‘Celtic Between the Walls: What can place-names tell us?’

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On 1 May 2012, the Centre was pleased to welcome Alan James who discussed, ‘Celtic Between the Walls: what can place-names tell us?’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

The following is a summary of the talk noted above, closely based on the detailed hand-out provided. Many examples etc. are not noted and some points are, due to time-restrictions, not fully developed. In-depth treatment can be accessed at BLITON, see SPNS website http://www.spns.org.uk/bliton/Aindex.html. I would strongly suggest investigating issues in full before drawing conclusions as this summary is incomplete. There is also an article forthcoming.

Kenneth Jackson (Language and History in Early Britain, 1953) argued that in the 1st – 5th centuries, there was a fairly homogenous form of P-Celtic, ‘British’, throughout Britain at least as far as the Forth. Between the 5th – 9th centuries, following radical linguistic changes at all levels, differences appear between South-west Brittonic (> Cornish & Breton), and West Brittonic (> Welsh & Cumbric). Brittonic between the Walls was to be considered Cumbric.

In 1955 (‘The Pictish Language’, in The Problem of the Picts, Wainwright) he reviewed the evidence for language in Pictland during the first millennium especially 5th-9th centuries. He argued that Pictish was P-Celtic, but differed from Brittonic, especially in some phonological features where divergences between early Brittonic and the ancestor of Pictish must have arisen very early, possibly soon after the P-/Q- differentiation, more definitely by the 3rd century. ***[Note that this neat division has been questioned by some linguists, e.g. Isaac, He proposed a new 2nd branch of insular P-Celtic as ancestor of Pictish, for which he coined the term ‘Pritenic’.

This caused some problems:

1. It raised the red-herring of non-Celtic, even non-Indo-European, element in a register of Pictish.

2. He never developed his case in any more substantial publication.

3. He left us with a linguistic map of the north with Pritenic > Pictish current north of the Forth, West Brittonic > Cumbric to the south. Literally this would imply that the P-Celtic of Lothian had more in common with that of Dyfed than it did with that of Fife!

Subsequent discussions of P-Celtic Pictish include Koch (1983), largely endorsing Jackson’s findings, though with some reservations and modifications in detail. Nicolaisen (1996, 2001, 2007, etc.) took up Jackson’s observations regarding Pictish place-name elements. This is further refined by Taylor (2011) highlighting degrees of Pictishness in particular the fact that some Pictish words were borrowed into Gaelic and consequently employed in place-name formation. Nicolaisen (cf James, 2009 & Taylor, 2011) noted that nearly all ‘Pictish’ elements occur south of the Forth. He inferred that Pictish should be called a dialect of Northern Brittonic or of Brittonic in general and not a separate language. But Nicolaisen ignored Jackson’s phonological argument and concept of Pritenic. A need also to consider evidence for ‘Pritenic’ phonology south of the Forth.

Early Celtic Short Vowels: absence of final i-affection

Final i-affection seems absent from Pritenic, or occurred later. Dated by Jackson ‘by mid 6th century’ or considerably earlier by Sims-Williams (1990). The following examples represent Welsh ‘bryn’ (hill).

Some forms between the Walls indicate final i-affection e.g. Yeavering (Ntb), Pirn (MLo), Pirncader (Stow). Others seem to indicate unaffected *brunn e.g. Burnswark (Hoddom) Burntippet Moor (Cmb), Trabrown (Bwk). With initial devoicing this may fall together with the reflexes of *prenn (a tree, timber).

i-affected /e/ appears in Migdale (< *meg ‘a bog’) but unaffected in Meggs Myre (Stg) & Megdale (DMF).

i-affected /a/ appears in the River Glen < *Glanjo

Also perhaps as genitive singular or nominative/accusative plural of *nant ‘a valley’. River Nent (Cmb), Tranent (Elo).

Unaffected in Nanny Burn (Ntb).

i-affection may also be attested in Blanyvaird (Wig), Drumpellier (Lnk) (< bardd & p

Also attested in reflexes of *pabell, Peebles, Pibble (Kcb). Unaffected in Papple (Garvald), Cairnpapple Hill (WLo).

P-Celtic Long Vowels

Early Celtic ā > Brittonic ǭ (c. 6th century)

Unraised vowel possibly attested in Pardivan (Elo), Pardovan (Wlo), Parduvine (MLO), < *pǭr ‘pasture, cropland’.

*dǭl ‘water-meadow, a haugh’. Borrowed from Brittonic or Pritenic into early Gaelic. Between the Walls the form is almost invariably Dal-. This could reflect Pritenic *dāl, though in most cases a Gaelic etymology is possible. Even when specific is Brittonic the generic may have been influenced by Gaelic or English or Scots: Dalfibble (Dmf), Dalkeith (MLo), Dallegles (Ayrs).

Bede’s Peanfahel is noted as ‘very perplexing’ the second element representing P-Celtic *wāl or Old Irish fāl.

Early Celtic long vowels from Indo-European diphthongs

Indo-European ei > early Celtic ẹ: > neo-Brittonic ui. Unchanged in Pritenic, cf rivers Dee (Kcb, Abd).

Indo-European oi > early Celtic ọ: > Brittonic ū > neo-Brittonic ǖ (by mid 6th century) > Old Welsh ī [sic, only in unstressed final syllables]. To ọ: (by 8th century) in Pritenic > ū (by 9th). Seems not to be evidenced in northern place-names.

Early Celtic au,eu, ou > early Brittonic ọ:. River Clyde shows Brittonic development, but Cluden Water (Kcb) may reflect late Pritenic ū.

*Oukselo > *ǖchel/ * ọchel ‘high’. Classical sources have U- (Dmf & Cmb) but mediation by Brittonic informants is possible. Ochiltree (Ayrs), Ochiltree (Wig). Some variation in early forms of some items.

*Leuco-/ā- > Brittonic *lǖch ‘bright, shining’ may show Pritenic ọ: in Lochar Water (Kcb) & Lochar Water (Dmf). Contrast Luggie Burn (WLo).

*dīn, *dūn ‘a fort’. May fall together with Gaelic dùn. See discussion of Dynbaer in Vita Wilfridi. Appears as unrounded in Din Fell (Rox), Dinduff (Wig) etc. No nint of Pritenic ọ: in numerous forms in ‘Dun-‘. Influence of Gaelic form possible.

Celtic Semi-Vowels

w > gw. Unchanged in Pritenic. Brittonic gw- in Guelt (Ayrs), River Gelt (Cmb) etc.

Unchanged in Wetcarrick (Dmf) & Wedale (MLo/Rox),  possibly reflecting early adoption into Old English.

Assimilation of Nasal Consonants

Brittonic mb > mm & nd > nn (by end of 5th century or earlier). Jackson has no comment in context of Pictish.

Unassimilated -mb- in Cumberland, Cumbria, Cumbrae etc.

Unassimilated -nd- in Lindisfarne but assimilated in nearby Nanny Burn. See also discussion of reflexes of lanerc (assimilated), Lanark, Barlanark (Lnk).

Lenition and Spirantisation

Discussion of -VtV-. Some cognates of Welsh coed ‘a wood’ have th while others have -d/t-. Numerous examples.

-rc-  > neo-Brittonic -rx- (mid to late 6th century). Unchanged in Pritenic. Partick (Rnf), Parton (Cmb), Perter Burn (Dmf) etc.

-tt- > -θ-. Unchanged in Pritenic. Cf Welsh peth, in northern place-names ‘a portion of land’. No clear evidence that this was used as a place-name element in P-Celtic south of the Forth.

-kk-  > neo-Brittonic -x-. No certain evidence for Pritenic. Bede’s Bernicia might imply Pritenic k.

-xt > Brittonic -jθ. Pritenic -it? River Nith (Dmf), Nethan (Lnk) etc.

s- > Σ > neo-Brittonic h-, *sulu ‘view, prospect’: Solport (Cmb). But verbal nouns swll, sylw  are recorded in Welsh. Pritenic s- remains unchanged. *sulu may be peculiar to the north but not distinctively Pritenic.

-ks- > -x-; > -k- or -ss- in Pritenic? But evidence very poor (see Rhys forthcoming). ‘Ochils’ showing Pritenic ọ but x.

Loss of Celtic Final Syllables and Syncope of Composition Vowels

Sims-Williams dates to 2nd half of 5th century, Jackson later. Later in Pritenic. No place-names between the Walls show any traces of the composition vowel.

Apocope more or less simultaneously in Brittonic and Pritenic (end of 5th century to mid 6th). Possible traces of early P-Celtic final (inflectional) syllables: Dalmeny (WLo), Penveny (Pbl) & Lanrekereini (Cmb).


Evidence limited and patchy. Only reasonably solid indication of (1) absence of final i-affection, (2) ọ vs Brittonic ǖ and (3) absence of spirantisation in -rd-, -rc- and -rt-; perhaps (4) preservation of early Celtic ā; and (5) or northern (though not distinctively Pritenic) absence of nasal assimilation, along with the irregular development of -t- in *caito-. Most of these interspersed with normal West Brittonic phonology: In ‘Ochil’ names, Brittonic and Pritenic features might even co-exist within the same word.

Enough to indicate that P-Celtic between the Walls was not pure West Brittonic, incorporated some Pritenic features, and possibly other non-West Brittonic characteristics. Place-name scholars need to be aware of both Brittonic and Pritenic. Jackson’s Pritenic as a distinct branch of P-Celtic remains valid, should not be abandoned. Unhelpful to think of Brittonic and Pritenic as mutually exclusive, bounded by Forth. Rather think of ‘northern P-Celtic continuum’. And appreciate that Brittonic and Pritenic are not names of actual languages, they are abstractions.

‘Pictish’ and ‘Cumbric’ as names for languages cause confusion. ‘Pictish’ best reserved for Pritenic language in historical Pictland. Safe to regard P-Celtic between the Walls as basically West Brittonic though with Pritenic characteristics. But ‘Cumbric’ best reserved for language of Clyde basin in 9th century, and in surrounding regions. To speakers of Old Welsh, Cumbric, while intelligible, would have seemed a broad dialect, marked by several exotic features.

Apologies to Alan if I have misconstrued any suggestions, omitted important items and for copying errors. This is an attempt to be as faithful as possible to the original hand-out.

Summary by Guto Rhys 

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