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Common Brittonic

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Common Brittonic
RegionGreat Britain
Erac. 6th century BC to mid-6th century AD[2]
Developed into Old Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, Breton and probably Pictish[3]
Language codes
ISO 639-3

Common Brittonic (Welsh: Brythoneg; Cornish: Brythonek; Breton: Predeneg), also known as British, Common Brythonic, or Proto-Brittonic,[4][5] is an extinct Celtic language spoken in Britain and Brittany.

It is a form of Insular Celtic, descended from Proto-Celtic, a theorized parent language that, by the first half of the first millennium BC, was diverging into separate dialects or languages.[6][7][8][9] Pictish is linked, likely as a sister language or a descendant branch.[10][11][12]

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.[13] By the sixth century AD, the languages 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 by Scottish Gaelic in most of Scotland, 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.[14] Cumbric disappeared in the 12th century,[14] and in the far south-west, Cornish probably became extinct in the 18th century, though its use has since been revived.[15][a] 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.[17] Welsh and Breton are the only daughter languages that have survived fully into the modern day.




Bath curse tablet featuring possible Common Brittonic

No documents in the language have been found, but a few inscriptions have been identified.[18] 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:[19] "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."[20] 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."[21]

A tin/lead sheet retains part of nine text lines, damaged, with likely Brittonic names.[22]

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 Brittonic language. 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 language differed little from that of Gaul. Comparison with what is known of Gaulish confirms the similarity.[23]

Pictish and Pritenic


Pictish, which became extinct around 1000 years ago, was the spoken language of the Picts in Northern Scotland.[3] 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.[3] The question of the extent to which this language was distinguished, and the date of divergence, from the rest of Brittonic, was historically disputed.[3]

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.[3] Jackson saw Pritenic as having diverged from Brittonic around the time of 75–100 AD.[3]

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".[3]

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:[3] 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.[3]

The modern forms of Breton and Welsh are the only direct descendants of Common Brittonic to have survived fully into the 21st century.[24] Cornish fell out of use in the 1700s but has since undergone a revival.[25] Cumbric and Pictish are extinct and today spoken only in the form of loanwords in English, Scots, and Scottish Gaelic.[26][3]




(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
short long short long short long
Close i u
Close-mid e o
Open-mid ɛː ɔː
Open a ɑː

The early Common Brittonic vowel inventory is effectively identical to that of Proto-Celtic.[clarification needed] /ɨ/ and /ʉ/ have not developed yet.

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

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


  • The central mid vowels /ə/ and /ɵ̞/ were allophonic developments of /i/ and /u/, respectively.
Vowel developments[27]
Proto-Celtic Stage
Short vowels
*o *o,
*u *u,
Long vowels
*ai *ɛ̄ *oi
*au *ɔ̄



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 *tōtā toutā túathL **tewteh2
Vocative *tōtā toutā túathL **tewteh2
Accusative *tōtin toutim túaithN **tewteh2m
Genitive *tōtiās toutiās túaithe **tewteh2s
Dative *tōtī toutī túaithL **tewteh2eh1
Ablative *tōtī toutī **tewteh2es
Instrumental *tōtī toutī **tewteh2(e)h1
Locative *tōtī toutī **tewteh2i
Dual Nominative accusative vocative *tōtī túaithL **tewteh2h1e
Genitive *tōtious túathL **tewteh2ows
Dative *tōtābon túathaib **tewteh2bhām
Ablative instrumental *tōtābin **tewteh2bhām
Locative *tōtābin **tewteh2ows
Plural Nominative vocative *tōtās toutās túathaH **tewteh2es
Accusative *tōtās toutās túathaH **tewteh2ns
Genitive *tōtābon toutānon túathN **tewteh2om
Dative *tōtābo toutābi túathaib **tewteh2bhi
Ablative *tōtā **tewteh2bhos
Instrumental *tōtā **tewteh2bhis
Locative *tōtā **tewteh2su


  • 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

Brittonic *wiros 'man' and cognates in other languages
# Case Brittonic Gaulish Welsh Old Irish PIE
Sg Nom. *wiros wiros gŵr fer *wiHros
Voc. *wire wire firL *wiHre
Acc. *wiron wirom ferN *wiHrom
Gen. *wirī wirī firL *wiHrosyo
Dat. *wirū wirū fiurL *wiHroh1
Abl. ins. *wirū *wiHroh1
Loc. *wirē *wiHrey
Du Nom. acc. voc. *wirō wirō ferL *wiHroh1
Gen. *wirōs fer *wiHrows
Dat. *wirobon feraib *wiHrobhām
Abl. *wirobin *wiHrobhām
Ins. *wirobin *wiHrobhām
Loc. *wirou *wiHrows
Pl Nom. voc. *wirī wirī gwŷr firL (nom.), firuH (voc.) *wiHroy
Acc. *wirūs wirūs firuH *wiHrons
Gen. *wiron wiron ferN *wiHrooHom
Dat. *wirobi wirobi feraib *wiHrōys
Abl. *wirobi *wiHromos
Ins. *wirobi *wiHrōys
Loc. *wirobi *wiHroysu


  • Neuter 2nd declension stems deviate from the paradigm as such:
Neuter 2nd declension stem *cradion
# Case Brittonic
Sg Nom. voc. acc. *cradion
Pl Nom. voc. acc. *cradiā


  • Dual is same as singular
  • All other declensions same as regular 2nd declension paradigm

Third declension

Brittonic *carrecis and cognates in other languages
# Case Brittonic Gaulish Welsh Old Irish PIE
Sg Nom. *carrecis carreg carrac
Voc. *carreci
Acc. *carrecin
Gen. *carrecēs
Dat. *carrecē
Abl. ins. loc. *carrecī
Du Nom. *carrecī
Gen. *carreciōs
Dat. *carrecibon
Abl. ins. loc. *carrecī
Pl Nom. voc. acc. *carrecīs cerrig
Gen. *carrecion
Dat. *carrecibo
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:

  • Avon from abonā[b] = 'river' (cf. Welsh afon, Cornish avon, Breton aven)
  • Britain, cognate with Pritani = (possibly) 'People of the Forms' (cf. Welsh Prydain 'Britain', pryd 'appearance, form, image, resemblance'; Irish cruth 'appearance, shape', Old Irish Cruithin 'Picts')
  • Cheviot from *cev- = 'ridge' and -ed, a noun suffix[28]
  • Dover: as pre-medieval Latin did not distinguish a Spanish-style mixed [b/v] sound, the phonetic standard way of reading Dubrīs is as [dʊβriːs]. It means 'water(s)' (cognate with old Welsh dwfr, plural phonetically /dəvrʊɪð/, Cornish dowr, Breton dour, and Irish dobhar, its orthography bh denoting [v] or [β] phonetically)
  • Kent from canto- = 'border' (becoming in Welsh cant(el) 'rim, brim', in Breton, kant)
  • Lothian, (Lleuddiniawn in medieval Welsh) from *Lugudũn(iãnon) 'Fort of Lugus'
  • Severn from Sabrīna,[b] perhaps the name of a goddess (modern Welsh, Hafren)
  • Thames from Tamesis = 'dark' (likely cognate with Welsh tywyll 'darkness', Cornish tewal, Breton teñval, Irish teimheal, pointing to a Brittonic approximate word temeselo-)
  • Thanet (headland) from tan-eto- = 'bonfire', 'aflame' (cf. Welsh tân 'fire', Cornish tanses, Old Breton tanet 'aflame')
  • York from Ebur-ākon[b] = 'yew tree stand/group' (cognate with Welsh Efrog, from efwr 'cow parsnip, hogweed' + -og 'abundant in', Breton evor 'alder buckthorn', Scottish Gaelic iubhar 'yew', iùbhrach 'stand/grove of yew trees'; cognate with Évreux in France, Évora in Portugal and Newry, Northern Ireland) via Latin Eburacum > OE Eoforwīc (re-analysed by English speakers as eofor 'boar' with Old English wic appended at the end) > Old Norse Jórvík

Basic words tor, combe, bere, and hele from Brittonic are common in Devon place-names.[29] Tautologous, hybrid word 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.[16]
  2. ^ a b c See note on pre-medieval-Latin recording of the letter b at Dover, in this section.


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  2. ^ Common Brittonic at MultiTree on the Linguist List
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Rhys, Guto. "Approaching the Pictish language: historiography, early evidence and the question of Pritenic" (PDF). University of Glasgow.
  4. ^ Eska, Joseph F. (2019-12-01). "The evolution of proto-Brit. *-/lth/ in Welsh". Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie. 66 (1): 75–82. doi:10.1515/zcph-2019-0003. ISSN 1865-889X. S2CID 212726410.
  5. ^ Sims-Williams, Patrick (November 1984). "The Double System of Verbal Inflexion in Old Irish". Transactions of the Philological Society. 82 (1): 138–201. doi:10.1111/j.1467-968X.1984.tb01211.x. ISSN 0079-1636.
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  8. ^ Koch, John T. (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 1455.
  9. ^ Eska, Joseph (2008). "Continental Celtic". In Woodard, Roger (ed.). The Ancient Languages of Europe. Cambridge.
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  11. ^ Forsyth, Katherine (1997). Language in Pictland: The case against "non-Indo-European Pictish". Utrecht: de Keltische Draak. p. 27.
  12. ^ Jackson, Kenneth H. (1955). "The Pictish Language". In Wainwright, F. T. (ed.). The Problem of the Picts. Edinburgh: Nelson. pp. 129–166.
  13. ^ Lewis, H. (1943). Yr Elfen Ladin yn yr Iaith Gymraeg. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
  14. ^ a b Nicolaisen, W. F. H. Scottish Place Names. p. 131.
  15. ^ Tanner, Marcus (2004). The last of the Celts. Yale University Press. p. 225. ISBN 0300104642.
  16. ^ Ferdinand, Siarl (2018). "The Promotion of Cornish in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly: Attitudes towards the Language and Recommendations for Policy". Studia Celtica Fennica. 19: 107–130. doi:10.33353/scf.79496.
  17. ^ O'Rahilly, Thomas (1964). Early Irish history and mythology. School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. ISBN 0-901282-29-4.
  18. ^ Freeman, Philip (2001). Ireland and the Classical World. University of Texas Press.[page needed]
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ Mees, Bernard (2009). Celtic Curses. Boydell & Brewer. p. 35.
  21. ^ Patrick Sims-Williams, "Common Celtic, Gallo-Brittonic, and Insular Celtic", Gaulois et celtique continental, eds. Pierre-Yves Lambert and Georges-Jean Pinault (Geneva: Droz, 2007), 327.
  22. ^ Tomlin, 1987.
  23. ^ Pierre-Yves Lambert, La langue gauloise, éditions errance 1994. p. 17.
  24. ^ Burns Mcarthur, Thomas (2005). Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192806376. Retrieved 30 April 2021.
  25. ^ "Cornish language no longer extinct, says UN". BBC News Online. 7 November 2010. Retrieved 30 April 2021.
  26. ^ "Dictionaries of the Scots Language". Retrieved 30 April 2021.
  27. ^ McCone 1996, p. 145–165
  28. ^ James, Alan. "The Brittonic Language in the Old North: A Guide to the Place-name Evidence" (PDF). SPNS.org.uk. Scottish Place Name Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 August 2017. Retrieved 13 January 2019.
  29. ^ Gover, J. E. B.; Mawer, A.; Stenton, F. A. (1932). Place-names of Devon. English Place-name Society.
  30. ^ Green, Terry (2003). "The Archaeology of some North Devon Place-Names". NDAS.org.uk. North Devon Archaeological Society. Archived from the original on 4 October 2011. Retrieved 11 January 2011.


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