Native toLiguria
RegionNorthern Mediterranean Coast straddling South-east French and North-west Italian coasts, including Northern Tuscany and Corsica.
Era300 BCE (?) – 100 CE[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3xlg

The Ligurian language was spoken in pre-Roman times and into the Roman era by an ancient people of north-western Italy and current south-eastern France known as the Ligures.

Very little is known about ancient Ligurian; the lack of inscriptions and the unknown origin of the Ligurian people prevent its certain linguistic classification as a Pre-Indo-European[4] or an Indo-European language.[5] The linguistic hypotheses are mainly based on toponymy and onomastics.

Ancient sources regarding the Ligurians

Map of Italy and its languages. The Ligurian group is N4. The Ligurian is increasingly attested as a non-Indo-European language.
Liguria in Roman Italy.
Languages in Iron Age Italy, c. 6th century BC

The question of the Ligurians' ethnolinguistic origins and identity has remained unresolved. They may have: been a pre-Indo-European people; spoken an early Indo-European language, such as a third primary branch of the Italo-Celtic group or an earlier Celtic languages (i.e. separate from Gaulish), and/or; gradually come under increasing Gaulish and other influences.

Strabo wrote of the region around the Alps: "many tribes (éthnê) occupy these mountains, all Celtic (Keltikà) except the Ligurians; but while these Ligurians belong to a different people (hetero-ethneis), still they are similar to the Celts in their modes of life (bíois)." He also mentioned that earlier (Greek) sources referred to the Salyes (Latin Salluvii) – then the western neighbours of the Ligures – as the Ligyes, and to their territory as Ligystike (iv. p. 203). Scholars of the classical era usually considered the Salyes to have originated as either: a hybrid of Gauls and Ligures, or the result of the westernmost Ligurians coming under the influence of a Celtic elite.

Even in antiquity, because of the strong similarities of the Ligures' language and culture to that Celts, some Greek scholars referred to them as Κελτολίγυες Keltolígues (Celto-Ligurians).[6]

Herodotus noted that the Ligurians who lived above Massilia referred to travelling hawkers as sigunnai,[7] a word that strongly resembled the ethnonym of the Sigynnae, a nomadic tribe located at the time in Eastern Europe. However, the term may have been derogatory and the Sigynnae are generally considered to have been Scythian (or members of another Iranian-speaking tribe).

Theories on the Ligurian language

Ligurian as a non-Celtic Indo-European language

French historian and philologist Marie Henri d'Arbois de Jubainville held that Ligurian may have been the first Indo-European language spoken in Western Europe and was related to Sicel. In his work Premiers Habitants de l'Europe (2nd edition 1889–1894), Jubainville proposed that Ligurian may have been the first Indo-European language spoken in Corsica, Sardinia, eastern Spain, southern France and western Italy, based on the occurrence there of an apparent substrate, represented by place names ending in -asco, -asca, -usco, -osco, -osca as well as -inco, -inca.[8] (For examples of the Corsican toponymy cited by Jubainville, see Prehistory of Corsica.) The hypothesis of a wider Ligurian substrate has never been generally accepted or conclusively rejected.

Other linguists expanded on Jubainville's idea. Julius Pokorny adapted it as one basis of a hypothetical "Pan-Illyrian" (or "Illyro-Venetic") branch of Indo-European, supposedly found across western Europe. Paul Kretschmer saw evidence for Ligurian in Lepontic inscriptions (although these were later generally seen as Celtic). Hans Krahe, focusing on river names, converted the concept into his theory of Old European hydronymy.[9]

Ligurian as a Celtic or Italo-Celtic language

An identification of Proto-Italo-Celtic (or "Pre-Celtic") with Ligurian was proposed by Camille Jullian (1859 – 1933). In 1934, Henri Hubert noted that this theory had never been widely supported, or conclusively disproven.[10] (Hubert added that its standing had not been assisted by an association with another of Jullian's hypotheses, that there had also been something akin to an Italo-Celtic "unified empire".[10]) The Ligurian-Celtic question is also discussed by Guy Barruol in his 1969 paper The Pre-Roman Peoples of South-East Gaul: Study of Historical Geography.[11]

Xavier Delamarre argues that Ligurian was a Celtic language, similar to, but not the same as, Gaulish. His argument hinges on two points: firstly, the Ligurian place-name Genua (modern Genoa, located near a river mouth) is claimed by Delamarre to derive from PIE *ǵenu-, "chin, chin bone". Many Indo-European languages use 'mouth' to mean the part of a river which meets the sea or a lake, but it is only in Celtic for which reflexes of PIE *ǵenu- mean 'mouth'. Besides Genua, which is considered Ligurian,[12] this is found also in Genava (modern Geneva), which may be Gaulish. However, Genua and Genava may well derive from another PIE root with the form *ǵonu-, which means "knee" (so in Pokorny, IEW).[13]

Another possibility may be inferred from a second point made by Delamarre:[14] that (according to Plutarch) in 102 BC, during the Battle of Aquae Sextiae, Ligurian troops fighting for the Roman Republic were facing the Ambrones – a Germanic tribe from Jutland – who began to shout "Ambrones!" as a battle cry. The Ligurians, who heard this as identical to an ancient alternate name for their own people (outôs kata genos onomazousi Ligues), returned the shout: "Ambrones!". No indisputable evidence has been found that the Ambrones of Jutland had partly-Celtic origins, and tribes in other parts of Europe also had similar names – suggesting that either the two ethnonyms were coincidental homophones, or that a more distant connection existed.

Ligurian as a Pre-Indo-European language

Scholars, such as Ernst Gamillscheg, Pia Laviosa Zambotti and Yakov Malkiel,[15][16] posit that ancient Ligurian was a pre-Indo-European language, with significant late Indo-European influence, especially Celtic (Gallic) and Italic (Latin), superimposed on the original language.

Their thesis is that the Ligurians were survivors of the ancient pre-Indo-European populations that had occupied Europe, at least from the fifth millennium BC.[17] These populations would have had languages of their own families, which they would have preserved until the onset of waves of Indo-European migration. Later, the latter would conquer the territories, imposing their culture and language on the Ligurians.

A risk of circular logic has been pointed out – if it is believed that the Ligurians are non-Celtic or indeed pre-Indo-European, and if many place names and tribal names that classical authors state are Ligurian seem to be Celtic, it is incorrect to discard all the Celtic ones when collecting Ligurian words and to use this edited corpus to demonstrate that Ligurian is non-Celtic or non-Indo-European.[18]

See also


  1. ^ Ligurian at MultiTree on the Linguist List
  2. ^ Kruta 1991, p. 54.
  3. ^ Kruta 1991, p. 55.
  4. ^ "Liguri". Enciclopedie on line. (in Italian). Rome: Treccani -Istituto dell'Enciclopedia Italiana. 2011. Le documentazioni sulla lingua dei Liguri non ne permettono una classificazione linguistica certa (preindoeuropeo di tipo mediterraneo? Indoeuropeo di tipo celtico?).
  5. ^ "Ligurian language". 2014-12-16. Retrieved 2015-08-29.
  6. ^ Baldi, Philip (2002). The Foundations of Latin. Walter de Gruyter. p. 112.
  7. ^ Herodotus (1920). A. D. Godley (ed.). The Histories. Translated by A. D. Godley. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Book 5, Chapter 9.
  8. ^ Jubainville, H. D'Arbois de (1889). Les Premiers Habitants de l'Europe d'après les Écrivains de l'Antiquité et les Travaux des Linguistes: Seconde Édition (in French). Paris: Ernest Thorin. V.II, Book II, Chapter 9, Sections 10, 11.
  9. ^ Mees, Bernard (2003). "A genealogy of stratigraphy theories from the Indo-European west". In Anderson, Henning (ed.). Language Contacts in Prehistory: Studies in Stratigraphy. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamin Publishing Company. pp. 11–44. ISBN 1-58811-379-5.
  10. ^ a b Henri Hubert, 2013 (1934), The Rise of the Celts. Abingdon, Oxfordshire, p. 162.
  11. ^ Barruol 1969.
  12. ^ Delamarre 2003, p. 177.
  13. ^ Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch
  14. ^ Plutarch. Caius Marius. Chapter 10, Sections 5-6.
  15. ^ Gamillscheg, Ernst (1950). Romanen und Basken (in German). Mainz & Wiesbaden: Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur in Mainz.
  16. ^ Malkiel, Yakov (1952). "Old and New Trends in Spanish Linguistics". Studies in Philology. 49 (3): 437–458. JSTOR 4173021.
  17. ^ Laviosa Zambotti, Pia (1943). "La civiltà dei più antichi agricoltori liguri". Rivista di Studi Liguri (in Italian). 9 (2–3): 96–108.
  18. ^ Dyfed Lloyd Evans (2005–2011). "Celtic Gods: The Gaulish and Ligurian god, Vasio". Nemeton: The Sacred Grove. Archived from the original on May 18, 2013.