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British or Brythonic (also known as Brittonic, Old Brythonic or Common Brythonic) was an ancient Brythonic (P-Celtic) language spoken throughout the island of Britainmarker, south of the Firth of Forthmarker.

It is not known when the British language arrived—dates from the Neolithic to the Iron Age have been suggested. Evidence from Welsh shows a great influence from Latin on British during the Roman period, and especially so in terms related to the Church and Christianity, which are nearly all Latin derivatives. British was later replaced in Highland Scotland by Scottish Gaelic and by English, though it survived into the Middle Ages in Southern Scotland and Cumbria—see Cumbric. British was replaced by English throughout England by the 18th century after the demise of Cornish and Cumbric. O'Rahilly's historical model suggests the possibility that there was a Brythonic language in Irelandmarker before the arrival of Goidelic languages there, but this view has not found wide acceptance.



No documents written in the British language have been found, but a few inscriptions have been identified. Curse tablets found in the Roman reservoir at Bath, Somersetmarker contain about 150 names, about half of which are undoubtedly Celtic but not necessarily British. 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

The affixed - Deuina, Deieda, Andagin, (and) Uindiorix - I have bound

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

Place-names are another type of evidence. 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 British. English place names still contain elements derived from British in a few cases. Latinised forms of these place names occur in Ptolemy's Geography, for example.

Modern knowledge of the tongue is limited to a few names of people and places. Comparison with Continental Celtic languages, specifically Gaulish, shows that it was similar to other Celtic languages of the time. Tacitus (in his book The Agricola) noted that the language of Britainmarker differed little from that of Gaul.


British competed with Latin since the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, at least, in major settlements. A number of Latin words were borrowed by British speakers.

The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain during the 500s marked the beginning of a decline in the language, as it was gradually replaced by Old English. Some British speakers migrated to Armorica and Galicia. By AD 700, British was mainly restricted to Northwest England, Walesmarker, Cornwallmarker and Brittany. In these regions, it evolved into Cumbric, Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

Place names

British survives today in a few Englishmarker 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 British abona "river" (compare Welsh afon, Cornish avon, Cumbric *avon, Irish abhainn, Manx awin, Breton aven; the Latin cognate is amnis).

List of place names derived from British

British-derived place-names are scattered across England, with more in the West Country, some examples are:

  • "Avon" from abonā = "river" (cf. Welsh, afon)
  • Britain from Pritani = People of the Forms (cf. Welsh Prydain, 'Britain', pryd, 'appearance, form, image, resemblance')
  • Dovermarker from dubrīs = "waters" (cf. Welsh, dŵr, older dwfr)
  • Kentmarker from cantus = "border" (cf. Welsh cant, 'rim')
  • Severn from sabrīna (cf. Welsh, Hafren)
  • Thanetmarker from tan-eto- = "(place of the) bonfire" (cf. Welsh, tan, 'fire', Breton tanet "afflame")
  • Thames from Tamesis = "darkness" (akin to Welsh tywyll, 'darkness', from Brittonic *temeselo-)
  • Yorkmarker from ebor-ākon = "stand of yew tree" (cf. Welsh, Efrog, from efwr + -og 'abondant in')

Some British place names are known but are no longer used. In a charter of 682 the name of Creech St. Michaelmarker, Somersetmarker is given as "cructan".



  • Lambert, Pierre-Yves (2003). La langue gauloise. 2nd edition. Paris, Editions Errance. p.176
  • Price, G. (2000). Languages of Britain and Ireland, Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-21581-6
  • Sims-Williams, Patrick (2003) The Celtic Inscriptions of Britain: phonology and chronology, c.400-1200. Oxford, Blackwell. ISBN 1-4051-0903-3
  • Trudgill, P. (ed.) (1984). Language in the British Isles, Cambridge University Press.
  • W.B.Lockwood. Languages of the British Isles past and present, ISBN 0-521-28409-0
  • Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word
  • Atkinson and Gray, Are Accurate Dates an Intractable Problem for Historical Linguistics. In Mapping Our Ancestry, Eds Obrien, Shennan and Collard.
  • M Fippula, The Celtic Roots of English.
  • K Jackson (1953), Language and History in Early Britain.

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