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Pictish is a term used for the extinct language or languages thought to have been spoken by the Picts, the people of northern and central Scotlandmarker in the Early Middle Ages. The idea that a distinct Pictish language was perceived at some point is only attested clearly in Bede's early 8th-century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, but there is not enough evidence to test either the language's sprachraum or its coherency as a dialect continuum.

What evidence there is of the language is limited to place names and to the names of people found on monuments and the contemporary records in the area controlled by the Kingdom of the Picts at its height. At its height, it may have been spoken from Shetlandmarker down to Fifemarker. The term "Pictish" was used by Jackson, and followed by Forsyth, to mean the language spoken mainly north of the Forth-Clyde line in the Early Middle Ages. They use the term "Pritennic" to refer to the language spoken in the Iron Age in this area that was the precursor to Pictish. Some scholars believe that there was an earlier non-Celtic language. However, the term "Pictish" is sometimes used to refer to the earlier language.

Language classification

The evidence of place names and personal names argue strongly that at some point at least some of the people in the Pictish area spoke Insular Celtic languages related to the more southerly Brythonic languages though it has also been proposed that the language was more similar to Gaulish than the Brythonic languages. Columba, a Gael, used an interpreter in Pictland when conducting ceremonies in Latin; Bede claimed that the Pictish was a distinct language from that spoken by the Britons, the Irish, and the English, statements which say nothing about the nature of the Pictish language. It has been argued that one or more non-Indo-European languages survived in Pictland, an argument that is considered to be based primarily on limited negative evidence and the long-discarded view that languages and material cultures can spread only by invasion and migration. It is debated whether any Pre-Indo-European elements can be found in northern Scottish place names , and it is theorised that some Pictish ogam inscriptions might also represent examples of this language .

The classification of the Pictish language(s) is still controversial, mainly depending on whether the inscriptions are considered. An influential 1955 review of Pictish by Jackson considered that Pictish was probably P-Celtic and was a sibling language to Brittonic, but that it might have had a non-Celtic substratum and that a second language may have been used for inscriptions; however, the 1997 review by Forsyth denies this second language.

During 1582, the humanist scholar (and native Gaelic-speaker) George Buchanan expressed the view that Pictish was similar to languages like Welsh, Gaulish, and Gaelic. All other research into Pictish has been described as a postscript to Buchanan's work.

On the basis of the inscriptions, Rhys suggested that Pictish was a non-Indo-European language and considered whether it could be related to Basque, but later rejected this. Zimmer thought that it was originally "non-Aryan" though later overlaid with Goidelic and Brittonic. This was revived by Macneill and by Macalister. Some scholars, namely Skene and Fraser, have argued that Pictish was a Q-Celtic language, and indeed there is likely to have been an influence from Scotti invasions from Ireland, but the majority consider it to have been a P-Celtic language since Stokes in 1890. Watson considered that it was a Brittonic dialect. Glanville Price in The Languages of Britain discusses Celtic languages in general and the Celtic Pictish language specifically. He also has a chapter on the alleged non-Indo-European language of Pictland.

Forsyth states that there are only two serious hypotheses, that Pictish was a P-Celtic language or a non-Indo-European one. Jackson's review was based on the view that the "broch builders" were recent immigrants but the current view is that brochs were an indigenous development .He considered that a Celtic elite dominated a pre-Celtic majority , but Forsyth does not agree with this. She recognises that there were pre-Celtic languages in Scotland but claims that there is no evidence for survival of such a language into the historical period in Britain or Ireland. Thus the Picts were seen as a name given during Early Medieval times to all the various people arriving from the Ice Age onward. Although Jackson considered that some of the known names in Scotland during the Roman period were not certainly Celtic, most if not all are now considered to be Celtic. Forsyth rejects this view as being non-Indo-European and considers them to be pre-Celtic Indo-European, but does not consider them to be evidence of language survival.

In the Welsh literature of the "Old North" the Picts are referred to as 'Pryden' and the island of Britain is known as 'Prydain'. These represent an original British *Priten- and it is possible that this is the original P-Celtic name for Britain and its inhabitants. (Greek authors used the version "Pretanikos" for Britain.) With Roman influence the Britons of the Roman Province perhaps began calling themselves 'Brittones' living in 'Britannia' while the Picts represented those un-Romanised Britons beyond the pale, keeping the older native name. Pictish then would be an un- or less Romanised version of the British language, explaining the similarity of place and personal name elements in Pictland with those of the British further south in the Old North and Wales.

Classical writers

During the first century BC Diodorus Siculus mentions a Cape Orcas in Scotland, which was probably derived from a P-Celtic tribal name of *Orci. Tacitus, writing in AD 97 in Agricola, mentions Caledonia and Mount Graupius which Jackson says cannot be proved to be P-Celtic. However the main source of tribal and place names is Ptolemy's map in the second century AD. There are 38 names, of which 16 are probably Celtic while the remainder are not certainly Celtic according to Jackson. Of the latter, 23 are hydronyms and toponyms that are known to be classes of names that do not change readily and may well be non-Celtic.


[[Image:OrkneyOgham.jpg|thumb|The Buckquoy spindle-whorl was once thought to contain an indecipherable non-Indo-European inscription.In fact the inscription, written in 8th century Orkney with Ogham, can now be deciphered and was written in a language identifiable with Old Irish. The inscription is of a common benedictive type, reading Benddact anim L., "a blessing on the soul of L".]]Among the ogham stones in Scotland there is a small subset that do not have Gaelic inscriptions. These are generally assumed to be in Pictish as they date from the Early Middle Ages. However, many alternative languages have been suggested -- from non-Indo-European to Norse. It may have been that an older language was retained for inscriptions, in a similar way to Latin.

According to W. B. Lockwood (1975), the view that Pictish was a Celtic language is tentative. Referring to an inscription in Shetland, he writes: "When the personal names are extracted, the residue is entirely incomprehensible. Thus the Lunnasting stone in Shetland reads ettocuhetts ahehhttann hccvvevv nehhtons. The last word is clearly the commonly occurring name Nechton, but the rest, even allowing for the perhaps arbitrary doubling of consonants in Ogam, appears so exotic that philologists conclude that Pictish was a non-Indo-European language of unknown affinities". Jackson considered that the language of the inscriptions was a different one from that of the place-names. However, Forsyth has interpreted these inscriptions as a Celtic language. Henri Guiter in 1968 concluded that the language was a form of Basque, which might tie in with DNA studies of pre-historic migrations.

Place and tribal names

Place names are often used to try to deduce the existence of Pictish use in Scotlandmarker. There are two sources of evidence, those recorded by classical writers and those of modern times. Ptolemy's Geographia provides the greatest number of names for Pictland, a total of 49 with 41 separate forms. These consist of 7 islands, 12 tribes, 3 towns and 19 coastal features. Jackson considered 22 of these "not certainly Celtic" but Forsyth points out that the towns are Roman Settlements, three of which are rivers and Bannatia is Brittonic. Two of the tribes also occur in the south of Britain but the evidence for rejecting the Celticity of six of the others is slight. However, Forsyth does not dispute that some of the rivers and islands are best interpreted as pre-Celtic or even pre-Indo-European names.

Those modern place-names prefixed with "Aber-" (river mouth), "Lhan-" (churchyard), "Pit-" (portion, share, farm), or "Fin-" (hill [?]) lie in regions inhabited by Picts in the past (for example: Aberdeenmarker, Lhanbrydemarker, Pitmeddenmarker, Pittodriemarker, Findochtymarker, etc). However, it is "Pit-" which is the most distinctive element, while "Aber-" can also be found in places which were Brythonic-speaking (such as Aberystwythmarker) in Wales. Some of the Pictish elements, such as "Pit-", were formed after Pictish times and only attested therein. "Pit" refers to pett, a unit of land, and "Pit-" names occur in Scottish Gaelic place-names from the 12th century onwards as a generic element variation, showing that the word had this meaning in that language. The cognate Welsh word 'peth' is not used in place-names with this sense, though the French word "pièce" - 'part' (giving English 'piece') comes from the vulgar Latin 'pettia' which in turn seems to come from the Gaulish word cognate to the Pictish "Pit-" Other suggested Pictish place-name elements include "pert" (hedge, Welsh perth - Perth, Larbert), "carden" (thicket, Welsh cardden - Pluscarden, Kincardine), "pevr" (shining, Welsh pefr - Strathpeffer, Peffery).

The place-names of Pictland have been affected by the influx of later Gaelic and Norse speakers.

The evidence of place names may also reveal the advance of Gaelic into Pictland. As noted, Atholl, perhaps meaning "New Ireland", is attested for the early 8th century. This may be an indication of the advance of Gaelic. Fortriu also contains place names suggesting Gaelic settlement, or Gaelic influences. There are a number of Pictish loanwords in modern Scottish Gaelic.

Apart from personal names, Bede provides a single Pictish place name (HE, I, 12), when discussing the Antonine Wallmarker: "It begins at about two miles' distance from the monastery of Abercurnig, on the west, at a place called in the Pictish language, Peanfahel, but in the English tongue, Penneltun, and running to the westward, ends near the city Alcluith." Peanfahel - modern Kinneil, near Bo'nessmarker - appears to contain elements cognate with Brythonic penn 'at the end' and Goidelic fal 'wall'. It is notable that this place is south of the Forth, in West Lothianmarker, outside of what is traditionally regarded as "Pictland". Alcluith, 'rock of the Clyde', is modern Dumbarton Rock, site of a major early medieval fortress and later castle.

Personal names and orthography

Apart from the inscriptions, the main source of personal names in Pictish is the Pictish Chronicle, which possibly dates from the 8th century but is only available in a 10th century version. This gives the names of Pictish kings, some of which are considered to be in Pictish orthography (e.g. Urguist, Ciniod) while others are in Gaelic orthography (e.g. Fergus, Cinaed).



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