Pictish language

Pictish language

Infobox Language
family=Celtic [This has in the past been disputed, as for instance Jackson's suggestion of two Pictish languages, a Celtic and a non-Indo-European Pictish; see Jackson, "Pictish Language", in Wainwright (ed.), "The Problem of the Picts". The non-Indo-European suggestion has been all but abandoned by scholars working on the Picts.]
extinct=9th century or later

Pictish is a term used for the extinct language or languages thought to have been spoken by the Picts, the people of northern and central Scotland in the Early Middle Ages. The idea that a distinct Pictish language was perceived at some point is only attested clearly in Bede's early 8th century "Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum". [ The references apppear at several points in that text, for instance, HE I. 1.] but there is not enough evidence to test either the language's "sprachraum" or its coherency as a dialect continuum.

What evidence there is of the language is limited to place names and to the names of people found on monuments and the contemporary records in the area controlled by the Kingdom of the Picts at its height. At its height, it may have been spoken from Shetland down to Fife. The term "Pictish" was used by Jackson, and followed by Forsyth, to mean the language spoken mainly north of the Forth-Clyde line in the Early Middle Ages. They use the term "Pritennic" to refer to the language spoken in the Iron Age in this area that was the precursor to Pictish. Some scholars believe that there was an earlier non-Celtic language. However, sometimes the term "Pictish" is used to refer to the earlier language.

Language classification

The evidence of place names and personal names argue strongly that at some point at least some of the people in the Pictish area spoke Insular Celtic languages related to the more southerly Brythonic languages [Forsyth, "Language in Pictland", Price "Pictish", Taylor, "Place names", Watson, "Celtic Place Names". For Kenneth H. Jackson's views, see "The Language of the Picts" in Wainright (ed.) "The Problem of the Picts."] though it has also been proposed that the language was closer to Gaulish than the Brythonic languages. [Ferguson, "The Identity of the Scottish Nation".] Columba, a Gael, used an interpreter in Pictland when conducting ceremonies in Latin; Bede claimed that the Pictish was a distinct language from that spoken by the Britons, the Irish, and the English, statements which say nothing about the nature of the Pictish language. It has been argued that one or more non-Indo-European languages survived in Pictland, an argument that is considered to be primarily based on limited negative evidence and the long-discarded view that languages and material cultures can spread only through invasion and migration. Pre-Indo-European elements can be found fairly frequently in northern Scottish place namesFact|date=April 2007, and it is theorised that some Pictish ogam inscriptions might also represent examples of this language.

The classification of the Pictish language(s) is still controversial, mainly depending on whether the inscriptions are considered. An influential 1955 review of Pictish by Jackson [Kenneth H. Jackson, "The Pictish Language", in F. T. Wainwright (ed.), "The Problem of the Picts", Edinburgh, Nelson, 1955] considered that Pictish was probably P-Celtic and was a sister language to Brittonic, but that it might have had a non-Celtic substratum and that a second language may have been used for inscriptions; however, the 1997 review by ForsythKatherine Forsyth, " [http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/2081/ Language in Pictland] ", De Keltiche Draak (1997)] denies this second language.

In 1582, the humanist scholar (and native Gaelic-speaker) George Buchanan expressed the view that Pictish was similar to languages like Welsh, Gaulish, and Gaelic. All other research into Pictish has been described as a postscript to Buchanan's work. [ This view may be something of an oversimplification: Forsyth, in "Language in Pictland", offers a short account of the debate. Cowan, "Invention of Celtic Scotland", may be helpful for a broader view.]

On the basis of the inscriptions, Rhys suggested that Pictish was a non-Indo-European language and considered whether it could be related to Basque, but later rejected this. Zimmer thought that it was originally "non-Aryan" though later overlaid with Goidelic and Brittonic. This was revived by Macneill and by Macalister. Some scholars, namely Skene and Fraser, have argued that Pictish was a Q-Celtic language, and indeed there is likely to have been an influence from Scotti invasions from Ireland, but the majority consider it to have been a P-Celtic language since Stokes in 1890. Watson considered that it was a Brittonic dialect but this was rejected by Jackson. Glanville Price in "The Languages of Britain" discusses Celtic languages in general and the Celtic Pictish language specifically. He also has a chapter on the non-Indo-European language of Pictland.

Forsyth states that there are only two serious hypotheses, that Pictish was a P-Celtic language or a non-Indo-European one. Jackson's review was based on the view that the "broch builders" were recent immigrants but the current view is that brochs were an indigenous development. He considered that a Celtic elite dominated a pre-Celtic majority, but Forsyth does not agree with this. She recognises that there were pre-Celtic languages in Scotland but claims that there is no evidence for survival of such a language into the historical period in Britain or Ireland. Thus the Picts were seen as a name given in Early Medieval times to all the various people arriving from the Ice Age onward. Although Jackson considered that most of the known names in Scotland during the Roman period were not certainly Celtic, some of these are now considered to be Celtic. Forsyth rejects them as being non-Indo-European and considers them to be pre-Celtic Indo-European, but does not consider them to be evidence of language survival. Other, more "fringe" researchers, have claimed that Pictish was a Germanic language ancestral to Scots and found more purely in Doric, the Scots Language as found in Aberdeenshire, and argue that Pictish and English grew together over the centuries, rather than diverting from each other.

Classical writers

In the first century BC Diodorus Siculus mentions a Cape Orcas in Scotland, which was probably derived from a P-Celtic tribal name of *Orci. Tacitus, writing in AD 97 in "Agricola", mentions Caledonia and Mount Graupius which Jackson says cannot be proved to be P-Celtic. However the main source of tribal and place names is Ptolemy's map in the second century AD. There are 38 names, of which 16 are probably Celtic while the remainder are not certainly Celtic according to Jackson. Of the latter, 23 are hydronyms and toponyms that are known to be classes of names that do not change readily and may well be non-Celtic.


Among the ogham stones in Scotland there is a small subset that do not have Gaelic inscriptions. These are generally assumed to be in Pictish as they date from the Early Middle Ages. However, many alternative languages have been suggested -- from non-Indo-European to Norse. It may have been that an older language was retained for inscriptions, in a similar way to Latin.

According to W. B. Lockwood (1975), the view that Pictish was a Celtic language is tentative. Referring to an inscription in Shetland, he writes: "When the personal names are extracted, the residue is entirely incomprehensible. Thus the Lunnasting stone in Shetland reads "ettocuhetts ahehhttann hccvvevv nehhtons". The last word is clearly the commonly occurring name Nechton, but the rest, even allowing for the perhaps arbitrary doubling of consonants in Ogam, appears so exotic that philologists conclude that Pictish was a non-Indo-European language of unknown affinities". Jackson considered that the language of the inscriptions was a different one from that of the place-names. However, Forsyth has interpreted these inscriptions as a Celtic language. Henri Guiter in 1968 concluded that the language was a form of Basque, which might tie in with DNA studies of pre-historic migrations.

Place and tribal names

Place names are often used to try to deduce the existence of Pictish use in Scotland. There are two sources of evidence, those recorded by classical writers and those of modern times. Ptolemy's "Geography" provides the greatest number of names for Pictland, a total of 49 with 41 separate forms. These consist of 7 islands, 12 tribes, 3 towns and 19 coastal features. Jackson considered 22 of these "not certainly Celtic" but Forsyth points out that the towns are Roman Settlements, three of which are rivers and Bannatia is Brittonic. Two of the tribes also occur in the south of Britain but the evidence for rejecting the Celticity of six of the others is slight. However, Forsyth does not dispute that some of the rivers and islands are best interpreted as pre-Celtic or even pre-Indo-European names.

Those modern place-names prefixed with "Aber-" (river mouth), "Lhan-" (churchyard), "Pit-" (portion, share, farm), or "Fin-" (hill [?] ) lie in regions inhabited by Picts in the past (for example: Aberdeen, Lhanbryde, Pitmedden, Pittodrie, Findochty, etc). However, it is "Pit-" which is the most distinctive element, while "Aber-" can also be found in places which were Brythonic-speaking. Some of the Pictish elements, such as "Pit-", were formed after Pictish times and only attested therein. "Pit" refers to "pett", a unit of land, and "Pit-" names occur in Scottish Gaelic place-names from the 12th century onwards as a generic element variation, showing that the word had this meaning in that language. [For place names in general, see Watson, "Celtic Place Names", for shires/thanages see Barrow, "Pre-Feudal Scotland."] Other suggested Pictish place-name elements include "pert" (hedge, Welsh "perth" - Perth, Larbert), "carden" (thicket, Welsh "cardden" - Pluscarden, Kincardine), "pevr" (shining, Welsh "pefr" - Strathpeffer, Peffery). [Glanville Price, "Pictish", p.128.]

The place-names of Pictland have been affected by the influx of later Gaelic and Norse speakers.

The evidence of place names may also reveal the advance of Gaelic into Pictland. As noted, Atholl, perhaps meaning "New Ireland", is attested in the early 8th century. This may be an indication of the advance of Gaelic. Fortriu also contains place names suggesting Gaelic settlement, or Gaelic influences. [Watson, "Celtic Place Names", page numbers wanting.] There are a number of Pictish loanwords in modern Scottish Gaelic.

Apart from personal names, Bede provides a single Pictish place name ("HE", I, 12), when discussing the Antonine Wall:

It begins at about two miles' distance from the monastery of Abercurnig, on the west, at a place called in the Pictish language, Peanfahel, but in the English tongue, Penneltun, and running to the westward, ends near the city Alcluith.
Peanfahel - modern Kinneil, by Bo'ness - appears to contain elements cognate with Brythonic "penn" 'at the end' and Goidelic "fal" 'wall'. It is notable that this place is south of the Forth, in West Lothian, outside of what is traditionally regarded as "Pictland". Alcluith, 'rock of the Clyde', is modern Dumbarton Rock, site of a major early medieval fortress and later castle. [Nicolasen, "Scottish Place-Names", pp. 204-205.]

Personal names and orthography

Apart from the inscriptions, the main source of personal names in Pictish is the Pictish Chronicle, which possibly dates from the 8th century but is only available in an 10th century version. This gives the names of Pictish kings, some of which are considered to be in Pictish orthography (e.g. Urguist, Ciniod) while others are in Gaelic orthography (e.g. Fergus, Cinaed).



*Ball, Martin J. and James Fife (eds.) "The Celtic Languages". London: Routledge (2001) ISBN 0-415-28080-X
*Cox, R. A. V. "Abstract: Modern Scottish Gaelic Reflexes of Two Pictish Words: *pett and *lannerc." in Ronald Black, William Gillies, and Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh (eds.) "Celtic Connections: Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Celtic Studies, Vol. 1." East Linton: Tuckwell Press (1999), p. 504
* Dunbavin, Paul. "Picts and the Ancient Britons".
*Ferguson, William. ; "The Identity of the Scottish Nation" Edinburgh University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-7486-1071-5
*Forsyth, Katherine, "The ogham-inscribed spindle-whorl from Buckquoy: evidence for the Irish language in pre-Viking Orkney?", in "'The Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland", 125, (1995), pp. 677-96 ( [http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/PSAS_2002/pdf/vol_125/125_677_696.pdf ARCHway] )
*Forsyth, K. "Language in Pictland : the case against 'non-Indo-European Pictish"' in Studia Hameliana #2. Utrecht: de Keltische Draak (1997). [http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/archive/00002081/01/languagepictland.pdf Etext] Rev. Damian McManus. Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies #38 (Winter 1999), pp. 109-110
*Forsyth, K.; "Abstract: The Three Writing Systems of the Picts." in Black et al. (1999), p. 508.
*Fraser J.; History and Etymology (1923).
*Griffen, T.D.; "The Grammar of the Pictish Symbol Stones" in LACUS Forum #27 (2001), pp. 217-26
*Henderson, Isabel, The Picts (1967)
*Lockwood, W.B., Languages of The British Isles, Past And Present, 1975, André Deutsch, ISBN 0-233-96666-8.
*Macalister R. A. S.; The Inscriptions and Language of the Picts, MacNeill Essays (184-226 (1940).
*MacNeill E.; The Language of the Picts, Yorkshire Celtic Studies 11 3-345 (1938-9).
*Nicolaisen, W.F.H., "Scottish Place-Names." John Donald, Edinburgh, 2001. ISBN 0-85976-556-3
*Okasha, E.; "The Non-Ogam Inscriptions of Pictland" in Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies #9 (1985), pp. 43-69
*Price, Glanville, "Pictish" in Glanville Price (ed.), "Languages in Britain & Ireland." Blackwell, Oxford, 2000. ISBN 0-631-21581-6.
*Rhys J.; The Inscriptions and language of the Northern Picts, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland XXVI 263-351 (1892).
*Skene W. F.; The Highlanders of Scotland (1836).
*Stokes W.; On the Linguistic Value of the Irish Annals, Transactions of the Philological Society of London 365-433 (1890).
*Wainwright, F.T. (editor), The Problem of the Picts (1955). ISBN 0-906664-07-1.
*Zimmer H.; "Matrimony among the Picts" in "Leabhar nan Gleann" by Henderson G. (1898).

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Pictish language —       language spoken by the Picts in northern Scotland and replaced by Gaelic after the union in the 9th century of the Pictish kingdom with the rest of Scotland. Knowledge concerning the Pictish language is derived from place names, the names… …   Universalium

  • Pictish Free State — The Pictish Free State was a micronation initiative started by Brian Robertson AKA Robbie the Pict in 1977. Apparently created to further knowledge of Pict culture, Robertson started the project with one acre of his own land on the Isle of Skye.… …   Wikipedia

  • Pictish stones — are monumental stelae found in Scotland, mostly north of the Clyde Forth line. These stones are the most visible remaining evidence of the Picts and are thought to date from the 6th to 9th centuries.Purpose and meaningThe purpose and meaning of… …   Wikipedia

  • Pictish — [pik′tish] adj. of the Picts or their language or culture n. the language of the Picts: no clear relationship to any other language has been established …   English World dictionary

  • Pictish stone — Pierres pictes Une copie de la Hilton of Cadboll Stone, sur l emplacement d origine, par Barry Grove; l originale se trouve au musée de l Écosse. Les pierres pictes se trouvent en Écosse, principalement dans les Highlands et en particulier la… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Pictish — /pik tish/, n. 1. the language of the Picts, apparently a Celtic language. adj. 2. of or pertaining to the Picts. [1700 10; PICT + ISH1] * * * …   Universalium

  • Pictish — ISO 639 3 Code : xpi ISO 639 2/B Code : ISO 639 2/T Code : ISO 639 1 Code : Scope : Individual Language Type : Extinct …   Names of Languages ISO 639-3

  • Pictish — Pict•ish [[t]ˈpɪk tɪʃ[/t]] n. 1) peo the sparsely attested language or languages of the Picts, elements of which are apparently akin to British Celtic 2) peo of or pertaining to the Picts or their speech • Etymology: 1700–10 …   From formal English to slang

  • Pictish — /ˈpɪktɪʃ/ (say piktish) noun 1. the language of the Picts. –adjective 2. of or relating to the Picts …   Australian English dictionary

  • pictish — I. ˈpiktish, tēsh adjective Usage: usually capitalized Etymology: Pict + ish : of or relating to the Picts : resembling a Pict II. noun ( es) Usage: usually capitalized : the langua …   Useful english dictionary

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.