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Barbarian Europe

What's in a Name - Helvetii

by Edward Dawson, 3 December 2020

The Helvetii were a Celtic tribe that was located in south-western Switzerland during the first centuries BC and AD - essentially the heartland of the original Celtic home. Their tribal name is a hard one to break down because it has multiple possibilities.

Breaking down the name

The word *selwā means 'possessions' in conjectural proto-Celtic.

Keep in mind the fact that the 's' is probably pronounced as an 'sh', leading to a later 'h' sound as the 's' was discarded.

The name 'Helvetii' minus the plural suffix would be 'Helvet', while the similarly-named Helveconae or Helvecones minus two suffixes would be 'Helvec'. The Helvii also use the same core word in their name.

The 'c' or 't' at the end of these names is harder to work out. Assuming a shift from 's' to 'h', for which there has been a precedent in Celtic, the acquisition of the 'c' could be reached, but it is a bit of a stretch of the imagination. The 't' seems to be the result of a shift from 'c' (the same shift can be seen in tribal names such as the Veneti and Vennicones).

If the analysis is correct then maybe the names of these two tribes - Helvetii and Helveconae - in some sense meant the 'owners'. Could this have been in the sense of 'owning' the territory they occupied?

Originally the same tribe?

Given the similarity of the names for the Helvetii and Helveconae (referring to the core name of 'Helve', without all the plural or additional suffixes), they could well be branches of the same original tribe, despite the distance between them in the first century BC (see map, below).

The 't' and 'ch' difference in pronunciation is negligible, perhaps being caused by little more than a question of which suffix they added to the end of it.

The Helvii could once also have been related, but they appear to have arrived at their second century BC homeland near the Alps at least a generation earlier than the Helvetii.

Another possibility for a meaning behind the name is 'hunters', from conjectural proto-Celtic *selg, meaning 'to hunt', from 'sel' to capture. Again, keep in mind that the 's' is likely to have an 'sh' sound when spoken aloud, lending itself to alteration into an 'h'. Cognates descended from that in the form of 'a hunt' are as follows:

  • Irish 'sealg'
  • Old Irish 'selg'
  • Welsh 'hela, hel', 'to hunt'
  • Old Welsh 'helghati'
  • Cornish 'helhia'
  • Brithonic Selgovae, *selgâ, 'a hunt', root 'sel', 'to capture'

Note that the root, 'sel' does not have the 'g'.

Map of Barbarian Europe 52 BC (Small)
This map shows the general locations of the Celtic (blue) and Germanic tribes (orange) amongst others in the first centuries BC and AD (click or tap on map to view full sized)

WHAT'S IN A NAME?:
Apennines
Asia
Britain
Catuvellauni
China
Frey & Freya
German
Helvetii
Picts & Caledonia
Sakas & Scythians
Scandinavia
Slav
Xionites
Bird vases of the Urnfield culture

Bird vases of the late second millennium Urnfield culture (from which the Celtic tribes descended) were objects that were closely related to the Urnfield belief system, and it may not be accidental that this vase was found next to a pot containing bird eggs in the cemetery of Békásmegyer, as the two objects together may emphasise the pots' symbolism of life and fertility


Alternatives

An alternative meaning behind the name of all three tribes mentioned above is 'yellow' (in the sense of 'blond').

Pokorny has discussed the origins of the Latin word 'helvus', which derives from a root that means 'yellow sun' (as in 'hot, bitter, burning'). This appears to develop into a word that means 'honey-yellow, golden', and it is this meaning that could equally apply in Celtic to refer to blond Celts.

With this final option in mind, these tribes could have been the 'honey-yellow [people]' in reference to their blond hair.

 

Main Sources

Mackenzie, Donald Alexander - Ancient Man in Britain (Blackie & Son Ltd, 2014)

Mallory, JP & Adams, DQ (Eds) - Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, 1997

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, online database which updates Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch

Online Sources

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin

Online Etymological Dictionary

Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

 

 

     
Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.