Facsimile of the first page of the 'A' version of the Pictish King List, an important source of Pictish names
Both the Picts and their language are shrouded in a good deal of mystery, which has led to a considerable amount of both furtive and futile speculation. In the past, there were various theories about the affinities of the Pictish language. One held that it was a Germanic language, related to English and the direct ancestor of the dialect of English spoken in modern Scotland. Another held that it was Goidelic, and was in fact the ancestor of Scottish Gaelic. Neither of these theories are taken seriously today, and centuries ago when they were first proposed, they often had racist, political or religious overtones, for example attempting to dissociate civilized, Protestant Scotland from barbaric, Catholic Ireland. Another theory, first proposed in 1582 by the Scottish humanist and scholar George Buchanan (often thought of as the father of Celtic studies), held that the Picts were an off-shoot of the Gauls. Indeed, the notion that Pictish was a Celtic language of the P-Celtic variety, closely related to Gaulish and British, is currently the view most favored by the academic community.

However, as always in Celtic Studies, there is still room for debate. While the Germanic and Goidelic theories have been rejected, the P-Celtic theory has one significant rival – the notion of non-Indo-European Pictish. First proposed by Sir John Rhys 1892, this theory found its most influential incarnation in the writings of the eminent linguist Kenneth Jackson in the mid-twentieth century. Jackson proposed the theory of the ‘two Pictishes’, that is, that the Picts had in fact spoken not one, but two languages, side-by-side. The first was an ancient, non-Indo-European language originally spoken before the arrival of the Celts; the second was a variety of P-Celtic brought in by Celtic invaders who ruled over the mass of the pre-Celtic, non-Indo-European speaking population. Jackson’s hypothesis was well-articulated and he himself was (and still is) a well respected scholar. The notion of the ‘two Pictishes’ soon became the standard dogma, and remained so for several decades.

A Class I Pictish symbol stone from Brandsbutt, Aberdeenshire, showing ogham inscription and pictish symbols
More recently, however, the historian Katherine Forsyth has called Jackson’s theory into question, publishing in 1997 her seminal monograph, Language in Pictland: the case against ‘non-Indo-European Pictish’. She sought primarily not to question Jackson’s linguistic judgment regarding the Celticity or non-Celticity of early Scottish place-names etc, but to refute some of the underlying assumptions and methodological points upon which his theory was based. For example, she criticized his argument that Scotland was ‘remote’, and his use of now out-dated archaeological theories. Moreover, as she pointed out, the existence of pre-Celtic or non-Celtic ethnic names, place-names, etc., does not necessarily indicate the survival of pre-Celtic speech in everyday use. We can point to numerous instances where such terms persist long after the languages they were derived from went extinct. The Hittites, for example, referred to their land by the name used by the pre-Indo-European inhabitants, Hatti, the Greeks retained numerous pre-Greek place names (e.g. Knossos, Corinth), and the Japanese still use Ainu-derived toponyms (e.g. Sapporo). Closer to home, many place-names in, for example, France or England, are derived from Celtic languages, and are still around long after Celtic speech has gone extinct in those regions. Or again, many place-names in the United States of America are derived from Native American languages; not only are these languages spoken rarely if at all today, but the very populations that once spoke them have mostly disappeared. Therefore, it is clear that the linguistically non-Indo-European place-names and ethnic names of ancient Scotland referred to by Jackson do not guarantee the survival of pre-Celtic, non-Indo-European languages in daily use.

The majority of scholars now favor the notion of a single, P-Celtic Pictish language over a non-Indo-European Pictish or ‘two Pictishes’. However, again, this is not necessarily the last word on the subject. Several of Forsyth’s points are themselves open to question. If the presence of non-Indo-European place-names does not indicate the presence of a non-Indo-European language, then why does the presence of Celtic place-names indicate the presence of a Celtic language? Or again, if non-Indo-European place names do not guarantee the presence of non-Indo-European speech, they also hardly preclude it. Another point of Forsyth’s also strikes one as particularly dubious: she claims that the notion of a Celtic aristocracy ruling over a pre-Celtic population is ‘not compatible with what we know of settled barbarian social organization’. She fails to explain what this ‘barbarian’ social structure is and why it precludes an ethnically or linguistically distinct aristocracy, nor indeed why there is a generic ‘barbarian’ social structure that may be projected onto the Picts (or for that matter why, in the late 20th century, she is still referring to her ancestors with a Roman insult for foreigners, barbari). More importantly, she also overlooks the historically well-documented cases of Celtic-speaking peoples ruling over non-Celtic populations, e.g. in Galatia where a few thousand Celts became masters of the populations living in central Turkey. Given the lack of decisive evidence, and the general mystique and appeal of the Picts, a people who left an impressive artistic legacy at the dawn of Scottish history before almost completely disappearing, a healthy debate is likely to go on for some time.

Image Credits

Apparently in order to use the image of the Pictish King List above I must credit Brantonei Draiktan Spurlock and the website Bran Mak Morn's Pictish Elven Witchcraft. I am unable to discover anything about this person or find the site, but my thanks go out to them for making the image conveniently available on the web. The image of the stone from Brandsbutt is taken from the cover of Forsyth's Language in Pictland.

Further Reading

Forsyth, Katherine
1997 Language in Picland. Utrecht: The Celtic Dragon.

Forsyth, Katherine
1998 Literacy in Pictland. In Huw Pryce (ed.), Literacy in Medieval Celtic Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press; pages 39-61.

Jackson, Kenneth H.
1955 The Pictish Language, in F. T. Wainwright (ed.), The Problem of the Picts. Edinburgh: Nelson.

Koch, John T.
1983 'The Loss of Final Syllables and Loss of Declension in Brittonic,' Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 30: 201-33.

Nicolaisen, W. F. H.
1972 'P-Celtic Place-Names in Scotland: a reappraisal,' Studia Celtica 7: 1-11.

Watson, W. J.
2005 The Celtic Placenames of Scotland. Edinburgh, Birlinn. (reprint; orignally published 1926 as The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland)
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