24 March, 2011

The language of the Picts

The people living in what is now Northern Scotland in the Late Roman and early medieval period were known to their Latin-speaking neighbours (and, by extension, to us) as Picts. They spoke a distinct language, but unfortunately no examples of it survive except perhaps a few fragments in place names and personal names. What can we say about the lost language of the Picts?



Bede, writing in 731 AD in Northumbria, clearly recognised Pictish as a separate language:

At the present time there are in Britain, in harmony with the five books of the
divine law, five languages and four nations – English, British, Irish and
Picts. Each of these have their own language; but all are united in their
study of God’s truth by the fifth – Latin – which has become a common medium
through the study of the scriptures.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book I Ch. 1

Life of Columba

WHEN the blessed man [St Columba] was staying for some days in the Scian island,
he struck a spot of ground near the sea with his staff, and said to his
companions: "Strange to say, my children, this day, an aged heathen, whose
natural goodness has been preserved through all his life, will receive baptism,
die, and be buried on this very spot." And lo! about an hour after, a boat came
into the harbour, on whose prow sat a decrepit old man, the chief of the Geona
cohort. Two young men took him out of the boat and laid him at the feet of the
blessed man. After being instructed in the word of God by the saint through an
interpreter, the old man believed …
--Life of Columba, Book I Ch. 27, available online

At the time when St. Columba was tarrying for some days in the province of the
Picts, a certain peasant who, with his whole family, had listened to and learned
through an interpreter the word of life preached by the holy man, believed …
--Life of Columba, Book I Ch. 33, available online

The Scian island is modern Skye. As Columba needed an interpreter to preach to Picts, it is a reasonable conclusion that the language was distinct from the Irish language spoken by Columba.

Both the Life of Columba and Bede confirm that Pictish was a distinct language, at least in the sixth century (when Columba was preaching) and the eighth century (when Bede was writing). However, neither source tells us much about the language itself. Very little is known of the lost language of the Picts (Laing & Laing 2001). There are two main sources of evidence: a small number of inscriptions (see earlier post on Inscriptions), and place names.

Place names

Bede mentions a single place name in Pictish, in his description of the Antonine Wall:

It begins about two miles west of the monastery at Aebbercurnig at a place which
the Picts call Peanfahel and the English Penneltun
-- Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book I Ch. 12

Aebbercurnig is modern Abercorn, in Lothian on the east coast of Scotland and the south shore of the Firth of Forth. Penneltun is modern Kinneil, near Bo’ness, a few miles further west up the firth.

‘Pen’ is a common British place-name element meaning ‘head’. It occurs in many modern Welsh hill names (e.g. Pen y Fan) and some in northern England (e.g. Pen y Ghent, and possibly in the name of the Pennine hill chain).

Other British place-name elements occur in modern place names in the territories associated with the Picts, such as Aber-, meaning ‘confluence’ (e.g. Aberdeen) and Lhan-, meaning ‘churchyard’ (e.g. Lhanbryde, near Elgin), spelled Llan- in modern Welsh place names. The name element Pit-, derived from ‘pett’, meaning a parcel of land, appears all over the Pictish territories. Its Welsh equivalent, ‘peth’, does not appear in modern Welsh place names, so the use of Pit- as a common place-name element may be distinctive to the Pictish area. (Caveat that modern place names have had centuries to change and evolve since the early medieval period, including the possibility of influence by later languages such as Norse or Norman French, so should be interpreted with caution).


The Celtic languages fall into two major groups, usually called P-Celtic (including Welsh, Breton, Cornish and their ancestors) and Q-Celtic (including Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and their ancestors). The labels reflect a diagnostic sound change between the two groups; the word for ‘head’ in P-Celtic languages is ‘Pen’ (found in many modern Welsh hill names, and very probably in the name of the Pennine hills in what is now northern England), and the equivalent in Q-Celtic is ‘Kin’ (found all over the Scottish Highlands in place names indicating the head of a loch).

The eighth-century Pictish name Peanfahel, as helpfully recorded by Bede, contains a variant of the ‘Pen’ element. Together with the other P-Celtic elements found in modern place names in the Pictish area, such as Aber-, Lhan- and Pit-, this suggests that Pictish was a P-Celtic language, or contained a sizeable component of P-Celtic.

Some place names contain both P-Celtic and Q-Celtic elements. For example, Pittenweem in Fife contains the characteristic Pit- first element, combined with a second element derived from the Gaelic ‘na h-uamha’ meaning ‘of the cave’, so it means something like ‘portion of land with a cave’ in two languages (Room 1993). Hybrid place-names like this may indicate that there was some bilingualism in Pictland, with people speaking both Pictish (P-Celtic) and Irish Gaelic (Q-Celtic), and able to understand both elements of the name (Laing & Laing 2001).

The modern form of the name recorded by Bede as Peanfahel is Kinneil. Kinneil is Scots Gaelic and is recognisably a variant of Peanfahel with the Q-Celtic ‘Kin’ substituted for the P-Celtic equivalent ‘Pen’. (The second element means ‘wall’, so the whole name means ‘head or end of the wall’, a logical name for a place at the end of the Antonine Wall). This substitution is consistent with some degree of bilingualism in P- and Q-Celtic languages, since it suggests that the ‘Pen’ element was recognised as equivalent to ‘Kin’ and one was substituted for the other. In contrast, the eighth-century English name had evidently borrowed the Pictish name wholesale and appended the Old English element ‘-tun’ (homestead, enclosure) as a suffix to make Penneltun. If the Pictish name Peanfahel had been translated into English it would have become something like “Wallsend” (like the name of the settlement at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, further south).

Some surviving Pictish inscriptions remain undeciphered (see post on Inscriptions), and this has led to suggestions that the Pictish language, or a sizeable component of it, was unrelated to any Celtic language or indeed any surviving language, with the further suggestion that Pictish, like Basque, could have been a survivor of a pre-Indo-European language dating back into the far distant past. This is not easy to reconcile with the recognisably P-Celtic elements in place names, which are consistent with Pictish being a member of the P-Celtic language family. One possibility is that the Picts spoke a P-Celtic language for everyday matters (like naming places), but retained an older unrelated language that was used for special purposes such as inscriptions. This scenario would be similar to the situation in England and the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages, with vernacular languages (English, French, German etc) used for day-to-day communication and Latin used by an educated, mainly religious, elite for formal written applications such as legal documents, international diplomatic correspondence and monuments. There may also be other possible explanations for the apparently incomprehensible inscriptions (see post on Inscriptions). I would be cautious about taking them as proof that Pictish was a unique non-Celtic non-Indo-European language, although this cannot be ruled out.


On the basis of the place-name evidence, slight though it is, I would conclude that Pictish was probably a P-Celtic language, or at least contained a sizeable component of P-Celtic. It may have been a form of the Brittonic language spoken further south – perhaps a very strong regional accent. However, Bede says Pictish was a distinct language in his time, and as Northumbria shared a border with the Pictish kingdom and was on reasonably friendly terms, he was in a position to have accurate information about the Pictish language. So I would take his word for it, and place Pictish as a distinct language within the P-Celtic language group.

Pictish may also have contained a sizeable component of Q-Celtic, given the existence of hybrid place names containing both P- and Q-Celtic elements. This would be consistent with the apparent ease of replacement of Pictish by Gaelic in later centuries. A language consisting of a mix of P- and Q-Celtic would be distinct from either.

Pictish may also have contained a component of some non-Celtic language. If so, this non-Celtic element might be a remnant of an ancient pre-Indo-European language spoken in what is now northern Scotland, but this is not proven. I have suggested elsewhere that the broch-builders of Caithness and the Northern and Western Isles may have been a distinct cultural group within the Picts, perhaps with cultural contacts with Scandinavia (a sort of forerunner of the historical contact between the same areas of Scotland and Scandinavia during the later Viking age). If so, distinct cultural groups may have had distinct local languages or dialects, which may have contributed distinctive features to Pictish and helped to differentiate it from the neighbouring British and Irish languages.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X
Laing L, Laing J. The Picts and the Scots. Sutton, 2001, ISBN 0-7509-2873-5.
Life of Columba, Book I Ch. 27, available online
Room A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, 1993. ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.

Map links


Meghan said...

That is so interesting! I believe my family is of the Q-Celtic variety. Thanks for the history lesson (and I love languages so this was especially fun to read about).

Carla said...

Meghan - Thanks - I'm glad you found it interesting! Modern Irish and Scots Gaelic are both Q-Celtic languages, while Welsh and Breton are P-Celtic.

Gabriele C. said...

Heh, memories of half forgotten stuff from university. I should read my old notes again to help that grey matter in my head. ;)

Jonathan Jarrett said...

It's very rare that I have anything to say in disagreement with one of your posts, Carla, but here I would want to add just a couple of wrinkles. Firstly, it may be important to note that the notable pagan brought to Columba in VC I.27 is not said to be a Pict. Okay, you may say, what else could he have been if Columba didn't speak his language? And one answer is, well, British maybe, who knows, a pre-Indo-European survivor, he has a Roman military title but Columba could presumably have managed Latin... All I'm saying is, Adomnán does not call this man a Pict. You know what I think about Pictish identity, viz. that it's basically political, so I'll go no further with that.

The other thing is where you say:

The name element Pit-, derived from ‘pett’, meaning a parcel of land, appears all over the Pictish territories.

Not true I'm afraid! There's a Pictish Arts Society map included in this post of mine, which is relevant in its way, and it shows the Pit- names clustered mostly between the Firth of Forth and Inverness, and hardly any further north, or west of the Mounth either. They actually map quite well to the distribution of long-cist burials, for some reason, and both may be telling us something about land use rather than origins of population, but they certainly don't occur `all over the Pictish territories'. This is one of the reasons I think any solution to the question of what Pictish is needs to be very careful how widely it's selecting its evidence.

(Blogger is eating OpenID comments again, so I'm here unauthenticated. Hopefully my ranting identifies me...)

Carla said...

Gabriele - do the Picts come into your Roman frontier stories, or is that too early?

Jonathan - True, the chief who arrived on Skye in Ch 27 just in time to die at St Columba's feet arrived by boat and could have come from anywhere. I tend to assume he was fairly local on the grounds that a dying man probably wouldn't undertake a long journey, but that can't be certain. Some people could travel long distances and the upper classes (chiefs, priests, warriors) would probably have been the most mobile because they had access to more resources.

In Ch 33, Columba is said to be 'in the province of the Picts', and the converts are described as a 'peasant, who with his whole family, had listened to and learned through an interpreter...'. The peasant and his family are not explicitly said to be Picts, so they could be foreign travellers, though peasants tend to be closely connected to the land and thus less mobile than warriors/chiefs etc. They could have been foreign slaves, although Adomnan doesn't say that either. I tend to take this passage as describing local people living in the land of the Picts (who I would therefore call Picts, although if 'Picts' meant a particular social class or political affiliation that might not follow). Possibly if Pictish was an elite language the peasants spoke something else that was neither Irish nor Latin. It certainly seems possible to me that there could have been several languages in use.

Good point about the Pit- name distribution. That was careless wording on my part, and thank you for pointing it out. The Pit- names cluster in rather the same way as brochs do, in a different area. That's consistent with several different cultural groups in different regions of north and east Scotland (who may all have been lumped together under the label 'Picts' by outsiders, but who may or may not have considered themselves to be grouped together and may or may not have accpeted the name 'Picts'). Such regional or cultural groups may well have differed in language as well as in their preferences for place names and architecture. Accents still vary considerably across Scotland today - Aberdonian is quite different from Highland - and presumably regional differences in speech would have been at least as pronounced in a period without fast land transport and national broadcast media. Interesting to speculate as to whether such distinct cultural/regional groups spoke different languages, or different dialects of the same language. Bede seems to have thought of 'Pictish' as one language, but that doesn't preclude regional variations, nor does it even preclude different regional languages; Bede may not have come across regional languages, especially if they were spoken in areas of Pictland a long way from Northumbria, or by people who didn't impinge on the ecclesiastical or political circles from which he presumably got most of his information, or by people who could also speak whatever language Bede recognised as 'Pictish' when occasion required. If there were different languages in use in different regions, presumably they were either sufficiently mutually intelligible at some level to allow for effective communication when co-operation was needed, or there were sufficient bilingual or multilingual individuals to act as interpreters, or there was some sort of additional lingua franca in use.
If 'Pictish', and indeed 'Picts' meant different things to different people, and/or at different times and places (or were only imprecise labels applied by outsiders to disparate peoples) all the theories could be right :-)

Gabriele C. said...

Well, if you can call them Picts at the time of Agricola? I'm not sure about that and call them Caledonians (as the Romans did).

There's one NiP that's resting in the drawer right now, taking place shortly after the Romans left, and that one has Picts and Dalriatans.

Carla said...

Gabriele - at the time of Agricola I'd use Caledonians too, following Tacitus; Picts first appears in Roman documentary sources much later, though it might have been in use earlier and not survived. There's the usual problem of having only Roman sources, which may or may not reflect whatever the tribes called themselves.

Rick said...

Kinneil is Scots Gaelic and is recognisably a variant of Peanfahel with the Q-Celtic ‘Kin’ substituted for the P-Celtic equivalent ‘Pen’.

What would have become of the F in the second element?

Carla said...

Rick - A linguist would be able to give you a detailed answer to that. A few possibilities that occur to me: Modern Gaelic often has letters and letter combinations that are silent or that don't survive Anglicised pronunciation, e.g. Fhidhleir is pronounced Eelir, Fhamhair is pronounced Avir, so if 8th-century Pictish did the same the 'f' may have been silent in the first place and then been lost. It could have dropped out either over time or as part of the change of language - consonant clusters are sometimes difficult to transfer from one language to another - or both, in a similar process to the 'f' in Eoforwic disappearing when the name became York. Modern Welsh sometimes does consonant substitution e.g. 'f' for 'm', and if eighth-century Pictish did the same, the 'f' might have turned into something else and then been merged with the preceding 'n'.

Rick said...

The Welsh should not be permitted to spell without a license!

Yes, I am aware that this could also be said about speakers of another well known language. :-)

Carla said...

Spelling in many languages probably looks incomprehensible to people who aren't familiar with it, while those who are wonder what the problem is.

Rick said...

Well, one good example is Old English, the quasi-foreignness of which is greatly amped up by the very different spelling rules.

Carla said...

Not to mention modern English, in its many variations :-)