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 CE, this language of the Celtic
Britons had split into the various Neo-Brittonic languages: Welsh,
Cumbric, Cornish, Breton and perhaps also Pictish.
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
Common Brittonic was later replaced in most of
Middle Irish (which later developed into Scottish Gaelic)
and south of the
Firth of Forth
Firth of Forth also by
Old English (which later
developed into Scots).
Brittonic was gradually replaced by English throughout England; in
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
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
3.1 First declension
3.2 Second declension
4 Place names
4.1 Examples of place names derived from the Brittonic languages
7 External links
Bath curse tablet featuring possible Common Brittonic
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
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
Tacitus' Agricola noted that the language of Britain differed little
from that of Gaul. Comparison with what is known of the Gaulish
language suggests a close relationship with Brittonic.
Pritenic (also Pretanic) is a modern term that has been coined to
label the language of the inhabitants of prehistoric
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
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
The rarity of survival of Pritenic names is probably due to Dál
Riatan and Norse settlement in the area.
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
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,
Common Brittonic consonants
Common Brittonic vowels
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
Common Brittonic vowels
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:
Brittonic *tōtā "tribe" and cognates in other languages
Nom. acc. voc.
The dative dual and plural represent the inherited instrumental forms,
which replaced the inherited dative dual and plural, from Proto-Celtic
Brittonic *wiros "man" and cognates in other languages
Nom. acc. voc.
firᴸ (nom.), firuᴴ (voc.)
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
Main article: Celtic toponymy
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
Lothian (Lleuddiniawn in medieval Welsh) from *Lugudũn(iãnon) "Fort
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
Thames from Tamesis = "dark" (akin to Welsh tywyll "darkness", 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
Scottish Gaelic iubhar "yew") via
Latin Eburacum > OE
Eoforwīc (re-analysed with OE roots as 'boar-village') > ON
Some Brittonic place names are known but are no longer used. In a
charter of 682 the name of Creech St Michael,
Somerset is given as
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
Common Brittonic at
MultiTree on the Linguist List
^ Henderson, Jon C. (2007). The Atlantic Iron Age: Settlement and
Identity in the First Millennium BC. Routledge.
^ Sims-Williams, Patrick (2007). Studies on Celtic Languages before
the Year 1000. CMCS. p. 1.
^ Koch, John (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia.
ABC-CLIO. p. 1455.
^ Eska, Joseph (2008). "Continental Celtic". In Roger Woodard. The
Ancient Languages of Europe. Cambridge.
^ Forsyth, Katherine (2006). John Koch, ed. Celtic Culture: A
Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 1444, 1447.
^ Forsyth, Katherine, Language in Pictland : the case against
"non-Indo-European Pictish" (Utrecht: de Keltische Draak, 1997), 27.
^ Jackson, Kenneth (1955). "The Pictish Language". In F. T.
Wainwright. The Problem of the Picts. Edinburgh: Nelson.
^ Lewis, H. (1943). Yr Elfen Ladin yn yr Iaith Gymraeg. Cardiff:
Cornwall Council, 2010-12-07. UNESCO classes Cornish as a language
in the ‘process of revitalization’. Retrieved 2011-01-13.
^ Philip Freeman (2001).
Ireland and the Classical World. University
of Texas Press.
^ 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.
^ Mees, Bernard (2009). Celtic Curses. Boydell & Brewer.
^ 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.
^ Gover, Mawer and Stenton: Place-Names of Devon, 1932
^ Green, Terry (2003). "The Archaeology of some North Devon
Devon Archaeological Society. Retrieved 11 January
Atkinson and Gray[clarification needed] (2005). “Are Accurate Dates
an Intractable Problem for Historical Linguistics?”, Mapping Our
Ancestors, eds. Mark Collard et al. Transaction Books
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):
Lambert, Pierre-Yves (ed.), Recueil des inscriptions gauloises II.2.
Textes gallo-latins sur instrumentum, Paris: CNRS Editions, 2002, p.
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
Price, Glanville. (2000). Languages of Britain and Ireland, Blackwell.
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.
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
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.
Celtic Personal Names of Roman Britain
Roman road stations of the Cannock-Chase area
Alex Mullen (2007), "Evidence for Written Celtic from Roman Britain: A
Linguistic Analysis of Tabellae Sulis 14 and 18", Studia Celtica
Y Fro Gymraeg
Cape Breton Island
Irish medium education
Gaelic medium education
Manx medium education
Welsh medium education
Breton medium education
Cornish medium nursery
Italics indicate extinct or ancestor languages
United Kingdom (England
Isle of Man
United Kingdom relations
British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference
British–Irish Parliamentary Assembly
Common Travel Area
Islands of the Clyde
Isle of Man
Isles of Scilly
Lists of islands of
Bailiwick of Guernsey
Bailiwick of Jersey
Isle of Man
Isle of Man
Irish Free State
Kingdom of England
Principality of Wales
Kingdom of Great Britain
Kingdom of Ireland
Kingdom of Scotland
United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Ireland
British Sign Language
Irish Sign Language
Ireland Sign Language