|Region||Great Britain south of the Firth of Forth|
circa 6th century BC to mid-6th century AD|
Developed into Old Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, and Breton by AD 600
Common Brittonic was an ancient Celtic language spoken in Britain. It is also variously known as Old Brittonic, British, and Common or Old Brythonic. By the sixth century AD, this language of the Celtic Britons had split into the various Neo-Brittonic languages: Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, Breton and probably the Pictish 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. 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.
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. Common Brittonic was later replaced in most of Scotland by Middle Irish (which later developed into Scottish Gaelic) and south of the Firth of Forth also by Old English (which later developed into Scots).
Brittonic was gradually replaced by English throughout England; in southern Scotland and Cumbria, 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. O'Rahilly's historical model suggests the possibility that there was a Brittonic (P-Celtic) language in Ireland before the arrival of Goidelic languages (Q-Celtic) there, but this view has not found wide acceptance. O'Rahilly's model seems to be supported by the presence of Belgic (P-Celtic) tribes in Ptolemy's maps.
No documents written in Common Brittonic have been found, but a few inscriptions have been identified. 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:
Adixoui Deuina Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamenai or maybe Adixoui Deiana Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamiinai
The affixed – Deuina, Deieda, Andagin, (and) Uindiorix – I have bound
An alternative translation 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 (alt. summon to justice) the worthless woman, oh divine Deieda.
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.
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 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 H. 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 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. The Roman frontier between Britannia and Pictland is likely to have increased the split. By the 8th century, Bede considered Pictish and Welsh/British to be separate languages.
Common Brittonic was used with Latin following the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD, 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 and Southern Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Devon, and Brittany. In these regions, it evolved into Cumbric, Welsh, Cornish and Breton, respectively.
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/.
- 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:
|Du||Nom. acc. voc.||*tōtī||—||túaithᴸ||*tewteh₂h₁e|
- The dative dual and plural represent the inherited instrumental forms, which replaced the inherited dative dual and plural, from Proto-Celtic *toutābom, *toutābos.
|Du||Nom. acc. voc.||*wirō||wirō||—||ferᴸ||*wiHroh₁|
|Pl||Nom. voc.||*wirī||wirī||gwŷr||firᴸ (nom.), firuᴴ (voc.)||*wiHroy|
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).
Examples 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, Breton aven)
- Britain from Pritani = (possibly) "People of the Forms" (cf. Welsh Prydain "Britain", pryd "appearance, form, image, resemblance"; Irish cruth "appearance, shape", Old Irish Cruithin "Picts")
- Dover from Dubrīs = "waters" (cf. Welsh dŵr, older dwfr, plural dyfroedd, Cornish dowr, Breton dour)
- Kent from canto- = "border" (cf. Welsh cant(el) "rim, brim", Breton kant)
- 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 tann "durmast oak")
- Thames from Tamesis = "dark" (akin to Welsh tywyll "darkness", Cornish tewal, Breton teñval, from Brittonic *temeselo-; Irish teimheal)
- York from Ebur-ākon = "stand of yew trees" (cf. Welsh Efrog, from efwr "cow parsnip, hogweed" + -og "abundant in", Breton evor "alder buckthorn", Scottish Gaelic iubhar "yew") via Latin Eburacum > OE Eoforwīc (re-analysed with OE roots as 'boar-village') > ON Jórvík
The words tor, combe, bere, and hele of Brittonic origin are particularly common in Devon as elements of place-names, often combined with elements of English origin. Compound names sometimes occur across England, such as "Derwentwater" or "Chetwood", (cf. Welsh coed, Breton koad) which contain the same element translated in both languages.
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