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--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book I Ch. 1
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.
Life of Columba
WHEN the blessed man [St Columba] was staying for some days in the Scian island,--Life of Columba, Book I Ch. 27, available online
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 …
At the time when St. Columba was tarrying for some days in the province of the--Life of Columba, Book I Ch. 33, available online
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 …
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.
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-- Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book I Ch. 12
the Picts call Peanfahel and the English Penneltun
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.