‘Kenneth Jackson and the Pictish language: Deep Roots and a Long Arm’

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On 26 February 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Guto Rhys, who discussed ‘Kenneth Jackson and the Pictish language: Deep Roots and a Long Arm’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

This lecture aimed to assess the influences and impact of Kenneth Jackson’s scholarship on the Pictish language, with less emphasis placed upon linguistic discussion. Kenneth Jackson’s ‘The Pictish Language’ from the 1955 work, The Problem of the Picts has had a massive impact on the study of Pictish language. Guto argued that it ‘obliterated’ previous commentators, such as Whitley Stokes, William J. Watson and Thomas O’Rahilly. These commentators generally dealt with Pictish as a footnote or addendum at the end of larger works and the rough consensus was that Pictish was largely a Brythonic language. 

Kenneth Jackson argued there were ‘at least’ two languages in Northern Scotland before the arrival of the Irish Celts in the fifth century. A complex series of migrations and invasions by continental Celts beginning in 600 BC led to the development of these two languages: a Gallo-Brittonic language and a very early, non-Celtic, non-Indo-European language. Yet Guto pointed out the uncertainty in Jackson’s argument: ‘Surely it is not too much to suggest that a possible interpretation is as follows’. (p. 152).

Guto investigated the origins of Jackson’s ideas which seem heavily influenced by his colleague, the archaeologist, Stuart Piggot. Piggot, who also appeared in The Problem of the Picts, was in turn, affected by the views of Gordon Childe, based in Edinburgh between 1927-46. Childe developed the ‘culture-historical’ archaeological paradigm, which identified ethnic groups according to developments in material culture. Essentially, a new sword signaled the arrival of a new people. Guto argued that this model was ‘parachuted’ into Jackson’s linguistics, resulting in a transfer of ideas dating back to at least 1935, with Childe’s Prehistory of Scotland. 

In the 1960s, the development of radio carbon dating led to the crumbling of the ‘culture-historical’ paradigm, thereby collapsing Childe/Piggot’s model for Northern Britain. Piggot staunchly defended his ideas, even to the extent of dismissing radio carbon dating. This clearly had a knock-on effect upon Jackson, who steadily moved away from his 1955 theory as the years went on. In the ‘Addenda and Corrigenda’ from the re-print of The Problem of the Picts of 1980, Jackson noted the impact of radio carbon dating and reflected upon some of the shortcomings of his original article (which notably remained unchanged in the reprint). In later works of 1981 and 1983, he moves towards, but does not reach, an outright retraction of his ideas. 

Yet Kenneth Jackson’s work is far from discredited, with subsequent authors, especially non-specialists, interpreting it as the standard, default text on Pictish language. It stands to reason due to his towering stature across the wider linguistic field. However, Guto exposed the dangers of following in the footsteps of scholarly giants without critical assessment of their work.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series returns on Tuesday 5 March, with Ewan Campbell’s discussion of ‘Picts, Palaces and Prehistory’. This will take place in Room 202, 3 Uni Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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