A history of Scottish languages – parts 3 and 4


By Paul KavanaghScotland 600 AD – [Click here for parts 1 and 2]

600 AD : Pictish and Cumbric were now seen as quite different languages spoken by distinct peoples.  They may still have been mutually intelligible, but were considered different languages for political and cultural reasons.  In much the same way in modern times we consider Swedish and Norwegian to be different languages although Swedes and Norwegians can usually learn to understand one another without too many difficulties.

By Paul KavanaghScotland 600 AD – [Click here for parts 1 and 2]

600 AD : Pictish and Cumbric were now seen as quite different languages spoken by distinct peoples.  They may still have been mutually intelligible, but were considered different languages for political and cultural reasons.  In much the same way in modern times we consider Swedish and Norwegian to be different languages although Swedes and Norwegians can usually learn to understand one another without too many difficulties.

Roman power had collapsed 200 years earlier, leaving Britain fully exposed to the incursions of ‘barbarian’ groups.  Old Irish and Germanic speaking tribes took advantage of the chaos in the last years of Roman Britain to attack formerly Roman territory.  Together with the increasingly Gaelicised Picts, these peoples took territory from the Romano-Britons.  The Gaelic and Germanic speakers became the new elites and the conquered Romano-Britons were soon assimilated linguistically.  Successive generations of “Anglosaxons” or “Gaels” were increasingly made up of people whose families had once spoken Pictish or Brittonic, yet had now come to regard themselves as Anglosaxons or Gaels.  As new languages spread, people adopted new social identities.

The Goidelic branch of Celtic originated in Ireland where it had evolved in relative isolation during Roman times.  Although during the Iron Age ancestral Goidelic and Brittonic were very similar to one another, by the end of the Roman Empire Goidelic was radically different from Brittonic.  Like the Picts, the ancient Irish found themselves culturally and politically estranged from the inhabitants of southern Britain during the Roman Empire, and like the Picts they too were highly motivated to distinguish their language from that of their Romanised cousins.  In its general appearance, Goidelic seems a more archaic form of Celtic than Brittonic, preserving the original kw sound of Celtic as k (written c), whereas in Brittonic, Pictish and continental Gaulish this sound had changed to p.  Like Brittonic, Goidelic underwent a period of massive and far reaching changes during the late Roman period, the cumulative effect of these changes was to produce the Old Irish language which is first attested in writing around this time.  After Latin and Greek, Old Irish possesses the oldest literature of any European language.  Since Old Irish would later evolve into modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx, this literature is the cultural property of modern Scots and Manx people as much as it belongs to the Irish.

In the form of Old Irish Goidelic was by now securely established in Argyll where Irish settlers had founded a kingdom called Dalriata (lit. ‘the long-arm portion’).  Gaelic also was spreading rapidly into Pictish territory, even though the Picts remained independent.  Another nucleus of Old Irish had been established perhaps as early as 350 AD in the Rhinns of Galloway, this was expanding at the expense of local Cumbric.  In these regions local Pictish and Cumbric speakers were acquiring Gaelic, first as a second language, but due to the extensive use of Gaelic in these communities their children acquired it natively.  Within a couple of generations they came to think of themselves as Gaels.  As use of the Gaelic language became established, it became capable of absorbing even more Pictish and Cumbric speakers.

The Germanic languages are distantly related to the Celtic languages, like most other European languages they belong to a large family called Indoeuropean.  Celtic and Germanic are each separate offshoots from the original proto-Indoeuropean language.  They are believed to have separated from their common ancestor sometime in the early Bronze Age.  Celtic originated somewhere in west Central Europe and was probably brought to the British Isles at the beginning of the Iron Age, Germanic originated in southern Scandinavia and northern Germany and was not present in the British Isles until the later part of the Roman period.1.

The variety of Germanic brought to Britain was a collection of closely related dialects spoken by the Germanic tribes of the North Sea coast of northern Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark.  The initial settlements of these tribes were probably as Roman foederati, barbarian mercenaries in the employ of Rome.  After the collapse of Roman power, the military and social organisation of these groups was less affected by internal decay, and as one of the few organised military forces remaining in the country they were in an ideal position to seize power for themselves.  Although traditionally described as an invasion, the establishment of the first Anglosaxon kingdoms in Britain was probably rather more like a coup d’etat. With success comes influence, and soon the local Romano-Britons were adopting the Old English language and Anglosaxon customs.

The Germanic tribes who settled in Britain are traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians.  They first became established in south eastern Britain around the year 450, but soon extended their influence over most of southern Britain.  Within a few generations these Germanic tribes had absorbed the local Romano-Britons and coalesced into a people calling themselves Englisc and their country Englaland.  We know them as the Anglosaxons and call their language Old English.  It was the ancestor of modern English and Scots.

By 600 AD the Anglosaxons had reached the Bristol Channel and divided the Cornish from the Welsh.  They were also advancing up the east coast, and sometime in the early 7th century established a small kingdom called Bernicia which became the nucleus of the Anglosaxon kingdom of Northumbria.  The events of the wars between the Anglosaxons and the Britons of this region are preserved in the Welsh poem the Gododdin.  It is the oldest known work of literature which survives from the territory of modern Scotland. The name Gododdin is the later Welsh version of the ancient tribal name Votadini, which incidentally also gives an idea of just how drastic and far-reaching were the sound changes experienced by Ancient Brittonic as it developed into Welsh and Cumbric.

1. Recently a theory has been popularised, most notably by Stephen Oppenheimer in his book ‘The Origins of the British’, which claims that English descends from a Germanic language which was already spoken in southern and eastern England before the Roman invasion. This theory is propounded by certain archaeologists and geneticists (who really ought to know better, to be honest) but it is not accepted by any linguist who specialises in the history and development of Germanic or Celtic languages. The theory of a pre-Roman English wreaks havoc on the linguistic evidence, and should be discounted completely.


Part 4 – 800 AD: The Picts and the Gaels merge

800 AD : The Picts were still independent, but would shortly merge with the Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada to create the kingdom of the Scots.  The Pictish language was by now under severe pressure from Gaelic, and had already been displaced by Gaelic throughout large tracts of Pictland. It would disappear soon afterwards.  The exact dating of the spread of Old Irish at the expense of Pictish is unknown.  Goidelic speaking elements seem to have formed an elite group in Pictish society at an early date, there was probably a protracted period of bilingualism in Pictish and Gaelic before Pictish finally expired. On the dawn of the merger between the kingdom of Dalriada and Pictland to form the kingdom of the Scots, it seems safe to say that a knowledge of Gaelic was already widespread throughout Pictland.  Pictish disappears from the historical record in the 9th century, but the use of spoken Pictish doubtless lingered on in more remote locations for several generations afterwards.  It died out unrecorded and its passing went unmarked, so it is impossible to say exactly when the language died out.

Scotland 800 ADTo approximately this period date some two dozen enigmatic inscriptions in the Ogham script used for the oldest Irish.  The inscriptions mostly come from the north and north west of Scotland, with noticeable clusters in the Northern Isles.  Although they can be read and appear to contain some Goidelic elements, the inscriptions make no sense.  They are believed to be authentic examples of written Pictish.  Unfortunately the Pictish Ogham inscriptions are the only examples of Ogham being used to write something other than ancient Irish, and linguists and historians have no idea how Ogham was adapted to the needs of a non-Goidelic language.  It doesn’t help that Ogham inscriptions can be notoriously difficult to read at the best of times.  The inscriptions have sparked off many theories, but most of them are highly speculative.  One theory was that the inscriptions were not in any language, but were some sort of symbolic code.  Another theory claims the inscriptions are in Old Norse but this has not found general acceptance.  In recent years a couple of the inscriptions have been identified as being in archaic Irish after all.  All that can be said for certain is that the type of Pictish written in Ogham displayed influence from Goidelic, and the use of the Ogham alphabet itself demonstrates the strong cultural influence of Goidelic speakers upon the Picts.

Cumbric was also under pressure, being squeezed between the spread of Gaelic in the west and Old English in the east. By this time only the western Cumbric kingdoms survived, Strathclyde with its capital at Alcluith (Dumbarton) and Rheged, generally believed to have had its capital at Carlisle. These kingdoms maintained close cultural links with north Wales but were also coming under increasingly strong influences from their Gaelic and English speaking neighbours.

Gaelic was expanding rapidly across the Highlands and had probably already reached the east coast. During this period there is even evidence that it was used in the Northern Isles although it’s uncertain whether Gaelic was ever spoken natively there. Gaelic continued to expand in south west Scotland, becoming established in what is now Galloway and penetrating into Ayrshire and Central Scotland. The Cumbric kingdom of Strathclyde was under heavy cultural influence from Goidelic speakers, there was considerable intermarriage between the ruling classes of the Cumbric kingdoms and their Gaelic neighbours. It’s likely that a knowledge of Gaelic was already widespread in parts of Strathclyde, the lower Forth Valley and Fife. Bilingualism, and even multilingualism, was commonplace in many parts of Scotland.

Old English was also in an expansionist phase, the language consolidated itself in the lower lying districts and river valleys of the south east, leaving the hilly country to remnant groups of Cumbric speakers. Old English also began to penetrate into south-western Scotland. The Ruthwell Cross from Dumfriesshire dates to this period. This carved stone cross bears one of the oldest runic inscriptions in Old English. Groups of Old English speakers apparently also established themselves in parts of Ayrshire and Strathclyde. As the power of the Anglosaxon kingdom of Northumbria grew, so a knowledge of English was spread.  In the south east of Scotland the population had by this time already shifted to the exclusive use of Old English. English spread first onto the fertile coastal plains and up the broad river valleys.  As it did so Cumbric retreated into the hillier ground.

But everything was about to change, within a few years Scotland would be attacked by Vikings, who would introduce yet another language, one which would eventually influence all the other languages of Scotland.


Next: 1000 AD – The arrival of the Norse.