A history of Scottish languages – part 2

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by Paul Kavanagh

300 AD :  By this time the Brittonic dialect of Roman Britain was beginning to undergo a massive set of phonetic and grammatical changes which would eventually lead to the emergence of the Brittonic languages, Welsh, Cornish, Breton and Cumbric.  (Breton originates in the speech of Brittonic refugees fleeing the Anglosaxon invasion of Roman Britain.)  During Roman times Brittonic borrowed thousands of words from Latin, these words even replaced native Celtic words, for example the Welsh word for fish is pysgodyn, which ultimately derives from the Latin word pescatum ‘seafood’ (literally, “that which is fished”). Goidelic, spoken in Ireland beyond Roman control, escaped this influence and often preserves the native Celtic word, the Gaelic word for fish is iasg which descends directly from the original Celtic word *eiskos.

Scotland 300 ADThe Brittonic dialect of southern Scotland participated in all the developments which characterised the Brittonic spoken south of Hadrian’s Wall.  When Cumbric is first attested several centuries later, it appears very similar to contemporary Old Welsh.  These developments were massive and far reaching, affecting grammar, vocabulary but above all pronunciation.  An idea of just how radical the changes were can be gained from an examination of the Latin words borrowed into Brittonic during the Roman occupation.  The descendants of many of these words in modern Welsh are almost unrecognisable.  The Welsh word gwyrdd ‘green’ descends from the Latin loanword viridem, but the relationship between the modern Welsh and the Latin word is no longer immediately apparent.  The Cumbric of Scotland was also affected by these changes and it evolved in tandem with Brittonic dialects spoken further south.  At this stage in history, Cumbric was not a distinct language, it was simply the most northernly variety of the Brittonic language that was common to all of Roman Britain.

It is likely that the ancient Brittonic varieties spoken by the Picts did not take part in these linguistic developments as the Picts were by now politically and culturally estranged from their Romanised cousins.  By 300 AD the Pictish language was already starting to differentiate itself from the rest of Brittonic, but unfortunately the details are now quite lost.  Pictish came under strong Goidelic influence from Ireland at an early date, and it’s likely that even as early as 300 AD there were groups of Archaic Irish speakers on the West coast of Scotland.  Again the details are lacking, since Pictish was never adequately recorded, but it is quite likely that Pictish began to borrow substantially from Celtic varieties spoken in Ireland.  As time went on the influence of Goidelic upon Pictish would increase.

In contemporary Roman documents it seems clear that the Romano-Britons now regarded the Picts as being quite a different and foreign people, and although we have no surviving records from the Pictish side, it’s highly probable that the feeling was mutual.  The political and cultural estrangement between the Picts and the Romano-Britons would have created precisely the right set of sociolinguistic conditions to cause the Picts to preferentially select those features of their speech which most differentiated them from their Romano-British cousins.  Direct evidence has not survived, but it is highly likely that the Pictish variety of ancient Brittonic was also experiencing massive and rapid linguistic change at this time, although the changes occurring in Pictish would have been somewhat different from the changes affecting the Brittonic of the Romano-Britons.  As the new Pictish identity emerged and crystalised and the Picts began their rise to power, a distinctively Pictish language would also emerge and crystalise. It may still have been mutually intelligible with the speech of the Romano-Britons, but socially, culturally and politically it was a different language.

Next – 600 AD: The spread of Old Irish and Old English