4: The Pictish Language
Text and photos by Linden Alexander Pentecost, written December 2021 and January 2022
Some things in this section: photo of dramatic skies above the Pictish Craw Stone with Tap O' Noth in't background, comments on this and the name Rhynie, introduction to the Pictish language and the word 'aber', photo of Pictish place-names on sign near to Pennan, description of those names, 'sligeach' and pre-IE elements in Pictish, basic Pictish common vocabulary, further comments and connections, Old Irish, Cumbric, pre-IE and IE-like elements. This section contains 1310 words.
Photo above: The Craw Stone, a beautiful Pictish symbol stone, which has the image of a fish carved upon it. The Craw Stone is located close to the village of Rhynie, which in the past seems to have been an important Pictish cultural hub. The Craw Stone and the Tap O’ Noth hill, in the background and to the left, may have made up part of a ritual landscape. The meaning of the symbol stones is unknown, although that animals such as fish, and eagles have been depicted, may show pre-Christian mythological or ‘totemic’ meanings. In Gaelic, Rhynie is Roinnidh, the prefix rhy- may be cognate to the Welsh word rhi ‘king’, Pictish rīg (Christie, Neil; Herold, Hajnalka (2016). Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: Defended Communities of the 8th-10th Centuries. Oxbow Books. ISBN 9781785702389)
The Pictish language is generally understood to be a P-Celtic language, aligned closely with older Welsh, Cornish and Breton, and the geographically closer ‘Cumbric’ language. The picture is still confusing and poorly understood, especially the precise relationship between Gaelic and Pictish. To the south of the Firth of Forth, the P-Celtic language is generally referred to as Cumbric, or sometimes as Northern P-Celtic or Northern Brittonic. The precise difference between this language, and the language to the north in eastern Scotland, is unknown. One of the most common Pictish name elements is aber, meaning a conflux or estuary, ‘Aberdeen’ being a famous, well-known example. The name ‘aber’ occurs frequently in parts of Wales, such as on the Llŷn, with place-names such as Aberdaron and Abersoch. The name ‘aber’ also occurs as a place-name-element in Brittany, although in my opinion the word seems like an older, relic word in the Celtic languages, as ‘aber’ is rarely used in modern Brythonic outside of place-names. Curiously, ‘aber’ does not widely occur in the ‘Cumbric’ region, showing a possible divergence between Northern P-Celtic south of the Forth, and the ‘Pictish’ P-Celtic spoken north of the Forth.
Above: a collection of place-names on a sign in northeast Aberdeenshire, just above the village of Pennan. Aberdour is about as typical a Pictish name as one can find, we can directly transliterate this into Welsh as Aber Dŵr, and directly transliterate it into Breton as Aber Dour. In Pictish we may spell it Aber Dour, and in Gaelic as Obar Dobhair. There is another example of Aber Dour in Pictland, originally spelt Abir Daur.
The name Pennan may be connected to the Welsh word pen ‘head’, which is also pen in Breton. Pennan, if related, would seemingly contain a suffix. To add credence to this, there is a headland close to Pennan, and an Iron Age fort there, which is consistent with the Pictish period. To confuse matters, pen may be connected to Gaelic beinn ‘mountain’, and various examples exist in the Cumbria, of ‘ben’ names that appear to show something closer to the Goidelic meaning. Did Pictish in some ways, stand between P-Celtic and Q-Celtic, with similarities to both? Note also that, aber as a locational name, as in Aberdour, may be equally transliterated into Gaelic as Obar Dobhair, this latter word is more commonly associated with P-Celtic than with Q-Celtic, but the place-name can be transliterated into either language.
Pitsligo is another interesting name, ‘pit’ is a Pictish word, related to the Welsh word peth ‘part’, showing some of the phonetic divergence between Cumbric/Pictish and Welsh. Pit was however, also adopted into, or also used in Gaelic, and ‘sligo’ is from the Gaelic word sligeach. To confuse matters further, both of these words have few Indo-European cognates, showing that they are ‘Gaelic’, but may be simultaneously very ancient in the locality; certainly sligeach is an unusual word in Gaelic, with mysterious origins perhaps, and I know of no cognates in Brythonic languages
And this is why I find Pictish both interesting and very confusing. It is seemingly almost identical to Welsh and to Breton at times, but it may also be read as Gaelic, and it may also be in some way pre-Celtic. I use ‘pre-Celtic’ here to refer to patterns or words in language that are present in Celtic areas, but outside of Celtic language evolution as we know it. I don’t necessarily mean that these words are not Celtic also.
aber – estuary
dal, dol – field, meadow
cêth, cîth ceth, cet, – forest
dour – water
pen – head
lannerc/landerc – lannric, landric, lendric – clearing
trev, trê, tra – town
câr, cêr – fort
mail – prince
pett – a piece of land
uurgust – Fergus, ‘man of excellence’
The above words include both place-names and recorded names.
These words are specifically chosen to show the similarity with languages like Welsh and Breton. The examples aim to show, with some personal spelling preferences, the Pictish phonology as it appears in place-names and in personal-names. From these words alone, Pictish could be ‘reconstructed’ hypothetically, and look very much like early Welsh or Breton, except with some sound differences. But, this is also a certain way of looking at it, and precisely where this language fits into Celtic and into Indo-European is still somewhat a mystery. There is the further possibility that Pictish is a smaller range of the names across Scotland, and that perhaps others are more connected to a pre-Celtic pattern. There are others who believe that Pictish was in fact closer to Old Irish, and to support this theory, many of the Ogham inscriptions may show a preference for Q-Celtic or older Gaelic, and we also have to account for Gaelic’s close connection to Pictish, and for the ancient presence of Gaelic within Pictland. This might be true, and not necessarily contradict with a P-Celtic form of Pictish as well.
But despite the identification of P-Celtic Pictish with Brythonic, many of the P-Celtic Pictish words, are kind of obscure within Indo-European, even though they have Brythonic cognates, such as cêth ‘woods, forest’. So even though there is definitely an Indo-European, P-Celtic aspect to Pictish, there may certainly be a pre-Celtic aspect underlying that; especially as there hasn’t been a time since the Ice Age when people in the Celtic-speaking lands didn’t interact. When I look at the Americas for example, and see the diversity of different languages in some areas, I see no reason why that couldn’t have been the case in ancient Scotland. Perhaps some of these Pictish words represent the language of a certain group, or of those people inhabiting hillforts like that of Tap O’ Noth. Perhaps their language was different to what people spoke outside of those hillforts. It’s also possible that some of these Pictish words may be loanwords or relic-words that bare no relation to people’s language as a whole, or that the use of certain words and language was ritualistic, and not a part of everyday speech in their native tongue. There is certainly a Celtic, Indo-European connection, between Pictish and the other Celtic languages. But there may also be a pre-Celtic connection, that lies in the early elements of the Celtic languages, words like pett and sligeach whereas words such as uur are clearly more Indo-European. Or are they? Or are they both? To me, the Pictish still has many unanswered questions.
(Update, January 2023): some other comments about Pictish and a Pictish conlang based on Brythonic are available in ebooks I have published on this website