Monday, 27 January 2020

In the soil of a Gaulish wood

Out of the woods

Excited by the report of a find of a hoard of objects of which three bear the inscribed name COBANNOS, from the 4th C AD, all found in 1977 by a detectorist in a wood named Couan. Of course the guess is that the name of the wood (in the Nivernais) continues the name COBANNOS (the smith god). The statues are now in two New York collections (illegal export), but have been published. The statues are about 20, and three have hammers and are quite probably of the smith, whose name is known in some form from inscriptions in Gaul and Britain, more thoroughly from the common noun, in Welsh gof, in Irish gobhan, in Breton goff. They were probably buried to avoid destruction by Christians rather than as votive deposits. There are god names too, in Irish Goibniu, in Gaul or Britain Gobannos.
The transition from a bilabial plosive to a semivowel is not well known in Gaulish, but is familiar in Irish, hence the name MacGowan, ‘smith’. The resemblance of Couan and Gowan is hard to explain. We can posit a deep-seated tendency to shift the realisation of a labial from a plosive to a semi-vowel, embedded in Celtic phonology, in some way, but I can’t immediately think of a way to account for this. (See a suggestion, later on.)
The short form gob or similar alternates with one with a nasal extension, of which Gobannion (place-name meaning 'smith place', now Abergavenny) is an example.

The bit about k- replacing g- doesn't taste very good. I haven't checked but I don't recall this in Gaulish. It is familiar from Cisalpine Gaulish (in Italy). There are Cisalpine Gaulish patronymics in -ikno/a-. So we have a bilingual inscription to Ateknati trutikni where the Latin version has ‘Ategnatus’ and ‘Druti f’. [the f.means 'son of'] Surely the Ateknati is pronounced ‘ategnati’ and the trutikni is pronounced ‘Drutigni’. This does not really give us a k sound as support. Trutikni occurs twice because the stele was erected by Ategnatus’ brother, also son of Drutus. Stifter also quotes nimonikna, tanotaliknoi.
Interestingly, the Larzac curse tablet, in the Gaulish language, includes several examples of the -icnos formative.It has been suggested that the relationship described is not biologcial but that of a witch to the "mother" who initiated her. this is quite an unusual gaulish slate.

Why would a wood be named after a smith? If you want to work iron, you need either coal or charcoal, to get the heat, so the latter might well come from a wood. The map of the Nivernais countryside as it is today is eloquent, and I wish I was there now. It shows several small discrete woods in the area, each with a name. Unfortunately, landscapes change over time, and it is quite possible that 1000 years ago there was a large continuous forest. Thus, if there was no entity of Couan Wood, there was no need for it to have a name, and the absent entity could not transmit a Gaulish name. Cynical as it may sound, I would want information about the history of the woodland in the area before accepting that the name “Couan” is ancient. Maybe Cobannos was the name of the whole forest in 400 AD, and maybe not. Couan Wood is on a hill and has evidently avoided clearance partly because it is too steep to plough.If the name "Couan" refers to the hill, and the wood is named after the hill, that would allow for continuity – the hill has not moved over historic time.

The Cobannos: Couan equation is beautiful and yet fills me with doubt. As the w in Couan is an obligatory glide sound following a labial vowel and before another vowel, it is not necessarily true that it reflects anything old, including a Gaulish b sound. The article on the Net about the Couan find includes a section on language by P-Y Lambert, who suggests that Cobannos is not the same as gobannos, thereby evading some problems.

Let me add the shift which means that the town we know as Inverness is now pronounced, in Gaelic, as Inwirnish – having shifted post-borrowing. The shift is late in time and a long way from the river Nievre. The word leabhar is book, from Latin liber. The word leabhar is now pronounced lyuur, with the labial realised as a vowel – in the singular; in the plural, leabhrichean, it is still a plosive consonant. This alternation suggests a possible reason why widely separated languages could apparently go through the same sound shifts. If we suppose an ancient alternation conditioned by context, it could persist in languages like Gaulish and Gaelic; if the speech community generalised one of these variants, levelling the others, a sound shift would occur which would look like an inherited but latent sound shift.

The Web (article by the local tourist board or syndicat d'initiatif) describes the adventures of the statues as rocambolesque. This refers to an 19th C adventure serial about one Rocambole (published 1867-70 as Les drames de Paris), which was so lurid and unrealistic that it gave rise to an adjective. I’m not sure that I count antiquities smuggling as complicated or unlikely! I can think of a few rocambolesque etymologies, though. Rocambole was perhaps the founder of Celtic Studies.

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