|Region||Scotland, north of the Forth-Clyde line|
|Era||c. 6th to 9th century, extinct by c. 1100 AD|
|Some scattered incidences of Ogham script|
Pictish is the extinct language spoken by the Picts, the people of eastern and northern Scotland from Late Antiquity 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 kingdoms of the Picts, dating to the early medieval period. 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.
The prevailing view in the second half of the 20th century was that Pictish was a non-Indo-European language isolate, predating a Gaelic 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.
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. 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. Guto Rhys states that evidence to suggest significant differentiation from Brittonic before c. 500 AD is slim. Pictish came under increasing influence from the Goidelic language spoken in Dál Riata from the eighth century until its eventual replacement.
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.
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. The view of Pictish as a P-Celtic language was first proposed in 1582 by George Buchanan, who aligned the language with Gaulish. 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.
Although demonstrably Celtic-speaking, the exact linguistic affinity of the Roman-era predecessors to the Picts is difficult to securely establish. The personal name Vepogeni, recorded c. 230 AD, implies that P-Celtic was spoken by at least the Caledonians.
Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes, in a philological study of the Irish annals, concluded that Pictish was closely related to Welsh. This conclusion was supported by philologist Alexander MacBain's analysis of the place and tribe names in Ptolemy's second-century Geographia. 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.
William Forbes Skene argued in 1837 that Pictish was a Goidelic language, the ancestor of modern Scottish Gaelic. 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. 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.
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.
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. Forsyth speculates that a period of bilingualism may have outlasted the Pictish kingdom in peripheral areas by several generations. 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.
Guto Rhys ruled in a 2015 summary of linguistic evidence that Pictish shared significant phonological developments with the Neo-Brittonic languages, and concluded in 2020 that Pictish was a Brittonic language distinguished by its relative lack of Latin-influenced changes.
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. 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. Under this scenario, a gradual linguistic convergence is conceivable and even probable given the presence of the Columban Church in Pictland.
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 (compare Ogham inscription § Scholastic inscriptions). 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, and a pre-Indo-European model was maintained by some well into the 20th century.
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. 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. 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.
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.
Traditional accounts (now rejected) claimed that the Picts had migrated to Scotland from Scythia, a region that encompassed Eastern Europe and Central Asia. 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. John Pinkerton expanded on this in 1789, claiming that Pictish was the predecessor to modern Scots. 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.
Linguist Guto Rhys opined evidence for the Pictish language to amount to "a few hundred" individual articles of information. Evidence is most numerous in the form of proper nouns, such as place-names in Pictish regions, and personal-names borne by Picts according to Scottish, Irish and Anglo-Saxon sources. Other sources include Ogham inscriptions and Pictish words surviving as loans; especially in the Scottish Gaelic language.
Pictish toponyms occur in Scotland north of the River Forth. Distributed from Fife to the Isle of Skye, they are relatively abundant south of the Dornoch Firth but rare in the extreme north.
Many principal settlements and geographical features of the region bear names of Pictish origin, including:
|Element (Welsh)||Meaning||Place names|
|bryn||hill||Burnbane, Burnturk, Cameron (Markinch), Cameron (St Andrews), Newburn, Strathburn|
|caer||fort, stronghold; wall, rampart||Cardean, Carey, Cargill, Carmurie, Carpow, Carpoway, Crail, Kair, Keir, Kercock, Kirkbuddo, Kirkcaldy|
|coed||trees, forest, wood||Catochil, Inchkeith, Keith, Keith Lundie, Keithack, Keithick, Keithmore, Keithny, Keithney, Keithock, Kitattie, Rothket|
|dôl||field, meadow||Dalfouper, Dallas, Dallasbraughty, Doll, Dollar, Dull|
|llannerch||clearing, glade||Landrick, Lanrick, Lendrick|
|mig(n)||swamp, quagmire||Dalmigavie, Meckphen, Meigle, Megen, Megevie, Meggen, Meggernie, Midmar, Midstrath, Migdale, Migger, Migvie, Strathmiglo|
|pant||hollow||Panbride, Panholes, Panlathy, Panmure, ?Pannanich|
|pen||head; top, summit; source of stream; headland; chief, principal||Pandewen, Pennan, Pinderachy, Pinnel|
|tref||town, homestead, estate, township||Cantray, Cantress, Menstrie, Montrave, Rattray (Blairgowrie), Rattray (Buchan), Tramaud, Trefor, Trefynie, Trostrie, Troustrie|
Some Pictish names have been succeeded by Gaelic forms, and in certain instances the earlier forms appear on historical record.
Although the interpretation of over 40 Ogham inscriptions remains uncertain, several have been acknowledged to contain Brittonic forms. Guto Rhys (2015) notes that significant caution is required in the interpretation of such inscriptions because crucial information, such as the orthographic key, the linguistic context in which they were composed and the extent of literacy in Pictland, remains unknown.
An Ogham inscription at the Broch of Burrian, Orkney has been transliterated as I[-]IRANNURRACTX EVVCXRROCCS. 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). (The only direct continuation in Middle Welsh is 1sg. gwreith < *u?rakt-? in the poem known as Peis Dinogat in the Book of Aneirin; this form was eventually reformed to gwnaeth.) With the fourth word explained as spirantized Pictish *crocs 'cross' (Welsh croes < Latin crux) and the corrupted first word a personal name, the inscription may represent a Pictish sentence explaining who carved the cross.
The Shetland inscriptions at Cunningsburgh and Lunnasting reading EHTECONMORS and [E]TTECUHETTS have been understood as Brittonic expressions meaning "this is as great" and "this is as far", respectively, messages appropriate for boundary stones.
Transliterated as IRATADDOARENS, it is possible that the Brandsbutt Stone inscription attests a Pictish form cognate with Old Breton irha-, "he lies", in IRA-, occurring at the Lomarec inscription in Brittany.
Etymological investigation of the Scottish Gaelic language, in particular the 1896 efforts of Alexander Macbain, has demonstrated the presence of a corpus of Pictish loanwords in the language.
The following are possibilities:
On the basis of a number of the loans attesting shorter vowels than other British cognates, linguist Guto Rhys proposed Pictish resisted some 6th century Latin-influenced sound changes. Rhys has also noted the potentially "fiscal" profile of several of the loans, and hypothesized that they could have entered Gaelic as a package in a governmental context.
Several Gaelic nouns have meanings more closely matching their Brittonic cognates than those in Irish, indicating that Pictish may have influenced the sense and usage of these words as a substrate. Srath (> Strath-) is recorded to have meant "grassland" in Old Irish, whereas the modern Gaelic realization means "broad valley", exactly as in its Brittonic cognates (c.f. Welsh ystrad). Dùn, foithir, lios, ràth and tom may, by the same token, attest a substrate influence from Pictish.
Greene noted that the verbal system inherited in Gaelic from Old Irish had been brought "into complete conformity with that of modern spoken Welsh", and consequently Guto Rhys adjudged that Pictish may have modified Gaelic verbal syntax.
Pictish personal names, as acquired from documents such as the Poppleton manuscript, show significant diagnostically Brittonic features including the retention of final -st and initial w- (c.f. P. Uurgust vs. Goidelic Fergus) as well as development of -ora- to -ara- (c.f. P. Taran vs G. torann).
Several Pictish names are directly paralleled by names and nouns in other Brittonic languages. Several Pictish names are listed below according to their equivalents in Brittonic and other Celtic languages.
|Pictish||Brittonic cognate(s)||Other Celtic cognate(s)|
|Mailcon||Mailcon (Old Welsh), Maelgwn (Welsh)||-|
|Morcunt, Morgunn, Morgainn||Morcant (Old Welsh)||-|
|Taran||taran (Welsh)||Taranis (Gaulish)|
|Unust||Unwst (Welsh)||Oengus (Gaelic)|
|Uoret, Urad||Guoret (Old Welsh)||-|
|Uurgust||Gurgust (Old Welsh)||Fergus (Gaelic)|
Although the existence of a language most closely aligned with Breton, Cornish, Cumbric and Welsh spoken in the Pictish regions is evident, as with Cumbric, there is considerable historical debate as to extent of Pictish distinctiveness. Some academics argued that Pictish became distinguished from Brittonic in the pre-Roman era, with the supposedly distinct "Pictish" branch being labeled "Pritenic". Others, propose merely dialectal distinction and a significant degree of linguistic co-evolution.
A 2015 examination of linguistic evidence by Guto Rhys summarized that:
Rhys ruled in 2020 that Pictish was a Brittonic language with substantially fewer Latin-derived attributes than others of the branch, on the basis that the New Quantity System didn't operate.
Below, several of the proposed linguistic distinctions between Pictish and Brittonic are discussed:
Kenneth Jackson propounded that Celtic /xs/ developed /s/ in Pictish, at divergence from the usual Brittonic development to /x/. He attributed the following as evidence:
Rhys asserts that neither item is reliable as evidence; Artcois on the premise either of mediation by Gaelic, scribal corruption, or derivation from Gaelic or Latin elements, and Lossie on a possible incorrect identification (see River Findhorn) and early forms of Lostyn (1189) suggesting a different etymology.
Toponyms purportedly containing owxselo-, "high", in Pictland showing the regular Brittonic development have been cited as counter-evidence, but are almost certainly invalid because a different derivation is far more likely.
Rhys concludes that evidence isn't substantial enough at the present time to be certain about the fate of this cluster in Pictish.
Jackson (1953), Koch (1983), Forsyth (2006) and James (2013) argued for divergence on the basis of /o:/, raised to /u:/ in Brittonic, being retained in Pictish. The item of evidence attributed to this; a hypothesized Pictish toponymic element *ochel, consanguineous to Welsh uchel, "high", is almost certainly invalid, as toponymic parallels are lacking and alleged derivatives (? > Ochil Hills, etc) are less problematically derived from *okelon, "a ridge".
The view that Pictish retained the Proto-Celtic /oj/ diphthong until a later time than in Brittonic, in which it developed to /u:/ c. 75 A.D., was favoured by Jackson on the basis of two given-names; *Uroican (? < wrojko, "heather", > Welsh grug) and Onust, (c.f. Welsh Ungust). Rhys's stance is that survival of /oj/ is possible, although there are issues with ascertaining the etymology of *Uroican, and the accuracy of the form Onust (also recorded as Unust) is uncertain.
Koch and Jackson respectively proposed that Celtic /sN-/ and /s-/, which usually became /N-/ and /h-/ in Brittonic, were retained in Pictish. A single item of evidence has been attributed to each:
Rhys dismissed both as evidence; Cairn Smairt was first recorded in 1909 and is more likely to involve the Scots surname Smairt, and ethnic names are unlikely to be preserved in insignificant geographical features. Simul has no satisfactory Celtic root, and has the look not of a personal-name, but instead the Latin adverb simul, "at the same time" (the sentence meaning "...at the same time, the son of Drest...").
If Koch's suggestion that -CUHETT- on the Lunnasting inscritpion is analogous to Welsh cyhyd, "as far as" (-hyd < *siti), is correct, it would imply Jackson's proposal incorrect and development of /s-/ to /h-/ as in the rest of Brittonic.
The undermentioned -ei suffix in the personal name Bridei, if it is a Pictish reflex of sagjo ("seeker"), may favour /s-/ to /h-/, although a different etymology is possible.
Rhys (2015) gave the view that Pictish, while partaking in some Latin influence, simultaneously resisted it to a greater extent than the rest of Brittonic. Irrespective, Forsyth (1997), Taylor, and Aitchison (2019) have proposed Latin loans within Pictish lexicon with parallels in Brittonic:
The item *leo has otherwise been explained as a cognate of Welsh llyw (< Celtic ?lowyos, "rudder, helm").
Guto Rhys (2020) has further argued that the New Quantity System, a feature of Brittonic speech which emerged c.550 AD and was derived directly from Vulgar Latin, didn't operate in Pictish. This system overhauled vowel sounds, meaning stressed vowels in open syllables became longer whereas all the rest were shortened. Rhys judged that the NQS didn't operate on the basis that three Gaelic words of Pictish origin, bad, dail and preas, attest short vowels whereas the other Brittonic forms (bod, dôl and prys) had their vowels lengthened.
In Brittonic, Celtic /-j-/ developed to /-ð-/ (c.f. PrC newijo > W newydd). Without drawing a conclusion, Koch (1983) drew attention to items relating to the development of this sound in Pictish; two suggesting the usual Brittonic development to /-ð-/, and another suggesting preservation of /-j-/.
In favour of shared development with British:
Itharnon is unlikely to represent ijarnon and has been dismissed as evidence; it is recorded on the Bressay and Scoonie stones as EDDARRNONN and is more straightforwardly derived from a suffixed form of the name Edern.
In favour of preservation:
This etymological proposal for the river-name Spey has been challenged, including by Rhys (2015) on phonological and semantic grounds. Furthermore, there is no evidence for early forms of the name (Spe in c.1235) containing /-j-/, meaning a derivation from skwijat is unlikely, and moreover that this item is of no consequence to this issue.
Rhys concludes that there is some robust evidence of Pictish sharing the /-j-/ > /-ð-/ with British, and no evidence to suggest otherwise, whilst acknowledging that this view is based on scant linguistic material.
Anderson & Anderson (1961) proposed that the Pictish equivalent of neo-Brittonic aber, "estuary", was an o-grade variant *abor, on the basis of toponymic forms in the Book of Deer, Annals of Ulster, and Vita Columbae (Apor Croosan > Applecross, Abbordoboir > Aberdour, etc). Katherine Forsyth adapted this hypothesis, indicating that aber- and *abor- may both have been current in Pictish lexicon. Rhys's view is more dismissive, noting that that *apor was well paralleled in Gaelic phonology, and instead probably represents a post-Pictish Gaelic post-labial rounding of place-names containing aber rather than an authentic Pictish form.
Around 17 place-names containing the element *login, which is usually rendered as Logie (Logie Coldstone, Logierait, etc), exist in north-eastern Scotland. Clancy (2016) proposed, on the basis of a "Pictish" distribution and frequent coupling of the element with the names of saints, that *login could have been a distinctly Pictish ecclesiastical naming element. There is no certainty as to whether the element was Pictish or Gaelic, although the frequent assimilation of this element to G. lagan ("hollow") favours the former.
John Koch proposed in 1983 that in Pictish, the case ending -jo/-jos was realised as -ei, at variance with Brittonic in which this case ending was lost. Cited as evidence for this claim was the personal-name Bredei, apparently representing Celtic *brudjos, according to Evans from *brud, "reject, repel". Rhys's view, however, is that the -ei ending represents a suffix rather than a case-ending. It appears in the names of Strathclyde Britons (c.f Dwywei, Uruei, ?Affrei), and may be an agent suffix meaning "seeker", derived from Celtic *sagjo. Or else, Rhys proposed that Pictish -ei may parallel a seemingly-adjectival suffix found in Welsh river-names (c.f. Melai, Menai, Sawddai).
The Welsh bryn ("hill"; < *brunnjo) appears several times in Pictish toponymy (Brinbane > Burnbane, Brenturk > Burnturk, etc) with nothing to suggest Koch's proposed ending.
Rhys does not consider the view that case endings survived in Pictish to have any evidence to sustain it.
Pictish *pett was loaned into Gaelic as pett, peit, in which it has the meaning "estate, portion of land". Jackson saw this as a divergent feature from Brittonic, in which the cognates (Welsh peth, Breton pezh) generally mean "thing". A different view presented by Rhys was that the meaning originated not with Pictish, but from semantic narrowing during the borrowing process into Gaelic, on the basis that, while the loan was abundant in Gaelic toponymy (c.f. Pittentrail, Pitlochry, etc), *pett- was absent in diagnostically Pictish place-names, paralleling the element's almost total non-existence in Brittonic place nomenclature.