Common Brittonic

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Common Brittonic
Region Great Britain south of the Firth of Forth.
Era From early 5th century.[1]
Developed into Old Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton by AD 600[citation needed]
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Linguist list
Glottolog None
Linguasphere 50-AB

Common Brittonic was an ancient Celtic language spoken in Britain. It is also variously known as Old Brittonic, British, and Common or Old Brythonic. The language of the Celtic people known as the Britons, by the 6th century had split into the various Brittonic languages: Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, and Breton. It is classified as a P-Celtic and Insular Celtic language.

Common Brittonic is a form of Insular Celtic, which is descended from Proto-Celtic, a hypothetical parent language that by the first half of the first millennium BC was already diverging into separate dialects or languages.[2][3][4][5] There is some evidence that the Pictish language may have had close ties to Common Brittonic, and might have been either a sister language or a fifth branch.[6][7][8]

Evidence from Welsh shows a great influence from Latin on Common Brittonic during the Roman period, and especially so in terms related to the Church and Christianity, which are nearly all Latin derivatives.[9] Common Brittonic was later replaced in most of Scotland by Gaelic and south of the Firth of Forth also by Old English (which later developed into Scots). Common Brittonic survived into the Middle Ages in Southern Scotland and Cumbria—see Cumbric. Common Brittonic was gradually replaced by English throughout England; in the north, Cumbric disappeared as late as the 13th century and, in the south, Cornish survived until the 19th century, although modern attempts to revitalize it have met with some success.[10] O'Rahilly's historical model suggests the possibility that there was a Brittonic language in Ireland before the arrival of Goidelic languages there, but this view has not found wide acceptance.



No documents written in Common Brittonic have been found, but a few inscriptions have been identified.[11] The Bath curse tablets, found in the Roman reservoir at Bath, Somerset, contain about 150 names, about half of which are undoubtedly Celtic (but not necessarily Brittonic). There is an inscription on a metal pendant discovered in 1979 in Bath, which seems to contain an ancient Brittonic curse:[12]

Adixoui Deuina Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamenai or maybe Adixoui Deiana Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamiinai

"The affixed – Deuina, Deieda, Andagin, (and) Uindiorix – I have bound"[13]

An alternative translation is:

"May I, Windiorix for/at Cuamena defeat (alt. summon to justice) the worthless woman, oh divine Deieda."[14]

This latter reading takes into account case marking (-rix "king" nominative, andagin "[worthless] woman" accusative, dewina deieda "divine Deieda" nominative/vocative), and therefore is probably the most likely correct translation.

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

British toponyms are another type of evidence, recorded in Latinised forms by Ptolemy's Geography. 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 Common Brittonic. Some English place names still contain elements derived from Common Brittonic. Some Brittonic personal names are also recorded.

Tacitus' Agricola noted that the language of Britain differed little from that of Gaul. Comparison with what is known of the Gaulish language suggests a close relationship with Brittonic.


Pritenic (also Pretanic) is a modern term that has been coined to label the language of the inhabitants of prehistoric Scotland during Roman rule in southern Great Britain (1st to 5th centuries). Within the disputed P-Celtic vs. Q-Celtic division of the Celtic languages, "Pritenic" would thus be either a sister or daughter language of Common Brittonic, both deriving from a common P-Celtic language spoken around the 1st century BCE.

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. Katherine 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 Common Brittonic 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, Bede[where?] considered Pictish and Welsh/British to be separate languages.


Common Brittonic was used with Latin following the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 CE, at least in major settlements. A number of Latin words were borrowed by Brittonic speakers.

The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain during the 6th century marked the beginning of a decline in the language, as it was gradually replaced by Old English. Some Brittonic speakers migrated to Armorica and Galicia. By 700, Brittonic was mainly restricted to North West England, Southern Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Devon and Brittany. In these regions, it evolved into Cumbric, Welsh, Cornish and Breton.



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


(Early) Common Brittonic vowels
Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close i ʉː u
Close-mid e o
Open-mid ɛː ɔː
Open a

The early Common Brittonic vowel inventory was still very similar to that of Proto-Celtic, with the short vowels seeing little change. The long vowels meanwhile had seen some development: earlier /uː/ having merged with /iː/, /aː/ becoming /ɔː/, and two new long vowels developed from earlier diphthongs: /ʉː/ (from /au/, /ou/, /oi/) and /ɛː/ (from /ai/). Similarly, the earlier diphthong /ei/ merged with Brittonic /eː/.

(Late) Common Brittonic vowels
Front Central Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded rounded
Close i y ɨ ʉ u
Close-mid e ø o
Mid (ə) (ɵ̞)
Open-mid ɛ ɔ
Open a


  • The central mid vowels /ə/ and /ɵ̞/ were allophonic developments of /i/ and /u/, respectively.


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

First declension

# Case Brittonic Gaulish Old Irish PIE
Sg Nom. *tōtā toutā túathᴸ *tewteh₂
Voc. *tōtā toutā túathᴸ *tewteh₂
Acc. *tōtin toutim túaithᴺ *tewteh₂m
Gen. *tōtiās toutiās túaithe *tewteh₂s
Dat. *tōtī toutī túaithᴸ *tewteh₂eh₁
Du Nom.Acc.Voc. *tōtī túaithᴸ *tewteh₂h₁e
Gen. *tōtous túathᴸ *tewteh₂ows
Dat. *tōtābin túathaib *tewteh₂bʰām
Pl Nom.Voc. *tōtās toutās túathaᴴ *tewteh₂es
Acc. *tōtās toutās túathaᴴ *tewteh₂ns
Gen. *tōton toutānon túathᴺ *tewteh₂om
Dat. *tōtābi toutābi túathaib *tewteh₂bʰi


  • The dative dual and plural represent the inherited instrumental forms, which replaced the inherited dative dual and plural, from Proto-Celtic *toutābom, *toutābos.

Second declension

# Case Brittonic Gaulish Welsh Old Irish PIE
Sg Nom. *wiros wiros gŵr fer *wiHros
Voc. *wire wire fir *wiHre
Acc. *wiron wiron ferᴺ *wiHrom
Gen. *wirī wirī firᴸ *wiHrosyo
Dat. *wirū wirū fiurᴸ *wiHroh₁
Du Nom.Acc.Voc. *wirō wirō ferᴸ *wiHroh₁
Gen. *wirōs fer *wiHrows
Dat. *wirobin feraib *wiHrobʰām
Pl Nom.Voc. *wirī wirī gwŷr firᴸ *wiHroy
Acc. *wirūs wirūs firuᴴ *wiHrons
Gen. *wiron wiron ferᴺ *wiHrooHom
Dat. *wirobi wirobi feraib *wiHrōys

Third declension

Place names

Common Brittonic 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 Brittonic abona which translates into "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 the Brittonic languages

Brittonic-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, Cornish avon)
  • Britain from Pritani = (possibly) "People of the Forms" (cf. Welsh Prydain "Britain", pryd "appearance, form, image, resemblance", Cornish Breten)
  • Dover from Dubrīs = "waters" (cf. Welsh dŵr, older dwfr, Cornish dowr, Breton dour)
  • Kent from canto- = "border" (cf. Welsh cant "rim or periphery")
  • Lothian (Lleuddiniawn in medieval Welsh) from *Lugudũn(iãnon) "Fort of Lugus"
  • Severn from Sabrīna, perhaps the name of a goddess (in Welsh, Hafren)
  • Thanet from tan-eto- = "(place of the) bonfire" (cf. Welsh tân "fire", Cornish tanses, Old Breton tanet "aflame") or more probably tann-eto = "oak grove" (tanno- "kind of oak", Breton tannen "oak")
  • Thames from Tamesis = "dark" (akin to Welsh tywyll "darkness", from Brittonic *temeselo-, Cornish tewlder)
  • York from Ebur-ākon = "stand of yew trees" (cf. Welsh Efrog, from efwr "yew" + -og "abundant in") via Latin Eburacum > OE Eoforwic (re-analysed with OE roots as 'boar-village') > ON Jorvik

Some Brittonic 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", and "Hele" of Brittonic origin are particularly common in Devon as elements of placenames, often combined with elements of English origin.[15] Compound names sometimes occur across England, such as "Derwent Water" or "Chetwood", (cf. Cornish kos "wood", Welsh coed, Breton koad) which contain the same element translated in both languages.[16]

See also


  1. Common Brittonic at MultiTree on the Linguist List
  2. Henderson, Jon C. (2007). The Atlantic Iron Age: Settlement and Identity in the First Millennium BC. Routledge. pp. 292–295.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Sims-Williams, Patrick (2007). Studies on Celtic Languages before the Year 1000. CMCS. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Koch, John (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 1455.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Eska, Joseph (2008). "Continental Celtic". In Roger Woodard (ed.). The Ancient Languages of Europe. Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Forsyth, Katherine (2006). John Koch (ed.). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 1444, 1447.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Forsyth, Katherine, Language in Pictland : the case against "non-Indo-European Pictish" (Utrecht: de Keltische Draak, 1997), 27.
  8. Jackson, Kenneth (1955). "The Pictish Language". In F. T. Wainwright (ed.). The Problem of the Picts. Edinburgh: Nelson. pp. 129–166.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Lewis, H. (1943). Yr Elfen Ladin yn yr Iaith Gymraeg. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Cornwall Council, 2010-12-07. UNESCO classes Cornish as a language in the ‘process of revitalization’. Retrieved 2011-01-13.
  11. Philip Freeman (2001). Ireland and the Classical World. University of Texas Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Mees, Bernard (2009). Celtic Curses. Boydell & Brewer. p. 35.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Gover, Mawer and Stenton: Place-Names of Devon, 1932
  16. Green, Terry (2003). "The Archaeology of some North Devon Place-Names". North Devon Archaeological Society. Retrieved 11 January 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Atkinson and Gray[clarification needed] (2005) "Are Accurate Dates an Intractable Problem for Historical Linguistics?". In: Mapping Our Ancestors, Collard, Mark, et al., eds. Transaction Books
  • 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.
  • Forsyth, K. (1997) Language in Pictland.
  • Jackson, K. (1953) Language and History in Early Britain.
  • Jackson, K. (1955) "The Pictish Language" in F. T. Wainwright The Problem of the Picts. London: Nelson.
  • Koch, J. (1986) «New Thought on Albion, Ieni and the "Pretanic Isles"» in: Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium; 6, 1–28 (1986).
  • Lambert, P.-Y. (ed.), Recueil des inscriptions gauloises II.2. Textes gallo-latins sur instrumentum, Paris: CNRS Editions, 2002, p. 304-306.
  • Lambert, Pierre-Yves (2003). La langue gauloise. 2nd edition. Paris, Editions Errance. p. 176
  • Lockwood, W. B. (1975) Languages of the British Isles Past and Present, London: Deutsch ISBN 0-233-96666-8
  • Ostler, Nicholas (2005) Empires of the Word. London: HarperCollins ISBN 0-00-711870-8.
  • Price, G. (2000). Languages of Britain and Ireland, Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-21581-6
  • Rivet, A. and Smith, C. (1979) The Place-Names of Roman Britain
  • Sims-Williams, Patrick (2003) The Celtic Inscriptions of Britain: phonology and chronology, c.400–1200. Oxford, Blackwell. ISBN 1-4051-0903-3
  • Ternes, Elmar (ed.) (2011), Brythonic Celtic - Britannisches Keltisch: From Medieval British to Modern Breton, Münchner Forschungen zur historischen Sprachwissenschaft, Hempen Verlag, Bremen 2011.
  • Trudgill, P. (ed.) (1984) Language in the British Isles, Cambridge University Press.
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External links