The Atlantic languages of Semitic or “Semitidic” (para-Semitic) origin are a disputed concept in historical linguistics put forward by Theo Vennemann. He proposed that Semitic-language-speakers occupied regions in Europe thousands of years ago and influenced the later European languages that are not part of the Semitic family. The theory has found no notable acceptance among linguists or other relevant scholars and is criticised as being based on sparse and often-misinterpreted data.
According to Vennemann, Afroasiatic seafarers settled the European Atlantic coast and are to be associated with the European Megalithic Culture. They left a superstratum in the Germanic languages and a substratum in the development of Insular Celtic. He claimed that speakers of “Atlantic” (Semitic or Semitidic) founded coastal colonies from the 5th millennium BC. Thus, “Atlantic” influenced the lexicon and the structure of Germanic and the structure of Insular Celtic. According to Vennemann, migrating Indo-European-speakers encountered non-Indo-European-speakers in Northern Europe, who had already named rivers, mountains and settlements in a language that he called “Vasconic“. He considered some toponyms on the Atlantic coast to be neither Vasconic nor Indo-European. He considered them to have derived from languages that were related to the Mediterranean Hamito-Semitic group.
Vennemann based his theory on the claim that Germanic words without cognates in other Indo-European languages very often belong to semantic fields that are typical for loanwords from a superstratum language, such as warfare, law and communal life. Likewise, he proposed Semitic etymologies for words of unknown or disputed origin; for instance, he related the word bee to Egyptianbj-t or the name Éire, older *īwerijū to *ʼj-wrʼ(m), ‘island (of) copper’, as in Akkadianweriʼum ‘copper’.
Other evidence for a Semitic superstratum included a Semitic influence on the Germanic form of the Indo-European ablaut system and similarities between Germanic paganism and Mesopotamian mythology, such as the parallelism between Freyja and Ishtar, goddesses of war and love.
The idea of a connection between Insular Celtic and Afroasiatic goes back to John Davies (1632) but was expanded by John Morris-Jones in 1913 and was developed further by Vennemann. The position is supported by Julius Pokorny (1927–1949), and Vennemann identified Phoenicians as the likely people. A key factor was the dominant word order in Insular Celtic, compared to other Indo-European languages, together with lexical correspondences. Another important factor was the identification of the people later known as Picts. Vennemann held the position that they spoke an Atlantic language. That belief was also held by Heinrich Zimmer (1898) but is not generally accepted.
Hayim Y. Sheynin, adjunct professor of Jewish Literature at Gratz College, critically reviewed the work Europa Vasconica – Europa Semitica (2003) in which Vennemann laid out his arguments for the existence of a Semitic (or “Semitidic”) superstratum in the Germanic languages. Sheynin concluded that Vennemann’s arguments were unacceptable on several grounds. He noted that Vennemann based important parts of his main claim on long-outdated and critically rejected literature, that many of the words presented by Vennemann as evidence of an Atlantic (Semitidic) superstratum were nothing more than “mere ad hoc sound similarities” and that Vennemann’s claims made in reference to Semitic range from “objectionable” to “ridiculous”. In summary, Sheynin concludes “that [Vennemann] failed in this book not only as comparative linguist, or etymologist, but even in his narrow specialization as a Germanist…. In short, we consider the book a complete failure”.
The book was also reviewed by Baldi and Page (Lingua 116, 2006). They also were critical of his Germanic part of the theory. Since there are no Phoenician inscriptions in Britain, if traders visited the island, the Insular Celtic part of the theory depended on linguistic evidence. The 5th millennium is very early for Celtic-speakers in Britain, compared with other theories, and Mallory suggested a date of around 1000 BC. Vennemann’s view of the establishment of megaliths is not supported by mainstream archaeologists, who view their construction as having a widespread local origin along Oceanic Europe or one that spread from Portugal long before the Bell Beaker or any possible Cardium culture influences from the Mediterranean. Eska (1994) argues that the change from verb-noninitial word order in Continental Celtic to verb-initial in Insular Celtic is internally motivated. Baldi and Page stated that the strength of Vennemann’s proposals lies in his lexical arguments, which merited serious consideration. The origin of the Picts is unknown: see discussions by Jackson and by Wainright as well as those by Kitson and by Forsyth. Since about 2000, it has been generally held that Pictish is Celtic, and clear evidence of Pre-Indo-European elements is absent.