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 little if any of it survives. A small number of Pictish inscriptions using the Irish script called ogham are known. What can these tell us about the lost language of the Picts?
Most of the surviving Pictish inscriptions use the Ogham script, which was invented in Ireland perhaps around the fourth century and introduced to what is now mainland Scotland via Dal Riada (an Irish-speaking early medieval kingdom in roughly the area of modern Argyll, see map). Ogham is written by making straight strokes across, sloping from or perpendicular to a guideline, originally the edge of a stone.
Twenty-nine Pictish ogham inscriptions have been found, mostly on stones, with three on knife handles (Bac Mhic Connain, Hebrides; Aikerness, Orkney; Weeting, Norfolk) and one on a spindle whorl (Buckquoy, Orkney). Pictish ogham started out closely following the Irish, but later developed more ornate forms and began to be carved on a guideline on the face of the stone instead of along its edge. Most Pictish ogham inscriptions are believed to date from the seventh to tenth centuries (Laing & Laing 2001).
Where they have been deciphered the ogham inscriptions appear to record names, some P-Celtic (Brittonic), some Q-Celtic (Gaelic). Sometimes words of apparently Irish derivation appear, e.g. “meqq” which is thought to be related to Irish “maqq” meaning “son of”. One from Bressay, Shetland, contains “crroscc” thought to be the Irish word for “cross” and “dattr” which is thought to be the Norse for “daughter”.
Some have not been deciphered, for example the baffling inscription on the Lunnasting stone in Shetland, which reads:
ettocuhetts ahehhttann hccvvevv nehhtons
The last word looks recognisably like the Pictish personal name Nechtan, recorded in the Pictish king-list and by Bede. The rest of the inscription has defied all attempts at interpretation so far.
Incomprehensible inscriptions such as the one on the Lunnasting stone have 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. However, some of the inscriptions may be incomprehensible only because we have not yet figured out how to read them. For example, the inscription on the Buckquoy spindle whorl was initially thought to be written in an unknown non-Celtic language, but can be interpreted as an intelligible inscription in Old Irish meaning “a blessing on the soul of L” (Forsyth 1995), presumably a good-luck charm of some sort for a person whose name began with L. Some of the other apparently incomprehensible Pictish inscriptions may be similar.
Another possibility may be that the undeciphered inscriptions are written in some condensed form, perhaps abbreviations or shortened forms of words that were readily understood at the time. Modern British coins carry the inscription “ELIZABETH II D G REG F D”. This is a shortened form of a Latin inscription, “ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA FIDEI DEFENSOR”, meaning “Elizabeth the second, by the grace of god, queen and defender of the faith”. The personal name is fairly readily recognisable, but trying to reconstruct the full Latin inscription from the abbreviated version could be a challenge if the abbreviation conventions and the Latin language had been lost.
Another possibility is that the incomprehensible inscriptions were not intended to be read as a written script. There is a Pictish inscribed stone at Newton, Aberdeenshire, with an inscription carved in an otherwise unknown (and indecipherable) script, together with an ogham inscription along its edge. The ogham has been dated to the seventh or eighth century, and the main inscription is believed to be contemporary on the basis of the weathering. The main inscription resembles Irish majuscule script, and may have been carved by someone who was illiterate in that script (Laing & Laing 2001). Perhaps the carver, or the patron who commissioned the stone, thought the Irish symbols were beautiful or powerful or both, and carved them as an image rather than as written symbols with meaning. There are other examples of letters used in a way that does not convey a written message; for example, a seax (short sword) blade recovered from the River Thames was inscribed with the full 28-letter Old English runic alphabet. Presumably the runes were there for some purpose other than conveying a written message. Possibly the indecipherable Pictish ogham inscriptions were also using the ogham letters for some purpose other than writing a message.
The inscription on the Lunnasting stone contains many doubled letters. This may be consistent with the letters being used for some purpose other than writing a message. However, doubled letters are not unique to Pictish inscriptions, as English runic inscriptions sometimes contain doubled letters. For example, the Ruthwell Cross inscription contains several examples of words with doubled letters: almeittig; riicnae; gistoddu (Page 2003).
The reason for the presence of doubled letters in runic inscriptions is unknown (Page 2003, p.148). It may be pure chance, or it may reflect some tradition among the carvers of monument inscriptions, or some prosaic reason such as a simple mistake. If you find yourself mistakenly carving the letter you have just carved, you can’t rub out the mistake and correct it, and you can hardly go and make another stone monument and start all over again. It would be simpler just to finish carving the mistaken letter and then carry on with the rest of the inscription. Mistakes would be expected to be more common if the carver was working in an unfamiliar script, as may have been the case for Pictish carvers as the ogham script originated in Ireland. My thanks to Doug Tankard for providing a modern example of an incomprehensible inscription with doubled letters:
Copyright: Doug Tankard.
This is a towel manufactured in China and displaying the motto and crest of the English football team Arsenal. The motto should read ‘Victoria Concordia Crescit’, which is Latin and translates as ‘Victory comes from harmony’. The Chinese manufacturer, presumably (and quite reasonably) unfamiliar with both Latin and Arsenal Football Club, has written it as ‘Victory Contoral Crrhtty’, which contains a recognisable word (Victory) and two words that make no sense. Just imagine trying to reconstruct the language in use in 21st century England if this was the only surviving piece of evidence.
On the basis of the inscriptions, I would be cautious about concluding that Pictish was a unique non-Celtic language, although it may well have contained a non-Celtic component that distinguished Pictish from the Irish and Brittonic languages spoken elsewhere in Britain. Place names also provide a few snippets of evidence about the Pictish language; more on this in another post.
Forsyth K. The ogham-inscribed spindle-whorl from Buckquoy: evidence for the Irish language in pre-Viking Orkney? Proc Soc Antiq Scot 1995;125:677-696. Available online
Laing L, Laing J. The Picts and the Scots. Sutton, 2001, ISBN 0-7509-2873-5.
Page RI. An introduction to English runes. Boydell, 2003, ISBN 0-85115-946-X