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What's in a Name - Apennines

by Edward Dawson, 29 December 2012. Updated 5 February 2019

The origins of many of Europe's modern place names can be extremely obscure at times. Trying to uncover a name origin can be a tortuous process, and one which can be subject to intense scholarly dispute. The source of the name of the Apennine mountain range in Italy is one such example.

Perceived wisdom suggests that its name derives from the Celtic 'penn' which means 'mountain', 'summit', or 'head' as in the headwaters of a river. 'A-penn-inus' could have been applied to the mountain range by the time of the Celtic domination of northern Italy in the fourth century BC.

The German geologist, Johannes Ernst Wilhelm Deecke, noted that some people had derived the name from the Ligurian-Celtish 'pen' or 'ben', which meant mountain peak (and this still in use today: 'Ben' Nevis in Scotland, for example).

However, the name may not derive from Celtic at all but from Italic. When thinking of Italic, the mind automatically focuses on the heavily-documented dialect of Latium: Latin (with some of these speakers being involved in the founding of Rome). The problem with any idea of a Latin Italy is that there were in fact two distinct waves of Italic speakers who settled Italy, and these waves probably occurred hundreds of years apart.

Latin is descended from the first wave. It is a Q-Italic dialect which appears to have been strongly altered by contact with non-Indo-European speakers (Etruscans, whose people dominated early Rome). What is not well documented is the later P-Italic dialects which remained far less 'tainted' by contact with other peoples.

With this in mind, it seems likely that an alternative theory could be valid here: that the Apennines were named by P-Italic speakers who crossed the Adriatic Sea to arrive on the eastern coast of the Italian peninsula. These people could either have been seaborne Italics of the northern Balkans group who also poured into the north of Italy via land, or they could have been the Illyrian group which migrated into central eastern Italy.

Then they moved inland, many crossing the mountains as they did so. Since they arrived later, their dialects had less time to be contaminated by foreign words, so they were able to retain their very close relationship to P-Celtic.

The territory settled by Italic tribes often used the mountainous Apennines as a border, forming a clear spine down the middle of Italy as they did

Alani & Roxolani
Frey & Freya
Picts & Caledonia
Sakas & Scythians


Text copyright © Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.