The language of the Picts
One of the great mysteries surrounding the Picts is the language they spoke. This topic has stimulated much discussion and argument over
the ensuing centuries. According to the few surviving
historical references relating to the Pictish language, the Picts spoke
a language of their own - different to the languages spoken by the
other people of Britain.
In his A History of the English Church and
People, the venerable Bede wrote that at the time (early eighth
century) there were five languages in Britain - English, British,
Scots (Gaelic) and Pictish. But like the good churchman he was,
he added "all are united in their study of God's truth by the
fifth - Latin - which has become a common medium through the study
of the Scriptures."
Admonan's Life of Columba seems to back
this up, as it states that when Columba visited the court of the
Pictish high-king Brude, on the River Ness, he needed a translator.
This seems to imply that the Pictish language was different to the
Scots/Irish Gaelic spoken by Columba.
However, as the Picts themselves
kept no written records of their lifestyles, beliefs or heritage,
their language has now all but disappeared. The only sources that
can give vague clues as to its nature are some of the carved inscriptions
they left, placenames and certain accounts of Pictish names written
by external sources at the time.
As with all things Pictish,
however, the lack of concrete evidence has led to a number of opinions
and theories as to the form of the spoken language of the inhabitants
of Northern Scotland in the early centuries of the first millennium.
These generally fall into
one of three camps:
- The Picts spoke an ancient language indigenous
to area - a language that predated the Celtic languages of the
Britons, the Scots and the Irish. This language did not have an
Indo-European origin but was instead a survival of the ancient
language used by the Bronze Age people of the area.
- The Picts spoke a P-Celtic language - that
is a Celtic language related to the language of the Ancient Britons.
When the Celts arrived in Britain they brought with them an Indo-European
language which replaced the existing languages of country. This,
say supporters, is clear from the known Pictish placenames in
But if this was the case why did Bede regard Pictish as a different
language? Was there perhaps a strong regional accent? Just as
a visitor to Orkney in past years often struggled with the Orcadian
accent, although the islanders were still essentially speaking
- Along the same lines is the idea that the Picts
spoke a P-Celtic language, a version of Ancient British that contained
elements of Irish Gaelic - fragments picked up over the years
through contact with the Scotti - the invading Irish settlers
who claimed territory down the west coast of Scotland. This theory
is strengthened by the fact that the writing system known to be
used by the Picts Ogham actually originated in Ireland.