A history of Scottish languages – parts 1 and 2


At the beginning of 2011 Newsnet Scotland ran a series of ten articles chronicling the history of Scotland’s languages.  So impressive were the pieces that the First Minister himself wrote in praise of them.
Since then Newsnet Scotland has acquired a considerable number of new regular visitors, many of course will not have had the opportunity to read this excellent series.  As a result we have decided to re-run the original ten articles, this time in five ‘doubled up’ instalments.

A history of Scottish languages – by Paul Kavanagh

By Paul Kavanagh … Part 1

In November 2010 the Ministerial Working Group on the Scots Language delivered its report to the Scottish Parliament.  Discussing the promotion of Scots in the educational system, the report noted that the pervasive lack among teachers and the general public of a clear understanding of the status of Scots as a language or the issues surrounding it was a fundamental problem in improving the status of the language.

This lack of public awareness doesn’t just apply to the Scots language, the knowledge gap also includes an almost complete lack of awareness of the role that the Gaelic language has played in Scotland, both the Highlands and in the Lowlands.  Almost nothing about Scotland’s rich linguistic history is taught in schools.  Into the vacuum created by a knowledge gap rush myths, stereotypes and confusion.

But before we can have any sensible and informed debate about Scotland’s linguistic heritage and how we want to protect and foster it, we first have to distinguish between the myths and the facts.

This short history of Scottish languages was first published on Newsnet at the beginning of 2010.  The series explains how languages have spread and contracted across Scotland over the past 2000 years.  Each historical period is illustrated with a map showing the approximate distribution of languages in Scotland at that time.  Successive maps will cover Scottish language history at 200 year intervals until the present day.

There are a few important points to bear in mind when considering the historical spread of various languages.  Firstly, languages evolve and change over time.  For example the form of Gaelic introduced into Scotland over 1500 years ago was not the same as modern Scottish Gaelic.  It was an early form of Old Irish, identical to that spoken in Ireland.  Over the centuries the Old Irish which established itself in Scotland evolved into a distinct language, now known as Scottish Gaelic.  This process has occurred several times in Scottish history with each language which has been introduced into the country.  Old English evolved into English in England and into Scots in Scotland, Old Brittonic (or simply Brittonic) evolved into Welsh in Wales and Cumbric in Scotland.  The same Old Norse that became Icelandic and Faroese evolved into the now extinct Norn language in the Northern Isles and the northern extremities of Scotland.

The spread of languages is often equated with the spread of ‘peoples’.  However the spread of Old Irish, Old Norse or Old English over parts of Scotland did not mean that the original inhabitants were exterminated or driven out by groups of invaders.  Under certain cultural and political circumstances, people find it convenient to adopt a new language.  At first this produces bilingualism.

However when many people in a community speak a language as a second language, the children in the community acquire the second language in childhood and, under certain cultural and political circumstances, come to prefer to speak the ‘second language’ amongst themselves.  These children then pass on only the ‘second language’ to their own children, who acquire it as their first language, and language shift has taken place.

When a society adopts a new language in this way, it often also adopts a new set of myths about its own origins which typically serve to grant political and cultural legitimacy to powerful and influential groups within the population.  These processes have also been important in Scottish history.  In fact Scots have exhibited a remarkable propensity to play musical chairs with languages throughout our history.

Maps showing the geographical spread of languages are simplifications.  In reality there are few hard and sharp borders between languages which can be represented on a map by a line.  The examples of this kind of linguistic frontier which do exist always coincide with political frontiers, the modern Scottish-English border is an example.  Usually when two languages are spoken in contiguous territories, there is a bilingual zone of varying depth between them.  This has always been the case with language boundaries within Scotland.  The coloured areas on the maps are meant to give a general idea of the spread of each language at each point in history, they are not intended to represent exact and abrupt frontiers.

The maps are an attempt to simplify a very complex and multilayered story involving several different languages.  Some may regard them as an oversimplification.  The information upon which the maps are based comes from a range of sources, mostly academic discussions of the Celtic languages and Scots, studies of Scottish place names and studies of the language and names used in historical documents.  I have tried to incorporate the most up to date information available to me.  Some aspects of Scotland’s linguistic history (such as the spread of Gaelic at the expense of Pictish) are very poorly known and so there’s a fair amount of educated guesswork in some of the maps, especially those depicting the earlier periods of Scottish history.

It’s also useful here to give a little background to the Celtic languages. The Celtic languages form a branch of the much larger and more widespread Indoeuropean language family.  The Germanic languages, to which Scots, English and Norse belong, is another branch of this vast family. Other branches include Italic (Latin and its daughters, Italian, French and Spanish), Balto-Slavic, Greek, Armenian, and the vast Indo-Iranian branch which includes Persian, Hindi, and Urdu and the ancient Sanskrit language.   

The modern Celtic languages fall into two main sub-branches, those later languages descended from Brittonic – Welsh, Cornish, Breton and Cumbric – and those descended from Old Irish – modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx.  The two branches of Celtic are most often called Brittonic (or Brythonic, which is identical in meaning to Brittonic) and Goidelic.  Collectively they are referred to as Insular Celtic.  

The term Continental Celtic is used to refer to Celtic varieties spoken in continental Europe and Asia Minor in Classical times, Gaulish, Celtiberian and Galatian are the most important.  Gaulish was spoken across most of modern France, northern Italy and southern Germany.  Celtiberian was spoken in the north and centre of the Iberian peninula.  Galatian was spoken in what is now central Turkey, around the modern capital Ankara.   All these languages died out in the post-Roman period and survive only in brief inscriptions or as words or names recorded by Classical authors. Although St Paul wrote some letters to the Galatians, he wrote to them in Greek. No literature survives from any of these languages.  We last hear of Gaulish in the 6th or 7th century, in central France.  Galatian may have survived until the Arab invasions of Anatolia of the 8th century.   

It is universally agreed that Galatian was an offshoot of Gaulish, but the differences between Celtiberian and other Celtic languages seems to have been substantial.   Celtiberian is thought to descend from an early offshoot of Common Celtic.  It preserved some ancient features lost in all the other Celtic languages.

Specialists in Celtic languages are still debating exactly how Insular Celtic relates to the ancient Celtic languages of continental Europe.  There is a consensus that Brittonic was very close to Gaulish, the two were apparently mutually intelligible. However there is less certainty about the exact position of Goidelic within the Celtic family.    

Some scholars hold that Goidelic was, like Celtiberian, an early and independent offshoot of Common Celtic, but most of the – admittedly massive – differences between Goidelic and Brittonic seem to have arisen in the post-Roman period.  Once these changes are stripped away, the earliest form of Goidelic appears much more similar to Brittonic.  More modern scholarship stresses the fundamental unity of Insular Celtic languages.

In older usage the branches of Celtic were known as P-Celtic (Brittonic) and Q-Celtic (Goidelic).  These terms refer to a sound change distinguishing the two branches.  Ancient Celtic is thought to have had a sound pronounced ‘kw’ which changed to the sound ‘p’ in P-Celtic, but which was retained in Q-Celtic before later simplifying to k (written c) in Goidelic.  The earliest written Goidelic, the ogam inscriptions, preserve kw as a distinct sound which was traditionally transcribed Q, hence the term Q-Celtic.  So we have correspondences between c in Sc. Gaelic words and p in Welsh words, ‘head’ is ceann in Sc. Gaelic but pen in Welsh, both descend from common Celtic *qennos.  Son is mac in Gaelic but map in Welsh, from common Celtic *maqqos.

The terms Q-Celtic and P-Celtic have fallen out of favour since they confuse the classification of Celtic.  “Q-Celtic” is a negative term.  It simply refers to those varieties of Celtic where the sound change kw to p failed to occur.  Celtiberian was also a “Q-Celtic” language, but this does not mean that it had a particularly close linguistic relationship to Goidelic.  On the other side of the P-Q divide, although Gaulish was considered a P-Celtic language, it preserved some words with kw like the river name Sequani which gives the modern name Seine.  To complicate matters even further, a Celtic variety called Lepontic is meagrely attested in some early inscriptions from northern Italy.  The older inscriptions show kw, but the later ones show p.  Lepontic changed from a “Q-Celtic” language to a “P-Celtic” language.  Lepontic was spoken by the people later known to the Roman as the Cisalpine Gauls.  Their speech was viewed by the Romans as a type of Gaulish.  

It’s best to think of early Celtic as a large dialect complex with different local varieties in different parts of the Celtic speaking lands.  Early Goidelic varieties were spoken on the extreme northwestern edge of this dialect area, whereas early Brittonic varieties were geographically more central and more exposed to influences from Gaul.  One of these “Gaulish” influences was the change of kw to p, it spread into Brittonic but hadn’t pentrated into every Celtic variety in Ireland and Britain by the time that Classical writers start to inform us about the remote islands on the edge of the world.

Originally there would have been numerous transitional varities between the dialect ancestral to Goidelic and the dialect that gave rise to Brittonic.  However during Roman times typically Gallo-Brittonic features continued to spread in Roman Britain, but no longer penetrated into Ireland.  Here typically Goidelic features spread instead.  

Gradually the transitional varieties were absorbed into these more prestigious dialects and a sharp division arose between Goidelic and Brittonic on the ground.  This division then became a gaping chasm in the late Roman and post-Roman period when the two Celtic branches independently underwent a series of far-reaching and complex changes.  By the time they are first recorded in continuous texts, the oldest Irish and the oldest Welsh had become very different from one another, but this does not reflect the linguistic situation in pre-Roman times.



150 AD : Scotland was inhabited by various tribes whose names were recorded by the Classical geographer Ptolemy around 150 AD.  Each of these tribes was politically independent. It is believed that most, if not all, of the Iron Age tribes of Northern Britain spoke a northern dialect of the same Ancient Brittonic language then spoken in what is now England and Wales.  Historical linguists and archaeologists believe that an early form of Celtic was introduced into the British Isles either in the late Bronze Age or the early Iron Age and then spread rapidly across Britain and Ireland.  It is unknown what language or languages Celtic speakers encountered when they first arrived in Scotland. The enigmatic Pictish ogam inscriptions, which date to much later, are believed by some to be written in a pre-Celtic language, but the evidence is slight and is open to several interpretations.  These inscriptions will be discussed in a later chapter.

The tribal names recorded by Ptolemy come down to us in Latin or Greek guise as they were preserved in Latin and Greek manuscripts, but most of them are apparently Celtic in origin.   Unfortunately in the process of repeated copying by scribes who did not understand the significance of the original form, the names became corrupted and some are now difficult to understand.  Irrespective of the language (or languages) spoken by the tribes of Scotland, the names recorded by Ptolemy probably came to him via a Brittonic source in Roman Britain and so may represent a southern Brittonic version of a name rather than the indigenous form.

Many Celtic tribes named themselves after animals, perhaps the tribal totem or emblem.  The name of the Taezali of Aberdeenshire may contain a Celtic word for badger *tazgos, the Caeroni take their name from the sheep or goat *kairos (compare modern Gaelic caora ‘sheep’), whilst the name Orcades is derived from a Celtic word for pig or boar *orkos.  The Epidii of Argyll took their name from the Brittonic word *epos ‘horse’. This last name is clearly Brittonic, the contemporary Goidelic (Q-Celtic) word was *ekwos from which Sc. Gaelic each ‘horse’ descends.

The names of some other tribes reflect the warlike preoccupations of Iron Age peoples, Smertae means “the smeared ones”, those who smeared themselves in the blood of their enemies.  They may have been devotees of a Celtic goddess known from other sources, Rosmerta ‘the exceedingly smeared one’.  The name Caledonii most likely derives from the word *kaletos ‘hard’, they were ‘the hard men’. The Selgovae claimed fame as hunters, their name means ‘the huntsmen’ (compare Gaelic sealg ‘hunt’).

The tribal organisation of the northern end of the island of Britain was deeply affected by the Roman occupation further south.  Even after the Romans abandoned their brief attempt to make the Antonine Wall their northern frontier, Roman power and influence extended far beyond Hadrian’s Wall.  The tribes in the region between the Walls became client states of Rome.  Those beyond Roman control formed alliances for mutual protection and eventually merged to become the people known to later history as the Picts.

Although all the linguistic relics which can be identified from this remote period of Scottish history are Celtic, there are also some important names which resist explanation and which have not, so far, been identified as belonging to any known language family.  There are a few others which are apparently Indo-European but which don’t seem to be Celtic or Germanic.  These names include the names of some of the larger islands like Skye, Islay and Lewis as well as the original name for the Hebribes recorded in Latin texts as Eubudes.  Some of these names may turn out to be Celtic, but some may very well reflect the now lost languages of the pre-Celtic inhabitants of Scotland.


Part 2 – 300 AD and the birth of the Picts

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 the extinct Cumbric of southern Scotland and northern England.  (Breton originates in the speech of Brittonic refugees fleeing the Anglosaxon invasion of Roman Britain.)  Brittonic was profoundly affected by its contact with Latin.  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.  What we now know as the Cumbric of Scotland was also affected by these changes and it evolved in tandem with Brittonic dialects spoken further south.  Cumbric 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 all these linguistic developments as, like the Irish, 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 so we do not know how Pictish differed from other Brittonic varieties.

Pictish came under strong 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.  Picts didn’t want to be mistaken for Romano-Britons any more than Romano-Britons wanted to be mistaken for Picts.

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 considered a different language.


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