to Garona, etc. I do not know much about the exact patterns of Celtic control of what is now France but it seems to me that much like Britain and Ireland, most of it was only Celtizied with La Tène, barely a few centuries before Caesar, probably not enough time to put everything upside down. Exceptional in this may be the Arverni, which I suspect descendants from the Urnfield-Hallstatt waves, much as Celtiberians further south (both could have been pushed to mountain areas by Vasconic (Iberian, Ligur, Basque) reaction with Greek support. Tribes usually considered to be Celtic like the Volcae and Tectosages show only Iberian epigraphy in their areas, at least towards the Narbonnese coast, not Celtic. But guess it can be a complex issue.

      ... "even tribes said to be Aquitanian by ancient sources (...) had leaders with Celtic surnames"...

      That may be a fashion, maybe a first stage of acculturation by contact. Even it can be a semi-translation such as Frank becomes Franciscus, etc. Notice the similitude between Adietanus and Adehio, which you accept as Basque. This kind of linguistic evaluation is very slippery indeed. Your "Celtic" names could also mean just "aditua": the wise (man), from adi (to pay attention), related to adin (age), just because someone wrote it's Celtic, it does not mean it is necessarily.

      "But in Sos, two votive altars were found showing two first names of ordinary people: they were named Adehio and Harbelesteg".

      Arbeltegi? OK, it makes some sense.

  3. As for the Ausci, your theory seems plausible : *auz is attested as a variant for aitz "rock". A medieval house in Iparralde is named Auzcue in 1350 (source : Orpustan).

    I don't know how k in auzk should be explained, maybe diminutive -ko ?

    There would not be anything far-fetched about the Ausci being the people inhabiting the hilliest part of Aquitanian lands, particularly when compared with the flat valley of the Garonne river.

    Other ethnonyms ending in -ates seem to have been created by Romans using the main town these people inhabited. I presume other ethnonyms ending in -tani are also Latin-forged (see Mauretania far from Aquitania and Iberia).

    1. "A medieval house in Iparralde is named Auzcue in 1350"...

      Ah, very interesting. Because Azkue (also written Azcue) is indeed a surname and modern toponym (not sure if from Enkarterri) and clearly seems to mean aizkoa (i.e. from the rock or peak, similar to Aezkoa again).

      "I presume other ethnonyms ending in -tani are also Latin-forged"

      Sure. It's like modern -an (Italy → Italian), -en in French, -ano in Spanish. The initial -t- seems to have been lost in the transition to Romance.

      So how would we say Aquitania now Aquania? This ethno-toponym has always perplexed me. I've read that comes from Eques (knight or horseman) but I do not make much sense of it, really, another etymology could be from æqui (equal) but again assuming Latin is at the root of it, what I do not make much sense of. Of course they bordered the Roman Province (Gallia Narbonensis) by the West for some 70 years before Caesar's conquest but is that enough to get a Latin name?


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