Some thoughts on the origins of Gaelic

I was going to write a post about UKIP’s rise in support in England, but it’s difficult to get that interested. Following English politics is getting increasingly like following French politics or Greek politics – it’s all very interesting if you’re into that sort of thing, but few people in Scotland are. So I’m going to waffle on about something else that few people are interested in, at least outside of Scotland, the origins of Gaelic. I’ll get back to slagging off politicians the morra. Meanwhile – time for a bit of culture.

The other day I was asked about a recent archaelogical theory that the traditional account that Gaelic sailed over from Ireland with Fergus Mòr MacErc wasn’t true, and that Scottish Gaelic evolved out of the Celtic dialects spoken in Argyll and Kintyre and was never imported from Ireland. The truth is more complicated than either the theories of archaelogists (seriously – don’t ask an archaeologist about language … the only people with a worse understanding are geneticists) or the old stories of conquering Gaelic kings. But first a wee bit of background about Celtic languages is necessary.

There is a widespread belief that a community will only change its language if a new language is imposed upon it. This belief is based in our recent historical experience of language replacement, where state institutions and agencies actively discouraged Celtic speakers from using their languages, and in European colonies native languages were displaced by colonial settlement. In modern societies, there are institutions which reach right into the domestic sphere, state education was often used as a tool to spread one language and discourage another.

But one language replaced another in ancient tribal societies too, and since it was believed that a community could only replace its everyday language with a different language if there was some means of imposing the new language, then language replacement in ancient times was thought of in terms of large scale population movements. In the absence of state institutions like an educational system, the theory went that there needed to be a large body of settlers to enforce their language on a conquered population. But this is not true, and is even less true where the languages in question are all very closely related to one another, as Gaelic, Pictish and Brittonic were.

In fact language replacement can occur without any population movement at all, or more commonly with population shifts affecting only a tiny number of elite individuals – such a small number that it would not show up in DNA tests carried out in the descendant population many generations later, and would not show up in archaeological evidence as a foreign invasion.

The other issue which is important when discussing the origins of Gaelic is that the older theory that there was an ancient division of Celtic into the Q-Celtic Goidelic and the P-Celtic Brittonic/Gaulish is not supported by the linguistic evidence. When you strip out all the linguistic changes known to have occurred in Insular Celtic which are contemporary with or later than the Roman occupation of southern Britain, there’s really very little left to distinguish Iron Age Goidelic from Iron Age Brittonic. The changes which occurred from Roman times onwards were massive and profound, and led to the two language groups becoming very different from one another, but in Iron Age times the great majority of those differences didn’t exist and the Celtic dialects of the British Isles – and right across much of Europe – were very similar to one another.

So here’s my own view of the origins of Gaelic, but bear in mind that I’m merely an armchair linguist, not a proper academic. What follows is the linguistic version of “I’m not a doctor but I’ve read some medical books.”

It’s better to think of Celtic language during the late Iron Age as a dialect complex without any sharp boundaries between adjacent dialects. Instead the Celtic dialect of one district merged imperceptibly into the dialect of the neighbouring districts, and on the eve of the Roman invasion of Britain the dialects spoken in the west of Ireland and northern Scotland were linked to the Celtic dialects of southern England via a series of intermediate dialects.

There would have been dialects displaying features associated with Goidelic, others displaying Brittonic features, and no doubt many others which had both (or neither) in varying proportions. In fact, given the way that sound changes typically progress throughout a language community, it’s likely that there were once Celtic dialects which were simultaneously “Q-Celtic” and “P-Celtic”. There is in fact some evidence for this from Gaul. Gaulish was a “P-Celtic” language, but in some inscriptions there are a few words and names where the original Q is preserved. The Gaulish name for the river Seine was Sequani, not “Sepani” as you might expect from a P-Celtic language like Gaulish.

Here’s a wee explanation as the idea of a Celtic dialect that minded both its Ps and Qs is a bit unusual for modern people.

In ancient Celtic there was a phoneme traditionally transcribed Q, it was pronounced similar to English qu in queen, which is phonetically /kwin/. However in English, the w follows the k, whereas in ancient Celtic the k and w were pronounced simultaneously. Technically this Celtic sound is called a labialised velar stop, and in many languages which have it, it tends to shift to p, a sound which takes less energy, effort and muscular coordination to produce. This is especially likely to happen in languages which don’t otherwise have a P consonant, like early Celtic.

Brittonic is characterised by this shift of older q > p – as for example in the number five, which was something like *qenqe in Proto-Celtic. In Brittonic q shifted to p, giving *penpe, and later changes produced the modern Welsh pump. *qennos ‘head’ likewise became penn in Brittonic. (I’ve simplified the examples for ease of discussion.) It’s this characteristic which leads to Brittonic and its daughters Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton, being classified as “P-Celtic”. Gaulish, Galatian, and a number of other Celtic varieties of ancient Europe were likewise “P-Celtic”.

However it’s likely that when the sound change first occurred, it only occurred in certain phonetic environments, this is usually the case with sound changes. So it’s possible that there could have been Celtic varieties where for example q shifted to p only at the ends of syllables or internally, but q was preserved initially. In this dialect then *qenqe would appear as *qempe. Alternatively p could have replaced q in some words but not all, as seems to have happened in Gaulish. This could happen because there was no other p in Celtic languages, so whether you pronounced q as kw or as p made no real difference. It was simply a case of having a different accent, it would not affect intelligibility.

Meanwhile in “Goidelic” dialects, the sound change didn’t happen at all. In these Celtic varieties, Q was preserved. Q was also preserved in the Celtiberian language of Iberia, but this does not mean that Goidelic and Celtiberian have a particularly close relationship within Celtic. All it means is that in both varieties, the sound change failed to occur.

In a similar way, ancient Germanic had a sound th, preserved in English, Scots and Icelandic (where it is written þ). In Dutch and German, this sound has been replaced by d, whereas in Continental Scandinavian it has been replaced by t. So we have the series English thing, Scots thing, Icelandic þing, German Ding, Dutch ding, Norwegian Danish and Swedish ting, and we could speak of TH-Germanic, D-Germanic and T-Germanic. But this does not mean English and Scots are most closely related to Icelandic within Germanic. Icelandic is more closely related to Norwegian and Danish. You require positive evidence of common innovations in order to demonstrate that two languages are more closely related to each other, the simple failure of a sound change to occur is not evidence of a close relationship. There are no common innovations shared by Goidelic and Celtiberian, so they are not particularly closely related to one another within the Celtic family.

However Goidelic varieties do possess distinctive sound changes of their own. The clusters nt, nk and nq shifted to d, g and gw in Goidelic. (Later q and gw simplified to k and g.) In these dialects *qenqe shifted to *qegwe, and via later sound changes ended up as coig. The same change can be seen by comparing the Gaelic word deud ‘tooth’ with its Welsh equivalent dant, in ancient Celtic the word was something like *dent, the nt has become d in Gaelic but is preserved in Welsh. This typically Goidelic sound change is absent from Celtiberian, which preserved original nt, nk and nq.

It is theoretically possible there were Celtic dialects which had both sound changes. In these, *qenqe would end up as *pebe, although no evidence of any such Celtic dialect has survived. There were certainly dialects where neither change had occurred – like Celtiberian. In fact there could have been dialects with any permutation of the various early sound changes which would later characterise Goidelic and Brittonic. These dialects were not P-Celtic or Q-Celtic in the sense we understand the terms, but were transitional between P-Celtic and Q-Celtic.

One of the most striking things about the earliest Goidelic – in the form of Ogam inscriptions and the earliest attestations in manuscripts – is that it displays no significant dialectal variation yet these inscriptions and glosses predate the establishment of the highly prestigious Old Irish literary language. This can only really be explained if Goidelic had spread at a relatively recent date from an original centre – which was almost certainly somewhere in Ireland, the centre of Goidelic culture.

The spread of Goidelic may be associated with the cultural and political upheavals which took place in Ireland as the country responded to the Roman occupation of southern Britain and the estrangement this created between Celtic tribes on either side of the Irish sea. It did not spread by population movements or conquests, but rather by speakers of transitional dialects adopting prestigious features associated with Goidelic. Celtic dialects in Ireland which had “P-Celtic” features lost these features, as their speakers dropped them in favour of “Q-Celtic” features. The transitional dialects then became thoroughly Goidelicised.

Meanwhile a prestigious form of Pictish and a prestigious form of Romanised Brittonic were also spreading in the same way, and likewise absorbing the transitional dialects adjacent to them. Eventually the increasing spread of these three varieties caused them to meet up, instead of a series of dialects merging imperceptibly, there were now three sharply distinguished Celtic languages.

I suspect that people in Argyll may have originally spoken one of these transitional varieties of Celtic. The local Celtic dialect contained some features associated with Brittonic varieties spoken further south, and with Pictish varieties spoken to the east, and also with Goidelic varieties spoken in Ireland, and quite possibly features unique to itself. As Argyll came firmly into the orbit of Irish cultural influence due to the political and cultural upheavals associated with the Roman occupation of southern Britain, Celtic speakers in Argyll would have come to regard themselves as Gaels and participated in the formation of a Gaelic social identity. As this occurred, local dialect speakers looked increasingly to Ireland for their cultural and linguistic models, and would have adopted features of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary associated with Goidelic and dropped those associated with Brittonic or Pictish.

Argyll Celtic speakers would have stigmatised dialect features which they associated with Pictish or Brittonic, and came to regard Goidelic dialect features as prestigious models to be copied. Over the course of several generations the local dialect approximated ever more closely to Goidelic. By the time that written records appear it was a fully fledged Gaelic variety. Gaelic did come from Ireland originally, but it didn’t require a full scale invasion from Ireland into Argyll in order to Gaelicise the local variety of Celtic. By the time Fergus sailed over with his 40 ships, the local people were probably already Gaelic speaking.

Intriguingly, the formation of a Gaelic social identity seems to have occurred relatively late during the period of Roman occupation of southern Britain. The Word Gàidheal is actually a loan word from Brittonic, and moreover one which displays a relatively late Brittonic sound change. Etymologically the word comes from Brittonic goedel and originally meant something like “barbarian, savage”. Goedel is literally, “one from the forests”. It’s based on the Brittonic form of the Welsh word for trees gwydd, which has a native Gaelic equivalent in fiodh. Both these words descend from an ancient Celtic word something like *widos, but in later Goidelic the w turned into f, whereas in Brittonic it shifted to g. It’s this g form we seen in the name Gàidheal, so it can only have been borrowed into Gaelic after this sound change had taken place.

And here’s where it gets interesting, because the same sound change also occurred in Latin words starting with v (which was pronounced w in Classical Latin) which were borrowed into Brittonic during the Roman occupation. So the sound change can only have happened after these Latin words had been borrowed into Brittonic, and therefore it must date to the late part of the Roman period at the earliest.  The formation of a Gaelic social identity probably dates to the same period.

The Roman occupation estranged the Celtic speakers of Ireland and Scotland politically and culturally from those in Roman Britain. Slave raiding was commonplace, and linguistic features which were associated with one community or the other would have been either stigmatised or regarded as prestigious. In Ireland, “P-Celtic” features would come to be associated with low status Brittonic slaves – like St Patrick. In Roman Britain the opposite occurred.

Under such social conditions, speakers tend to emphasise the distinctions between their speech varieties. Goidelic became the prestige variety of Celtic in Ireland and in districts where Irish cultural influence was strong because it contained the maximal differentiation from features associated with the speech of the Romano Britons. The new Gaels were concerned not to sound like Britons – and vice versa. And neither wanted to sound like a Pict.

Throughout the known history of Pictland, cultural and political influence from Ireland was extremely strong, and this led to the eventual replacement of Pictish by Gaelic throughout almost all of the previous range of Pictish. Pictish doubtless displayed strong Gaelic influence from the very beginning, but presumably at the time of the Roman invasion Celtic varieties in Pictland had already experienced the change of q > p. This led to Pictish becoming distinct from other Celtic varieties, but since the surviving evidence for Pictish is so meagre, it’s almost impossible to discern what its exact characteristics were. All that can be said for certain is that it was extremely close to Brittonic, and like Brittonic displayed p for original q.

So Scottish Gaelic is both an indigenous development of Celtic in Argyll, and also represents the effect of Irish cultural influence on Celtic speakers in the West of Scotland and the settlement of small numbers of high status people. There were certainly movements of groups of people in both directions across the Irish channel, but there is no need to insist that Gaelic can only have become established in Scotland thanks to a full scale invasion of Irish Gaels.


42 comments on “Some thoughts on the origins of Gaelic

  1. […] Some thoughts on the origins of Gaelic. […]

  2. Interesting ideas. I don’t know that much about Celtic, but it might be instructive to look at Germanic for a moment. In general, the Germanic languages form a dialect continuum, but there is an exception: The border between North Germanic (Scandinavian) and West Germanic (in other words, the border between Danish and German/Platt). Although historical sources aren’t too precise, this is probably due to the Völkerwanderung. One theory suggests that the original Danes were the Heruli (who ended up near Budapest), but it’s all a bit hazy. The main point here is that if the tribes swapped places, what would have been a dialect continuum suddenly became a well-defined border.

    I wonder (without knowing anything about the early history of the Celtic peoples) whether something similar could have happened here, which led to Goidelic and Brittonic getting clearly differentiated. For instance, if the people living in the Argyll area moved away, and their place was taken not by a neighbouring group but by one living somewhat further away, then suddenly the absence of a transitional dialect would have led to a language split.

    • weegingerdug says:

      That’s certainly a way it could work. But I think the point that the archaeologists were making is that there is no evidence in Argyll for widespread abandonment of settlements and their later reoccupation by another group. I’m sure I remember reading somewhere that there is such evidence in Jutland. I’m sure you’ll know more about that than I do.

      Tribes certainly wandered about – that’s how the Galatians ended up in what is now central Turkey and the Goths in Crimea. There was quite a bit of wandering about of Celtic tribes in Britain and Ireland too, and further afield. But the Roman Conquest put a stop to much of that.

  3. Paul,

    you obviously had a desire to learn or teachers (Parent/s inc.) in Coatbridge who were good at teaching.
    This blog is testament to that. I’ll need to read it again in the morning?
    I had the desire too, unfortunately, thinking back, I didn’t have the teachers….
    This is why I’ve taken the ‘simplify’ approach to my blog.
    My ‘ABOUT US’ page explains. No doubt you’ve read it.
    I always think of ‘our friend’ whenever starting a new post.
    Would she understand it?
    That’s why I’m doing this….and loving it!
    Applause to your historical knowledge, willingness to learn and literary skills.
    On my 6th bottle of Innis & Gunn….Soooo nice. Wee bottles mind!


    Take care….speak again soon.

    Brace, Brace, Brace….

    • weegingerdug says:

      My mother is a teacher, and she taught me how to teach myself. Which is pretty much all you need really.

      My school was shite though. Shitity shite.

      • Eilean says:

        I was going to comment on how my Shitity shite schooling led to my nationalistic tendences. However the comment would have been longer than the article.

        I am envious of your linguistic skills I have tried to learn German but found it a real struggle. Same with playing the guitar. After months of trying I couldn’t even tune the bloody thing. Eventually I came to the conclusion that some folk have natural abilities and some don’t. I can however paint a mean watercolour. Something that my musically talented friends find astonishingly difficult. I mean how in the name of the wee man can anyone not understand perspective? It can get almost like “Father Ted and the cows” trying to explain it. 🙂

  4. […] Some thoughts on the origins of Gaelic […]

  5. Yelsel says:

    Thanks – first time I’ve understood the difference between p- and q- celtic (only to get it plausibly debunked..) This ties in with an article I read a while back looking at language as a way to define a group and dissociate from other groups, leading to rapid change when a group feels its identity or integrity is under threat.
    Have always felt a bit bemused by the standard story of tribes sweeping across large areas for no obvious reason and with little corroborating evidence – I much prefer your story.

  6. diabloandco says:

    Plaudits to your mum!

  7. Scottishdragon says:

    Really interesting post, thank you. Been reading your blog for a while but first time commenting – I enjoy being both entertained and educated! Diolch.

  8. Matt Seattle says:

    Thanks, this also gives some context to the Yorkshire “t'” for “the”, through Viking influence – but why the Shetland “da”?
    Also the various Celtic forms seem to be mirrored in Latin and Greek, quinque / pente.

    • A large part of the Germanic-speaking area went through a process whereby th became t and dh became d. It seems all initial instances of th had become dh in German and Dutch before this happened, which is why we get ‘denken’ in German but ‘tænke’ in Danish. Shetland Scots was affected, but mainland Scots wasn’t.

      Qu > p has happened many times and in many places. For instance,in Romanian (which is descended from Latin), ‘four’ is ‘patru’.

      In Greek, ‘qu’ became either ‘p’, ‘t’ or ‘k’ depending on the following vowel.

  9. Capella says:

    Fascinating description of Gaelic development. The Picts did leave place names behind, all those starting with “Pit” are thought to be Pictish. In Aberdeenshire, around Inverurie for example, we also have place names with Q or Y eg Aquhythie wood and the Ythan river.

  10. Eilean says:

    As I mentioned earlier in the thread I don’t have a natural ability with languages. I do however enjoy listening to accents. I think that comes from sixteen years in the army listening to numerous accents from all over the UK and beyond. I can’t put on an accent if I try but immerse me in a bunch of Fifers and within a few moments I can “wha whee wha whee” with the best of them.

    One thing that I never do is use the “ken?” word. As a natural “Weegie” speaker if someone uses the ken word I immediately look for the tractor parked outside. I just can’t bring myself to use it even when “immersed”. Where I live (Bothwell) nobody says “ken?” however south of here somewhere between Larkhall and Stonehouse there is a dividing line. South of this line it is “ken this and ken that. I have also noticed that there are local variations of “ken” there is the Fife “Ye ken!” and the much more pessimistic Ayrshire “ken naw?”

    I had better watch out for the first fortnight in June I am off to Fife house sitting a beautiful wee 19th. century farmworkers cottage. So I had better get practising. “Wha whee wha whee wha whee, whee wha whee wha” 😉

    Only joking! If anyone spots a wee silver Suzuki Swift with “limo black” windows and some Yes stickers in and around the Kirkcaldy / Kinghorn area gieze a shout!

  11. Great article with some interesting points.

    The formerly rigid separation of the two main early Celtic dialects into Q-Celtic and P-Celtic has now fallen out of favour with greater emphasises on Insular versus Continental, etc. That doesn’t mean that the dialectal differences weren’t real just that they were more flexible (and blendable) than previously thought.

    I think one needs to take account of the new “Celtic from the West” theory (actually it’s not that “new” having been discussed in conferences and academic circles for years. I first heard it in the 1990s). It suggests that the Celtic language(s) developed amongst the Indo-European speaking maritime and agricultural communities living along the traditional trading networks on the Atlantic seaboard of Western Europe during the Neolithic/Bronze Age with the Iberian peninsula as a possible early linguistic centre. What we term “Q-Celtic” would have been the earliest form with “P-Celtic” representing a dialectal innovation, probably emerging on the eastern edges of the Celtic sphere of growth (perhaps central Europe – parts of eastern and southern France, western Germany and Austria – due in part to contact with Germanic, Italo-Latin, Ligurian speakers as well as non-Indo-European communities). The “P-Celtic” dialect eventually filtered back eastwards confining “Q-Celtic” speakers to parts of Iberia, all of Ireland, the Isle of Man and parts of northern Britain. In what is now Scotland “Q-Celtic” communities maintained linguistic and cultural continuity in the south-west due to direct contacts with north-eastern Ireland.

    The so-called Picts were clearly speakers of a “P-Celtic” speech though the perceived peculiarities of their language may be due to it retaining a strong “Q-Celtic” base. Indeed Insular “P-Celtic” as a whole (Brythonic) retains several aspects that distinguish from its Continental equivalents which may indicate greater or lesser degrees of a “Q-Celtic” substrata (little to nothing in the south but growing in distinctiveness as you move northward and west). However those particular suggestions are very debatable. The particular nature of recorded Brythonic “Pictish” may grow from contemporary influences by the growing Goidelic dialects of the west that would not have been there a century or two previous to that.

    So rather than seeing “Gaelic” has originating entirely in Ireland it would have been historically indigenous to the island of Britain (like Northern Brythonic/Pictish/Welsh/Cornish). Just one of two main Celtic dialects spoken on the island in the centuries preceding the Roman invasions.

    On the name Gael (plural Gaeil “(the) Irish”) it was almost certainly originally derived from the Irish word Féine, the name of a population grouping in the west and midlands of Ireland who emerged in the early centuries AD. It means something like the “Wilderness (Wild) Ones” and refers to their origins partly outside the more settled eastern and southern seaboard territories which dominated Irish history up to then (the Ulaidh, Laighnigh, etc.). The Féine eventually gave birth to the Uí Néill dynasties who turned the contemporary existing political and military order in Ireland on its head.

    Part of the wealth and reputation of the Féine leaders was derived from their overseas’ expeditions, raiding up and down the western coasts of late Roman and post-Roman Britain. Féine was borrowed into Welsh as Gwyddelod and then borrowed back into Irish as Gaeil.

    The main military bands of the Féine peoples were known as the fianna and the band members were called féinní. The legends of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna, the Fiannaíocht, belong in this milieu.

    • weegingerdug says:

      My problem with the Celts from the West theory – as espoused by Koch and some others – is that it doesn’t account for the structural links between early Celtic and eastern Indoeuropean groups like Indoiranian. These links (like the use of PIE ios as a relative marker, which underlies the origin of Celtic relative verbs) would seem to suggest that the earliest Celtic emerged somewhere adjacent to early eastern IE groups.

      The theory accounts for the expansion of Celtic along the Atlantic coasts, but doesn’t account for the penetration of Celtic deep within the European continent. So it seems to me it provides an explanation for the Atlantic expansion of Celtic which the old theory of Central European origins struggles with, but replaces it with a problem in explaining the expansion of Celtic into Central Europe.

      The “Western origins theory” also seems to rely in part at least on the ancient Lusatian language being regarded as a very early Celtic (or “Celtoid”) variety, but Spanish and Portuguese scholars are less sure about this – at least one Spanish specialist in Iberian Celtic regards Lusatian as having closer ties to Italic than to Celtic.

      I have an open mind on the subject, but I’d like to see much stronger evidence before I’m convinced.

      I have no doubt you are correct about the Féine, but there is no need to posit Gwyddelod as a loanword from early Goidelic into Welsh which was then borrowed back into Goidelic. Seems to me that Occam’s razor comes into play here. There’s nothing in the structure or form of the Welsh word that can’t be explained by internal developments.

      There’s an interesting article exploring possible pre-Celtic influences on the Insular Celtic languages and a discussion of subgrouping within Celtic. The entire issue is thorny and confused, as Prof Patrick Sims-Williams of Aberystwyth uni remarked in 2007 “attempts to prove the existence of either Gallo-Brittonic or Insular Celtic have failed so far. There are too many possible ways of interpreting the linguistic and ethnic data.” But then the confusion and uncertainty is what makes the subject so interesting.

      Here’s a link to the article. Well worth a read if you’re interested in geeky Celtic linguisticky stuff.

      Click to access (101)jlr2012-8(160-164).pdf

      I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve changed my mind about Celtic origins.

      • True, there are quite a few problems with the “West” theory but you could argue much the same for the old “Central” European paradigm. If the “West” needs a few nips and tucks the “Central” is falling apart at the seams 😉

        The relationship between the Proto-Celtic tongues and their closest PIE comparisons could be answered several ways depending on whose model (or hybrid-model) you follow. Kurgan, Anatolian, Balkan or some of the more out-there ones. The Kurgan one is certainly susceptible to some of the criticisms you rightly made viz. waves of invaders bringing their language/cultures with them.

        The movement of the Celtic languages, arguably followed already established communication routes, particularly the navigable ones from coast to interior. The high level of Celtic names along the river basins/valleys gives some support for that. Celtic-speaking communities expanded/absorbed/arose organically demarcating other language populations into their recognisable pre-historic territories (though in “Germany-Austria”, parts of Iberia, etc those demarcation lines were probably porous ones).

        I’m open-minded myself but for now it seems the most logical argument given archaeological, linguistic and known historical evidence.

        On Féine > Gwyddelod > Gaeil the presumption of a Goidelic “V” yielding a Brythonic “Gw” to a Primitive Irish “Ga-“ seems fairly strong though of course it is something of a coin toss (I’ve simplified that of course).

        Dubious about “Pre-Celtic” survivals/influences in the recorded Celtic languages, however tentative but will definitely read that. If the insular Celtic languages arose in situ in Ireland and Britain the languages of the earliest inhabitants would have long disappeared. The insular traits seem to me more to have arisen from relative geographic isolation or accelerated dialectal developments outside the Celtic Isles. Linguistically I would still regard the Insular Celtic tongues as somewhat more conservative in nature.

        To be honest I could discuss this stuff all day. More fun than politics! 😉

  12. Suriani says:

    Some linguists have detected a non-indoeuropean substrate in what little of Pictish is extant from inscriptions. It is possible there may have been manuscripts in the language but as so much of Scotland’s early documents were subject to the ravages of time, war and internal upheavals the true nature of the language will never be known. Cymric/old British did have an influence on the development of Scottish Gaelic. The verb system is considerably simplified compared to modern Irish. Perhaps Pictish had a hand in that too.

  13. JGedd says:

    A lot of really fascinating information from you Paul and other commenters. I look forward to other diversions of this kind.

    Like Eilean above I have discovered in myself several predilections and also blind spots which also seem to coincide with Eilean’s strangely enough. For instance the frustration with learning a musical instrument. I always put it down to leaving it too late in life and not applying myself assiduously – which I think is probably exercising an internal inclination, despite myself. In other words I lack the commitment in spite of the wish to learn. Like Eilean, however, drawing and painting comes easily and I earnestly tell those who insist that they can’t do it that it only takes some application!

    So perhaps as Eilean suggests, there is such a thing as a particular bent or gift which may be at work here. Thus perhaps, while fascinated by the intricate details of how language may or may not have developed, I find myself much more intrigued by the cultural and historical background. I notice that no one has given a substantive reason for the apparent swamping of Pictish culture by Gaelic culture. That such a powerful society should have been seemingly subsumed into another is very strange and begs a lot of questions. The Pictish kingdom, I believe, also had strong connection with the Anglian kingdom, sometimes war-like, sometimes cultural and religious, so the complete absorption of Pictish into Gaelic is puzzling.

    Perhaps, like the Irish, once we are independent we will “own” our history and can investigate more deeply, just as the Irish are doing, uncovering fascinating facts about their ancient history formerly unknown. There is much still to be discovered in our ancient past which language changes can only hint at. ( Thanks also to Seamas O Sionnaigh for his contribution, wanted even more. Sorry, Seamas, couldn’t manage the accents, don’t have the right keyboard.)

    Could we have further occasional forays of this kind? Thanks, Paul.

    • weegingerdug says:

      Oh I rarely need an excuse to waffle on about Scottish languages. I’m sure I’ll do some more posts in a similar vein from time to time.

      • Eilean says:

        “I notice that no one has given a substantive reason for the apparent swamping of Pictish culture by Gaelic culture. That such a powerful society should have been seemingly subsumed into another is very strange and begs a lot of questions. The Pictish kingdom, I believe, also had strong connection with the Anglian kingdom, sometimes war-like, sometimes cultural and religious, so the complete absorption of Pictish into Gaelic is puzzling.”

        I am very sorry that this is straight off the top of my head. So please excuse the lack of detail. I have read a something that might go some way to explain.

        There was a Pictish king called Alpin. Before and during his reign many Celts settled on the west coast and were under Alpins protection. Unfortunately Alpin wasnt very good at the protection bit and the celts were getting pissed off with the Vikings raiding along the west coast all the time. Many of these celts migrated east and lived side by side with the picts. One of these celts spotted Alpins weakness and mounted a coup killing Alpin in the process.

        Alpin had a young son called Kenneth who along with his cousin were taken to Ireland for their safety. It would seem strange going to Ireland to get away from the celts but their aunt was a pict and was married to the king of Ireland. The two boys were raised as celtic princes and adopted celtic ways and practises.

        Once they were old enough the two boys returned to Scotland and took revenge on the man who had killed Kenneth’s father. Kenneth took his father’s crown. He was Kenneth McAlpin a “celtic” king of the picts. From then on the celtic culture prevailed and the picts were absorbed into it.

        Like I said thats off the top of my head so a preemptive sorry for possible inaccuracies. I remember at the time of reading that it made sense. I hope it goes some way in answering your question.

        • weegingerdug says:

          There are a lot of problems with that story, which is the traditional account of the merger of the Kingdoms of Pictland and Dalriada. One of the biggest problems is that this event is supposed to have taken place not long after Dalriada had been devastated by the Viking invasions – which hadn’t affected Pictish territory to anything like the same extent. So how could a seriously weakened Dalriada take over the much larger Pictland?

          McAlpin was as much a Pictish aristo as a Dalriadan one. A more modern theory is that Pictland was heavily Gaelicised in language and culture long before Kenny McAlpin and his Come Dine With Me with stabbing. The theory goes that the merger of Dalriada and Pictland was effected by the Gaelicised aristocracy of Pictland and was essentially a rebranding exercise carried out by sections of the Pictish aristocracy who were already Gaelic in language and culture and who were taking advantage of the weakened state of Dalriada.

          I don’t think Acanchi was involved however, or they could have advised Kenny on how to align his chi with some standing stones.

          • JGedd says:

            Thanks to Eilean for that. I had heard a version of that same story which Paul comments on below. I’d also read a theory that Kenneth MacAlpin didn’t really exist or at least was a semi-legendary putative ancestral figure. The problem is the reliance on Irish king lists which have gaps but also seem to point to considerable mixing of royal lineages so that Cymric personal names, as well as Gaelic names and Pictish names sometimes appear from time to time in the kingly lineages of Strathclyde, Dalriada and Pictland.

            It does appear to have been a dark age for early Scotland with much archival material missing but perhaps one day there might be more evidence uncovered, shedding new light on that time.
            Look at the fascinating ongoing excavations in Orkney revealing a huge neolithic temple complex, changing perceptions of what was happening in the British isles then. Who knows what is waiting to be discovered under the peat somewhere perhaps, that might fill in gaps in our knowledge of the past, where speculation had to suffice hitherto.

            Liked your comment about rebranding, Paul. People of the past weren’t so different from us and it’s amusing to discover how often in the past powerful elites did exactly that and how often they used it to change their people’s perceptions. There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to human nature.

            • Eilean says:

              Granted a few “history” books that I have should be fitted with a “legend has it” klaxton. I would always want to get to the truth but the Taoist in me says “Go with the flow” why let the facts spoil a good story. 🙂

  14. JGedd says:

    Oh this is really good, another contribution from Seamas. So you liguistics “geeks” could keep this up for some time? Go to it, boys. It’s fun for us, too. I’ve learned more in this exchange than I ever knew.

    • setondene says:

      I agree. I love this stuff. To bring it back to politics I can see why some people (including me) are determined to resist the ever-forward charge of the steamroller of global English. Personally I want cultural diversity, not some snotty bastard telling me there’s no alternative to Anglo-America and all its attached baggage.

  15. Paula Rose says:

    Wow – never commented here before (I think), fantastic Paul, so good to read.

  16. Ronald Henderson. says:

    I had an idea to search the area around Lochwinnoch and Bridge of Weir for Gaelic place names so that I could put them into an alphabetical list and give it to the local pub, The Brown Bull, in Lochwinnoch. (a nationalist pub incidentally).

    I had expected there to be just a few but ended up with two sheets of A4 stacked out with Gaelic place names and the only reason I stopped was other things cropped up in my life.

    Gaelic in this area hasn’t been spoken for at least 400 years so you might have expected a lot of the places to have adopted English place names. This just hasn’t happened. Auchensale (achadh an sail: the field of the willow trees) is still pronounced just as a Gaelic speaker would say it today, and he would be able to find the place because there are still lots of willow trees growing in that particular small area.

    This got me thinking on Pictish and how we are told that Pictish died out leaving scarce a trace.

    Well has anyone ever thought of looking at the Scots language to see if it’s hidden in there?. A look at a good etymological dictionary of the Scots language will show that any particular word has ‘Gaelic’, or ‘Norse’ or ‘French’ etc. given as its root etymology, but scores of words have ‘Etymology unknown’, or ‘Etymology uncertain’ placed after them.

    Isn’t there a prospect for a decent linguist here to do a bit of in depth analysis? Our Scots dictionaries may be our equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. Some of us may be using Pictish words without even knowing it.

    • weegingerdug says:

      It’s unlikely that there are many Pictish words lurking in Scots. During the period when Pictish was still a spoken language, the Old English ancestor of Scots was pretty much confined to the extreme south east of Scotland, where it was primarily in contact with Brittonic Cumbric and to an increasing extent with Gaelic. Scots didn’t really spread into formerly Pictish speaking areas until after Pictish had already disappeared and had been replaced by Gaelic. That’s the sequence of languages found in places like Fife or Aberdeenshire. Since Scots was not, for the most part, in direct contact with Pictish, it didn’t borrow many words from that source.

      I’m not at all surpised you found so many Gaelic place names in Lochwinnoch / Bridge of Weir, although Gaelic ceased to be spoken locally longer than 400 years ago – Gaelic was probably replaced by Older Scots in these districts around the 13th – 14th centuries.

    • Steve Moxon says:

      “Etymology unknown” in British dictionaries is pretty well code for ‘Gaelic’.

    • Steve Moxon says:

      Dark Peak (Pennine South Yorkshire and North-east Derbyshire) place-names are all Gaelic, yet (it’s thought) no ‘Celtic’ language has been spoken in these parts since about the 8th century AD. And many of the names are little mangled, being Gaelic as clear as day. Astonishingly, every core-central Sheffield street name (other than those concerning the medieval castle, obviously) are Gaelic.

  17. tiddlyompom says:

    I love this sort of stuff too, I know there has been a general reappraisal of the ‘invading people’ idea for changes to language and other cultural evidence, much of that new stuff has been based on the idea that cultural ‘memes’ are responsible rather than actual movement of people be they armies or farmers. Research on what words come in to a culture, whether they replace old ones or refer to new technology are key to spotting this. Think of the word ‘television’ and you could be forgiven for thinking the English were invaded by Romano-greeks. There is also a movement within English purists to retain and continue the use of Anglo-saxon words rather than similar Latin based words, this is because the Latin words are gaining ground due to them sounding more impressive, making the speaker sound more learned. This is going to be very like the thing posited for the breaking up of the Celtic dialect continuum, the old words or pronunciations were just not posh. This is what nearly killed Scots as a language too.

    Please do divert this way again…

  18. Ronald Henderson. says:

    If the words ‘lurking’ in Scots aren’t Gaelic or Welsh (Brythonic) or Norse where then would you suppose they came from? Autogenous? Autochthonous? It’s surely not possible. Those Scots words which the experts find have uncertain or unknown etymology can’t simply have sprung out of nothing. I reckon it’s a fair bet that, as I said, some of us may be using Pictish words without knowing it. I only suggest that it is something that ought to be looked at by the linguists instead of being ignored as it is at present.

    May I suggest a book called The Lost Language of the Picts by W. Cummin?. He is broadly in agreement with yourself and believes that Pictish was a lot closer to Gaelic than is generally thought. Then there is The Language of the Ogam Inscriptions of Scotland by R. Cox.This one puts the cat among the pigeons. You may already have read them.

    I am not convinced that Gaelic was entirely replaced in Renfrewshire by Scots as far back as the 13th – 14th centuries. The last native speaker of Gaelic in Callander died quite recently: the 1920’s in fact.

    Robert Burns didn’t speak Gaelic but he was aware of the language and called one of his Twa Dugs ‘Luath’ (speedy). And this was Ayrshire; a little south of Renfrewshire..

    You’ll agree that it can be surprising just how tenacious indigenous words can be in the face of an incoming language..

    • weegingerdug says:

      All language contain a significant number of words of unknown origin. This does not mean that the words originate in a previous language once spoken within that language’s modern territorial extent. Living languages continually create new words and expressions.

      The English words kick, jump, log, boy, girl, and several more very common and everyday words are of unknown origin, but they certainly didn’t come from Brittonic – the language previously spoken in England before the spread of Old English. (The Welsh word for kick is cicio, but this is thought to be a borrowing from English.) New words can appear in a living language due to irregular shortenings, spur of the moment metaphors, the shortening of set phrases, the use of personal names or nicknames to describe a quality associated with the person bearing that name, sheer linguistic playfulness, or via a number of other mechanisms. The origins of such words will be obscure in later phases of the language – especially if the earlier phases are not especially well attested in texts which survive to the present day.

      I’ve not read the Cummings book, although I understand he argues that Pictish was essentially a form of Gaelic (I may be wrong there, perhaps you can correct me). I don’t believe that myself. I think Pictish was basically an early offshoot of Brittonic which became heavily Gaelicised, but it was not itself a form of Gaelic.

      The Cox book argues that the Pictish ogams were in a form of Old Norse – which is a theory without any real substantive support and is not widely accepted. The difficulty in interpreting Pictish ogams is due to three main factors – the fact there are not many of them so the corpus of available material is tiny, the fact that they are the only examples of ogam being used to write a language other than Archaic Gaelic and it’s unknown how the ogam letters were adapted to the phonology of this other language, and the fact that ancient and heavily weathered ogams are never easy to read even when you do know what language they are in.

      It is thought that the last speaker of Galloway Gaelic died in the 1700s, the language was still current in southern Ayrshire in the previous century. The district was where many of the Scots Presbyterian settlers in the Plantations of Northern Ireland came from – which is one reason why there were still Irish speaking Protestant communities in Northern Ireland in the 1800s. However Gaelic certainly disappeared at a much earlier date from northern Ayrshire and Renfewshire. New place names created in these districts are entirely in Scots from (very roughly) around 1200 onwards. That doesn’t mean of course that Gaelic had entirely vanished by that date – just that it was considered of low status in the district and new place names were no longer being created in it. However Gaelic would only have lingered for a few generations longer in these areas. The fact so many Gaelic place names survive is because the Scots speakers were the same population as the previous Gaelic speakers – they were the children and grandchildren of Gaelic speakers. The settlement patterns didn’t change with the change of language, and so Gaelic place names survived in large numbers.

  19. chicmac says:

    Sound shifts, whether vowel or consonant, are a natural evolutionary process in languages, more so before the invention of the stabalising influence of printing and dictionaries. The nature of them is also, necessarily, highly conjectural since we have no actual recordings of how they were originally pronounced.

    One can never be sure if we are looking at a sound shift or a spelling shift. For instance, the use of ‘Maqq’ and ‘Meqq’ in Pictish Ogham script (assuming of course it IS Ogham and ‘standard’ rules apply) appearing as it does before recognisable Pictish names, is taken by many (most?) to mean ‘Son Of’. But since Pictish is also reckoned (by most) to have been P-Celticish (From the plethora of P starting placenames for instance) was that pronounced ‘Mac’ (perhaps indicating linguistic overlap with Goedelic) or ‘Map’ or was it simply a borrowed exception from the Goedelic? No one knows for sure.

    Written language and spoken language can have a confused relationship and there is a much more modern, and therefore much better understood, example of that in Scots. The letter Yogh, written like a z with a descending tail or a number 3, was probably pronounced something like ‘gy’ would be in modern Scots (again, somewhat conjectural). But with the advent of printing and since Scottish printers, more often than not, did not have that character in their available font sets, they substituted the nearest, appearance wise, letter ‘Z’. This has lead in more modern times to words such as the name ‘Menzies’ being pronounced in phonetic English rather than the more proper ‘Mingis’. They would perhaps have been better using ‘g’ or ‘y’ depending on which was more prominent (e.g. ‘Dalziel’ for the ‘y’ prominence) or the combination ‘gy’ to reduce confusion. Those ‘errors’ are only known because of the fairly numerous examples in which the orally transmitted ‘proper’ pronunciation still exists in the population at large, although many of the younger generation have now switched to the English phonetic pronunciations.

    [Aside: Reinstatement of character Yogh in a post independence Scottish alphabet?]

    Having said that, it would, nevertheless, be surprising if major spelling shifts in the past were not indicative of an actual commensurate sound shift. And many such have been identified,

    But I am less interested in the precise nature of language shifts rather than the Why? and How? of them.

    Obviously due to effects of distance and dialect slide, there is a natural tendency for language to gradually change from one area to another through a simple process of ‘Chinese whispers’ (not without irony being the extent to which that happened within China itself).

    However, more interesting, at least to me, is the situation where a significant language change is adopted with a degree of deliberation. That very often is due to some kind of political motivation.

    But there is also I think some evidence for a spontaneous yet deliberate language change as a means of aiding identity or perhaps as a means of protecting information.

    Of course there are cants which are obviously deliberate creations as in the case of various underworld criminal communities throughout the World or in the gypsy/travelling communities. Where there is a real and present benefit to excluding information from others.

    But I think a similarly motivated thing can also occur on a purely regionalist level as well. Where one region deliberately, albeit in a gestalt subconscious manner, fosters a language shift whether to cement identity or help in retaining information, thus possibly gaining a slilght advantage over neighbouring regions.

    If you look at the interrogatives (which are evidently of paramount importance in information exchange), it seems to me that they are among the first words in a lexicon to be changed. For example, the ‘V’ sound which begins German interrogatives (and interrogatives do tend to have the same starting sound) which changed to the ‘W’ of English interrogatives.

    It is intriguing to speculate on whether the ‘W’ start sound shift in English interrogatives to the ‘F’ used in Doric (fa?, fen?, far?, fy? fit?) was of that ilk and what was caught in that moment of time when dictionaries and recordings ‘froze’ things, was the first step in the creation of a new language.

    • weegingerdug says:

      There is a process by which after a political estrangement, speakers of a linguistic variety consciously (or semi-consciously) differentiate that variety from closely related varieties. It’s called esoterogeny, which was a favourite buzz word amongst linguists a few years ago. The concept was developed by the linguists studying the indigenous languages of the south Pacific islands.

      Many of these languages are related and descend from a common ancestor, but can differ considerably from one another – even within a single island. It was theorised that when a tribe had split into two for whatever reason, members of each tribe deliberately set out to differentiate their speech from that of their former compatriots, which gave rise to a period of accelerated linguistic change.

      Something similar may have occurred in the history of Scots. Prior to the Scottish Wars of Independence, the Northumbrian Middle English speakers of Lothian and the Borders spoke a variety which was simply the northern continuation of the exact same Northumbrian Middle English found in England, there was no linguistic boundary. The modern linguistic boundary between English and Scots is however deep and sharply marked, yet it didn’t exist at all in the early Middle Ages. It only arose after Northumbrian speakers on either side of the border had adopted Scottish and English social identities respectively.

      Here’s a bit more reading about esoterogeny

      There was also a study done a few years ago which showed that traditional Northumbrian dialect words and pronunciations were more likely to survive far south of the Scottish border, whereas speakers closer to the Scottish border were more likely to have replaced these Northumbrian dialect forms with Standard English forms which were less similar to Scots. People on the English side of the border were – on some level – concerned not to sound too much like Scots, and so dropped words and pronunciations that sounded Scottish. Meanwhile on the Scottish side of the border, speakers did the opposite.

  20. Great article and comments!

  21. Robert says:

    Great blog fellas. Alex Woolfs book, from Pictland to Alba touches on some aspects of this in the latter chapters . Cheers

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