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
Breaking down the name
The word *selwā means 'possessions' in
Keep in mind the fact that the 's' is probably
pronounced as an 'sh', leading to a later 'h' sound as the 's' was
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'.
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)