John T. Koch, of the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, has a very interesting piece in History Ireland about a language I’d never heard of, Tartessian. He starts with some historical background:

For Greek and Roman writers, Tartessos was a place of fabulous natural wealth in silver and gold, situated somewhat vaguely in Europe’s extreme south-west, beyond the Pillars of Hercules. When Herodotus, ‘the father of history’, wrote around 430 BC, the kingdom of Tartessos had already ceased to exist and belonged to the pre-classical past before the rise of Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire. […] Archaeologically, Tartessos is synonymous with the brief and spectacular ‘orientalising phase’ of the south-western Iberian Peninsula’s First Iron Age, around 750 to 550 BC. […] During the fifth century BC, the Iberian culture of Spain’s Mediterranean coast—which had ongoing access to Greek and Carthaginian trade—was to supplant Tartessos as the wealthiest and most dynamic zone of the peninsula.

Then he gets to the language:

One of the enduring consequences of the era of Phoenician influence—which had by around 800 BC progressed from trading outposts to full-blown colonies in southern Spain—was the adoption of alphabetic writing by the native population, first in the south-west. The number of known Tartessian inscriptions on stone is now about 90 and steadily rising with new discoveries. Concentrated densely in southern Portugal (the Algarve and Lower Alentejo), there is a wider scatter of fifteen over south-west Spain. […]

Thus far, the theory that Tartessian is partly or wholly Celtic has been advanced only with an understatement and tentativeness that has failed to break through the habitual inattention of Celtic scholars in Ireland, Britain and North America towards evidence emerging in the Iberian Peninsula. Most Celticists know that the Celtiberian language of the eastern Meseta during the last centuries BC was Celtic and that there were also numerous ancient Celtic place- and group names in the western peninsula (e.g. names ending in –briga ‘hillfort’ = Old Irish brí ‘hill’, for example). But that’s about as far as it usually goes.
When we approach Tartessian from the study of the better-attested Celtic languages—of Ireland and Britain and ancient Celtic Europe on the other side of the Pyrenees—it looks more rather than less Celtic.

Then he goes into detail, working from inscriptions like ‘Fonte Velha 5’: lokooboo niiraboo too araiui kaaltee lokoon ane nar´kee kaakiis´iinkooloboo ii te’-e.ro-baare (be)e teasiioonii. I have no idea how much credence to give to either his translations or his Celtic comparisons, and I’m hoping one or more of my readers will know something about this. (Thanks for the link, Trevor!)

Incidentally, the name Tartessos carried a deep ring from my past; I knew I must have run across it in my youth, probably before reading Herodotus in college, and a good guess was that it had been in the context of science fiction (which made up a huge proportion of my reading in those days); a little googling suggested that I had seen it in Poul Anderson’s “Ballade of an Artificial Satellite,” first published in the Oct. 1958 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (my very favorite sf magazine), which begins with a quote from Thorfinn Karlsefni’s Voyage to Vinland (“Thence they sailed far to the southward along the land, and came to a ness…”) and contains the lines:

Such clanging countries in cloudland lie;
but men grew weary and they grew sane
and they grew grown—and so did I—
and knew Tartessus was only Spain.

Poul Anderson was very good at using rare names and archaic words to evoke a sense of the grand and mysterious past; his 1965 story “Marque and Reprisal” (again in F&SF) implanted those words in my brain in a similarly unforgettable way. Anderson died in 2001, but some part of me will never believe that he’s gone.


  1. I think Tarthessos is mentioned in the Bible.

    “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him. ” Psalms 72:10-11

  2. It’s in the very nice survey of ancient North Mediterranean languages, at Language Log, a few years ago.

  3. Jongseong Park says:

    Biblical Tarshish also came to my mind. I remember it as Jonah’s intended destination, which some have speculated to be somewhere in Spain. But looking up Tarshish, I see that there are several competing hypotheses on its identification, including Sardinia.

  4. Евгений Войскунский, Исай Лукодьянов. Очень далекий Тартесс

  5. As to Tarshish, I don’t know if and how those favoring Tarthessos explain the θ:ʃ correspondence.

  6. In de Camp’s 1952 sf novel The Glory That Was, some 27th-century Europeans who find themselves in Classical Greece (fortunately one of them’s a professor of Greek, and the other at least knows Modern Greek) pretend to be from Tartessos, because (a) it’s far enough away that no one will challenge them, and (b) Tartessians were thought of as fairly sophisticated for barbarians. Per WP, the book has been translated into Greek.

    Isketerol, one of the main antagonists of S.M. Stirling’s Nantucket trilogy (1998-2000) is a shipmaster from Tartessos; he later rises to be king of the city.

  7. “Aristides the Locrian being bit by a Tartesian Weezel, and dying, said, That it would have pleased him much better to have died by the biting of a Lion or Leopard, (since he must have died by something) then by such a Beast. He brooked in my opinion the ignomy of the biting much worse then the death it self.” (c) Claudius Aelianus “Various History”

    Other translations say that the philosopher was bitten by Tartessian cat, not “Weezel”.

    Tartessos – city of monster-cats!

  8. FWIW, I also had Tarshish in mind.
    Y, that’s not really a difficult issue. The original consonant may have been /s/ – ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew rendered them differently (post-consonantal /s/ is a problem for both)

  9. Maybe “Tartessos” and “Tarshish” might both reflect something like /tʃ/ cf. “Tissaphernes” for Cithrafarna.

  10. The “Tartessian is Celtic” theory hasn’t found much acceptance, I believe; the only high-profile linguist I know of who believes it is Terrence Kaufman, who isn’t an Indo-Europeanist. I recently had the opportunity to ask Michael Weiss about it, and he said he thought Koch’s methodology was flawed (e.g. some of his putative comparanda relied on sound changes which were known to be later). The ambiguities of the script (no word division, no voicing distinctions) make it very easy to read stuff into it. That said, a lot of people think there are Celtic names in the Tartessian inscriptions, which of course isn’t the same thing.

  11. Thanks, that doesn’t surprise me — I thought the script looked ambiguous enough you could probably find whatever you wanted in it.

  12. It’s an interesting script, though: half an alphabet and half a syllabary. For vowels and continuants it’s an alphabet, as these each are written with one letter, but when you get to the stops it becomes a syllabary, with separate signs for ke ka ku etc. (though redundantly followed by the vowel signs in Tartessian, but not in the other Paleo-Hispanic scripts). How or why they came up with this idea, no one knows.

  13. Old Persian cuneiform uses a similar system. There are three vowel letters a i u which represent both long and short phonemes (but short a is often elided after a consonant, long a never) and 13 consonant letters x c ç θ p f b y l s z š h. In addition, there are 14 syllabograms da di du ma mi mu ka ku ga gu ja ji va vi; the sounds of ki gi ju vu were not present in the language. Finally, the letters t n r are used before a and i only, with syllabograms for tu nu ru. It was common, but not universal, for the syllabograms to be redundantly followed by the corresponding vowel letter.

  14. SFReader wrote:

    “I think Tarthessos is mentioned in the Bible.

    “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him. ” Psalms 72:10-11 “

    Coincidentally, this verse may be heard in the coming days at Catholic churches (too few, I’m afraid) where Gregorian chant is sung. It is the offertory chant for the Feast of the Epiphany, traditionally celebrated on January 6 (though in many places the feast is transferred to the Sunday between January 2 and January 8).

    Here is an example of the Gregorian chant in Latin:

    Here is a vastly simplified version (for parishes with limited resources) of the same in English:

    If you do a search on YouTube under Reges Tharsis you’ll also find polyphonic settings of the text by a number of different composers.

    Here is a setting by Palestrina during mass at St. Peter’s Basilica:

    Even in the many parishes where the Gregorian chant is not sung the verse will still be heard as it forms a part of the Responsorial Psalm appointed for the day (Ps. 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13) to be sung or recited in the first half of mass.

    Happy Epiphany!

  15. Thanks, I’m listening to the Palestrina now!

  16. David Marjanović says:

    with separate signs for ke ka ku etc. (though redundantly followed by the vowel signs

    This particular example reminds me of the Old Latin usage of C before E and I, K before A, and Q before O and V…

    though in many places the feast is transferred to the Sunday between January 2 and January 8

    I didn’t even know that. But then, January 6 is a legal holiday over here… most widely called “Three Holy Kings”.

  17. This particular example reminds me of the Old Latin usage of C before E and I, K before A, and Q before O and V…

    Right; Etruscan did the same and is presumably where the Romans got the idea (and Greek inscriptions used qoppa before back vowels, and sometimes consonants, into the classical period). In fact some of the Tartessian signs look related to the Phoenician-derived velar letters, too, but with a different distribution — at least according to the charts at the Wiki page, ka looks like gamma, ke looks like kappa, and ki looks like qoppa. It seems strange that they would have deliberately extended this system to the other stops and no further, but maybe that’s what they did.

  18. The best preserved Tartessian site in the Iberian Peninsula is Cancho Roano : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cancho_Roano
    It’s in Zalamea de la Serena*, near Quintana de la Serena, a village you can see in the map of “History Ireland”. As information, there are more than 300 km between Zalamea de la Serena and Cádiz.
    * This village is still more famous because of the play “The Mayor of Zalamea” written by Calderón de la Barca.

  19. “… Old Irish laigid, with several further examples in the Tartessian inscriptions: lakaatii ‘lies down’, lakeentii and lakiintii ‘they lie down’, and ro.laHaa ‘I have lain down’

    The connection may not be well-accepted yet, but that last one is quite the grammatical coincidence if they are not related.

  20. I have been aware of Tartessos at least since reading Rhys Carpenter’s Beyond the Pillars of Hercules (1966), refered to by Fernan Braudel in The Mediterranean in the Ancient World (trans. Sian Reynolds, 2001), which I read recently. Carpenter, as Braudel tells us, believed that the explosion of the volcano Thera, north of Crete, was the catastrophy refered to in the legend of Atlantis. An archaeologist recently discovered what he thinks is Atlantis in Las Marismas of southern Spain, but this is probably Tartessos.

    Tartessos has been called the Tarshish of the Canaanites, yes, though some have believed that was Tarsus in Asia Minor. Tartessian Celtic? Probably true at the time of Phoenician and Greek expansion westwards, but it’s a pity that inscriptions can’t give us the complete language, nor could they tell us the language(s) of the slaves in the mines.

  21. A little googling, which I should have done before posting, reveals that Tartessos is beneath Huelva, which name had been rattling about in the back of my mind as I wrote that post, and that the archaeologist claiming to have found Atlantis in southern Spain is a gadfly discredited by the local archaeological establishment. An old story.

  22. A paper just popped up in my academia.edu feed, Taršiš, Tartessos, Turdetania” by Mariano Torres Ortiz, unfortunately for me in Spanish.

  23. Presumably “Turdetania” doesn’t have the same ring in Spanish as it does in English.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    JC: the Turdetani are in the English Wikipedia

    So are their almost-neighbours the Turduli (mentioned in the same article and also located on the map of Pre-Roman Iberia).

  25. Thrussians?

  26. Matthew Scarborough of Consulting Philologist discusses this issue, concluding:

    As an outsider to Palaeo-Iberian epigraphy and being not uninformed but still rather unknowledgeable about the intricacies of Continental Celtic epigraphy and linguistics, I have formed the opinion from these papers that the decipherment of the inscriptions of the South-Western Inscriptions as Celtic is definitely not certain, but an IE solution might still be possible. Nevertheless, there remains a good deal of interpretive work on the script of these inscriptions yet to be done before anything more conclusive can be said.

    Lots of papers and theories mentioned in the post (and follow-up comments by David Marjanović).


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