Common Brittonic

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Common Brittonic
RegionGreat Britain south of the Firth of Forth
Erac. 6th century BC to mid-6th century AD[1]
Developed into Old Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, and Breton
Language codes
ISO 639-3

Common Brittonic (Old English: Brytisċ; Welsh: Brythoneg; Cornish: Brythonek; Breton: Predeneg) was a Celtic language spoken in Britain and Brittany. It is also variously known as Old Brittonic, British, and Common or Old Brythonic.

It is a form of Insular Celtic, descended from Proto-Celtic, a theorized parent tongue that, by the first half of the first millennium BC, was diverging into separate dialects or languages.[2][3][4][5] Pictish is linked, likely as a sister language or a descendant branch.[6][7][8]

Evidence from early and modern Welsh shows that Common Brittonic took a significant amount of influence from Latin during the Roman period, especially in terms related to the church and Christianity.[9] By the sixth century AD, the tongues of the Celtic Britons were more rapidly splitting into "Neo-Brittonic": Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, Breton and possibly the Pictish language.

Over the next three centuries it was replaced in most of Scotland by Middle Irish (which later developed into Scottish Gaelic) 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.[10] Cumbric disappeared in the 12th century[10] and, in the far south-west, Cornish probably became extinct in the eighteenth century, though its use has since been revived.[11][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.[13]



Bath curse tablet featuring possible Common Brittonic

No documents in the tongue have been found, but a few inscriptions have been identified.[14] 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:[15] "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."[16] 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."[17]

A tin/lead sheet retains part of 9 text lines, damaged, with likely Brittonic names.[18]

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 tongue. 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 tongue differed little from that of Gaul. Comparison with what is known of Gaulish confirms the similarity.[19]


Pritenic (also Pretanic) is a modern term to label the inhabitants' tongue of prehistoric Scotland during Roman rule further south (1st to 5th centuries). Within the disputed P-Celtic vs. Q-Celtic time division of the Celtic languages, "Pritenic" is a sister or daughter language of Common Brittonic, from a common P-Celtic language spoken around the 1st century BC.

The recorded 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. Katherine Forsyth (1997) reviewed them 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 Dál Riatan and Norse settlement.

The dialect position of Pritenic was 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 this. By the 8th century, Bede considered Pictish and Welsh/British to be separate.


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.

The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain during the 6th century saw a much steeper decline; increasingly the tongue gave way to Old English. Some speakers migrated to Armorica and Galicia. By 700, it was mainly restricted to North West England, Southern Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Devon and Brittany. There, it evolved into Cumbric, Welsh, Cornish and Breton, respectively.



(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. /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


  • 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[edit]

Brittonic *tōtā "tribe" and cognates in other languages
# 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
Abl. *tōtī toutī *tewteh₂es
Ins. *tōtī toutī *tewteh₂(e)h₁
Loc. *tōtī toutī *tewteh₂i
Du Nom. acc. voc. *tōtī túaithᴸ *tewteh₂h₁e
Gen. *tōtious túathᴸ *tewteh₂ows
Dat. *tōtābon túathaib *tewteh₂bʰām
Abl. Ins. *tōtābin *tewteh₂bʰām
Loc. *tōtābin *tewteh₂ows
Pl Nom. voc. *tōtās toutās túathaᴴ *tewteh₂es
Acc. *tōtās toutās túathaᴴ *tewteh₂ns
Gen. *tōtābon toutānon túathᴺ *tewteh₂om
Dat. *tōtābo toutābi túathaib *tewteh₂bʰi
Abl. *tōtā *tewteh₂bʰos
Ins. *tōtā *tewteh₂bʰis
Loc. *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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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[20]
  • Dover, as pre-medieval-Latin could 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 phon. /dəvrʊɪð/, Cornish dowr, Breton dour, Irish dobhar, its orthography "bh" denoting v or β phonetically)
  • Kent from canto- = "border" (becoming in Welsh cant(el) "rim, brim", in Breton, kant)
  • Leeds in Old English Loidis, from an earlier *Lǭtẹses, from *lǭd meaning "rut,[which?] heat, ardour" (c.f. Welsh llawd)[21]
  • 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 and Évora in Portugal) via Latin Eburacum > OE Eoforwīc (re-analysed by the Anglo-Saxons as eofor 'boar' with Old English wic appended at the end) > ON Jórvík

Basic words tor, combe, bere, and hele from Brittonic common in Devon place-names.[22] Tautologous, two-tongue names exist in England, such as:

Footnotes and references[edit]

  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.[12]
  2. ^ a b c see note on pre-medieval-Latin recording of the letter b at Dover, in this section.
  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.
  3. ^ Sims-Williams, Patrick (2007). Studies on Celtic Languages before the Year 1000. CMCS. p. 1.
  4. ^ Koch, John (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 1455.
  5. ^ Eska, Joseph (2008). "Continental Celtic". In Roger Woodard (ed.). The Ancient Languages of Europe. Cambridge.
  6. ^ Forsyth, Katherine (2006). John Koch (ed.). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 1444, 1447.
  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.
  9. ^ Lewis, H. (1943). Yr Elfen Ladin yn yr Iaith Gymraeg. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
  10. ^ a b Nicolaisen, W. F. H. Scottish Place Names p. 131
  11. ^ Tanner, Marcus (2004). The last of the Celts. Yale University Press. p. 225. ISBN 0300104642.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ O'Rahilly, Thomas. Early Irish history and mythology. School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. ISBN 0-901282-29-4.
  14. ^ Philip Freeman (2001). Ireland and the Classical World. University of Texas Press.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Mees, Bernard (2009). Celtic Curses. Boydell & Brewer. p. 35.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Tomlin, 1987.
  19. ^ Pierre-Yves Lambert, La langue gauloise, éditions errance 1994. p. 17.
  20. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-08-13. Retrieved 2019-01-13.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  21. ^ James, Alan. "The Brittonic Language in the Old North - A Guide to the Place-Name Evidence" (PDF). Scottish Place Name Society. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  22. ^ Gover, Mawer and Stenton: Place-Names of Devon, 1932
  23. ^ Green, Terry (2003). "The Archaeology of some North Devon Place-Names". North Devon Archaeological Society. Archived from the original on 4 October 2011. Retrieved 11 January 2011.


  • 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’”, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 6 (1986): 1–28.
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  • 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, Glanville. (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. Bremen: Hempen Verlag, 2011.
  • Trudgill, P. (ed.) (1984) Language in the British Isles, Cambridge University Press.
  • Willis, David. 2009. “Old and Middle Welsh”, The Celtic Languages, 2nd edn, eds. Martin J. Ball & Nichole Müller. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-203-88248-2. pp. 117–160.

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