Brythonic languages

From Academic Kids

The Brythonic languages (or Brittonic languages) form one of the two branches of the Insular Celtic language family. The name Brythonic is derived from the Welsh word brython, meaning Briton. The Brythonic branch is also referred to as P-Celtic because the Brythonic reflex of the Proto-Indo-European phoneme *kw is p as opposed to the Goidelic c. Such nomenclature usually implies an acceptance of the P-Celtic hypothesis rather than the Insular Celtic hypothesis (for a discussion, see Celtic languages).

The major Brythonic languages are Welsh and Breton, both of which survive as community languages today. The Cornish language died out at the end of the eighteenth century, but was successfully revived in the twentieth. Also notable are the extinct language Cumbric, and possibly the extinct Pictish (although the late Kenneth H. Jackson argued during the 1950s, from some of the few remaining examples of Pictish, that Pictish was a non-Indo-European language, the majority of modern scholars of Pictish do not agree).


History and origins

The modern Brythonic languages all derive from a common ancestral language termed Common Brythonic, Old Brythonic or Proto-Brythonic, which is thought to have developed from the proto-Celtic language which was introduced to Britain from the middle second millennium BC (Hawkes, 1973). Brythonic languages were then spoken at least in the whole of Great Britain south of the rivers Forth and Clyde, presumably also including the Isle of Man. The theory has been advanced (notably by R. F. O'Rahilly) that Ireland was populated by speakers of Brythonic before being displaced by speakers of a Q-Celtic language (possibly from the Quarietii tribe of southern France), although the linguists Dillon and Chadwick reject this theory as being implausible.

During the period of the Roman occupation of Britain (AD 43 to c. 425), common Brythonic borrowed a large stock of Latin words, both for concepts unfamiliar in the pre-urban society of Celtic Britain such as tactics of warfare and urbanisation and rather more mundane words which displaced native terms (most notably, the word for "fish" in all the Brythonic languages derives from the Latin piscus rather the native *iskos). Approximately eight hundred of these Latin loan-words have survived in the three modern Brythonic languages.

It is probable that during this period common Brythonic was differentiated into at least two major dialect groups- Southwestern and Western (in addition we may posit additional dialects spoken in what is now England which have left little or no evidence). Between the end of the Roman occupation and the mid sixth century the two dialects began to diverge into recognisably separate languages, the Western into Cumbric and Welsh and the Southwestern into Cornish and its closely related sister language Breton, which was carried from the south of Britain to continental Armorica by refugees fleeing the Saxon invaders.

The Brythonic languages spoken in Scotland, the Isle of Man and England were displaced at the same time by Goidelic and Old English speaking invaders.

For the later history of the neo-Brythonic languages see under their own respective articles.

Remnants in England and Scotland

The principal legacy left behind in those territories from which the Brythonic languages were displaced is that of toponyms. Many of the place-names in England and to a lesser extent Scotland are derived from the Brythonic names, including London, Dumbarton, York, Dorchester, Dover and Colchester. Several place-name elements are thought to be wholly or partly Brythonic in origin, particularly bre-, bal-, and -dun for hills, carr for a high rocky place, coomb for a small deep valley.

Until recently it has been believed that those areas settled by the Anglo-Saxons were uninhabited at the time or the Britons had fled before them. However, genetic studies show that the British were not pushed out to the Celtic fringes – many tribes remained in what was to become England (see C. Capelli et al. 'A Y chromosome census of the British Isles'. Current Biology 13, 979–984, (2003)). Capelli's findings strengthen the research of Steven Bassett of Birmingham University; his work during the 1990s suggests that much of the West Midlands was only very lightly colonised with Anglian and Saxon settlements.

It is generally accepted that linguistic effects on English were lexically rather poor aside from toponyms, consisting of a few domestic words, which may include hubbub, peat, bucket, crock, noggin, gob (c.f. Gaelic gob), nook; and the dialectal term for a badger, i.e. brock (c.f. Welsh broch, and Gaelic Broc). Arguably, the use of periphrastic constructions in the English verb (which is more widespread than in the other Germanic languages) is traceable to Brythonic influence.

Some researchers argue that English syntax reflects more extensive Brythonic influences. For instance, in English tag questions, the form of the tag depends on the verb form in the main statement (aren't I?, isn't he?, won't we? etc). The German nicht wahr? and the French n'est ce pas?, by contrast, are fixed forms which can be used with almost any main statement. It has been claimed that the English system has been borrowed from Brythonic, since Welsh tag questions vary in almost exactly the same way. This view is far from being generally accepted, though, since it is equally possible that the Welsh construction is borrowed from English.

Far more notable, but less well known, are the Brythonic influences on Scottish Gaelic which are many. Like English, periphrastic constructions have come to the fore, but to a much greater degree. Some important borrowings into Gaidhlig include Beinn meaning mountain, and anglicised "Ben", probably from the Brythonic pen meaning "Head".

External links

Ethnologue report for Brythonic languages (


  • The Celtic Roots of English edited by Markku Filppula, Juhani Klemola and Heli Pitknen, by Joensuu University.als:Brythonisch

br:Britonik de:Britannische Sprachen fr:Langue brittonique kw:Brythonek nl:Brits sv:Brittiska sprk zh:布立吞亞支


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