Common Brittonic

Common Brittonic was an ancient Celtic language spoken in Britain. It is also variously known as Old Brittonic, British, and Common or Old Brythonic. By the sixth century AD, this language of the Celtic Britons was starting to split into the various Neo-Brittonic languages: Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, Breton and probably the Pictish language.

Common Brittonic
RegionGreat Britain south of the Firth of Forth
Eracirca 6th century BC to mid-6th century AD[1]
Developed into Old Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, and Breton
Language codes
ISO 639-3

Common Brittonic is a form of Insular Celtic, which is descended from Proto-Celtic, a hypothetical parent language that, by the first half of the first millennium BC, was already diverging into separate dialects or languages.[2][3][4][5] There is some evidence that the Pictish language may have had close ties to Common Brittonic, and might have been either a sister language or a fifth branch.[6][7][8]

Evidence from Welsh shows a great influence from Latin on Common Brittonic during the Roman period, and especially so in terms related to the Church and Christianity, which are nearly all Latin derivatives.[9] Common Brittonic was later replaced in most of Scotland by Middle Irish (which later developed into Scottish Gaelic) and south of the Firth of Forth also by Old English (which later developed into Scots).

Brittonic was gradually replaced by English throughout England; in southern Scotland and Cumbria, Cumbric disappeared in the 12th century[10] and, in the south, Cornish survived until the 19th century,[11] although modern attempts to revitalize it have met with some success.[12] O'Rahilly's historical model suggests the possibility that there was a Brittonic (P-Celtic) language in Ireland before the arrival of Goidelic languages (Q-Celtic) there, but this view has not found wide acceptance.[13]



No documents written in Common Brittonic have been found, but a few inscriptions have been identified.[14] The Bath curse tablets, found in the Roman reservoir at Bath, Somerset, contain about 150 names, about half of which are undoubtedly Celtic (but not necessarily Brittonic). There is an inscription on a metal pendant discovered in 1979 in Bath, which seems to contain an ancient Brittonic curse:[15]

Adixoui Deuina Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamenai or maybe Adixoui Deiana Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamiinai

The affixed – Deuina, Deieda, Andagin, (and) Uindiorix – I have bound[16]

An alternative translation taking into account case marking (-rix "king" nominative, andagin "[worthless] woman" accusative, dewina deieda "divine Deieda" nominative/vocative) is:

May I, Windiorix for/at Cuamena defeat (alt. summon to justice) the worthless woman, oh divine Deieda.[17]

There is also a tin/lead sheet with part of 9 lines of text. This is damaged, but seems to contain Brittonic names (see Tomlin 1987).

British toponyms are another type of evidence, recorded in Latinised forms by Ptolemy's Geography. 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 Common Brittonic. Some English place names still contain elements derived from Common Brittonic. Some Brittonic personal names are also recorded.

Tacitus' Agricola noted that the language of Britain differed little from that of Gaul. Comparison with what is known of the Gaulish language suggests a close relationship with Brittonic.


Pritenic (also Pretanic) is a modern term that has been coined to label the language of the inhabitants of prehistoric Scotland during Roman rule in southern Great Britain (1st to 5th centuries). Within the disputed P-Celtic vs. Q-Celtic division of the Celtic languages, "Pritenic" would thus be either a sister or daughter language of Common Brittonic, both deriving from a common P-Celtic language spoken around the 1st century BC.

The evidence for the language consists of place-names, tribal names and personal names recorded by Greek and Latin writers in accounts of northern Britain. These names have been discussed by Kenneth H. Jackson, in The Problem of the Picts, who considered some of them to be Pritenic but had reservations about most of them. Katherine Forsyth (1997) reviewed these names and considers more of them to be Celtic, still recognizing that some names of islands and rivers may be pre-Indo-European.

The rarity of survival of Pritenic names is probably due to Dál Riatan and Norse settlement in the area.

The dialect position of Pritenic has been discussed by Jackson and by Koch (1955). Their conclusions are that Pritenic and Common Brittonic had split by the 1st century. The Roman frontier between Britannia and Pictland is likely to have increased the split. By the 8th century, Bede considered Pictish and Welsh/British to be separate languages.


Common Brittonic was used with Latin following the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD, at least in major settlements. A number of Latin words were borrowed by Brittonic speakers.

The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain during the 6th century marked the beginning of a decline in the language, as it was gradually replaced by Old English. Some Brittonic speakers migrated to Armorica and Galicia. By 700, Brittonic was mainly restricted to North West England and Southern Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Devon, and Brittany. In these regions, it evolved into Cumbric, Welsh, Cornish and Breton, respectively.



(Late) Common Brittonic consonants
Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Labial–
Nasal m n (ŋ)
Stop pb td kɡ
Fricative θð s x
Approximant j w
Lateral l
Trill r


(Early) Common Brittonic vowels
Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close i u
Close-mid e o
Open-mid ɛː ɔː
Open a ɑ:

The early Common Brittonic vowel inventory is effectively identical to that of Proto-Celtic. /ɨ/ and /ʉ/ have not developed yet.

(Late) Common Brittonic vowels
Front Central Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded rounded
Close i y ɨ ʉ u
Close-mid e ø o
Mid (ə) (ɵ̞)
Open-mid ɛ ɔ
Open a


  • The central mid vowels /ə/ and /ɵ̞/ were allophonic developments of /i/ and /u/, respectively.


Through comparative linguistics, it is possible to reconstruct the declension paradigms of Common Brittonic:

First declension

Brittonic *tōtā "tribe" and cognates in other languages
# Case Brittonic Gaulish Old Irish PIE
Sg Nom. *tōtā toutā túathᴸ *tewteh₂
Voc. *tōtā toutā túathᴸ *tewteh₂
Acc. *tōtin toutim túaithᴺ *tewteh₂m
Gen. *tōtiās toutiās túaithe *tewteh₂s
Dat. *tōtī toutī túaithᴸ *tewteh₂eh₁
Abl. *tōtī toutī *tewteh₂es
Ins. *tōtī toutī *tewteh₂(e)h₁
Loc. *tōtī toutī *tewteh₂i
Du Nom. acc. voc. *tōtī túaithᴸ *tewteh₂h₁e
Gen. *tōtious túathᴸ *tewteh₂ows
Dat. *tōtābon túathaib *tewteh₂bʰām
Abl. Ins. *tōtābin *tewteh₂bʰām
Loc. *tōtābin *tewteh₂ows
Pl Nom. voc. *tōtās toutās túathaᴴ *tewteh₂es
Acc. *tōtās toutās túathaᴴ *tewteh₂ns
Gen. *tōtābon toutānon túathᴺ *tewteh₂om
Dat. *tōtābo toutābi túathaib *tewteh₂bʰi
Abl. *tōtā *tewteh₂bʰos
Ins. *tōtā *tewteh₂bʰis
Loc. *tōtā *tewteh₂su


  • The dative dual and plural represent the inherited instrumental forms, which replaced the inherited dative dual and plural, from Proto-Celtic *toutābom, *toutābos.

Second declension

Brittonic *wiros "man" and cognates in other languages
# Case Brittonic Gaulish Welsh Old Irish PIE
Sg Nom. *wiros wiros gŵr fer *wiHros
Voc. *wire wire firᴸ *wiHre
Acc. *wiron wirom ferᴺ *wiHrom
Gen. *wirī wirī firᴸ *wiHrosyo
Dat. *wirū wirū fiurᴸ *wiHroh₁
Abl. Ins. *wirū *wiHroh₁
Loc. *wirē *wiHrey
Du Nom. acc. voc. *wirō wirō ferᴸ *wiHroh₁
Gen. *wirōs fer *wiHrows
Dat. *wirobon feraib *wiHrobʰām
Abl. *wirobin *wiHrobʰām
Ins. *wirobin *wiHrobʰām
Loc. *wirou *wiHrows
Pl Nom. voc. *wirī wirī gwŷr firᴸ (nom.), firuᴴ (voc.) *wiHroy
Acc. *wirūs wirūs firuᴴ *wiHrons
Gen. *wiron wiron ferᴺ *wiHrooHom
Dat. *wirobi wirobi feraib *wiHrōys
Abl. *wirobi *wiHromos
Ins. *wirobi *wiHrōys
Loc. *wirobi *wiHroysu


  • Neuter 2nd declension stems deviate from the paradigm as such:
Neuter 2nd declension stem *cradion
# Case Brittonic
Sg Nom. Voc. Acc. *cradion
Pl Nom. Voc. Acc. *cradiā


  • Dual is same as singular
  • All other declensions same as regular 2nd declension paradigm

Third declension

Brittonic *carrecis and cognates in other languages
# Case Brittonic Gaulish Welsh Old Irish PIE
Sg Nom. *carrecis carreg
Voc. *carreci
Acc. *carrecin
Gen. *carrecēs
Dat. *carrecē
Abl. Ins. Loc. *carrecī
Du Nom. *carrecī
Gen. *carreciōs
Dat. *carrecibon
Abl. Ins. Loc. *carrecī
Pl Nom. Voc. Acc. *carrecīs cerrig
Gen. *carrecion
Dat. *carrecibo
Abl. Ins. Loc. *carrecibi

Place names

Common Brittonic 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 Brittonic abona which translates into "river" (compare Welsh afon, Cornish avon, Irish and Scottish Gaelic abhainn, Manx awin, Breton aven; the Latin cognate is amnis).

Examples of place names derived from the Brittonic languages

Brittonic-derived place-names are scattered across Great Britain, with many occurring in the West Country; some examples are:

  • Avon from abonā = "river" (cf. Welsh afon, Cornish avon, Breton aven)
  • Britain from Pritani = (possibly) "People of the Forms" (cf. Welsh Prydain "Britain", pryd "appearance, form, image, resemblance"; Irish cruth "appearance, shape", Old Irish Cruithin "Picts")
  • Cheviot from *cev- = "ridge" and -ed, a noun suffix[18]
  • Dover from Dubrīs = "waters" (cf. Welsh dŵr, older dwfr, plural dyfroedd, Cornish dowr, Breton dour)
  • Kent from canto- = "border" (cf. Welsh cant(el) "rim, brim", Breton kant)
  • Lothian (Lleuddiniawn in medieval Welsh) from *Lugudũn(iãnon) "Fort of Lugus"
  • Severn from Sabrīna, perhaps the name of a goddess (in Welsh, Hafren)
  • Thanet from tan-eto- = "(place of the) bonfire" (cf. Welsh tân "fire", Cornish tanses, Old Breton tanet "aflame")
  • Thames from Tamesis = "dark" (akin to Welsh tywyll "darkness", Cornish tewal, Breton teñval, from Brittonic *temeselo-; Irish teimheal)
  • York from Ebur-ākon = "stand of yew trees" (cf. Welsh Efrog, from efwr "cow parsnip, hogweed" + -og "abundant in", Breton evor "alder buckthorn", Scottish Gaelic iubhar "yew", iùbhrach "stand/grove of yew trees") via Latin Eburacum > OE Eoforwīc (re-analysed with OE roots as 'boar-village') > ON Jórvík

The words tor, combe, bere, and hele of Brittonic origin are particularly common in Devon as elements of place-names, often combined with elements of English origin.[19] Compound names sometimes occur across England, such as "Derwentwater" or "Chetwood", (cf. Welsh coed, Breton koad) which contain the same element translated in both languages.[20]


  1. Common Brittonic at MultiTree on the Linguist List
  2. Henderson, Jon C. (2007). The Atlantic Iron Age: Settlement and Identity in the First Millennium BC. Routledge. pp. 292–295.
  3. Sims-Williams, Patrick (2007). Studies on Celtic Languages before the Year 1000. CMCS. p. 1.
  4. Koch, John (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 1455.
  5. Eska, Joseph (2008). "Continental Celtic". In Roger Woodard (ed.). The Ancient Languages of Europe. Cambridge.
  6. Forsyth, Katherine (2006). John Koch (ed.). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 1444, 1447.
  7. Forsyth, Katherine, Language in Pictland : the case against "non-Indo-European Pictish" (Utrecht: de Keltische Draak, 1997), 27.
  8. Jackson, Kenneth (1955). "The Pictish Language". In F. T. Wainwright (ed.). The Problem of the Picts. Edinburgh: Nelson. pp. 129–166.
  9. Lewis, H. (1943). Yr Elfen Ladin yn yr Iaith Gymraeg. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
  10. Nicolaisen, W. F. H. Scottish Place Names p. 131
  11. Tanner, Marcus (2004). The last of the Celts. Yale University Press. p. 225. ISBN 0300104642.
  12. Cornwall Council, 2010-12-07. UNESCO classes Cornish as a language in the ‘process of revitalization’. Retrieved 2011-01-13.
  13. O'Rahilly, Thomas. Early Irish history and mythology. School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. ISBN 0-901282-29-4.
  14. Philip Freeman (2001). Ireland and the Classical World. University of Texas Press.
  15. Tomlin, R.S.O. (1987). "Was ancient British Celtic ever a written language? Two texts from Roman Bath". Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies. 34: 18–25.
  16. Mees, Bernard (2009). Celtic Curses. Boydell & Brewer. p. 35.
  17. Patrick Sims-Williams, "Common Celtic, Gallo-Brittonic, and Insular Celtic", Gaulois et celtique continental, eds. Pierre-Yves Lambert and Georges-Jean Pinault (Geneva: Droz, 2007), 327.
  18. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-08-13. Retrieved 2019-01-13.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  19. Gover, Mawer and Stenton: Place-Names of Devon, 1932
  20. Green, Terry (2003). "The Archaeology of some North Devon Place-Names". North Devon Archaeological Society. Archived from the original on 4 October 2011. Retrieved 11 January 2011.


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