Pictish language

Region Scotland, north of the Forth-Clyde line
Extinct by ca. 1100 AD
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xpi
Linguist list
Glottolog pict1238[1]

Pictish is the extinct language, or dialect, spoken by the Picts, the people of northern and central Scotland in the Early Middle Ages. There is virtually no direct attestation of Pictish, short of a limited number of geographical and personal names found on monuments and the contemporary records in the area controlled by the Kingdom of the Picts. Such evidence, however, points to the language being closely related to the Brittonic language spoken prior to Anglo-Saxon settlement in what is now southern Scotland, England and Wales. A minority view held by a few scholars claims that Pictish was at least partially non-Indo-European or that a non-Indo-European and Brittonic language coexisted.

Pictish was replaced by Gaelic in the latter centuries of the Pictish period. During the reign of Caustantín mac Áeda (900–943), outsiders began to refer to the region as the kingdom of Alba rather than the kingdom of the Picts. However, though the Pictish language did not disappear suddenly, a process of Gaelicisation (which may have begun generations earlier) was clearly underway during the reigns of Caustantín and his successors. By a certain point, probably during the 11th century, all the inhabitants of Alba had become fully Gaelicised Scots, and Pictish identity was forgotten.[2]

Language classification

Picture by Joseph Ratcliffe Skelton (1865–1927) depicting Columba preaching to Bridei, king of Fortriu in 565.

The existence of a distinct Pictish language during the Early Middle Ages is attested clearly in Bede's early 8th century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, which names Pictish as a language distinct from that spoken by the Britons, the Irish, and the English.[3] Bede states that Columba, a Gael, used an interpreter during his mission to the Picts. A number of competing theories have been advanced regarding the nature of the Pictish language:

Most scholars agree that Pictish was a branch of the Brittonic language, while a few scholars merely accept that it was related to the Brittonic language.[4] Pictish came under increasing pressure and influence from Old Irish spoken in Dál Riata from the 5th century until its eventual replacement.[4]

Pictish is thought to have influenced the development of modern Scottish Gaelic. This is perhaps most obvious in the contribution of loan words, but more importantly it is thought that Pictish influenced the syntax of Scottish Gaelic, which bears greater similarity to Brittonic languages than does Irish.[5]

Position within Celtic

The evidence of place names and personal names demonstrates that an Insular Celtic language related to the more southerly Brittonic languages was formerly spoken in the Pictish area.[6] The view of Pictish as a P-Celtic language was first proposed in 1582 by George Buchanan, who aligned the language with Gaulish.[7] A compatible view was advanced by antiquarian George Chalmers in the early 19th century. Chalmers considered that Pictish and Brittonic were one and the same, basing his argument on P-Celtic orthography in the Pictish king lists and in place names predominant in historically Pictish areas.[8]

Personal names of Roman-era chieftains from the Pictish area, including Calgacus (above) have a Celtic origin.[9]

Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes, in a philological study of the Irish annals, concluded that Pictish was closely related to Welsh.[10] This conclusion was supported by philologist Alexander MacBain's analysis of the place and tribe names in Ptolemy's 2nd century Geographia.[11] Toponymist William Watson's exhaustive review of Scottish place names demonstrated convincingly the existence of a dominant P-Celtic language in historically Pictish areas, concluding that the Pictish language was a Northern extension of British and that Gaelic was a later introduction from Ireland.[12]

William Forbes Skene argued in 1837 that Pictish was a Goidelic language, the ancestor of modern Scottish Gaelic.[13] He suggested that Columba's use of an interpreter reflected his preaching to the Picts in Latin, rather than any difference between the Irish and Pictish languages.[14] This view, involving independent settlement of Ireland and Scotland by Goidelic people, obviated an Irish influence in the development of Gaelic Scotland and enjoyed wide popular acceptance in 19th century Scotland, but is no longer given credence.[15]

While Skene's notion of an exclusively Q-Celtic Pictish language has long been rejected, the Picts were under increasing political, social and linguistic pressure from Dál Riata from around the 5th century. The Picts were steadily Gaelicised through the latter centuries of the Pictish Kingdom, and by the time of the merging of the Pictish and Dál Riatan kingdoms, the Picts were essentially a Gaelic-speaking people.[16] Forsyth speculates that a period of bilingualism may have outlasted the Pictish kingdom in peripheral areas by several generations.[17] Scottish Gaelic, unlike Irish (and, for that matter, Old Irish) maintains a substantial corpus of Brittonic loan-words and, moreover, uses a verbal system modelled on the same pattern as Welsh.[18]

Pre-Indo-European theory

Difficulties in translation of Ogham inscriptions, like those found on the Brandsbutt Stone, led to a widely held belief that Pictish was a non-Indo-European language

John Rhys, in 1892, proposed that Pictish was a non-Indo-European language. This opinion was based on the apparently unintelligible ogham inscriptions found in historically Pictish areas.[19] A similar position was taken by Heinrich Zimmer, who argued that the Picts' supposedly exotic cultural practices (tattooing and matriliny) were equally non-Indo-European,[20] and a Pre-Indo-European model was maintained by some well into the 20th century.[21]

A modified version of this theory was advanced in an influential 1955 review of Pictish by Kenneth Jackson. Jackson proposed a two-language model: while Pictish was undoubtedly P-Celtic, it may have had a non-Celtic substratum and a second language may have been used for inscriptions.[22] Jackson's hypothesis was framed in the then-current model that a Brittonic elite, identified as the Broch-builders, had migrated from the south of Britain into Pictish territory, dominating a pre-Celtic majority.[23] He used this to reconcile the perceived translational difficulties of Ogham with the overwhelming evidence for a P-Celtic Pictish language. Jackson was content to write off Ogham inscriptions as inherently unintelligible.[24]

Jackson's model became the orthodox position for the latter half of the 20th century. However, it has become progressively undermined by advances in understanding of late Iron Age archaeology, as well as by improved understanding of the enigmatic Ogham inscriptions, a number of which have since been interpreted as Celtic.[25]

Despite this, Eric P. Hamp in his 2012 Indo-European family tree, classified Pictish as a non-Indo-European language.[26]

Discredited theories

Traditional accounts (now rejected) claimed that the Picts had migrated to Scotland from Scythia, a region that encompassed Eastern Europe and Central Asia.[27] Buchanan, looking for a Scythian P-Celtic candidate for the ancestral Pict, settled on the Gaulish-speaking Cotini (which he rendered as Gothuni), a tribe from the region that is now Slovakia. This was later misunderstood by Robert Sibbald in 1710, who equated Gothuni with the Germanic-speaking Goths.[28] John Pinkerton expanded on this in 1789, claiming that Pictish was the predecessor to Modern Scots.[29] Pinkerton's arguments were often rambling, bizarre and clearly motivated by his belief that Celts were an inferior people. The theory of a Germanic Pictish language is no longer considered credible.[30]


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Pictish". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Broun, "Dunkeld", Broun, "National Identity", Forsyth, "Scotland to 1100", pp. 28–32, Woolf, "Constantine II"; cf. Bannerman, "Scottish Takeover", passim, representing the "traditional" view.
  3. Bede HE I.1; references to Pictish also at several other points in that text.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Forsyth 2006, p. 1447; Forsyth 1997; Fraser 2009, pp. 52–53; Woolf 2007, pp. 322–340
  5. Forsyth 2006, p. 1447; Woolf 2007, pp. 322–340
  6. Watson 1926; Jackson 1955; Koch 1983; Smyth 1984; Forsyth 1997; Price 2000; Forsyth 2006; Woolf 2007; Fraser 2009
  7. All other research into Pictish has been described as a postscript to Buchanan's work. This view may be something of an oversimplification: Forsyth 1997 offers a short account of the debate; Cowan 2000 may be helpful for a broader view.
  8. Chalmers 1807, pp. 198–224
  9. Calgacus ('swordsman') was recorded by Tacitus in his Agricola. Another example is Argentocoxus ('steel leg'), recorded by Cassius Dio. See: Forsyth 2006
  10. Stokes 1890, p. 392
  11. Macbain 1892
  12. Watson 1926
  13. Skene 1837, pp. 67–87; Fraser 1923
  14. Skene 1837, pp. 71–72
  15. Jackson 1955, p. 131; Forsyth 1997, p. 6
  16. Forsyth 2006, p. 1447
  17. Forsyth 1995a
  18. Greene 1966, p. 135
  19. Rhys 1892; Rhys 1898
  20. Zimmer 1898; see Woolf 1998 for a more current view of Pictish matriliny
  21. For example: MacNeil 1938-1939; MacAlister 1940
  22. Jackson 1955
  23. See, for example, Piggot 1955
  24. For a general view, see Jackson 1955
  25. See Armit 1990 for an up-to-date view of the development of proto-Pictish culture and Brochs as an indigenous development; Forsyth 1998 gives a general review of the advances in understanding of Ogham.
  26. Hamp 2013
  27. See for example Bede HE I:1; Forsyth 2006 suggests this tradition originated from a misreading of Servius' fifth century AD commentary on Virgil's Aeneid:
    Aeneid 4:146 reads: Cretesque Dryopesque fremunt pictique Agathyrsi.
    Servius' commentary states: Pictique Agathyrsi populi sunt Scythiae, colentes Apollinem hyperboreum, cuius logia, id est responsa, feruntur. 'Picti' autem, non stigmata habentes, sicut gens in Britannia, sed pulchri, hoc est cyanea coma placentes. Which actually states that the Scythian Agathyrsi did not "bear marks" like the British, but had blue hair.
  28. Sibbald 1710
  29. Pinkerton 1789
  30. For a discussion of Sibbald's misunderstanding and of Pinkerton's thesis, see Ferguson 1991


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