British language (Celtic)

British language (Celtic)

region=Formerly England, Wales, and southern Scotland
extinct=developed into Brythonic and then into Early Welsh and Early Cornish by the 7th century
fam3=Insular Celtic

British was an ancient Celtic language spoken in much of southern and central Britain, up to the central lowlands of Scotland and in Ireland.fact|date=June 2008 According to Julius Caesar, it was similar to the language spoken in central Gaul. It is not known when the British language arrived – times from the Neolithic to the Iron Age have been suggested. The language is likely to have been modified during the Roman period by the influence of Latin. British was later replaced in much of Scotland by Scottish Gaelic.ref|gaelic



There appear to be no written documents in the language except for a few inscriptions. [cite book|title=Ireland and the Classical World|author=Philip Freeman|year=2001|publisher=University of Texas Press] Curse tablets found in the Roman reservoir at Bath, Somerset contain about 150 names, about half of which are undoubtedly Celtic but not necessarily British. There is an inscription on a metal pendant discovered in 1979 in Bath, which seems to have Latinised British names: [cite journal|author=Tomlin, R.S.O.|year=1987|title=Was ancient British Celtic ever a written language? Two texts from Roman Bath|journal=Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies|volume=34|pages=18–25]

"Adixovi Devina Devada Andagin Vindiorix Cvam Vnai"
There is also a tin/lead sheet with part of 9 lines of text. This is damaged but again seems to contain British names. (see Tomlin 1987).

Place-names are another type of evidence. The place names of Roman Britain were discussed by Rivet and Smith in their book of that name published in 1979. They show that the majority of names used were derived from British. English place names still contain elements derived from British in a few cases. Latinised forms of these place names occur in Ptolemy's Geography, for example.

Modern knowledge of the tongue is limited to a few names of people and places. Comparison with Continental Celtic languages, specifically Gaulish, shows that it was very similar to other Celtic languages of the time. Julius Caesar (in "Gallic Wars") said the language of Britain differed little from that of Gaul.

Evolution of British

An important discussion about the language was given by Kenneth Jackson in his book, "Language and History in Early Britain", published in 1953. Later discussions are given by Price, Trughill and Lockwood.

British competed with Latin since the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, at least, in major settlements. A number of Latin words were borrowed by British speakers. The Anglo-Saxon invasions several centuries later marked the beginning of a decline in the language, as Germanic languages spread through England and the south of Scotland. Some British speakers migrated to Amorica and Galicia. By AD 700, British was mainly spoken in Northwest England, Cornwall and Wales possibly together with parts of Scotland. Its descendants today are Cornish, Cumbric (extinct, but reconstructions are being attempted), Welsh and Breton.

The British language changed in structure after the Roman period and evolved into Common Brythonic (Brittonic), spoken over the whole of Britain. However, with the Anglo-Saxon invasions and progressive occupation of what became England and south Scotland, the Celtic languages were mainly restricted to the west and south-west. However, languages derived from British have continued to be spoken in Britain to the present day. Surprisingly few British words have been adopted into modern English, but recently some influence on its structure has been identified, see Filppula.

Recently, calculations of the dating of the split off of British have been carried out using phylogenetic methods, eg by Gray and Atkinson, and by Forster and Toth. The latter suggest that the language arrived earlier than previously suggested and this is also the view of Oppenheimer.

In the post-Roman period, inscriptions in Ogham, 191 of which are in British, demonstrate the evolution of the British language towards Old Welsh (Sims-Williams).

Place names

British survives today in a few English place names and river names. However, some of these may be pre-Celtic. The best example is perhaps that of the River(s) Avon, which comes from the British "abona" "river" (compare Welsh "afon", Cornish "avon", Cumbric "avan", Irish "abhainn", Manx "awin", Breton "aven").

List of place names derived from British

British-derived place-names are scattered across England, with more in the West Country, some examples are:

*"Avon" from "abonā" = "river"
*"Britain" from "britani" = "painted (people)"
*"Dover" from "dubrīs" = "waters"
*"Kent" from "cantus" = "border"
*"Severn" from "sabrīna"
*"Thanet" from "tan-arth" = "fire-height"
*"Thames" from "tamesis"
*"York" from "ebor-acon" = "place of yew trees" (indirectly)dubious

Some British place names are known but are no longer used. In a charter of 682 the name of Creech St. Michael, Somerset is given as "cructan".


# - "Language in the British Isles"



* Lambert, Pierre-Yves (2003). "La langue gauloise". 2nd edition. Paris, Editions Errance. p.176
* Price, G. (2000). "Languages of Britain and Ireland", Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-21581-6
* Sims-Williams, Patrick (2003) "The Celtic Inscriptions of Britain: phonology and chronology, c.400-1200." Oxford, Blackwell. ISBN 1-4051-0903-3
* Trudgill, P. (ed.) (1984). "Language in the British Isles", Cambridge University Press.
* W.B.Lockwood. "Languages of the British Isles past and present", ISBN 0-521-28409-0
* Forster and Toth, "Toward a phylogenetic chronology of ancient Gaulish, Celtic and Indo-European". PNAS July 22 2003.
* Nicholas Ostler, "Empires of the Word"
* Atkinson and Gray, "Are Accurate Dates an Intractable Problem for Historical Linguistics". In "Mapping Our Ancestry", Eds Obrien, Shennan and Collard.
* S Oppenheimer, "The Origins of the British".
* M Fippula, "The Celtic Roots of English".
* K Jackson (1953), "Language and History in Early Britain".

External links

* [ Celtic Personal Names of Roman Britain]
* [ Roman road satations of the Cannock-Chase area]

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