Pictish language

Pictish is the extinct language spoken by the Picts, the people of eastern and northern Scotland from the late Iron Age to the Early Middle Ages. Virtually no direct attestations of Pictish remain, short of a limited number of geographical and personal names found on monuments and the contemporary records in the area controlled by the Kingdom of the Picts. Such evidence, however, points to the language being an Insular Celtic language related to the Brittonic language spoken prior to Anglo-Saxon settlement in what is now southern Scotland, England, and Wales.

RegionScotland, north of the Forth-Clyde line
Extinctby c. 1100 AD
Some scattered incidences of Ogham script
Language codes
ISO 639-3xpi

The prevailing view in the second half of the 20th century was that Pictish was a non-Indo-European language isolate, predating a Celtic colonisation of Scotland or that a non-Indo-European Pictish and Brittonic Pictish language coexisted. This is now a minority view, if not completely abandoned.

Pictish was replaced by – or subsumed into – Gaelic in the latter centuries of the Pictish period. During the reign of Domnall mac Causantín (889–900), outsiders began to refer to the region as the kingdom of Alba rather than the kingdom of the Picts. However the Pictish language did not disappear suddenly. A process of Gaelicisation (which may have begun generations earlier) was clearly underway during the reigns of Domnall and his successors. By a certain point, probably during the 11th century, all the inhabitants of Alba had become fully Gaelicised Scots, and the Pictish identity was forgotten.[2]

Language classification

The existence of a distinct Pictish language during the Early Middle Ages is attested clearly in Bede's early eighth-century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, which names Pictish as a language distinct from that spoken by the Britons, the Irish, and the English.[3] Bede states that Columba, a Gael, used an interpreter during his mission to the Picts. A number of competing theories have been advanced regarding the nature of the Pictish language:

Most modern scholars agree that Pictish was, at the time of the Roman conquest, a branch of the Brittonic language, while a few scholars merely accept that it was related to the Brittonic language.[4] Pictish came under increasing influence from the Goidelic language spoken in Dál Riata from the eighth century until its eventual replacement.[4]

Pictish is thought to have influenced the development of modern Scottish Gaelic. This is perhaps most obvious in the contribution of loan words, but more importantly Pictish is thought to have influenced the syntax of Scottish Gaelic, which bears greater similarity to Brittonic languages than does Irish.[5]

Position within Celtic

The evidence of place names and personal names demonstrates that an insular Celtic language related to the more southerly Brittonic languages was formerly spoken in the Pictish area.[6] The view of Pictish as a P-Celtic language was first proposed in 1582 by George Buchanan, who aligned the language with Gaulish.[7] A compatible view was advanced by antiquarian George Chalmers in the early 19th century. Chalmers considered that Pictish and Brittonic were one and the same, basing his argument on P-Celtic orthography in the Pictish king lists and in place names predominant in historically Pictish areas.[8]

Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes, in a philological study of the Irish annals, concluded that Pictish was closely related to Welsh.[10] This conclusion was supported by philologist Alexander MacBain's analysis of the place and tribe names in Ptolemy's second-century Geographia.[11] Toponymist William Watson's exhaustive review of Scottish place names demonstrated convincingly the existence of a dominant P-Celtic language in historically Pictish areas, concluding that the Pictish language was a northern extension of British and that Gaelic was a later introduction from Ireland.[12]

William Forbes Skene argued in 1837 that Pictish was a Goidelic language, the ancestor of modern Scottish Gaelic.[13] He suggested that Columba's use of an interpreter reflected his preaching to the Picts in Latin, rather than any difference between the Irish and Pictish languages.[14] This view, involving independent settlement of Ireland and Scotland by Goidelic people, obviated an Irish influence in the development of Gaelic Scotland and enjoyed wide popular acceptance in 19th-century Scotland.[15]

Skene later revised his view of Pictish, noting that it appeared to share elements of both Goidelic and Brittonic:

It has been too much narrowed by the assumption that, if it is shewn to be a Celtic dialect, it must of necessity be absolutely identic in all its features either with Welsh or with Gaelic. But this necessity does not really exist; and the result I come to is, that it is not Welsh, neither is it Gaelic; but it is a Gaelic dialect partaking largely of Welsh forms.[16]

The Picts were under increasing political, social, and linguistic influence from Dál Riata from around the eighth century. The Picts were steadily Gaelicised through the latter centuries of the Pictish kingdom, and by the time of the merging of the Pictish and Dál Riatan kingdoms, the Picts were essentially a Gaelic-speaking people.[17] Forsyth speculates that a period of bilingualism may have outlasted the Pictish kingdom in peripheral areas by several generations.[18] Scottish Gaelic, unlike Irish, maintains a substantial corpus of Brittonic loan-words and, moreover, uses a verbal system modelled on the same pattern as Welsh.[19]

The traditional Q-Celtic vs P-Celtic model, involving separate migrations of P-Celtic and Q-Celtic speaking settlers into the British Isles, is one of mutual unintelligibility, with the Irish sea serving as the frontier between the two. However, it is likely that the Insular Celtic languages evolved from a more-or-less unified proto-celtic language within the British Isles.[20] Divergence between P-Celtic Pictish and Q-Celtic Dalriadan Goidelic was slight enough to allow Picts and Dalriadans to understand each others language to some degree.[21] Under this scenario, a gradual linguistic convergence is conceivable and even probable given the presence of the Columban Church in Pictland.[22]

Pre-Indo-European theory

John Rhys, in 1892, proposed that Pictish was a non-Indo-European language. This opinion was based on the apparently unintelligible ogham inscriptions found in historically Pictish areas.[23] A similar position was taken by Heinrich Zimmer, who argued that the Picts' supposedly exotic cultural practices (tattooing and matriliny) were equally non-Indo-European,[24] and a pre-Indo-European model was maintained by some well into the 20th century.[25]

A modified version of this theory was advanced in an influential 1955 review of Pictish by Kenneth Jackson, who proposed a two-language model: while Pictish was undoubtedly P-Celtic, it may have had a non-Celtic substratum and a second language may have been used for inscriptions.[26] Jackson's hypothesis was framed in the then-current model that a Brittonic elite, identified as the Broch-builders, had migrated from the south of Britain into Pictish territory, dominating a pre-Celtic majority.[27] He used this to reconcile the perceived translational difficulties of Ogham with the overwhelming evidence for a P-Celtic +Pictish language. Jackson was content to write off Ogham inscriptions as inherently unintelligible.[28]

Jackson's model became the orthodox position for the latter half of the 20th century. However, it became progressively undermined by advances in understanding of late Iron Age archaeology, as well as by improved understanding of the enigmatic Ogham inscriptions, a number of which have since been interpreted as Celtic.[29] An Ogham inscription at Burrian, Orkney has been transliterated as I[-]IRANNURRACTX EVVCXRROCCS.[30] Broken up as I[-]irann uract cheuc chrocs, this may reveal a Pictish cognate of Old Welsh guract 'he/she made' in *uract (Middle Welsh goruc).[30][31] With the fourth word explained as spirantized Pictish *crocs 'cross' (Welsh croesi < Latin crux) and the corrupted first word a personal name, the inscription may represent a Pictish sentence explaining who carved the cross.[30][31][32] The Shetland inscriptions at Cunningsburgh and Lunnasting reading EHTECONMORS and [E]TTECUHETTS have been understood as Brittonic forms of "this is as great" and "this is as far", respectively,[32] appropriate messages for boundary stones.[32]

Discredited theories

Traditional accounts (now rejected) claimed that the Picts had migrated to Scotland from Scythia, a region that encompassed Eastern Europe and Central Asia.[33] Buchanan, looking for a Scythian P-Celtic candidate for the ancestral Pict, settled on the Gaulish-speaking Cotini (which he rendered as Gothuni), a tribe from the region that is now Slovakia. This was later misunderstood by Robert Sibbald in 1710, who equated Gothuni with the Germanic-speaking Goths.[34] John Pinkerton expanded on this in 1789, claiming that Pictish was the predecessor to modern Scots.[35] Pinkerton's arguments were often rambling, bizarre and clearly motivated by his belief that Celts were an inferior people. The theory of a Germanic Pictish language is no longer considered credible.[36]


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Pictish". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Broun 1997; Broun 2001; Forsyth 2005, pp. 28–32; Woolf 2001; cf. Bannerman 1999, passim, representing the "traditional" view.
  3. Bede HE I.1; references to Pictish also at several other points in that text.
  4. Forsyth 2006, p. 1447; Forsyth 1997; Fraser 2009, pp. 52–53; Woolf 2007, pp. 322–340.
  5. Forsyth 2006, p. 1447; Woolf 2007, pp. 322–340; Greene 1966; Greene 1994.
  6. Watson 1926; Jackson 1955; Koch 1983; Smyth 1984; Forsyth 1997; Price 2000; Forsyth 2006; Woolf 2007; Fraser 2009.
  7. All other research into Pictish has been described as a postscript to Buchanan's work. This view may be something of an oversimplification: Forsyth 1997 offers a short account of the debate; Cowan 2000 may be helpful for a broader view.
  8. Chalmers 1807, pp. 198–224.
  9. Calgacus ('swordsman') was recorded by Tacitus in his Agricola. Another example is Argentocoxus ('steel leg'), recorded by Cassius Dio. See Forsyth 2006.
  10. Stokes 1890, p. 392.
  11. Macbain 1892.
  12. Watson 1926.
  13. Skene 1837, pp. 67–87; Fraser 1923.
  14. Skene 1837, pp. 71–72.
  15. Jackson 1955, p. 131; Forsyth 1997, p. 6.
  16. Skene 1868, pp. 95–96.
  17. Forsyth 2006, p. 1447.
  18. Forsyth 1995a.
  19. Greene 1966, p. 135.
  20. Greene 1994: See Koch 2006 for alternate views.
  21. Woolf 2007, pp. 322–340; Campbell 2001, pp. 285–292.
  22. Woolf 2007, pp. 322–340.
  23. Rhys 1892; Rhys 1898.
  24. Zimmer 1898; see Woolf 1998 for a more current view of Pictish matriliny
  25. For example: MacNeil 1938–1939; MacAlister 1940.
  26. Jackson 1955.
  27. See, for example, Piggot 1955.
  28. For a general view, see Jackson 1955.
  29. See Armit 1990 for an up-to-date view of the development of proto-Pictish culture and Brochs as an indigenous development; Forsyth 1998 gives a general review of the advances in understanding of Ogham.
  30. Forsyth, Katherine (1997). Language in Pictland – the case against 'non-Indo-European Pictish' (PDF). De Keltiche Draak. p. 36. ISBN 9789080278554. Retrieved 20 August 2018.
  31. Forsyth, Katherine. "The Ogham Inscriptions of Scotland: An Edited Corpus". EPDF. Retrieved 20 August 2018.
  32. Koch, John T (2006). Celtic Culture: Aberdeen breviary-celticism : Volume 1 of Celtic culture. ABC CLIO. p. 1444. ISBN 9781851094400. Retrieved 18 July 2019.
  33. See for example Bede HE I:1; Forsyth 2006 suggests this tradition originated from a misreading of Servius' fifth-century AD commentary on Virgil's Aeneid:
    Aeneid 4:146 reads: Cretesque Dryopesque fremunt pictique Agathyrsi.
    Servius' commentary states: Pictique Agathyrsi populi sunt Scythiae, colentes Apollinem hyperboreum, cuius logia, id est responsa, feruntur. 'Picti' autem, non stigmata habentes, sicut gens in Britannia, sed pulchri, hoc est cyanea coma placentes. Which actually states that the Scythian Agathyrsi did not "bear marks" like the British, but had blue hair.
  34. Sibbald 1710.
  35. Pinkerton 1789.
  36. For a discussion of Sibbald's misunderstanding and of Pinkerton's thesis, see Ferguson 1991.


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