British language

British language
Spoken in Iron Age Britain, south of the Firth of Forth
Extinct Developed into Old Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton by 600 AD
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None
Linguasphere 50-AB

British or Brythonic (also known as Brittonic, Old Brythonic or Common Brythonic) was an ancient P-Celtic language spoken in Britain. It was the language of the people known as the Britons.

British is a form of Insular Celtic, which is descended from Proto-Celtic, a hypothetical parent language that had already begun to diverge into separate dialects or languages in the first half of the first millennium BC.[1][2][3][4] By the sixth century AD, British had produced four separate languages: Welsh, Breton, Cornish, and Cumbric. These are collectively known as the Brythonic languages. There is some evidence that the Pictish language may have had close ties to British and could in fact be a fifth branch.[5][6][7]

Evidence from Welsh shows a great influence from Latin on British during the Roman period, and especially so in terms related to the Church and Christianity, which are nearly all Latin derivatives.[8] British was later replaced in most of Scotland by Gaelic and south of the Firth of Forth also by Old English (which later developed into the Scots language). British survived into the Middle Ages in Southern Scotland and Cumbria—see Cumbric. British was gradually replaced by English throughout England; in the north, Cumbric disappeared as late as the 13th century and, in the south, Cornish was effectively a dead language by the 19th century, although attempts to revitalize it have met with some success.[9] O'Rahilly's historical model suggests the possibility that there was a Brythonic language in Ireland before the arrival of Goidelic languages there, but this view has not found wide acceptance.




No documents written in the British language have been found, but a few inscriptions have been identified.[10] Curse tablets found in the Roman reservoir at Bath, Somerset contain about 150 names, about half of which are undoubtedly Celtic (but not necessarily British). There is an inscription on a metal pendant discovered in 1979 in Bath, which seems to contain an ancient Brittonic curse:[11]

Adixoui Deuina Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamenai or maybe Adixoui Deiana Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamiun ai

The affixed – Deuina, Deieda, Andagin, (and) Uindiorix – I have bound[12]

An alternate translation being:

May I, Windiorix for/at Cuamena defeat (alt. summon to justice) the worthless woman, oh divine Deieda.[13]

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

Place-names are another type of evidence. 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 British. English place names still contain elements derived from British in a few cases. Latinised forms of these place names occur in Ptolemy's Geography, for example.

Modern knowledge of the tongue is limited to a few names of people and places. Comparison with Continental Celtic languages, specifically Gaulish, shows that it was similar to other Celtic languages of the time. Tacitus (in his Agricola) noted that the language of Britain differed little from that of Gaul.


Pritenic is a modern term that has been coined to the language of the inhabitants of northern Great Britain during Roman rule in southern Great Britain (1st to 5th centuries AD), by scholars who assume that Pictish, the language of the Picts spoken during the 6th to 8th centuries, was a P-Celtic language. Within the disputed P-Celtic vs. Q-Celtic division of the Celtic languages, "Pritenic" would thus be either a sister or daughter language of British, 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 Jackson, in The Problem of the Picts, who considered some of them to be Pritenic but had reservations about most of them. 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 later Gaelic 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 British had split by the 1st century AD. The Roman frontier between "Britannia" and "Pictland" is likely to have increased the split. By the 8th century AD, Bede considered Pictish and British to be separate languages.


British competed with Latin following the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, at least in major settlements. A number of Latin words were borrowed by British speakers.

The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain during the 500s marked the beginning of a decline in the language, as it was gradually replaced by Old English. Some British speakers migrated to Armorica and Galicia. By AD 700, British was mainly restricted to Northwest England, Wales, Cornwall and Devon and Brittany. In these regions, it evolved into Cumbric, Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

Place names

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

List of place names derived from British

British-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)
  • Britain from Pritani = People of the Forms or Figured Folk (possibly referring to their tattoos) (cf. Welsh Prydain, 'Britain', pryd, 'appearance, form, image, resemblance')
  • Dover from Dubrīs = "waters" (cf. Welsh, dŵr, older dwfr)
  • Kent from canto- = "border" (cf. Welsh cant, 'rim or periphery')
  • Severn from Sabrīna, perhaps the name of a goddess (in Welsh, Hafren)
  • Thanet from tan-eto- = "(place of the) bonfire" (cf. Welsh, tân, 'fire', Breton tanet "afflame")
  • Thames from Tamesis = "darkn" (akin to Welsh tywyll, 'darkness', from Brittonic *temeselo-)
  • York from Ebur-ākon = "stand of yew trees" (cf. Welsh, Efrog, from efwr + -og 'abundant in') via Latin Eburacum > OE Eoforwic > ON Jorvik.

Some British place names are known but are no longer used. In a charter of 682 the name of Creech St. Michael, Somerset is given as "Cructan".

The words "Tor", "Combe", "Bere", "Hele" and "Worthy" of Brythonic origin are particularly common in Devon as elements of placenames, often combined with elements of English origin.[14] Compound names sometimes occur across England, such as 'Derwent Water' or 'Chetwood', which contain the same element translated in both languages.[15]

See also


  1. ^ Henderson, Jon C. (2007). The Atlantic Iron Age: Settlement and Identity in the First Millennium BC. Routledge. pp. 292–295. 
  2. ^ Sims-Williams, Patrick (2007). Studies on Celtic Languages before the Year 1000. CMCS. p. 1. 
  3. ^ Koch, John (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 1455. 
  4. ^ Eska, Joseph (2008). "Continental Celtic". In Roger Woodard. The Ancient Languages of Europe. Cambridge. 
  5. ^ Forsyth, Katherine (2006). John Koch. ed. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 1444, 1447. 
  6. ^ Forsyth, Katherine, Language in Pictland : the case against "non-Indo-European Pictish" (Utrecht: de Keltische Draak, 1997), 27.
  7. ^ Jackson, Kenneth (1955). "The Pictish Language". In F. T. Wainwright. The Problem of the Picts. Edinburgh: Nelson. pp. 129–166. 
  8. ^ Lewis, H. (1943). Yr Elfen Ladin yn yr Iaith Gymraeg. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. 
  9. ^ Cornwall Council, 2010-12-07. UNESCO classes Cornish as a language in the ‘process of revitalization’. Retrieved 2011-01-13.
  10. ^ Philip Freeman (2001). Ireland and the Classical World. University of Texas Press. 
  11. ^ 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. 
  12. ^ Mees, Bernard (2009). Celtic Curses. Boydell & Brewer. p. 35. 
  13. ^ Sims-Williams, Patrick (2007). "Common Celtic, Gallo-Brittonic, and Insular Celtic" in Gauloise et celtique continental, P-Y Lambert, G-J Pinault, eds.. Droz. p. 327. 
  14. ^ Gover, Mawer and Stenton: Place-Names of Devon, 1932
  15. ^ Green, Terry (2003). "The Archaeology of some North Devon Place-Names". North Devon Archaeological Society. Retrieved 11 January 2011. 


  • Forsyth K; Language in Pictland (1997).
  • Jackson K; The Pictish Language in F T Wainright "The Problem of the Picts" (1955).
  • Koch J; New Thought on Albion, Ieni and the "Pretanic Isles" in Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 6, 1–28 (1986).
  • Lambert, Pierre-Yves (2003). La langue gauloise. 2nd edition. Paris, Editions Errance. p. 176
  • Price, G. (2000). Languages of Britain and Ireland, Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-21581-6
  • Rivet A and Smith C; The Place-Names of Roman Britain (1979).
  • Sims-Williams, Patrick (2003) The Celtic Inscriptions of Britain: phonology and chronology, c.400–1200. Oxford, Blackwell. ISBN 1-4051-0903-3
  • Trudgill, P. (ed.) (1984). Language in the British Isles, Cambridge University Press.
  • W.B.Lockwood. Languages of the British Isles past and present, ISBN 0-521-28409-0
  • Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word
  • Atkinson and Gray, Are Accurate Dates an Intractable Problem for Historical Linguistics. In Mapping Our Ancestry, Eds Obrien, Shennan and Collard.
  • Filppula, M., Klemola, J. and Pitkänen, H. (2001). The Celtic roots of English, Studies in languages, No. 37, University of Joensuu, Faculty of Humanities, ISBN 952-458-164-7.
  • K Jackson (1953), Language and History in Early Britain.

External links

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