How old is English?

Was Catu- Really Celtic for Battle?

Anthony Durham & Michael Goormachtigh


version of 14 January 2013


Many ancient proper names contain an element Catu- (or something similar), which is usually assumed to be Celtic for ‘battle’. A comprehensive survey of where and how ancient names containing cat, cad, etc actually occurred contradicts that assumption. Those names mainly derive from the local topography where particular tribes lived, not from the personal characteristics of individuals. Tribal names such as Caturiges, Cadurci, Catalauni, and Catubrini mapped mainly to areas such as Lusitania, Aquitania, Liguria, Belgica, and Venetia and not to areas near Atlantic coasts that were Celtic in a modern linguistic sense. Catu- emerges as a general Indo-European word element, related to Greek κατα ‘downwards’, particularly applied to lowland valleys, and perhaps best translated in English by ‘basin’. One of its descendants may be an element usually interpreted as ‘woods’ in British place names.

General De Gaulle famously wondered how anyone could govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese.  In Napoleon Bonaparte’s time, just 40% of the population of France could understand French and about 12% could speak it perfectly.  So why on earth do so many modern academic linguists claim that much of Europe spoke a single language in Roman times?

It is alleged that a large fraction of all ancient proper names from Britain to Bulgaria, and from Gaul to Galatia, were constructed in a “Continental Celtic” language, sometimes known as “Gaulish”.  Proponents of that view happily interpret a whole series of word-elements as diagnostically Celtic, including viro ‘man’, teut ‘people’, sego ‘power’, rigo ‘king’, eburo ‘yew’, and many more.  You do not need to know much Latin, German, etc to start thinking this whole logic is distinctly fishy.

To test that idea, we settled on the element catu, which top Celticists in Aberystwyth confidently translate as ‘battle, army’, and tried to collect up all ancient proper names (of persons, tribes, and places) that appear to contain it.  What is their common feature? 

Please download our article (PDF)  catu.pdf and see what the evidence actually shows. 

We think the Celticists are wrong and ancient catu was mostly a geographical term, meaning a flat-bottomed valley or ‘basin’.

Please form your own opinion.  Do you agree with us (and with Stephen Oppenheimer) that the whole concept of “Continental Celtic” is one huge monument to circular logic?