Common Brittonic

Last updated
Common Brittonic
Region Great Britain
Ethnicity Britons
Erac.6th century BC to mid-6th century AD [1]
Developed into Old Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, Breton and probably Pictish [2]
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None
Linguasphere 50-AB

Common Brittonic (Welsh : Brythoneg; Cornish : Brythonek; Breton : Predeneg), also known as British, Common Brythonic, or Proto-Brittonic, [3] [4] was a Celtic language spoken in Britain and Brittany.


It is a form of Insular Celtic, descended from Proto-Celtic, a theorized parent tongue that, by the first half of the first millennium BC, was diverging into separate dialects or languages. [5] [6] [7] [8] Pictish is linked, likely as a sister language or a descendant branch. [9] [10] [11]

Evidence from early and modern Welsh shows that Common Brittonic was significantly influenced by Latin during the Roman period, especially in terms related to the church and Christianity. [12] By the sixth century AD, the tongues of the Celtic Britons were rapidly diverging into Neo-Brittonic: Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, Breton, and possibly the Pictish language.

Over the next three centuries, Brittonic was replaced in most of Scotland by Scottish Gaelic and by Old English (from which descend Modern English and Scots) throughout most of modern England as well as Scotland south of the Firth of Forth. [13] Cumbric disappeared in the 12th century [13] and, in the far south-west, Cornish probably became extinct in the eighteenth century, though its use has since been revived. [14] [lower-alpha 1] O'Rahilly's historical model suggests a Brittonic language in Ireland before the introduction of the Goidelic languages, but this view has not found wide acceptance. [16] Welsh and Breton are the only daughter languages that have survived fully into the modern day.



Bath curse tablet featuring possible Common Brittonic Roman baths 2014 60.jpg
Bath curse tablet featuring possible Common Brittonic

No documents in the tongue have been found, but a few inscriptions have been identified. [17] The Bath curse tablets, found in the Roman feeder pool at Bath, Somerset (Aquae Sulis), bear about 150 names about 50% Celtic (but not necessarily Brittonic). An inscription on a metal pendant (discovered there in 1979) seems to contain an ancient Brittonic curse: [18] "Adixoui Deuina Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamenai". (Sometimes the final word has been rendered cuamiinai.) This text is often seen as: "The affixed – Deuina, Deieda, Andagin [and] Uindiorix – I have bound." [19] else, at the opposite extreme, 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 [or "summon to justice"] the worthless woman, [oh] divine Deieda." [20]

A tin/lead sheet retains part of 9 text lines, damaged, with likely Brittonic names. [21]

Local Roman Britain toponyms (place names) are evidentiary, recorded in Latinised forms by Ptolemy's Geography discussed by Rivet and Smith in their book of that name published in 1979. They show most names he used were from the tongue. Some place names still contain elements derived from it. Tribe names and some Brittonic personal names are also taken down by Greeks and, mainly, Romans.

Tacitus's Agricola says that the tongue differed little from that of Gaul. Comparison with what is known of Gaulish confirms the similarity. [22]

Pictish and Pritenic

Pictish , which became extinct around 1000 years ago, was the spoken language of the Picts in Northern Scotland. [2] Despite significant debate as to whether this language was Celtic, items such as geographical and personal names documented in the region gave evidence that this language was most closely aligned with the Brittonic branch of Celtic languages. [2] The question of the extent to which this language was distinguished, and the date of divergence, from the rest of Brittonic, was historically disputed. [2]

Pritenic (also Pretanic and Prittenic) is a term coined in 1955 by Kenneth H. Jackson to describe a hypothetical Roman era (1st to 5th centuries) predecessor to the Pictish language. [2] Jackson saw Pritenic as having diverged from Brittonic around the time of 75-100 AD. [2]

The term Pritenic is controversial. In 2015, linguist Guto Rhys concluded that most proposals that Pictish diverged from Brittonic before c. 500 AD were incorrect, questionable, or of little importance, and that a lack of evidence to distinguish Brittonic and Pictish rendered the term Prittenic "redundant". [2]

Diversification and Neo-Brittonic

Common Brittonic vied with Latin after the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD, at least in major settlements. Latin words were widely borrowed by its speakers in the Romanised towns and their descendants, and later from church use.

By 500–550 AD, Common Brittonic had diverged into the Neo-Brittonic dialects: [2] Old Welsh primarily in Wales, Old Cornish in Cornwall, Old Breton in what is now Brittany, Cumbric in Northern England and Southern Scotland, and probably Pictish in Northern Scotland. [2]

The modern forms of Breton and Welsh are the only direct descendants of Common Brittonic to have survived fully into the 21st century. [23] Cornish fell out of use in the 1700s but has since undergone a revival. [24] Cumbric and Pictish are extinct and today spoken only in the form of loanwords in English, Scots, and Scottish Gaelic. [25] [2]



(Late) Common Brittonic consonants
Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Labial–
Nasal m n ( ŋ )
Stop p b t d k ɡ
Fricative θ ð s x
Approximant j w
Lateral l
Trill r


Early Common Brittonic vowels
Front Central Back
Close iu
Close-mid eo
Open-mid ɛːɔː
Open aɑː

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
Close iyɨʉu
Close-mid eøo
Mid (ə)(ɵ̞)
Open-mid ɛɔ
Open a

By late Common Brittonic, the New Quantity System had occurred, leading to a radical restructuring of the vowel system.



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

First declension

Brittonic *tōtā 'tribe' and cognates in other languages
# Case Brittonic Gaulish Old Irish PIE
Singular Nominative *tōtātoutātúathL**tewteh2
Vocative *tōtātoutātúathL**tewteh2
Accusative *tōtintoutimtúaithN**tewteh2m
Genitive *tōtiāstoutiāstúaithe**tewteh2s
Dative *tōtītoutītúaithL**tewteh2eh1
Ablative *tōtītoutī**tewteh2es
Instrumental *tōtītoutī**tewteh2(e)h1
Locative *tōtītoutī**tewteh2i
Dual Nominative accusative vocative *tōtītúaithL**tewteh2h1e
Genitive *tōtioustúathL**tewteh2ows
Dative *tōtābontúathaib**tewteh2bhām
Ablative instrumental *tōtābin**tewteh2bhām
Locative *tōtābin**tewteh2ows
Plural Nominative vocative *tōtāstoutāstúathaH**tewteh2es
Accusative *tōtāstoutāstúathaH**tewteh2ns
Genitive *tōtābontoutānontúathN**tewteh2om
Dative *tōtābotoutābitúathaib**tewteh2bhi
Ablative *tōtā**tewteh2bhos
Instrumental *tōtā**tewteh2bhis
Locative *tōtā**tewteh2su


Second declension

Brittonic *wiros 'man' and cognates in other languages
#CaseBrittonicGaulishWelshOld IrishPIE
Sg Nom. *wiroswirosgŵrfer*wiHros
Voc. *wirewirefirL*wiHre
Acc. *wironwiromferN*wiHrom
Gen. *wirīwirīfirL*wiHrosyo
Dat. *wirūwirūfiurL*wiHroh1
Abl. ins. *wirū*wiHroh1
Loc. *wirē*wiHrey
Du Nom. acc. voc. *wirōwirōferL*wiHroh1
Gen. *wirōsfer*wiHrows
Dat. *wirobonferaib*wiHrobhām
Abl. *wirobin*wiHrobhām
Ins. *wirobin*wiHrobhām
Loc. *wirou*wiHrows
Pl Nom. voc. *wirīwirīgwŷrfirL (nom.), firuH (voc.)*wiHroy
Acc. *wirūswirūsfiruH*wiHrons
Gen. *wironwironferN*wiHrooHom
Dat. *wirobiwirobiferaib*wiHrōys
Abl. *wirobi*wiHromos
Ins. *wirobi*wiHrōys
Loc. *wirobi*wiHroysu


Neuter 2nd declension stem *cradion
SgNom. voc. acc.*cradion
PlNom. voc. acc.*cradiā


Third declension

Brittonic *carrecis and cognates in other languages
#CaseBrittonicGaulishWelshOld IrishPIE
Abl. ins. loc.*carrecī
Abl. ins. loc.*carrecī
PlNom. voc. acc.*carrecīscerrig
Abl. ins. loc.*carrecibi

Place names

Brittonic-derived place names are scattered across Great Britain, with many occurring in the West Country; however, some of these may be pre-Celtic. The best example is perhaps that of each (river) Avon, which comes from the Brittonic aβon[a], "river" (transcribed into Welsh as afon, Cornish avon, Irish and Scottish Gaelic abhainn, Manx awin, Breton aven; the Latin cognate is amnis). When river is preceded by the word, in the modern vein, it is tautological.

Examples of place names derived from the Brittonic languages

Examples are:

Basic words tor , combe , bere, and hele from Brittonic common in Devon place-names. [27] Tautologous, two-tongue names exist in England, such as:


  1. A study of 2018 found the number of people with at least minimal skills in Cornish as over 3,000, including around 500 estimated to be fluent. [15]
  2. 1 2 3 See note on pre-medieval-Latin recording of the letter b at Dover, in this section.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Brittonic languages</span> Celtic subfamily including Welsh, Cornish, Breton and Cumbric

The Brittoniclanguages form one of the two branches of the Insular Celtic language family; the other is Goidelic. The name Brythonic was derived by Welsh Celticist John Rhys from the Welsh word Brython, meaning Ancient Britons as opposed to an Anglo-Saxon or Gael.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Celtic languages</span> Language family

The Celtic languages are a group of related languages descended from Proto-Celtic. They form a branch of the Indo-European language family. The term "Celtic" was first used to describe this language group by Edward Lhuyd in 1707, following Paul-Yves Pezron, who made the explicit link between the Celts described by classical writers and the Welsh and Breton languages.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Picts</span> Ancient and medieval tribal confederation in northern Britain

The Picts were a group of peoples who lived in what is now northern and eastern Scotland during Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Where they lived and what their culture was like can be inferred from early medieval texts and Pictish stones. Their Latin name, Picti, appears in written records from the 3rd to the 10th century. Early medieval sources report the existence of a distinct Pictish language, which today is believed to have been an Insular Celtic language, closely related to the Brittonic spoken by the Britons who lived to the south.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Caer</span> Placename element in Welsh meaning "stronghold", "fortress", or "citadel".

Caer is a placename element in Welsh meaning "stronghold", "fortress", or "citadel", roughly equivalent to an Old English suffix (-ceaster) now variously written as -caster, -cester, and -chester.

The toponymy of England derives from a variety of linguistic origins. Many English toponyms have been corrupted and broken down over the years, due to language changes which have caused the original meanings to be lost. In some cases, words used in these place-names are derived from languages that are extinct, and of which there are no known definitions. Place-names may also be compounds composed of elements derived from two or more languages from different periods. The majority of the toponyms predate the radical changes in the English language triggered by the Norman Conquest, and some Celtic names even predate the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the first millennium AD.

Pictish is the extinct Brittonic 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 strongly 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.

Cumbric was a variety of the Common Brittonic language spoken during the Early Middle Ages in the Hen Ogledd or "Old North" in what is now the counties of Westmorland, Cumberland, northern Lancashire in Northern England and the southern Scottish Lowlands, alongside the Kingdom of Elmet in modern day Yorkshire. It was closely related to Old Welsh and the other Brittonic languages. Place name evidence suggests Cumbric may also have been spoken as far south as Pendle and the Yorkshire Dales. The prevailing view is that it became extinct in the 12th century, after the incorporation of the semi-independent Kingdom of Strathclyde into the Kingdom of Scotland.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Languages of the United Kingdom</span>

English, in various dialects, is the most widely spoken language of the United Kingdom, but a number of regional languages are also spoken. These are Scots and Ulster Scots and the Celtic languages, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and, as a revived language with few speakers, Cornish. British Sign Language is also used. There are also many languages spoken by immigrants who arrived recently to the United Kingdom, mainly within inner city areas; these languages are mainly from continental Europe and South Asia.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dun</span> Type of ancient or medieval fort in Britain and Ireland

A dun is an ancient or medieval fort. In Ireland and Britain it is mainly a kind of hillfort and also a kind of Atlantic roundhouse.

Insular Celtic languages are the group of Celtic languages of Brittany, Great Britain, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. All surviving Celtic languages are in the Insular group, including Breton, which is spoken on continental Europe in Brittany, France. The Continental Celtic languages, although once quite widely spoken in mainland Europe and in Anatolia, are extinct.

The Southwestern Brittonic languages are the Brittonic Celtic languages spoken in what is now South West England and Brittany since the Early Middle Ages. During the period of their earliest attestation, the languages appear to be indistinguishable, but they gradually evolved into the Cornish and Breton languages. They evolved from the Common Brittonic formerly spoken across most of Britain and were thus related to the Welsh and Cumbric varieties spoken in Wales and the Hen Ogledd, respectively.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Celtic Britons</span> Ancient Celtic people of Great Britain

The Britons, also known as Celtic Britons or Ancient Britons, were the people of Celtic language and culture who inhabited Great Britain from at least the British Iron Age until the High Middle Ages, at which point they diverged into the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons. They spoke Common Brittonic, the ancestor of the modern Brittonic languages.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hen Ogledd</span> Area of northern Britain, c. 500 to c. 800

Yr Hen Ogledd, in English the Old North, is the historical region that was inhabited by the Brittonic people of sub-Roman Britain in the Early Middle Ages, now Northern England and the southern Scottish Lowlands, alongside the Celtic Kingdom of Elmet. Its population spoke a variety of the Brittonic language known as Cumbric which is closely related to, if not a dialect of Old Welsh. The people of Wales and the Hen Ogledd considered themselves to be one people, and both were referred to as Cymry ('fellow-countrymen') from the Brittonic word combrogi. The Hen Ogledd was distinct from the parts of North Britain inhabited by the Picts, Anglo-Saxons, and Scoti.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Languages of Scotland</span> Languages of a geographic region

The languages of Scotland are the languages spoken or once spoken in Scotland. Each of the numerous languages spoken in Scotland during its recorded linguistic history falls into either the Germanic or Celtic language families. The classification of the Pictish language was once controversial, but it is now generally considered a Celtic language. Today, the main language spoken in Scotland is English, while Scots and Scottish Gaelic are minority languages. The dialect of English spoken in Scotland is referred to as Scottish English.

Western Brittonic languages comprise two dialects into which Common Brittonic split during the Early Middle Ages; its counterpart was the ancestor of the Southwestern Brittonic languages. The reason and date for the split is often given as the Battle of Deorham in 577, at which point the victorious Saxons of Wessex essentially cut Brittonic-speaking Britain in two, which in turn caused the Western and Southwestern branches to develop separately.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Celtic toponymy</span> Etymology of placenames derived from Celtic languages

Celtic toponymy is the study of place names wholly or partially of Celtic origin. These names are found throughout continental Europe, Britain, Ireland, Anatolia and, latterly, through various other parts of the globe not originally occupied by Celts.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Insular Celts</span> Speakers of the Insular Celtic languages in the British Isles and Brittany

The Insular Celts were speakers of the Insular Celtic languages in the British Isles and Brittany. The term is mostly used for the Celtic peoples of the isles up until the early Middle Ages, covering the British–Irish Iron Age, Roman Britain and Sub-Roman Britain. They included the Celtic Britons, the Picts, and the Gaels.

Neo-Brittonic, also known as Neo-Brythonic, is a stage of the Insular Celtic Brittonic languages that emerged by the middle of the sixth century CE. Neo-Brittonic languages include Old, Middle and Modern Welsh, Cornish, and Breton, as well as Cumbric.


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