6: The Cumbric language, the ancient Celtic language of Cumbria, or a Paleolithic language?
Text and photos by Linden Alexander Pentecost, written December 2021 and January 2022
This section includes: autumn photo of Castle Crag and Borrowdale rocky csteep mountains, autumn colors blue mist, information about the name Derwent and Peis Dinogat, introduction to Cumbric, the word 'Cumbric' and the Old North, possibility of a pre/IE or non-IE language being the real identity of much of Cumbric, further ancient comments, writing and Indo-Europeanisation (and Ogham/Primitive Irish on Isle of Man but not in Cumbria), place-name evidence, ancient examples, numbers (borrowed a long time ago?), description of Arthur's Seat photo, place-name distribution comments, picture of small castle in autumn from Arthur's Seat, further works on Cumbric. This section contains 2250 words.
Photo above: the valley of the River Derwent in Cumbria, the name Derwent is itself readable in Old Welsh and Brythonic, and the valley may even be the place of the Rhaeadr Derwennydd, the waterfall of Derwent, mentioned in the earliest written Welsh poem, showing a distinctive register of the bardic tongue. Indeed an impressive waterfall does exist in this valley, and nearby is the mountain Blencathra, the first part of which, 'blen', is equivalent to the Welsh word blaen 'summit' as in the name Blaenau in Wales.
Cumbric is the name applied to describe the evidence of a Welsh-like language, appearing in place-names and dialect words in Northern England and Southern Scotland. There is no evidence so far of what the language was called by its speakers, and there are no known written examples of the language. However, place-name and other evidence is enough to suggest that the Cumbric language shared many of the developments that defined Brythonic languages as a whole, as an introductory note, that is the branch of Celtic which includes Welsh, Breton and Cornish. This implies that Cumbric was a development of an earlier, common-Brythonic stage, which gave rise to the aforementioned Celtic languages, but this also implies that Cumbric was therefore closer to Welsh, Cornish and to Breton, than it was to the earlier 'Brittonic' language spoken throughout England as a whole.
The language may have ceased to be fully spoken from around the 10th to the 11th Century, although I have spoken to some people in the region who appear to have folk memory of this Cumbric-speaking culture.
I personally have a somewhat different view on the Cumbric language. I feel that this language can be defined in a number of different ways. In some senses, the evidence shows Cumbric to be a Celtic language, and close to Welsh. However, I feel that its precise connection to Welsh may be a little different to what we have imagined. In Welsh literature, the region of the Cumbric language is known as Yr Hen Ogledd, The Old North. Whilst an ancestral and bardic connection with this region is certainly implied, and an important connection at that, I feel that there is no direct evidence per-se that these cultures and languages were ever identical, or necessarily shared the exact same origins.
In some senses, it is possible that Cumbria and North Wales for example, have been distinct from one another since the Neolithic or Mesolithic periods. And this raises the big question in my mind, of when Welsh literature refers to the Old North, does this imply something very long ago?
Having studied the evidence for Cumbric for quite a long time, I have come to the conclusion that the linguistic evidence suggests distinction between Welsh and Cumbric at a stage which is quite possible outside of 'Celtic'. In Welsh, the word nant means a valley. In Cumbric, nani means a valley, as recorded in several place-names. This word, whilst appearing in Welsh, does not appear to have an Indo-European origin. We may also find the same word in Ireland, as nani in place-name evidence. This word demonstrates a link between parts of Ireland, Wales and Northern Britain, but it doesn't appear to be what is defined exactly as 'Celtic'.
Another thing I have found is that, even though Cumbric is perhaps thought commonly of as a Brythonic language which underwent the same changes as Welsh, Cornish and Breton, I have found that this is not always or even usually the case. Furthermore I have found that, at least as far as these common, Welsh-like words are concerned, there is very little difference between 'Cumbric', 'Pictish', 'Southwestern Brittonic' and 'Early Brittonic' in England. These areas are definitely different and this may be another group of questions to answer, but at least insofar as these common Brittonic terms, the language is much the same throughout the land.
With regards to the evidence that Cumbric sound changes are a later Brythonic development, I have two theories about this:
1). That the sound changes creating 'Brythonic' languages are greatly in reflection of natural prosodic and lenition processes found indigenously in those areas since ancient times.
2). Cumbric may represent an area which was partially 'Celticised' but never fully 'Celticised'.
With regards to the second point, I feel that the Cumbric area was only partially Celticised, because the archaeological record in at least parts of this region, appears to show divergence from that of Wales from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. I feel it is perhaps possible that modern Celtic results from indigenous languages in western Britain and Ireland, being gradually re-formed through a particular register of spiritual bardic language, which in a sense 'created' Modern Celtic from the earth of more ancient languages. This sacred language in Britain and Ireland may have been greatly connected to the Primitive Irish language, in fact, I feel that the act of 'writing' this language, certain sped up the process of Celticisation.
Primitive Irish written in Ogham has even been found in England, and there exists plenty of it in Ireland, whilst Scotland and Wales also have examples of the alphabet. The Isle of Man has a large number of Ogham stones written in Primitive Irish. But Cumbria does not. And perhaps this indicates the kind of relationship that 'Cumbric' actually has to Celtic. Rather than being a Celtic language per-se, it could be that, whatever provided the roots for Welsh, Cornish and Breton, was somehow relevant to Cumbric and the Old North; but, these roots may imply something that is older than Celtic. And as Celtic started to form into its different languages, it may be that the language in Cumbria was already distinct, or, that Cumbria and Wales began to diverge more after the Bronze Age. The region of Cumbria and Southern Scotland may then have 'shared' words and concepts with the other Brythonic languages, but without undergoing some important change which affectively reorganised these languages into Celtic languages.
What about the evidence of Cumbric place-names that are clearly of Christian origin?
Well on one hand, some areas in Cumbria and Southern Scotland probably did speak a language like Old Welsh, and in some places Old Irish, because these languages were in affect the standard languages for this Britain-wide cultural communication and bardic connection. Whilst in Scotland, and to an extent in Cumbria, the Gaelic language was most likely spoken, and in certain regions, so was a form of Welsh, this was not so in Cumbria it seems. Whilst I feel that medieval connections with Wales were maintained, I feel that this was limited to established, culturally important areas, and was not representative of the language that was spoken by most people living in the Cumbric landscape. Certain words in these languages, such as caer are more or less identical in Wales and in the Old North, and these common bonds in language would likely have facilitated a continuation of these words in some form of early Welsh. However, many of the descendants of these people who once spoke this ancient, Celtic-like language, may have continued speaking their pre-Celtic languages, before turning them into Germanic Indo-European, thus meaning that their languages, and the modern Scots and Northern English dialects, are very far removed from Cumbric and from Welsh; simply because despite sharing some words in common, they may never have been of the same tribes or cultures that later became 'Celtic' speaking. It may also be that some people did continue speaking the pre-Celtic language for some time, and simply adapted it to Celticised Brythonic or Latinised Welsh when communicating with outsiders.
Cumbric seems to have a fewer number of vowels and diphthongs than Welsh, but I wonder if the pronunciation of vowels and of some consonants is influenced by stress. For example, the name Penrith is locally pronounced "Peerith", indicating that perhaps a medial "n" was dropped in Cumbric, under certain conditions of stress. I have a feeling that stress was an important feature of Cumbric, the word for 'forest', coed in Welsh, Cornish coos, Gwentian côd, in Cumbric I write this as caíd, it seems that sometimes the final d is like 'th', for example in the names Culcheth and Blenkett, note that in these two names the word caíd is the second element of the word, and I wonder if this causes the stress to be different than on the monosyllabic word caíd, perhaps causing a mutation of the final d in some cases.The same may also be true for vowels, as in the Welsh word moel, which appears in Cumbric often as mel, written here as maíl. In the name Mallerstang, either stress, or a change in the vowel before a liquid, causes this sound to change, although it may also be dialectal. Another name is Plenmellor, the latter element may again be a peripheral-Celtic word, *mell-er 'of the bald moor', which is similar to the reconstructed Cumbric maíl-er-, Welsh moel-y-, the difference in the possible pre-Celtic interpretation is that the article is actually a suffix. The word plen or, written here as plaín, may be a local variant of blen or blaín, as in the mountain 'Blencathra', with a form of devoicing. Alternatively this word with pl- may be related to the Welsh word blaen, but not the same word, following a different path of evolution, being differentiated early.
The name Blenkett is located close to Morecambe Bay, although I have never been this far out towards the bay, I have read that there is an ancient cave nearby, with evidence of paleolithic human visitors. Some thousands of years later, the same area and other caves had human activity during the Mesolithic, so I am told by local experts. It is curious that the Celtic, Cumbric name Blenkett, Blaín-Caíd consists of two unusual root words in Indo-European. Is it remotely possible that this name pre-dates 'Celtic' and is associated with those first Mesolithic settlers?
Some things about Cumbric's connection to Welsh and to Indo-European can be deduced by looking at the numbers, sheep counting numbers which are deeply a part of the cultural heritage of the Old North.
For example, the Welsh words for four and five, are pedwar and pimp. The sheep scoring numbers in Cumbria often have these roots showing an initial m, so I could reconstruct the Cumbric as medher or meder and mimp, with pimp as another variant. This could also be because the consonants p and m may be interchangeable in Cumbric due to the assimilation of consonants.
Below: the view from King Arthur's seat within Edinburgh. The area around Edinburgh is abounding in Cumbric place-names, which I have been doing as part of my local studies. Arthur's Seat is greatly connected to the landscape of Edinburgh, just as Cumbric is greatly connected to the history of Edinburgh. Even though Cumbric is often associated with Cumbria and with Northern England, the hub of Cumbric place-names seems to be in southern Scotland, some parts of Galloway, the area close to Moffat, and the area south of Edinburgh are all areas where there are a large number of Cumbric place-names. In Cumbria itself, the majority of the Welsh-like Cumbric names are in the north of Cumbria, especially in the northeast, but north of the Pennines. There are other clusters of Cumbric names, one around the Three Peaks in Yorkshire, another in Derbyshire.
Update, January 2023: many other references to Cumbric, Northern P-Celtic and Northern pre-Celtic can be found in my ebooks. Some of these, generally my earlier writings, are working with the idea that Cumbric is an identifiable, true Celtic language. My later work on Cumbric in these ebooks tends to focus more on the idea of this language being pre-Celtic, although there are some recent examples of poetry I have written for instance, one of which is included in the ebooks on this site. There are also examples of revived Cumbric, as if Cumbric/the language we call Cumbric had become a Celtic language today. In one way or other, most of my ebooks contain something about Cumbric or pre-Celtic in this landscape. An example of work on revived Cumbric is in my ebook Ancient languages and their connections, second edition, the Land of Pink Sky, within this book is a modest introduction to a form of revived Cumbric which I created. The article within this book is titled ÿr ўath Gÿmbraic, An introduction to revived Cumbric: a modern language of the Old North
Tavotўath nowydd– New Dialect, on pages 283, 284, 285, 286, 287, 288, 289, 290, 291, 292, 293, 294, 295, 296. After these pages are other Cumbric pages with some examples of a different revived form of Cumbric.