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 that 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 it 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, who people
dominated early Rome). What is not well documented is the later
P-Italic dialects which remained far less 'tainted' by contact with
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