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.