The Vasconic substrate hypothesis is a proposal that several Western European languages contain remnants of an old language family of Vasconic languages, of which Basque is the only surviving member. The proposal was made by the German linguist Theo Vennemann, but has been rejected by other linguists.
According to Vennemann, Vasconic languages were once widespread on the European continent before they were mostly replaced by Indo-European languages. Relics of these languages include toponyms across Central and Western Europe.
Theo Vennemann based his hypothesis on the works of Hans Krahe, who postulated an Old European substrate as the origin of the European hydronymy (Old European hydronymy). He classified the substratum language as Indo-European.
Vennemann rejected the classification. He gives the following reasons:
Vennemann developed his ideas in a series of papers which were collected in a book called Europa Vasconica - Europa Semitica.
He accepts Krahe's theory that there was a uniform Old European language, which is the origin of the Old European Hydronymy, but proposes that it is of Vasconic origin. Vasconic is a language family proposed by Vennemann encompassing Basque as its only extant member, Aquitan, Ligurian and possibly the Iberian language and the Paleo-Sardinian language.
Theo Vennemann proposes that this uniform Vasconic substrate must come from a linguistically uniform population, which can only exist within a small area. He therefore proposes that during the last Ice Age, the Vasconic people lived in the modern region of Aquitania. As the glaciers retreated, the Vasconics began moving to the north and south, settling most of Western and Central Europe, spreading their language. They gave names to the rivers and places. This toponymy mostly persisted after the Vasconic language was replaced by Indo-European languages in most of their area, the present Basque area in northern Spain and southern France is postulated to be a relic.
In support of this argument, Vennemann cites, inter alia:
Elements of vigesimal ("base-20") counting/numerical systems, which Vennemann regards as a trait of Vasconic languages, exist in Celtic and Danish, French.: 530–539 : 461
Evidence from genetics and blood types, shows that the modern Basque people share physical characteristics with old populations throughout Western and Central Europe, especially in likely refugia areas, such as mountain ranges.
The hypothesis has been largely rejected by historical linguists. Vennemann's theories on "Vasconic" toponymy and hydronymy were opposed by linguists such as P. R. Kitson (1996), and Baldi & Richard (2006), who pointed out that most linguists see unusual European hydronyms as more likely to have Indo-European roots of some kind, and the Indo-European linguist Michael Meier-Brügger.
German linguist Dieter H. Steinbauer argued that it is difficult to argue on the basis of Basque because:
Steinbauer also criticized Vennemann for
The Bascologist Joseba Lakarra rejects Vennemann's Vasconic etymologies, as he considers them to be incompatible with the current state of research on historical phonology and morphology of Basque. Larry Trask concludes that Vennemann found an aglutinating language unrelated to Basque, which could e.g. be Indo-European.
Harald Bichlmeier points out that Vennemann compares the etymological roots of the toponymy with modern Basque words. This is incoherent, as the comparison should be done using the reconstructed forms of Proto-Basque.: 424
Jürgen Udolph shows that some of the assumed Vasconic roots are in fact Indo-European like Vennemann's *muna, especially since Proto-Basque lacked word initial /m/. Stefan Georg adds, that some roots do not exist in Basque or Proto-Basque.
According to Lutz Reichardt the hypothesis is based on the assumption that "settlement continuity exists and that this means continuity of names throughout all languages being spoken in that settlement".: : 405Furthermore, he criticizes the methodology applied by those who support he Vasconian hypothesis:
[The words] are segmented arbitrarily and some segments are explained poorly, others are not explained at all. In addition, the elments -ingen, -hûsen, -dorf, -bach etc. are supposed to have been added to the toponymy at a later date although there is no proof for this assumption in historical documents.:
Hayim Y. Sheynin, an expert on Semitic languages, reviewed the work of Vennemann and concluded that his reasoning is based on outdated data and scientific works rejected by critics. He states that much of the evidence presented for an Afro-Asiatic stratum is objectable and based on mere sound similarities only.
Peter Anreiter noted that toponymy with an unknown meaning can be "interpreted" in almost any language. To demonstrate his point, he then "interprets" the Vasconisms proposed by Vennemann as Turkish words.: 25–27 Nonetheless he states that words with plausible Indo-European etymology should be considered as toponymy of Indo-European origin.: 63
Piotr Gąsiorowski cautioned that it is unclear whether or not an Old European Hydronymy exists at all. According to him it is mere speculation to postulate an etymology for similarly-appearing toponymy from a vast area without being able to show that they are indeed from the same substratum.
Vennemann argues that the vigesimal numerical systems in the modern Celtic languages, in French and Danish are a remnant of the Vasconic vigesimal counting system. According to Manfred Kudlek, Old Irish and Gallic did not have vigesimal counting systems and neither did Old Norse. The vigesimal systems in the respective languages developed during the Middle Ages, e.g. Danish started to use a vigesimal system in the 13th/14th century. Therefore, the French system cannot be the result of Celtic influence. Kudlek proposes that the Celtic and Danish systems are loans from French. Brigitte Bauer, too, rejects substratal influence. She suggests that intrasocietal developments, e.g. in the monetary system, may explain the adoption of vigesimal systems.
Manfred Kayser and Lutz Roewer, both experts on genetics, commented in 2013 that genetics do not reveal anything about the languages spoken by the individuums. Furthermore, the information genetics can deliver on population historical hypothesis is limited.
Dieterlen and Bengtson find the distribution of blood factors and haploid groups is convincing evidence for Basque settlement in Western Europe before the Indo-Europeans settled there in line with Vennemann's hypothesis. They note that similarity between the distributions in Basque areas and Sardinia.
Abstract: In this review article we evaluate Theo Vennemann's provocative theories on the role of Afroasiatic and Vasconic (e.g. Basque) languages in the pre-historic development of Indo-European languages in Europe as presented in the volume Europa Vasconica-Europa Semitica, a collection of 27 of Vennemann's essays...
Eine eigene Dynamik entfaltet Th. Vennemann. Er bezieht Baskisch und Hamito-Semitisch in seine Theorien zur sprachlichen Vorgeschichte Europas mit ein und rechnet mit einem alten Nebeneinander von vaskonischen, atlantischen und indogermanischen Sprachen. Seine Hypothesen sind allesamt reich an nicht beweisbarer Phantasie.