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Study backs theory farmers spread Celtic language

A new study backs the idea that farmers carried Celtic into British Isles, Ireland and France in a single wave 6,000 yrs ago.

tech reviews Updated: Jul 01, 2003 20:24 IST

A new method of analysing language supports the idea that farmers carried Celtic into the British Isles, Ireland and France in a single wave 6,000 years ago, researchers said on Monday.

This runs counter to some linguistic theories that Celtic, one of the Indo-European languages, arrived in two separate events.

Geneticist Peter Forster of the University of Cambridge in Britain used techniques usually reserved for DNA analysis for his study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It is a major debate among geneticists whether Europeans are descended mainly from Indo-European speakers who came in possibly with farming, or whether most of our genes have been here much longer -- with the early hunter-gatherers who arrived 30,000 to 40,000 years ago," Forster said.

Experts have dated the migration of peoples and even the origin of humans using a technique called mutational analysis. The idea is there is a "genetic clock" -- that random mutations or changes in DNA average out to a steady rate.

This technique has, for instance, dated human origins to a theoretical single African female who would have lived 180,000 years ago.

Forster applied this technique to language -- specifically to the Celtic languages, spoken widely before the Roman empire imposed Latin 2,000 years ago. Celtic languages survive in parts of Ireland, Britain, France and Wales.

"We look at it like we do at DNA -- as a string of information," Forster said. "Like, Americans say 'fall' instead of 'autumn'. I am not interested in why it came about. It is like a mutation in DNA."

Forster and colleague Alfred Toth of the Junge Akademie in Berlin looked at several rare and "dead" languages, including Gaulish, once spoken in France.

It is clear how the Romans imposed their Latin language on Europe. But how did the Celts do it millennia earlier?

"To impose a language on the majority, one would have to have some kind of elite knowledge," Forster said. One leading theory is that this elite knowledge was agriculture, while an opposing theory suggests it was the ability to tame and ride horses.

Other evidence suggests farming arrived in Britain around 4000 BC so Forster believes his findings support the farming theory.

First Published: Jul 01, 2003 20:24 IST